SPRINGFIELD | Preseason polls typically get a coach’s shoulder shrug. But Missouri State’s Terry Allen believes his guys were short-changed when the Missouri Valley’s preseason pecking order listed the Bears fifth.
“This is the best team we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said Allen, a former Kansas coach. “We’ve grown up together.”
Allen has a track record of surpassing expectations as a Missouri Valley coach. All 12 of his teams — eight at Northern Iowa (when the league was called the Gateway Conference) and four at Missouri State — finished higher or exactly where they were forecast. None finished below the bar.
This one looks to leave its prognostication in the dust. It’s as if Missouri State was constructed for this season. The team was recruited entirely by Allen’s staff and includes 13 fifth-year seniors.
Only a handful of starters from last year’s 6-5 squad moved on. The goal is a simple one, to reach postseason play for the first time since 1990. With the Football Championship Subdivision playoff bracket growing from 16 to 20 this year, two more spots are available to at-large teams.
But a first league championship in more than two decades would cinch a playoff berth.
“This team is more confident than any I’ve been on,” said senior offensive tackle David Arkin, a preseason All-America from Wichita.
They’ll need all the good vibes they can pack Saturday when the Bears travel to Kansas State.
Missouri State knows the task is daunting. Three years ago, the Wildcats won this matchup 61-10, and last week K-State got 234 rushing yards from Daniel Thomas and impressively defeated UCLA.
But the Bears bring a little momentum of their own after opening the season with a 31-9 victory over Eastern Kentucky.
The best part about the triumph? “We didn’t play very well,” senior quarterback Cody Kirby said. “There are plenty of things to correct.”
The Bears didn’t dominate statistically but won the turnover battle. They got an 86-yard scoring run from tailback Chris Douglas, and Kirby was an efficient 15 of 25 for 199 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for two scores.
It was a solid season debut for Kirby, who’s been Missouri State’s starter since the fourth game of his freshman year.
Kirby is the conference’s most experienced quarterback with 57 touchdown passes and nearly 6,000 yards on his resume.
Missouri State also feels good about a defense that returns nine starters. Last year was the first with a three-man front, and the Bears grew more comfortable each week.
The unit’s centerpiece is inside linebacker Antoine Wilkinson, a junior college transfer from Mississippi, who got his second year in a Bears uniform off to a fast start with two sacks.
Conference play will be Missouri State’s measuring stick, but Saturday’s game will provide a progress report, and the Bears don’t need to look far to see examples of FCS success.
Last week, North Dakota State toppled Kansas, and Jacksonville State of the Ohio Valley Conference beat Mississippi.
“It goes to show there’s a lot of talent at the (FCS) level,” Kirby said.
Just not as many scholarships. Football Bowl Subdivision can award 85; in FCS it’s 63.
Allen has his own giant-slaying story. His first victory as a head coach came at Kansas State in 1989. It marked the second game of his and Wildcats coach Bill Snyder’s career.
K-State got plenty of revenge against Allen, winning all five of the meetings — all by lopsided scores — when he was with the Jayhawks.
But Allen fondly remembers that first victory.
“I’ve got a picture of the guys carrying me off the field from that game,” Allen said.
That Snyder got it turned around quickly — then and now in his second season after his three-year hiatus — isn’t a surprise.
“It’s vintage Bill Snyder,” Allen said of the team he’ll see Saturday. “They’re so well-coached, so fundamentally sound, better this year than last year. As long as he keeps going they’re only going to get better. It’s what we’re trying to do here.”