2021 MVFC Spring Season Preview
The FCS football season kicked off with a banger last weekend and will begin in full this week. Many folks (including me) didn’t think it was going to actually happen. As programs (and entire conferences) began to opt out of the spring slate, including FCS stalwarts Montana and Montana State, I thought the entire house of cards was going to collapse. But the core of subdivision remains intact, and it is looking like this is going to happen. There will certainly be challenges. We already have an MVFC game postponed, and Indiana State opted out of the season entirely. But I am still very excited to see some championship subdivision football. This season will feature an abridged 16-team playoff. With eleven ten conferences getting automatic bids, that leaves just five six at-larges and no margin for error. As the premier FCS football conference, the Valley may well get three bids due to the league’s depth. However, that would still leave several very good MVFC teams out.
With so many teams losing players between fall and spring due to transfer and the NFL draft, and such little information out there about each team, it will be tough to give a quality preview. What I am going to do is list the teams in the order they were picked in the MVFC preseason poll and add what little information I can find about them. For this list I will also indicate how many players each school has on the MVFC preseason team. Check back each week because I’ll be putting up new power rankings like I’ve done with MVC basketball. So, let’s jump into the rankings. NR.) Indiana State – N/A Points (N/A First Team, N/A Honorable Mentions): The Sycamores opted out of the spring season on January 11th, citing heath and development concerns. They probably didn’t feel too good about their chances, anyway, coming off a 5-7 season in 2019. They are only two years removed from a 7-4 season, but also three years removed from an 0-11 campaign. The decision seems to have come from head Coach Curt Mallory, who says that Indiana State will have regular spring practices in preparation for the 2021 fall season instead. Playing so many games in one calendar year seemed to be a concern as well. We’ll see them revved up and ready to go by fall.
T9.) Western Illinois - 23 Points (0 First Team, 1 Honorable Mention): This is how good the MVFC is. According to the poll there is no one worst team. That is because Western Illinois and Missouri State tied for the last spot. That said, hopes are not high that one of the few playoff spots will be claimed by the school in Macomb. WIU boasts just one member of the MVFC preseason team…..and he was only an honorable mention…….and he’s the punter. The good news is, as you can see in that link, he is super strong you guys. The Leathernecks have already had a rough start to their season as COVID issues in their program has caused their first game to be delayed until the end of the year. Given that they are coming off a 1-11 season, they might be ready to be done by the time that game comes around. Punting their way out of the cellar would be a great accomplishment for this team. Their first game is now scheduled to be February 27th against Missouri State.
T9.) Missouri State – 23 Points (0 First Team, 2 Honorable Mentions): Joining Western Illinois in the preseason cellar is Missouri State. How many of you forgot that Missouri State’s head coach is Bobby Petrino? I will admit I definitely did. Talk about a story that has been swallowed up by the pandemic. If you believe in second chances you still may have run out of patience with Petrino, but he lives on as a head football coach now getting his shot in Springfield. When MSU takes the field for their spring opener, it will not be their first football game of the academic year. MSU played a pair of games with Central Arkansas (both single-digit losses) and one with Oklahoma (a 48-0 loss) in the fall. The two honorable mention players are junior wide receiver Damoriea Vick and senior corner Zack Sanders. MSU also needs a new QB this year, which after a 1-10 season last year might not be a bad thing. The Bears wont sniff the postseason, and a .500 league season would be a hell of an accomplishment. They looked quite competitive against a good squad in their two games against Central Arkansas in the fall, so Petrino might have them surprising some people. MSU hosts Illinois State in their opener on Saturday.
8.) Youngstown State – 36 Points (2 First Team, 1 Honorable Mention): Coming in just ahead of the Bears and Leathernecks are the Youngstown State Penguins. YSU is the first team on this list to feature a member of the preseason All-MVFC team first team. In fact, a pair of Penguins made the list. Junior tackle Dan Becker and senior wide receiver Jake Coates were the honorees. Coates is receiver by trade but made this team in his capacity as a kick returner. The Penguins’ first-year coach Doug Phillips has had a weird start to his run in Youngstown, but his guys are ready to get on the field and show what they can do. He’ll be thrown into the deep end as YSU opens their season at #1 North Dakota State on Sunday. Coach Phillips said, “We have to go to our first game on the road, in a dome with fans, so we will have to get ready for that.” Yeah. That is probably an understatement. It isn’t just NDSU either, the Penguins (who signed an eclectic group of transfers at semester) will face four of the league’s top five teams according to the preseason poll in the first four weeks. It is doubtful the Penguins will be in the hunt for the playoffs, but improvement over the course of the season will be the goal to set themselves set up for the spring.
