Arguably the most dominant conference in FCS football, the Missouri Valley Conference touts the most dominant FCS program ever in five-time defending national champion North Dakota State.
This year, the Bison could be slightly more vulnerable without quarterback Carson Wentz, but do not count on it. NDSU will be bringing the big guns out once again.
Here is the Missouri Valley Conference 2016 preview:
Projected Order of Finish
1. North Dakota State
2. Northern Iowa
3. South Dakota State
4. Illinois State
5. Western Illinois
6. Youngstown State
7. Indiana State
8. South Dakota
9. Southern Illinois
10. Missouri State
North Dakota State Bison
There has never been anything like Bison football. NDSU has won 10 national titles between D2 and FCS since 1983, and they have won five straight currently. If by some act of the cosmos they win again, they get their 11th. Nobody has ever had this kind of run before.
Even with Carson Wentz gone (#2 pick of the Philadelphia Eagles), there is no reason to be concerned. Easton Stick is the starter now, and he is ready to handle this job (like he did last year when the Bison played Youngstown State and Wentz was out with an injury). The line is loaded, and will be led by Zack Johnson at OG. The RB stable is as deep as it has ever been with King Frazier, Chase Morlock and Bruce Anderson all returning.
Nick DeLuca became a star in the Montana loss last season, and is back to lead the defense from the middle at LB, and Nate Tanguay joins Greg Menard up front to give the Bison one of the most formidable fronts in the nation. If the Bison can plug holes in the secondary, there is no reason to see why they will not be in the thick of title chase number six this fall.
Projected Win Total: 9
Northern Iowa Panthers
The Panthers are giving chase to NDSU, but they may fall just short in the conference race. That being said, UNI is plenty stocked to head into the FCS playoffs this fall.
Aaron Bailey is set at QB, and came on strong late in the year in 2015. He will be a huge dual threat to stop in conference play. He will be joined by the massive Tyvis Smith, who may be the best single back in the league. The line will be loaded as well, so the UNI ground game will be alive and well as it carries UNI to the playoffs.
UNI is also loaded on the defensive front. Karter Schult is a sack machine, and will be teamed with Preston Woods who will collapse the pocket from the inside. Like NDSU, UNI is looking for help in the secondary, where they need to replace every piece. Youngstown State and the Panthers engage in a big one set for Sat., Oct. 15 at Stambaugh Stadium.
Projected Win Total: 8
South Dakota State Jack Rabbits
If not for NDSU and UNI in front of them, SDSU may very well be the kind of team that could win a conference like this. As that is said, the Rabbits will likely push the top two teams this season.
Whomever wins the outright QB job between Zach Lujan and Taryn Christion will have a premier receiver to work with in Jake Wieneke, who is right up there with Cooper Kupp of Eastern Washington as being the best receivers in the nation. The top four rushers from 2015 all return as well.
Cole Langer is a beast in the middle of the line for SDSU, and will be the leader of the defense heading into fall camp. There are missing pieces at LB and at CB, but if those problems can be solved early, the Jack Rabbits are heading to the playoffs once again.
Projected Win Total: 8
Illinois State RedBirds
The Birds have been flying high as of late, but they are heading into 2016 missing some pieces that got them to the top over the last few years.
There will be a new QB, and that should be sophomore Jake Kolbe, who must learn how to lead this team early on. There will also be a new RB this fall. Diminutive Jamal Towns should share the load there with George Moreira, but there is no one back that will carry the load as Marshaun Coprich did.
Kolbe will get familiar with WR Anthony Warrum early on, and if a stable can form behind him, the offense should be just fine, as the line returns with solid talent.
DT Dalton Keene and LB Alejandro Rivera are the lone pieces coming back in the front seven, so starters and depth must be found. The secondary was young last season, so there should be more experience and depth to be found there this fall.
Projected Win Total: 7
Western Illinois Leathernecks
Bob Nielson left WIU as a state budget crisis prevented him from receiving a contract extension in a timely manner, and so Richmond OC Charlie Fisher takes over. Trenton Norvell returns at QB, but must increase his TD to INT ratio (13/8) to keep the Leathernecks moving towards another playoff birth. Lance Lenoir is his top returning receiver, and the top eight receivers from last year all return in total.
Nikko Watson is gone at RB, so look for Steve McShane and Devon Moore to battle for the job heading into the fall.
