BROOKINGS, South Dakota — 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.
At linebacker, junior T.J. Lally is the lone returning starter with junior Charles Elmore — the Jacks' most athletic option at that spot — out for the season because of a shoulder injury. The secondary is more settled with four relatively proven players, although no coach wants the last line of defense to get too much action.
"To be a really good player you have to play, you have to have experience," Stiegelmeier said. "I think when our lines get to that point, when the game slows down for them, we'll be in position to be confident in accomplishing our goals."
Until then, the Jacks won't stand pat. Tight end Cam Jones is poised to be a difference maker after returning from a foot injury that cost him nearly half of last season. He's listed at 6-foot-5 — same as Schneider and just an inch taller than redshirt freshman Jake Wieneke, the leading candidate to be the new No. 3 receiver.
A couple of offensive wrinkles have been installed in order to lighten the load on Zenner — he set a school record for carries last season — and make the most of a diverse stable of backs. There are also some new looks in terms of coverage, and the special teams unit returns intact.
It's time to make another run at moving the bar.
"I think we have all the pieces," said Lally, a third-year starter. "We need to make sure, mentally and emotionally, we're set."
Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com
All content copyright ©2014 Daily Journal, a division of Home News Enterprises unless otherwise noted.