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5 Bold Missouri Valley Predictions in FCS College Football

Easton Stick vs. SDSU.jpg

Behind North Dakota State, the Missouri Valley Football Conference has been the best of the 13 FCS conferences in the 2010s.

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Entering the 2018 season, eight of the 10 teams have realistic hope of qualifying for the FCS playoffs. Come mid-November, though, some of the dreams will be shattered by the attrition of conference play.

NDSU should rise above conference rivals again and the Bison are favored to win a record seventh national title in eight years, so, no, those aren’t bold predictions.

But here are five for the MVFC with the season fast approaching:

South Dakota State is the second-best team in the conference

Many people seem to be looking for reasons not to rank the Jackrabbits behind North Dakota State. It’s true the Missouri Valley is deep in strong teams, and, even more important, the ‘Rabbits lost a number of key seniors, especially tight end Dallas Goedert and wide receiver Jake Wieneke. But that shouldn’t overshadow what returns, including senior quarterback Taryn Christion -- their career leader in total offense and touchdown passes -- a likely improved defense and dominating special teams. They’ve even beaten NDSU two straight times during the regular season.

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Easton Stick will win the Walter Payton Award

Omaha, Omaha ... it’s time to audible. The statistics of quarterbacks Gage Gubrud of Eastern Washington and Devlin Hodges of Samford will be attractive, but they’ll cancel each other out and national voters will look to the win and bestow the Heisman of the FCS on Stick. The Bison won’t lose in the regular season, leaving the 6-foot-2, 221-pounder from Omaha, Nebraska -- who has a 34-3 record entering his senior campaign -- on pace to surpass former Bison QB Brock Jensen’s FCS career record of 48 wins (yes, that would mean going 15-0).

The Big Sky-MVFC Challenge isn’t a lock for the Valley

There’s no doubt the Missouri Valley is a stronger conference than the Big Sky (eight national finalists and six NDSU titles in the last seven seasons), but after the Valley won the newly created Big Sky-MVFC Challenge last season, a number of this year’s matchups could tilt against the conference -- Missouri State versus Northern Arizona, South Dakota at Weber State, South Dakota State versus Montana State, Northern Iowa at Montana, and Western Illinois at Montana State and versus Montana. But you can chalk in a win by North Dakota State against Cal Poly and likely one by South Dakota against Northern Colorado.

The surprise team is dressed in maroon and white

There’s often a surprising team in the MVFC -- South Dakota last year, national runner-up Youngstown State two years ago and Western Illinois in 2015. After four straight losing conference seasons, and only 11 overall wins over the last three years, Southern Illinois will mature into a solid squad. Head coach Nick Hill is in his third season and he remembers the Salukis’ glory period last decade. His program returns 15 starters and the key is having a healthy quarterback Sam Straub as they were 4-3 with him and 0-4 without him last year. SIU knocked off Illinois State and will need one or two similar wins this season.

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Nov. 17 won’t be kind on the Missouri Valley

For a conference that has had the potential to gain a record six playoff bids heading into the last couple seasons, the last Saturday of this year’s regular season could do harm to some teams. Southern Illinois might need a win at North Dakota State to be in the at-large picture and the Youngstown State-Illinois State matchup might be an elimination game. Even Northern Iowa and Western Illinois, which both made last year’s field, better hope their tough road games to open the season don’t put them on an uphill course.

-- 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.

(Top photo courtesy of North Dakota State Athletics)