The Road to Frisco goes through Normal.
That was the phrase that many across the nation – coaches, players, analysts – figured would come to fruition for most of the season, but now it is official.
After going 9-2 overall and 7-1 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference to earn a share of the conference title, the Illinois State football team received the No. 2 overall national seed in the FCS Playoffs. The Redbirds will now have home field advantage throughout the playoffs, with the only game that would not be played at Hancock Stadium being a potential appearance in the FCS National Championship in Frisco, Texas. The 'Birds will play the winner of a first round matchup between Dayton and Western Illinois (Nov. 28) at 1 pm on Dec. 5 in Normal.
Rounding out the other four top seeds are Jacksonville State (1), North Dakota State (3) and McNeese State (4).
Here is the complete bracket.
You will notice two intriguing things when looking at the bracket.
1) If the seeds hold true, Illinois State would meet North Dakota State in the semifinals in a rematch of last year’s thrilling national championship game won by the Bison, 29-27, in one of the most electric FCS Championship games in recent history. Not only will the Redbirds have a chance to knock off the Bison and get revenge for the loss, but they will also be able to do it on their home turf – an opportunity at which the players are salivating.
“Of course we want to get back at them,” said linebacker and defensive captain Pat Meehan. “We still have a sour taste in our mouth from that national championship game.”
“To be the champs you have to beat the champs,” said ISU quarterback Tre Roberson. “They’re four-time national champions and it would be awesome to have that opportunity to play them again. … I would rather play them. They’re a great team and you don’t want to go win a national championship without having to beat the best.”
“That would be great [to play North Dakota State],” said offensive lineman Kyle Avaloy. “To play the champions and beat the champions to go the championship would be phenomenal. It would make a statement and take a bit of a chip off our shoulders to finally beat them.”
2) There are five Missouri Valley schools in the bottom half of the bracket. It would be pretty far-fetched to conclude that it is a mere coincidence that all five happened to be put in the same portion. Either way, whether the Selection Committee decided to group them together for geographical purposes or if they were left with no choice but match them up that way in order to include all five deserving teams, one thing we do know is this: there will be no All-Valley title game in 2016.
“Obviously they didn’t want a rematch I guess, huh?” said ISU head coach Brock Spack. “They didn’t want two Valley teams in the finals. It kind of looks that way, but I don’t know why they wouldn’t [want a rematch]. From a business standpoint that was a pretty good game last year. It was packed and sold out.”
Despite the confusion as to why all of the teams were thrown into the same pot, Spack does believe the committee “did the right thing” by including Northern Iowa and Western Illinois.
Now the ‘Birds will set their sights on their next matchup between either the Flyers of Dayon or Leathernecks of Western Illinois.
“We want Western again,” Meehan said. “Nine times out of 10 we’ll take them.”
A tilt with Western Illinois would be a rematch of a game the Redbirds won, 48-28, on Oct. 24 in which ISU took control in the second half.
“We played a really good game in that fourth quarter,” Meehan said. “It was a closer game than the numbers say. They’re a really good football team and we’re just gonna look at that game at what we did well and what we did bad and go from there.”
A matchup with Dayton would also bring a slight sense of familiarity as the ‘Birds played the Flyers back in 2012, Spack is familiar with their head coach, Rick Chamberlin, and Avaloy played with Dayton's starting quarterback, Alex Jeske, in high school at Glenbard South.
No matter who the ‘Birds play, it is clear right now that the honor and recognition of a No. 2 overall seed shows the program is on the rise.
“We’ve made a new stamp for this program,” Meehan said. “Everyone expects to win now. The future of this program is very bright.”
“It’s an example of what people think of us on a national scale,” Spack said. “They think we’re a very good team and now we gotta go out and prove it.”