The appetizer and salad courses are over for the Minnesota State football team.
The real meal begins this week.
Minnesota State (5-0), ranked No. 5 in Division II, has cruised through the first half of the season, as expected, defeating teams that have a combined record of 6-19. In the next six games, the combined record of opponents is 20-10, meaning this dinner party is about to get serious.
In order for this to be a pleasant dining experience, the Mavericks need to continue to run the football and stop the run, something they've been pretty good at against weaker competition. The Minnesota State offensive and defensive lines don't seem like the kind of players who care if they're using the proper fork; they just want to eat their meal in peace, not really concerned about other patrons.
They also need to develop a passing game, which hasn't been necessary yet but will become important in the next couple of months, and stop the pass. Sometimes, the seafood and poultry can be just as satisfying as the grilled beef, if prepared properly.
Coming off a less-than-satisfying eight-win season, there was some uncertainty about Minnesota State's program, which should always be one of the prime-dining options in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference but is susceptible to occasional poor service or undercooked entrees, just like any other team at any other level.
The win at Minnesota Duluth was significant, even though the Bulldogs are not the team they've been in the last decade. The win at Concordia-St. Paul was predictable, but the dominance of victory was a signal of an improving team.
But it's time to get out of the drive-thru and take a seat in the main dining room, with tablecloths and candles.
Though Augustana has struggled, hit hard by injuries at the quarterback position, this opponent is capable of causing indigestion. Upper Iowa and Southwest Minnesota State are the same, if the Mavericks aren't hungry at meal time.
If the Mavericks don't fill up on bread, the steak gets served when Winona State comes to town with an Oct. 28 reservation. It's more and more looking like three plates at the table, along with regular-season finale opponent Sioux Falls, with possibly only two desserts left at the end for playoff teams.
If Minnesota State continues to focus on going 1-0 each week, respecting opponents and improving their own play, this menu looks inviting. The prices are reasonable, the service is good and the ingredients are fresh.
It's a perfect time for the Mavericks to eat. One loss, however, and they might need an antacid.
Chad Courrier is a Free Press staff writer. To contact him, call 507-344-6353, e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow his Twitter feed @ChadCourrier.