At the beginning of the season, way back in early August, it was pretty easy to predict a winning season for the Minnesota State football team.
With so many returning starters, some of whom will rank as the best at their position in the program’s history, you could see another Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference championship coming, perhaps a third straight undefeated regular season.
But if you violated the team’s 1-0 motto and dared look ahead, which is a dangerous prospect for the Minnesota sports fan, you could see that Valdosta State and Ferris State, the teams that played in the national championship game a year ago, had plenty of returning firepower and were likely co-favorites to win a national championship.
Valdosta State, the 2018 champion, was rated No. 1 all season, and Ferris State, which was impressive in the 2018 semifinal win at Blakeslee Stadium, was No. 2. Even the most ardent Mavericks fan had to recognize that winning a national championship, even getting to the final game, was going to be a great challenge.
But in the last three weeks, Minnesota State has been very impressive, while other top teams have fallen, and you’re left with this thought:
Maybe, the Mavericks are the best team in Division II this season.
There is plenty of evidence to support that belief. Minnesota State has outscored opponents 672-180, which is a ridiculous victory margin of 35.1 points per game. The Mavericks have scored more than 180 points in each of the first three quarters of the 14 games.
In the playoffs, the Mavericks won 35-7 against a top-five defense (Colorado State-Pueblo) and stumped Division II’s highest-scoring offense (Slippery Rock) in a 58-15 victory. Even the 42-21 victory over Texas A&M Commerce wasn’t as close as the 42-21 score might indicate.
Even though it’s tricky to glean national information when many leagues don’t play nonconference games, the Mavericks rank No. 1 in scoring offense (48.0 points per game) and No. 2 in scoring defense (12.9). The Mavericks rank fourth in total offense (514.6 yards per game) and first in total defense (247.2).
Running back Nate Gunn is a Harlon Hill Award finalist, and he, receiver Shane Zylstra and tackle Evan Heim are All-Americans. Linebacker Alex Goettl was a finalist for a prestigious academic/community service award, and he showed his smarts while diagnosing a trick play that he turned into an interception and touchdown to clinch the victory against Texas A&M Commerce.
The offense is big and physical. The defense is fast and has been tackling well in space.
The Mavericks haven’t had to deal with many injuries, which is a testament to the team’s depth and the training, both in the offseason and the week to week grind of the season.
Things have broken remarkably well for the Mavericks, who were a narrow choice for the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage for the region playoffs. Playing Texas teams in Minnesota is better than playing them in Texas, and the other two undefeated teams in the region never made it to Blakeslee Stadium.
Even though fans were upset that Minnesota State had to go on the road last week, playing the Super Region 1 team was a break. They could have played that game on any patch of fake or real grass, and the outcome would have been similarly lopsided.
West Florida, a program that’s only been around since 2016, has been just as impressive, winning three straight road games against undefeated teams, including Valdosta State and Ferris State. The Argos will, and should, be a confident bunch on Saturday.
In 2014, a physical Colorado State-Pueblo team, and a flu bug, kept the Mavericks from winning a national championship. This time, the Mavericks seem to be playing at a higher level.
Even though it goes against everything your parents taught you about being a fan of Minnesota sports teams, you can’t help but be optimistic about Minnesota State’s chances of winning Saturday. The Mavericks seem to be playing at a championship high level this month.
Chad Courrier is a Free Press staff writer. To contact him, call 507-344-6353, email at email@example.com or follow his Twitter feed @ChadCourrier.