The Pioneer Football League was full of headlines this past headlines as back-to-back defending champs, Davidson fell to the new kids on the block, St. Thomas, who we’ll talk about more in this article. Butler snapped a six-game losing streak to Dayton. Only PFL savants may have noticed Marist and Stetson’s high-scoring thriller where the Red Foxes came out on top 45-31.
One would think St. Thomas’ defeat of top dog Davidson puts the Tommies in the driver’s seat for the Pioneer Football League title. However, the NCAA’s transitioning program rules spoil a good story, like they did this Spring. Bellarmine won the ASun Men’s Basketball Tournament but did not attend the NCAA Tournament since it became a Division I program the previous year. St. Thomas will face the same fate if they run the Pioneer Football League table since they too transitioned last year and are not eligible for the playoffs until 2025.
That makes the Pioneer League arguably the most open of any FCS conference. With 11 schools, the chances for multiple champions sharing the title are high. The two teams with the most favorable paths are Valparaiso and Marist. Marist avoids both Davidson and San Diego State, with their most challenging PFL tests being against Butler and Valparaiso. Valparaiso also avoids Davidson and has already beaten San Diego. Their toughest test is against St. Thomas, but the Beacons do host the Tommies.
This may mean that Marist vs. Valparaiso on November 12th could decide the PFL playoff berth. For both teams, this is unprecedented territory as neither has made the FCS Playoffs. Both have decades-long postseason droughts.
Harry Truman was the president the last time that Valpo went to the postseason as the 1950 Crusaders went 9-0 before Wisconsin-LaCrosse ran for 407 yards in a 47-14 win over Valpo in the Cigar Bowl in Tampa on New Year’s Day 1951. Interestingly enough, this was the second bowl of the season for Valpo as they made their second-straight appearance in the Lutheran Bowl earlier that season against Wittenburg. Marist has never played in a postseason bowl game or playoff game as their 1990 Atlantic Collegiate Conference champion team was denied an ECAC Bowl bid.
The dispersed nature of the Pioneer Football League and the fact that their champion may not even be the playoffs make the Pioneer Football League one of the more intriguing FCS conferences this year. For schools that have long waited for a chance at Playoff glory, like Marist and Valpo, the NCAA’s rigid transition rules may be their best friend.