By Jeremy Hoeck
Inside the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision record book, there is a section entitled “Annual Most-Improved Teams.”
The greatest 1-year jumps are listed in order of most games improved, as are the teams from 2011 that righted the ship in quick fashion.
With the FCS playoffs set to expand this year from 20 to 24 teams (and teams needing only six Division I wins instead of seven), the USD football team – 1-10 a year ago – isn’t ready to declare itself ready to make one of those historic jumps.
At least not yet.
“We got close in a lot of games last year, and my whole thing is, we’ve got to get better,” head coach Joe Glenn said during Aug. 15’s media day gathering in Vermillion.
After pointing out that his 1982 Montana team was picked to finish last in the Big Sky Conference but won the league, Glenn added, “It’s been done; it can be done.”
As the NCAA record book shows, teams have made quick turnarounds from one or two wins into a playoff berth the next season.
Eastern Illinois and Villanova both made the FCS playoff field last fall after 2-9 records in 2011. Towson had a more dramatic increase, from 1-10 in 2010 to a 9-3 playoff season the next year.
Additionally, Weber State (2005), Bucknell (2006) and Liberty (2006) all jumped up to six wins after going 1-10 the previous season.
For reference sake, the 1984 Montana State Bobcats boast the biggest increase in FCS history, a 9.5-game leap from a 1-10 record in 1983 to a 12-2 finish in 1984.
That might be asking too much of the Coyotes, who were winless in eight Missouri Valley Football Conference games last fall, but players Thursday referenced the challenge of building toward playoff consideration.
“This our team, this is our legacy, we want to be that team that broke the mold,” said junior quarterback Josh Vander Maten, owner of 2,157 combined yards and 13 touchdowns last season.
“We’ll try our absolute best.”
Part of that mold-breaking will come in winning close games, as Glenn pointed out. USD lost five games last season by a touchdown or less — four by three points.
The program spent a bulk of the off-season on developing the ‘Band of Brothers’ tagline, which involved improved conditioning techniques and more team bonding exercises, among other things. Such camaraderie can only help in those tight games, according to senior offensive lineman Marc Murtha.
“We just need to come together, have enthusiasm, play hard each play, and I think we can definitely reach the playoffs within the next couple years,” he said. “Or even this year.
“Some people disagree with that, but I always have a stern head,” he added. “I take the bull by the horns. We think what we can do, not what we can’t.”
While road wins have been hard to come by for the Coyotes, they have six home games to develop some momentum, according to senior linebacker Tyler Starr.
USD opens with UC Davis on Aug. 31, and will also host Missouri State, Indiana State, Youngstown State, Montana and South Dakota State.
“Having six home games greenlights in your mind, like, ‘We’re good at home, we have a history here,’” Starr, a preseason All-American, said. “It gives you the extra motivation to give it everything you’ve got.”
Outside of their control, the Coyotes – like every other FCS team – could benefit from the new playoff criteria, given they improve to the point where they win six or seven games.
“Even if it didn’t change, it fuels the fire,” senior defensive back Devin Taverna said. “That’s the goal; you want to win and you want to get the championship.”
The fact that other teams across the country have jumped from one win to a playoff berth gives a team like USD hope, Taverna added.
“It’s easy motivation,” he said. “Like coach Glenn said, there’s teams like Montana that were picked dead last and came out and won.”
For the 16 seniors on the team, making one of those dramatic turnarounds is naturally the goal, Murtha said.
“I have one year left, so hopefully we can make it there,” he said. “It’s a goal, but we need to win each game first.
“I want to have short team goals; to win Cal Davis, then win the next game.”
You can follow Jeremy Hoeck on Twitter at twitter.com/jhoeck