Welcome back to Rock M Nation’s annual opponent preview series of the upcoming season. Each week we will break down one opponent from the schedule in chronological order. Given that rosters are ever fluid - and this is done by a hobbyist rather than a pro - there could be some errors in history and current roster makeup. All mistakes are done on purpose and with ill intent because I don’t like you or your team.
Let’s get this out of the way first: FCS teams can take down good FBS teams and have absolutely done so in the past. There were eight such incidents last year (one of those was a P5 team, Northwestern) and - COVID-shortened season aside - have been at least three FCS-beats-FBS games every year since 2009. It can happen, it does happen, and no team - especially Missouri - should overlook their FCS foe.
I should also point out: South Dakota, currently, is not very good.
The Coyotes are currently the runt of the “four football Dakota brotherhood,” as North Dakota State and South Dakota State won national titles, and SDSU beat NDSU last year in the championship game. North Dakota, meanwhile, has been in the FCS Playoff in three of the last four years.
South Dakota’s last Playoff appearance was in 2021 where they lost in the first round. They’ve had two Playoff appearances since 2000 and have gone 1-2 in Playoff games. Oh, and last year they went 3-8. On the season.
The Coyotes had a strong run in the early aughts under head coach Ed Meierkort, reeling off three straight 9-win campaigns. However, the juice ran out in the end as Meierkort’s squads settled back in the 5-6 win range and he was replaced in 2013 by Joe Glenn. Glenn suffered through three straight losing seasons, going from 4 wins to 2 wins to 5 wins before yielding to current coach Bob Nielson. And while Bob has been responsible for every Playoff game of this millennium, the Coyotes have struggled as of late, including last season:
It was really easy to figure out the Coyote’s chances of a win last year: if their opponent finished the year with a winning record then SD lost and if the opponent they played had a losing record at the end of the year then SD won.
Of course, South Dakota resides in the Missouri Valley Conference, which is frequently viewed as the SEC of the FCS ranks. To wit, South Dakota played FOUR teams that were in the 2022 FCS Playoff, going 0-4 with a score differential of SD 46 - Opponent 114. That includes the two National Championship game participants, plus North Dakota and Montana. They still had some clunkers against middling Northern Iowa and Illinois State squads, but trying to rebuild in the MVC is a death knell for team progress.
There could be hope, though. The Coyotes return their top rusher, three of their top four receivers, most of their defensive starters, and the quarterback they switched to half through the year (and subsequently won two of their three victories with). SD’s athletic director came out strong at the conclusion of the Northern Iowa loss and said the school was standing behind Coach Nielson (for now, anyway); we’ll see if the lumps taken last year lead to improvement this year.
Bob Nielson - 8th Year - 32-42 (22-30)
Coach Nielson is 100% in the “coach football in a suit and tie” club, which I fully endorse, but he’s also a bit of a small-school miracle worker. To wit, take a look at this resume and count how many schools you’ve heard of on his CV:
Clearly born to coach, Nielson was coaching his alma mater’s offensive line before he even graduated from Wartburg College (a private Lutheran liberal arts school in Waverly, Iowa). He then switched to defensive coordinator for two years before becoming head coach at Ripon...which concluded his non-head coach employment days. After turning Ripon around he showed back up at Wartburg, leading them to three straight 9+ win seasons. He parlayed that gig into the head chair at Wisconsin Eau-Claire, taking them from 5 to 7 to 10-win seasons. He then worked his magnum opus at Minnesota Duluth, building the program up to 9- and 11-win seasons before briefly resigning to become Athletic Director at Duluth. Once his successor spit the bit he took back over as head coach and immediately ripped off an undefeated, 15-win national championship year, doing it again two years later and never dipping below the 10-win mark. That was enough for Western Illinois to take notice and, after a three-year stint with the Leathernecks, he was hired by South Dakota to steer the Coyotes out of the ditch.
His tenure at South Dakota has had its ups and downs (Playoff wins! 3 and 4-win seasons!) but, fresh off of an endorsement by his AD, it seems clear that he is their guy for the immediate future. Playing in the toughest conference that houses at least two consistent national title contenders is a rough life to live but Nielson has been a head coach longer than most of us have been alive and will either get there or get fired trying.
Josh Davis - Offensive Coordinator: Davis replaces former OC Ted Schlafke in an attempt to modernize the Coyote offense. Under Schlafke SD was much like Eli Drinkwitz in which every down was a chance to run the ball. Unlike their brethren in North Dakota, those bully-ball tactics didn’t work with SD’s limited offensive weaponry so Nielson brought in a rival to beef up their air attack. Davis is a South Dakota State alum who was just on his alma mater’s staff last year during their national championship season, coaching receivers and in charge of planning their passing schemes. He was at SDSU after a five-year stint with Northwestern College where he set passing records with his quarterbacks, including National Player of the Year Tyson Kooima. SD’s current roster returns most of their receivers but neither they nor the quarterbacks have been the focal point before; we’ll see how this roster transitions to the new scheme.
Travis Johansen - Defensive Coordinator: Johansen has been at SD since 2019 and sent three players into the NFL in that short time frame: Jack Cochrane, Elijah Reed, and DaJaun Cooper. His defenses have been the saving grace of the Coyote’s success over the past four years as his units are excellent against the run and opportunistic against the pass. He’s also the associate head coach and Nielson’s #2 in charge. He’s not immune to having his charges get lit up - especially against FBS competition - but is a good tactician and has an excellent mind for putting guys in schemes that work.