7.) North Dakota – 39 Points (0 First Team, 3 Honorable Mention): Just ahead of Youngstown State are the North Dakota Fighting Hawks who are making their debut in the Missouri Valley Football Conference under strange circumstances. (You all may not know this, but the MVFC season is typically played in the fall, however a worldwide pandemic forced it to be moved to the spring.) UND comes to the Valley from the Big Sky Conference where they were playoff qualifiers two of the last four seasons (including last year when they lost to Nicholls in the first round and finished 7-5). The move was necessitated when the school joined MVFC members NDSU, USD, SDSU and Western Illinois in the Summit League for all other sports, reuniting with their Dakota brethren. Their preseason honorees include senior defensive back Jordan Canady, senior o-lineman Ryan Tobin and senior linebacker Jaxson Turner. All three were honorable mention. UND has some holes to fill, including at QB, and coach Bubba Schweigert says that “all jobs are open”. The defense brings back more experience than the offense, so don’t be surprised if they carry the team this year. It would be a shock if UND is in playoff contention at the end of the year, especially with limited spots available this season. The Fighting Hawks will open the schedule on Saturday at home against SIU.
6.) South Dakota – 52 Points (5 First Team, 3 Honorable Mention): While they may be below North Dakota geographically, South Dakota is just above UND on this list (although technically they’re physically below them on this list too). USD constantly seems to be a program that is on the cusp of becoming a legit FCS contender. This year they will open a newly renovated Dakotadome (although some would say it wasn’t renovated…..just finished after a 40 year pause) and they hope their substantially improved digs will help them take a step up in the FCS landscape. If you’re looking for an MVFC darkhorse this is probably it. No one has the Coyotes going anywhere this year, but they do have eight preseason all-conference honorees, seven of which are seniors. The first team honorees include five seniors in running back Kai Henry, tight end Brett Samson, o-lineman Mason Scheidegger, linebacker Jack Cochrane and punter Brady Schutt. The Coyotes, who have had to share the indoor practice space in the dome with several teams due to the condensed college athletics schedule this spring, might have a shot at a playoff spot in a normal season with a 24-team field. As it is, it is unlikely we’ll see postseason football in Vermillion. The Yotes’ opening game has been postponed due to COVID in the WIU program, so South Dakota will begin their season on February 27th at Illinois State.
5.) Southern Illinois – 68 Points (5 First Team, 1 Honorable Mention): Now we are starting to get to the squads with a legitimate shot at the postseason. SIU is ranked #13 in the Athlon Sports preseason poll, and #16 in the HERO Sports FCS Spring Preseason Top 25. The Salukis are coming off a 7-5 season with an FBS win that was not good enough to warrant a spot in the postseason for some reason. SIU is a once-proud FCS program that hasn’t tasted the postseason since 2009, and they are chomping at the bit to get back. It will be a tall order this year with just 16 teams in the field and six at-large bids available, but they have a shot. SIU will build off of their foundation of five preseason first teamers that include sophomore 1,000 yard rusher Javon Williams, junior wideout Avante Cox, senior o-lineman Zeveyon Furcron, senior safety Qua Brown, and junior linebacker Makel Calhoun. The Salukis have not been hit as hard by COVID defections and opt-outs as the teams about them on this list. They return a senior at QB in Kare’ Lyles, and the defense also returns several key contributors and should be solid as well. In any other league the Salukis would be one of the favorites, but in the deep Valley they will be challenged by their schedule. Still, don’t underrate the value of keeping that roster mostly intact. Also, SIU does have a (very exciting) fall win over a solid Southeast Missouri State team that will count on their resume as well. I think the Salukis have a legit shot to finish top three in the league and get a playoff spot, but when push comes to shove I ultimately don’t have SIU making it. I think they will have a strong campaign, build confidence, and be a playoff qualifier in the fall. SIU opens the year Saturday at North Dakota.
4.) Illinois State – 80 Points (1 First Team, 4 Honorable Mention): I am a little bit surprised Illinois State hasn’t taken more of a hit in the polls due to the folks they’ve lost off of their fall roster. It seems their losses were more than that of Southern Illinois and I might be inclined to put them behind SIU. The biggest loss is All-American running back James Robinson who was “pretty good I guess” with the Jaguars this year. The Redbirds only boast one preseason all-MVFC first teamer, left tackle and All-American Drew Himmelman. Despite this the Birds are ranked #9 in the Athlon Sports preseason poll, and #9 in the HERO Sports FCS Spring Preseason Top 25. One of the reasons for optimism is dual-threat quarterback Bryce Jefferson who filled in for an injured Brady Davis late last year and led the Redbirds to two road playoff wins before a close loss at North Dakota State. Illinois State was carrying an All-American running back so Jefferson wasn’t asked to air it out too much in his appearances last season. He made plays with his feet more often than his arm, and James Robinson shouldered the majority of the offensive burden. Jefferson does have the raw tools to be a great dual-threat QB though, and he will certainly get his chance to throw the ball and make some plays with his legs this season. ISU will certainly contend for a playoff spot and would be a shoe-in in a 24-team field. As it is, it will probably come down to how they perform against UNI, SDSU and SIU if they are to get a spot this year. Two of those games are on the road, so if they do play their way in they will have earned it. Illinois State opens at Missouri State on Saturday.
