500 Words on SDSU

Best guess at a record when the Jackrabbits face Nebraska:

If everything goes to plan, this game should be a match-up of two 3-0 squads. South Dakota State will likely be a preseason top 10 team at the FCS level and the Jackrabbits’ road to Lincoln includes Butler (bad), Southeast Louisiana (ok), and North Dakota (decent). That’s good for getting to 3-0. Is it good for gearing up for an FBS road game? We’ll see.

The one player you simply must know:

Running back Zach Zenner is the guy. As a sophomore in 2012 he led all FCS rushers with 2,044 yards and 157.23 yards per game, earning consensus All-American honors. He also finished seventh in the voting for the Walter Payton Award and will run behind four returning starters on the offensive line. In the first game of the season last year against Kansas, the Jacks’ lone FBS opponent in 2012, Zenner rushed for 186 yards, 99 of which came on this first quarter run, which, really, was the Jayhawks’ season in a nutshell. Kansas did beat SDSU 31-17. It was the Jayhawks’ only win in 2012.

How’s the match-up for Nebraska?:

In 2010, SDSU was the 6th-ranked Huskers’ homecoming opponent and a 40-plus point underdog. The Jacks did what FCS teams typically have to do against FBS opponents – grind it out. SDSU kept things close against Nebraska in that game without ever really threatening offensively – seven of the Jackrabbits first eight possessions ended in a punt – but the defense made things surprisingly difficult for the Huskers. That defense finished the season ranked 76th nationally in total defense. Last year the Jacks’ defense finished eighth nationally among FCS teams. SDSU might be better equipped to execute a similar strategy this year against Nebraska, and that extends to the offense as well.

With Zenner back as well as fellow All-American left tackle Bryan Witzmann, this game is going to be a true contrast in style. Nebraska will want to speed it up, the Jacks will want to slow it down. The Huskers likely have too much offensive firepower to be truly at risk, but this game, like the 2010 meeting, could be uglier in stretches than some would like.

Final verdict:

We’ve seen that very good FCS teams can frequently challenge good FBS teams in recent years. SDSU belongs in that first category in 2013. Truthfully, Kansas may have been the worst of the Jacks’ four losses last year. (Of the FBS teams ripe for an FCS upset, Kansas ranked right up there.) The other three came to perennial FCS powers Northern Iowa and North Dakota State (twice). SDSU could be a legitimate national championship contender this year, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Jacks have been outscored 164-53 in five games against FBS opponents since 2008 and failed to score more than 17 points in any of those games. They’ll need to score more than 17 to beat the Huskers.

Nebraska fans will like this SDSU team. They’re a hard-nosed squad that plays an appealing brand of football if you’re a traditionalist. That alone will make this match-up interesting.

Prediction: Nebraska 38 South Dakota State 13

(Photo credit: South Dakota State Sports Information)