Dante Warren - Running Backs
Craig Bagnell - Wide Receivers
Tim Morrison - Tight Ends
Jeff Nady - Offensive Line
Rob Snyder - Defensive Line
Adam Cox - Outside Linebackers
Elijah Hodge - Inside Linebackers
Miles Taylor - Defensive Backs
North Dakota State under Craig Bohl brought back the “I-formation run sets with punishing defenses” to popularity at the FCS ranks and South Dakota definitely aspired to emulate that style. They didn’t have the guys to effectively pull it off last year, however, and so now they turn to a passing guru to overhaul their offensive scheme. Thanks to the transfer portal rosters can be remade in a single offseason but, for now, South Dakota has been relatively quiet on the offensive portal activity. And, given that their defense is one of the best in the FCS and used to being pared with a plodding, clock-milking offense, it’ll be curious to see how a shift to a focus on the pass affects the tempo and the defense’s effectiveness. Oh, and it’s unclear how the existing players take to the scheme. Davis is one of the best but the players he currently has are unknowns in this style.
Quarterback - Aidan Bouman - Redshirt Junior
Aidan Bouman is a very large, corn-fed quarterback from Buffalo, MN who got his start at Iowa State. The lefty couldn’t beat out Brock Purdy or Hunter Dekkers so he transferred down to South Dakota, where he promptly was beaten out by incumbent Coyote quarterback Carson Camp. However, Camp proved to be ineffective and so Bouman came in halfway through the year, slightly improving on Camp’s production while the Coyotes closed the year out in a 2-3 finish, including a win in his debut game against ranked Southern Illinois. He is more accurate and way less mobile than Camp and is presumed to be the starter in Josh Davis’ new pass-happy scheme.
Running Back - Travis Theis - Redshirt Junior
South Dakota had two running backs they trusted to run the ball more than four times on the year, and one of them - Shomari Lawrence - is gone. That leaves Travis Theis, the stocky, bearded ginger who averaged nearly 5 yards per carry last year over 166 carries while also doubling as the second-leading receiver on the team in catches. This needs some help and it seems SD didn’t trust anyone else to step up. How he features in a more wide-open passing-oriented attack will be interesting but he’ll still be a useful battering ram when the Coyotes want to go old school.
Tight End - J.J. Galbreath - Redshirt Junior
Gone is last year’s leading receiver Wesley Eliodor with his 30 catches, 482 yards, and 6 touchdowns. And, thus concludes the number of guys who finished with more than 260 yards receiving last year. Tight End J.J. Galbreath was the second-leading receiver in terms of yardage while finishing 4th in catches with 21. South Dakota’s passing attack was a supplemental option that was sparingly used, as the run game was the feature and the leading receiver had exactly 30 catches on the year. Everyone is back outside of Eliodor, however, so it will be interesting to see which ones get used in the new scheme.
South Dakota’s defense prides itself on stopping the run and then figuring the rest out later. They averaged a school record low of 115 yards per game on the ground last year; while I don’t put much stock in raw yardage stats and records, I will go out on a limb and say that being the best at something in school history is a good sign.
Like all of college football the Coyotes mostly employ a 4-2-5/nickel look but float between that and a classic 4-3 fairly seamlessly. All seven of their top tacklers are either linebackers or safeties which gives you an idea of who the playmakers are. And, as previously stated, the defense returns most of their starters.
Just like Mizzou, SD’s defense was the catalyst for a team win or loss and they’re pretty dang good. They’re not the most havoc-inducing but it can be very easy for a sleepy foe to overlook a solid FCS defense.
Defensive Line - Nick Gaes - Redshirt Junior
The 6’4”, 270-pound Gaes leads a defensive line group that returns everyone that made a tackle last year. They’re good but they’re also (relatively) small, weighing in around 240-250 for the edge rushers and 260-280 for the interior linemen. Size isn’t everything but it can definitely count when you absolutely need to get yards. The linemen aren’t all that disruptive, either, instead eating blocks for the back seven to make a play.
Linebacker - Stephen Hillis - Redshirt Senior
If the Coyotes' defense was making a play it was usually #34 doing it. Get to know this dude: last year he racked up 108 tackles, 4 sacks, 6 passes defensed, and 2 forced fumbles all by himself. His battery mate, Michael Scott, has thankfully graduated but Nyle Dickel - the presumed replacement - doesn’t have many snaps to his name. Regardless, Hillis should be priority one for the Tigers to erase on any play.
Defensive Back - Myles Harden - Redshirt Junior
If Stephen Hillis : South Dakota Linebackers, then Myles Harden : South Dakota Defensive Backs. Last year, Harden was the best disruptive force in the secondary, swatting away six passes and picking off three more. He also logged a sack and made 38 stops by himself. The Coyote defense swarms to the ball and Harden is one of the reasons why they react so quickly. He’s another weapon to keep an eye on all game.
So what does it all mean?
It’s an FCS team. You should win, and win easily, and get your freshmen in as soon as possible to burn one of the four games they get during their redshirt season. Missouri will be breaking in some new pieces and schemes on offense but should still outclass the Wildcats up and down the roster, especially on the defensive side of the ball. If you don’t see any of the non-starting freshmen in the second half, something has gone terrible wrong. The Tigers need to take this time to get some experience, iron out any issues they still have, and create some early momentum before they hit a loaded back half of the schedule.