SPRINGFIELD | Preseason polls typically get a coachs shoulder shrug. But Missouri States Terry Allen believes his guys were short-changed when the Missouri Valleys preseason pecking order listed the Bears fifth.
This is the best team weve had since Ive been here, said Allen, a former Kansas coach. Weve 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. Its as if Missouri State was constructed for this season. The team was recruited entirely by Allens staff and includes 13 fifth-year seniors.
Only a handful of starters from last years 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 Ive been on, said senior offensive tackle David Arkin, a preseason All-America from Wichita.
Theyll 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 didnt play very well, senior quarterback Cody Kirby said. There are plenty of things to correct.
The Bears didnt 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, whos been Missouri States starter since the fourth game of his freshman year.
Kirby is the conferences 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 units 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 States measuring stick, but Saturdays game will provide a progress report, and the Bears dont 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 theres a lot of talent at the (FCS) level, Kirby said.
Just not as many scholarships. Football Bowl Subdivision can award 85; in FCS its 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 Snyders 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.
Ive 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 isnt a surprise.
Its vintage Bill Snyder, Allen said of the team hell see Saturday. Theyre so well-coached, so fundamentally sound, better this year than last year. As long as he keeps going theyre only going to get better. Its what were trying to do here.