The LB corps is solid, and will be led by Brett Taylor. This unit should be the heart of a deep and talented defense this fall.
The only thing standing in the way of another playoff birth? The schedule is daunting to say the least.
Projected Win Total: 6
Youngstown State Penguins
Things have not been the same since the Penguins were the best team in this division in the 90s. Head coach Bo Pelini was brought on with much fanfare to get the tide turned, and he found it tough going last fall in his first season. He will still need a little more time before the program is back on track and playoff bound.
Hunter Wells has the number one job at QB, for now. JC transfer Trent Hosick, a former Missouri commit, will push him, and could supplant Wells for the job.
Martin Ruiz and Jody Webb share the RB job, and will likely carry the offense until the passing game gets sorted out.
The defense is led by bull rush DE Derek Rivers, an NFL prospect, and by the best secondary in the nation; and the best boast one of the top placekickers in FCS football in Zak Kennedy.
Projected Win Total: 6
Indiana State Sycamores
There are few programs that have shown the kinds of inconsistency this program has had over the last decade. They have been great, and they have been flat out awful. There has been very little gray area when it comes to this.
It looks like bad news out the gate, as QB Matt Adam has fallen short of academic qualification, and will miss the entire 2016 season while getting his grades straight. That is a huge hit for a team that is not very loaded on offense to start out. The other four QBs returning this fall had 20 attempts between them last season.
The five top rushers from last season (minus Adam) all return, so the running game, led by Roland Genesy, will have to move the ball while the QB issues get right in camp.
Robert Tanyan will return at WR, and he is a good one.
The defense could not stop the pass last season, but they do have one of the best LBs in FCS football in Jameer Thurmon.
Projected Win Total: 5
South Dakota Coyotes
Coaching legend Joe Glenn has retired at USD, and his career ended with more of a thud at USD than many had hoped for. Former Western Illinois coach Bob Nielson is now on board after taking the Leathernecks to the playoffs last fall.
QB Ryan Seager returns and is looking for a breakout season. Trevor Bouma is back at RB, and led the backs with 6 rushing TDs, but the yardage guy is sophomore Michael Fredrick.
Riley Donovan is expected to have a huge role at WR after playing in just one game last fall. Only two of the other four top WRs return this fall, led by Brandt Van Roekel.
The defense will be full of holes as the Coyotes head into camp, and will be a primary reason why USD will not be among the competitors for a playoff birth clubs for the league this fall.
Projected Win Total: 2
Southern Illinois Salukis
SIU is yet another formerly proud program fallen on hard times in recent years in the MVC.
The Salukis had a quality QB in Mark Ianotti last season, and still they failed to win more than three games. Now he is gone. Former Saluki player Nick Hill is back as head coach, and his first order of business will be to find a QB that can help this team win some football games.
Daquan Isom is back at RB, and will start. The problem is that Ianotti was also the leading rusher. There is some depth and experience behind Isom, but he should be the guy carrying the load of the carries. Billy Reed and Jimmy Jones are back at WR to take some pressure off of the new QB.
Chase Allen is the heart of the defense at MLB as the Salukis transition back to a 4-3 defense. Minnesota transfer Craig James should add support at CB. In any eventuality, the defense must simply improve.
Projected Win Total: 2
Missouri State Bears
The Bears have fallen on some seriously hard times as of late, and the hurt looks to continue in 2016.
The Bears scored a miserable 9.1 points per game in MVC play last fall, a number that is just unacceptable. Former Missouri assistant Dave Steckel must find some pieces to help turn the ship around, but as of now, there is no rudder to work with.
Look for Steckel to build his offense around RB Calan Crowder, but Jason Randall could even push him. Either way, neither back could start for one of the better teams in this conference.
Brodie Lambert is back at QB, but he was terrible last fall, with a TD to INT ratio of 3/11. Breck Ruddick could push him, but he didn’t fare much better last fall, completing barely 50% of his pass attempts.
Malik Earl is the leading receiver from last fall, but he caught just 31 passes in a season where the offense was in complete implosion.
Defensively, the Bears gave up 48.9 points per game in league play, and is every bit the mess that the offense is. Look for LB Dylan Cole to be a leader on that unit once again, but as good as he can be, he cannot play all 11 positions on the field. Help is needed, which is the understatement of all time.
Projected Win Total: 1