Head coach Brock Spack's Illinois State Redbirds are bidding to return to the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs for the fourth straight year. Yet, the ninth-year ISU coach knows each year's schedule brings on new challenges.
"You can’t sleep on anybody," Spack said ISU's recent media day.
"Butler, I know every well from being in Indiana as long as I was over there," said the former Purdue linebacker and assistant coach. "They’re a really good football team; they’re really well coached."
Following a bye week, Illinois State renews its annual rivalry with Eastern Illinois. The two teams play for the Mid-America Classic trophy each September.
"We all know what Eastern Illinois means around here. They’re always good, so I think we’ll have our hands full when it comes to our schedule," Spack said.
Illinois State athletic director Larry Lyons and his staff are constantly working on future schedules.
“The football scheduling landscape continues to be a challenge, but senior associate athletics director Peyton Deterding worked diligently to find a good outcome,” Lyons said in a release.
Illinois State will play a pair of Missouri Valley Football Conference games and then travel to play Northern Arizona in a nonconference tilt.
"We are pleased to have a strong home-and-home series with a Big Sky opponent that completes the 2017 schedule, but also fills a date in 2019," Lyons said of the Northern Arizona agreement.
Most experts view the Redbirds' conference schedule as one that gets more challenging each week. In its final four games ISU faces Youngstown State--last year's national runnerup--on the road, rival Western Illinois at home, nationally ranked South Dakota State in an away game and perennial power North Dakota State at Hancock Stadium.
Moreover, all four of those opponents are ranked in the STATS FCS preseason poll: North Dakota State, 2; South Dakota State, 4; Youngstown State, 9; Western Illinois, 25. Illinois State is ranked 20th.
"ISU was given a berth into the playoffs last season at 6-5 thanks to winning three games in a row at the end of the regular season," said Sam Herder of HERO Sports. "But the Redbirds may not be able to afford early losses this season. With their final four games likely to come against ranked or receiving votes teams, they need to take care of business early in the season to get their win total to at least seven."
Regardless, Spack and his players are taking the challenge head-on.
"It’s Division 1 football so every game is tough. No game is a breeze," senior safety Alec Kocour said.
2017 Illinois State Schedule
Sept. 2--Butler, 6:30 p.m. (Spack Stache Bash/Fireworks)
Sept. 16--Eastern Illinois, 2 p.m.
Sept. 23--Missouri State, 2 p.m.*
Sept. 30--Indiana State, 6:30 p.m.*
Oct. 7--Northern Arizona, TBA
Oct. 14--Southern Illinois, 2 p.m.
Oct. 21-South Dakota, 2 p.m.* (Homecoming)
Oct. 28--Youngstown State, 1 p.m.*
Nov. 4--Western Illinois, noon* (Family Weekend)
Nov. 11--South Dakota State, 2 p.m.*
Nov. 18--North Dakota State, noon*
bold indicates home game
* indicates Missouri Valley Conference game