Appearing fifth in the first set of Super Region 3 rankings, No. 5 Northwest Missouri State finds itself in a bit of a precarious position.
On one hand, the Bearcats (7-1, 6-1) are in control of their own destiny, and as long as they keep winning, they'll be conference champions and firmly in the playoffs.
On the other, their margin for error is slim, with one more loss potentially taking away both of those opportunities.
And given the team's upcoming schedule, winning out looks to be a tall order.
Over the season's final three weeks, the Bearcats play three ranked opponents with combined records of 22-2 entering play Thursday.
The end-of-season gauntlet begins Saturday with No. 16 Washburn at 1 p.m. on Homecoming in Topeka, Kan.
Also sporting a 7-1 record against arguably the softest schedule in the MIAA to this point, Washburn was not among the top 10 teams in the region rankings.
With Northwest at No. 5, this could very well serve as an elimination game.
"To me all that stuff is potentially a distraction," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Adam Dorrel. "What we need to do is win at Washburn and then come home and try to win on Homecoming because in my years of being with Mel (Tjeerdsma) I figured out from him, if you just focus on what you need to focus on and handle your business, that stuff will take care of itself. Literally, I believe that. I feel like our kids believe that, too."
The second-highest ranked MIAA team in the region and the highest ranked MIAA team nationally,
Northwest has followed a 1-1 start with six consecutive double-digit victories over varying levels of competition.
The last three have come away from Bearcat Stadium, and a win over Washburn would allow Northwest to sweep an October slate consisting exclusively of road or neutral site games.
"When the schedule came out, we said we wanted to go undefeated in October," said Dorrel. "This is the last step and I feel good about that. That's something our kids want to accomplish. Kind of a road dog mentality."
Ranked as high as No. 9 at one point, Washburn has kept its conference title hopes alive with four straight wins following a 35-20 road loss to Central Oklahoma.
However, its most quality win all season was last week's 19-16 road triumph over Lindenwood that required a last-minute comeback.
Northwest is the first opponent on Washburn's schedule among the top five teams in the MIAA.
And if comparative scores mean anything whatsoever, the Ichabods are in over their heads.
Northwest and Washburn have four common opponents on the year—Nebraska-Kearney, Fort Hays State, Central Oklahoma and Northeastern State.
Page 2 of 4 - The Bearcats went 4-0 against those teams, winning by an average of 46.3 points. Washburn went 3-1 with an average margin of victory of 13 points. The Ichabods also lost to the same Central Oklahoma team that Northwest blasted 70-7 just two weeks later.
"Honestly as coaches we don't ever focus on that," said Dorrel. "We don't ever talk to our kids about it because I think it's counter-productive. I don't think it has any bearing on the game Saturday. The kids may think about it. I hope they don't. We try to discourage them from thinking things like that. Just like I feel we're a better football team than we got beat in week two, they are, too."
Northwest has won seven straight against the Ichabods and nine in a row in Topeka, most of which have come down to the wire.
The series produced seven straight games decided by a total of 29 points before last year's 52-28 win by the Bearcats over a Washburn team that was ranked No. 3 nationally.
On Northwest's last visit to Yager Stadium in 2010, the Bearcats escaped with a 41-40 win thanks to Bill Baudler's end zone break-up on a go-ahead two-point conversion in the final minute. This upcoming matchup is the second straight in which both programs carry national rankings.
"Craig Schurig (Washburn's head coach) I think is a really good football coach," said Dorrel. "I don't think he gets enough credit. Their kids, no matter who is playing quarterback, are fundamentally sound. They're always physical and very well-coached. The thing I feel good about is our kids understand that. They got locked in right away mentally on Sunday. They're 7-1 and they've got a lot to play for just like we do. It will be a great game. We're hoping for a great atmosphere."
A regional semifinalist last year, Washburn lost or graduated most of its key offensive skill personnel such as Harlon Hill finalist quarterback Dane Simoneau, running Sean McPherson and top wideouts DeJuan Beard and Ronnell Garner.
This has made the Ichabods a far less explosive team than the one that was temporarily involved in a shootout with the Bearcats last year.
Washburn ranks fifth in the MIAA in scoring offense (32.5 ppg), seventh in total offense (394.8 ypg), seventh in pass offense (245.4 ypg) and eighth in rush offense (149.4 ypg).
During the team's current four-game win streak, the Ichabods have used a two-quarterback system with sophomores Mitch Buhler (6-2, 197) and Joel Piper (6-5, 215) sharing the reps. The past two weeks,
Buhler has been on the field much more often, attempting 60 passes to Piper's 18.
For the season, the disparity in attempts is 221-61 in Buhler's favor.
Buhler is completing just over 53 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns and only three interceptions. Piper has five touchdowns and two interceptions.
Page 3 of 4 - "They're running quite a bit of Wildcat," said Dorrel. "Their concepts are very similar to who they are. They haven't changed a lot of stuff up for them."
Junior Hayden Groves has taken over the lead back role from McPherson and leads the Ichabods in rushing with 572 yards and six touchdowns.
Former No. 3 receiver Matt Kobbeman leads the Ichabods with 29 catches for 438 yards and four touchdowns. Tight end Tore' Hurst is their second option in the pass game with 28 catches for 290 yards and three scores.
This year, Washburn's defense has been the strength of their team.
Washburn ranks first in the MIAA in pass defense (174.2 ypg), second in total defense (327.8 ppg) and fourth in scoring defense (20.8 ppg).
Their one area of weakness is against the run where the Ichabods rank 10th.
Junior linebacker Brice Atagi is the MIAA's third leading tackler with 76 on the year and eight have resulted in losses. Senior Corey Walker is Washburn's sack leader with 4.5 and Alex Dowty is second with 3.5.
Four different Ichabods have two interceptions, and their team total of 13 is third-best in the league.
"They've got talented kids," said Dorrel. "They're probably a little bigger than they have been on the defensive line in past years. They've got a new coordinator, and I see them playing more two safety stuff than they've ever played. At least on paper, they're probably not blitzing as much as their predecessors."
Northwest put up 52 points against Washburn last year in what Dorrel said was one of their best performances of the year.
The Bearcats lead the MIAA in scoring with 43.0 points per game and have averaged 48.3 points per game over the last six.
Quarterback Trevor Adams has played at an elite level since returning from injury, completing over 69 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. He was 25-33 for 292 yards and a touchdown in last week's road game against Missouri Southern.
Senior receiver Tyler Shaw and senior running back Jordan Simmons share the team lead in receptions with 35. Both had five grabs last week along with third leading receiver Bryce Young.
John Hinchey has emerged as another option in the pass game over the last two weeks, with back-to-back four catch efforts.
Northwest's leading rusher James Franklin III has scored five touchdowns in the last two games, giving him eight on the season along with 501 yards. Each of the last two games, his amount of carries has tripled that of Simmons whose being used more in the pass game.
Along with having the No. 1 scoring offense, Northwest has the No. 1 scoring defense (13.1 ppg) and the No. 1 total defense (305.6 ypg).
Page 4 of 4 - Central Missouri and Pittsburg State are the only two teams to top 14 points against the Bearcats all year.
Northwest is also tied for third in the MIAA with 21 take-aways and is second with 15 interceptions.
Cornerback Brandon Dixon and safety Nate DeJong both rank fourth league-wide with four on the season.
Matt Longacre's team-leading five sacks rank seventh in the league.
On special teams, Northwest is also among the league's best.
Kicker Todd Adolf is 9-11 on the field goals, and punter Kyle Goodburn is the league leader in net average (45.5 ypa).
Washburn's punter Aaron Hummert is second with a net average of 43.3 yards attempt.