- Associated Press - Friday, August 29, 2014

BROOKINGS, S.D. (AP) - The high jump - that’s what the South Dakota State football program is doing, in a sense.

The Jackrabbits have set several program records over the last five seasons in terms of reaching and advancing in the FCS playoffs. The bar has been raised steadily and undeniably.

Yet it’s not as if the standards have been maxed out. That’s the goal this season - to clear a new height. SDSU hasn’t claimed the Missouri Valley Football Conference championship since joining the league in 2008, despite winning as many league games as anybody during that span. The Jacks haven’t reached Round 3 of the postseason in any year at any level.

While the Jacks don’t know what it’s like to sail over those bars, they’ve gained a sense of what it takes in coming up just short.

“To play every game like it’s a playoff game. To play every play like it’s your last play,” said coach John Stiegelmeier, who is two wins shy of the school record. “We’ve said that for years, and it came to light last year.”

That is, SDSU had to win the final four games of the 2013 regular season in order to reach the postseason. But narrowly qualifying meant no bye and (unlike the year before) no home games. The Jacks couldn’t follow up their first-ever road playoff win with another, fading in the second half of a Round 2 loss at rested Eastern Washington.

In theory, there’s a simpler road to Round 3: Earn a Top-8 seed. That will guarantee a first-round bye and a second-round home game on the unpredictable natural grass of Coughlin-Alumni Stadium. SDSU coaches and players - not always forthcoming with goals beyond going 1-0 each week - made that path part of the agenda on media day.

The squad is ranked 10th in the two major preseason polls.

“We’ve got our goals set really high, and we feel like we’re capable of reaching those,” quarterback Austin Sumner told the Argus Leader (http://argusne.ws/XYgE6O ).

They won’t fall short for lack of formidable, senior skill players. Sumner is a four-year starter, and the SDSU career leader in passing yards. Running back Zach Zenner is the second player in FCS history to rush for 2,000 yards in separate seasons. Receiver Jason Schneider owns the school record for catches in a season (78).

Still, the trio is 0-4 against three-time defending national champion North Dakota State. The program hasn’t won at Northern Iowa in its Division I era (0-4). And the season opener is at Missouri of the SEC on Saturday.

Those three contests will be grueling and a fourth - against UW-Oshkosh - won’t count toward playoff consideration. In other words, the Jacks can’t afford any stumbles along the way in order to make the playoffs - let alone snag a seed.

The retooling lines have to get up to speed quickly.

The offensive front boasts only one returning starter, senior Trevor Greger, in light of another - sophomore Mike Shoff - going down for the season to a knee injury. Most of the guys in the mix for time - and there are a bunch of them - are inexperienced rather than young.

The defensive line also has a single returning starter, sophomore Cole Langer. The other three likely starters are upperclassmen and have been waiting their turn, but the backups have little to no game experience at SDSU.

Story Continues →