It’s pretty crazy to think we are less than a week away from knowing which two teams in the NAIA will be competing for the division’s top prize. Even crazier is knowing the path taken by each of these teams to get to this point.
Southern Oregon started the season tied at No. 1 with Marian. Most people in the NAIA looked at these two teams as being “pretty good” but no one was predicting either team would be back in the NAIA Championship game. After SOU lost to Carroll early, people stopped talking about them but the Raiders didn’t care. They just kept winning and winning.
Marian saw a little more fanfare at the beginning of the season after knocking off DII playoff qualifier the University of Indianapolis. However after losing to Robert Morris and USF (Ind.) most people kind of shrugged and wrote off Marian as a contender.
Morningside lost to D3 power Wisconsin-Whitewater before bulldozing through the rest of their season until the first round of the playoffs when Saint Xavier came calling. After the close call in the first round, the Mustangs returned to form last week by blasting Tabor College.
And last but not least is the University of Saint Francis. This is a team that started last season at No. 6 only to finish at No. 24 and out of the postseason for the just the second time since 1999, the year after the program began. Then USF started this season unrated an almost an afterthought in their own conference. If there is a lesson to be learned, it’s don’t count out the Cougars.
Here’s my thoughts on this week’s semifinal match ups:
Game 1 – Southern Oregon (10-2) at Morningside (Iowa) (12-1): SOU is dangerous and physical. Morningside has to find a way to limit the Raiders on offense. If SOU’s offense shows up like they have the majority of the year the NAIA might break the postseason scoring record again this year. There is no doubt Morningside can rack up points on offense but this game will come down to defense and turnovers. I think Morningside wins this game at home but it won’t be easy and it won’t be until the final seconds of the game. Morningside 49 SOU 45
Game 2 – Marian (Ind.) (10-2) at Saint Francis (Ind.) (11-0): The first time these two teams met USF won 45-42. I only tell you that so I can also tell you to forget about that game. Different stakes, everything is on the line, different teams, different weather. Since October 31st Marian’s D has come on strong. Take away a garbage time TD by Sienna Heights and the Knights haven’t given up more than 10 points. In fact, Marian hasn’t given up an offensive touchdown in the postseason. USF has the 3rd best scoring offense in the NAIA and will no doubt test the Knights defense. Add in the homefield advantage and USF is the favorite but the Cougars will have to keep control of this game and not turn the ball over if they are going to punch a ticket to Daytona Beach. USF 35 Marian 31.
There’s been a lot of arguing on social media as to which conference is the best in the country. People will point to several different sources as to the reason why but ultimately I think you have to look at who is still alive this late in the season. The MSFA Mideast has two squads still in, the Frontier Conference has one and the GPAC has one. Given the postseason showings so far I don’t think anyone can argue there are a better two conferences in the NAIA right now than the MSFA ME and Frontier.
One has to wonder what Taylor and Montana Western would have done in the postseason. We’ve long debated the resume of Western and how close they were to getting into the postseason but consider Taylor for a moment. The Trojans only losses this year have been to USF, Marian and DI-FCS non-scholarship Butler, who finished 6-5. Obviously, non-scholarship DI football is a bit of an enigma but you can’t discount Taylor’s loss to the Bulldogs that much.
Regardless of all of that, the best four teams in the NAIA are still playing and two of them will be making plans on going to Daytona Beach next week at this time.