The momentum of the preeminent conference in the FCS appears to be getting stronger.
With a nation focused on the North Dakota State dynasty, there’s great depth all across the Missouri Valley Football Conference, as two straight years of a record-tying five playoff berths indicate.
The offseason has probably even brought added fortune to the conference, which has pushed to get more-balanced playoff selections after the five Valley qualifiers were placed together in one-half of last year’s 24-team bracket. An expected NCAA approval of an adjustment in policy would mean any conference with four qualifiers would have its teams split between the two halves of the bracket.
And, yes, the Valley plans to have many playoff qualifiers again this year.
Here are five key questions about the MVFC for the season ahead:
1. Is six the number with North Dakota State?
North Dakota State has won a record five consecutive FCS national titles and five straight Missouri Valley titles, and beaten five FBS opponents in a row. The first chance to add to those streaks comes Sept. 17 at Iowa. The other two streaks are more important, though. The Bison continue to graduate top seniors, but this year’s team still returns 14 starters. Their run game will be superb and their ability to stop the run is unmatched. They’ve been so good that they still won the national title last season with quarterback Carson Wentz sidelined for eight games, and that pays off for this season with starter Easton Stick, who was undefeated as he became seasoned. The pressure to win will be enormous, but nobody doubts coach Chris Kliieman’s squad is positioned to handle it.
2. Is six the number with the Missouri Valley?
No FCS conference has sent six teams to the FCS playoffs, but this might be the year for the Missouri Valley. All five teams that qualified for the playoffs last season — North Dakota State, Illinois State, Northern Iowa, South Dakota State and Western Illinois — have enough key players returning that they can be confident in a return to the postseason this year. The next-best candidate is Youngstown State, which has a veteran team under second-year head coach Bo Pelini but has continually fallen short of the playoffs. To gain six qualifiers, the MVFC probably has to dominate non-conference FCS opponents like 2014, when it was 23-1 in the regular season. But adding to the possibility of six is that other playoff-level programs have left the FCS in recent seasons. Plus, the playoff selection committee recognized the strength of the Valley and a top schedule by giving Western Illinois the first at-large bid following a 6-5 regular season last year.
3. How good is Illinois State?
Head coach Brock Spack has built up Illinois State’s level of talent, so all is not lost despite the loss of quarterback Tre Roberson and running back Marshaun Coprich, who spearheaded great success over the last two seasons (a 23-5 record, two MVFC co-titles and a 2014 national runner-up finish). With pocket-passer Jake Kolbe, the Redbirds will be different, but still strong at the position, especially with All-America wide receiver Anthony Warrum back to help out. Running back could take on a committee look, but the entire starting offensive line will pave the wave. The defense will be more inexperienced than the offense, so the new starters have to jell quickly. Missing Northern Iowa in the conference’s unbalanced schedule helps, but the Redbirds still remain a top 10-level team until proven otherwise.
4. Is there room for a dark horse?
Obviously, the Missouri Valley has become the strongest conference in the FCS, riding the coattails of the North Dakota State dynasty. But a surprise emerges among the top-tier programs each season. Last year, it was Western Illinois, which tied for third place. Well, South Dakota now has WIU’s Missouri Valley Coach of the Year Bob Nielson leading its program. Coupled with a win at North Dakota State last October and the Coyotes appear to be a program on the rise. Quite frankly, Youngstown State needs to end its 10-year playoff drought with so many key seniors. Indiana State, a 2014 playoff qualifier, could be this year’s surprise team, but the Sycamores’ loss of talented quarterback Matt Adam to academic issues has set them back.
5. Who are the NFL prospects?
It’s a good season for defensive standouts in the Missouri Valley — all right, when isn’t it? In the senior class, the two top candidates for the 2017 NFL Draft are North Dakota State’s Nick DeLuca and Youngstown State’s Derek Rivers. DeLuca (6-3, 240) has good size for a middle linebacker and has a skill set to defend the run or pass. Rivers (6-4, 250), a defensive end who moves well for his size, holds the Youngstown State record for career sacks (26) with a season to go. One of Rivers’ teammates, strong safety LeRoy Alexander (6-0, 195), and Southern Illinois inside linebacker Chase Allen (6-3, 240) are others to watch. It will be a banner season in the MVFC.
— 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 by Richard Svaleson/North Dakota State University Athletics)