Heading into 2016 season, the Missouri Valley Football Conference had the look of a conference that might become the first to gain six qualifiers in the FCS playoffs.
Four wins over FBS programs in September only strengthened the notion.
Then October arrived, and the head-to-head matchups within the conference schedule began to take their toll.
The MVFC still received four playoff bids, tying for the national high, and it was the only conference to have three teams reach the quarterfinals, but the conference’s toughest games often were when its teams played each other.
With the college football season fast approaching, here are five key questions for the MVFC:
Could North Dakota State’s conference title streak end?
The MVFC is such a deep conference that a team like Youngstown State finished third in the regular season last year and went on to reach the national final, so North Dakota State’s six straight conference title is incredible. Although the Bison return significant talent and show little signs of slowing, the team they shared the title with last season, South Dakota State, also is a national title contender, won in the Fargodome last October and get to host this year’s matchup in Brookings on Nov. 4.
What’s the encore at Youngstown State?
The Penguins don’t appear as strong as last season after losing a number of influential seniors. Still, their program has turned the corner under three-year coach Bo Pelini. While they return only four starters on defense, senior quarterback Hunter Wells directs an offense that boasts eight returning starters. They have home games against all three of the MVFC’s other playoff qualifiers last season – North Dakota State, South Dakota State and Illinois State.
Is there elbow room between the quarterbacks?
Led by South Dakota State’s Taryn Christion, the MVFC offensive player of the year as a sophomore, the top seven teams in last year’s standings and eight overall return their starting signal-callers. Southern Illinois also returns its late-season starter. Only Missouri State will have a new QB behind center. There will be great play at the position.
Will the real UNI stand up?
Northern Iowa was a playoff quarterfinalist in 2014 and ’15, and it appeared worthy of even more if it hadn’t faced other MVFC powers in those games. But despite head coach Mark Farley’s .667 winning percentage through 16 seasons, the Panthers have thrown in some clunkers this decade, including a 5-6 record last year after being Athlon’s preseason No. 3 pick. They return 16 starters (seven on offense and nine on defense) and have some redshirt freshmen primed for contributing roles.
Who are the NFL prospects?
South Dakota State features two of the best draft candidates in the FCS, tight end Dallas Goedert (6-5, 250) and wide receiver Jake Wieneke (6-4, 215). It’s also a good season for defensive players, including Illinois State cornerback Davontae Harris (6-0, 200); North Dakota State cornerback Tre Dempsey (5-10, 180), who figures to shift from safety at the next level; South Dakota State defensive tackle Kellen Soulek (6-4, 320); North Dakota State linebacker Nick DeLuca (6-3, 248); Western Illinois linebacker Brett Taylor (6-2, 230); and Illinois State safety Alec Kocour (6-0, 200).
— 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 South Dakota State University Athletics)