There are few breathers in the talent-laden conference
FCS programs in the Missouri Valley Football Conference surely don't want to have non-conference games canceled for COVID-19 reasons this year.
They can be some of the easier games on the schedule.
The conference schedule is always taxing on MVFC teams, and five teams enter this year enter this season in Athlon Sports' Preseason Top 25 (four in the top 10) as the conference grows to 11 with the addition of 2019 playoff qualifier North Dakota.
As teams move toward the 2020 season, here are five key players, games and questions in the MVFC:
5 Key Players
1. Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State: The 2019 Walter Payton Award recipient is the trendy QB for the 2021 NFL Draft
2. Elerson G. Smith, DE, Northern Iowa: Leading Buck Buchanan Award candidate on one of the FCS' fiercest defenses.
3. Pierre Strong Jr., RB, South Dakota State: His game-breaking speed takes the Jackrabbits to another level.
4. Javon Williams Jr., RB, Southern Illinois: Opponents didn't know how to defend Williams when he ran the Wildcat.
5. Drew Himmelman, LT, Illinois State: 6-foot-10, 315-pound size indicates why the NFL prospect will be a four-year starter at left tackle.
5 Key Games
1. North Dakota State at Northern Iowa (Sept. 26): The Bison dynasty (nine straight MVFC titles; eight of nine FCS titles) has won six straight meetings to take a 27-26 lead in the bitter series.
2. South Dakota State at North Dakota State (Oct. 17): A healthy SDSU offense can match scores with the loaded Bison.
3. South Dakota State at Northern Iowa (Nov. 7): UNI eliminated the Jackrabbits in last year's playoffs.
4. North Dakota State at Oregon (Sept. 5): The Bison bring an FCS-record 37-game winning streak into their highly anticipated opener.
5. Southern Illinois at Illinois State (Oct. 10): An in-state road win appears important for a Salukis program that hasn't been in the playoffs since 2009.
5 Key Questions
1. At NDSU, will the expectations surrounding Lance become unbearable?
2. Can Illinois State effectively replace running back James Robinson?
3. Will Missouri State pull some upsets under high-profile coach Bobby Petrino?
4. Did playing in the Big Sky harden North Dakota enough for its first MVFC season?
5. Will the FCS championship game be an all-MVFC matchup?
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Photo courtesy of North Dakota State Athletics)