3.) South Dakota State – 91 Points (4 First Team, 5 Honorable Mentions): The Jackrabbits come in just one point behind Northern Iowa, which is somewhat surprising considering what the Panthers have lost off their fall roster. SDSU has been impacted too. Wide receiver Cade Johnson, perhaps the best wideout in the league, initially transferred but is now preparing for the NFL draft. SDSU also lost a few starters on defense to opt-outs and transfers. But still, the Jackrabbits were not hit as hard in the roster as the rest of the MVFC’s top four. That plays to their advantage, obviously, as they have nine guys with preseason MVFC honors including four on the first team. Those first-teamers are junior defensive end Reece Winkelman, senior linebacker Logan Backhaus, senior corner Don Gardner, and junior stud running back Pierre Strong Jr. Strong is coming off two 1,000-yard rushing seasons as a freshman and sophomore, and was an All-American last season. SDSU will have QB J’Bore Gibbs back from injury to lead the team, although according to the headline to an article I can’t read because it is behind a paywall the job is still open. SDSU is ranked #5 in the Athlon Sports preseason poll, and #2 in the HERO Sports FCS Spring Preseason Top 25. They will again be one of the best teams in the country and would probably be the favorite in any other conference. It will be a challenge to extend the nation’s second longest playoffs streak this year but I predict they will have what it takes. Winning the showdown with Northern Iowa on week one would be a huge step in the right direction.
2.) Northern Iowa – 92 Points (6 First Team, 1 Honorable Mention): No FCS team in the MVFC, perhaps in the entire nation, was hit harder by COVID spring season defections than UNI. The Panthers were picked in the top three in nearly every poll pre corona and were set to have arguably the best defense in the nation. Northern Iowa lost three key players to transfer (Briley Moore to K-State, Xavior Williams to Iowa, and Chris Kolarevic to Nebraska). Two more players simply opted out and declared for the NFL draft. And yet despite all of this, there is still quite a bit of talent left on the UNI roster. The Panthers feature six MVFC first-teamers in sophomore QB Will McElvain, junior wideout Isaiah Weston, senior d-lineman Jared Brinkman, sophomore defensive back Omar Brown, junior linebacker Brice Flatter and sophomore kicker Matthew Cook. They have talented players at nearly every position, although they do fear that depth could be an issue. Despite the roster attrition, UNI is ranked #3 in the Athlon Sports preseason poll, and #6 in the HERO Sports FCS Spring Preseason Top 25. UNI would be the favorite in and a shoo-in for the playoffs in any other FCS league. Things will be a little more difficult in the MVFC which features three top-five and five top-fifteen teams, but I project the Panthers to be in the field. Whoever wins the opener between SDSU and UNI at the UNI-Dome will have a monstrous leg up on the competition for a spot.
1.) North Dakota State – 101 Points (8 First Team, 1 Honorable Mention): And then, of course, we have the NDSU Bison. Who else would sit atop this list? As anyone reading this probably knows, NDSU are the winners of eight of the last nine FCS National Championships, winners of the MVFC nine times running, have a 40-2 all-time record in the FCS playoffs, and are currently riding a 38 game winning streak. Nobody else is going to be atop this list. The Bison are, obviously, rated as the top team in the nation in both the Athlon Sports preseason poll and the HERO Sports FCS Spring Preseason Top 25. They are. The team. To beat. NDSU has a league leading eight first teamers on the preseason MVFC team that include fullback Hunter Luepke, wideout Christian Watson, offensive lineman Cordell Volson, long snapper Ross Kennelly, d-lineman Spencer Waege, linebacker Jackson Hankey, corner Josh Hayesm and safety Michael Tutsie. NDSU also has a fall win over Central Arkansas, 39-28. One might try and make the argument that NDSU is more vulnerable than usual this season. There is some evidence to support this, but many have made that argument in years’ past only to see the Bison trample them on their way to another national title. There is uncertainty at the quarterback and running back positions. Trey Lance played in the UCA game but is going to be a first-round draft pick. Running back Adam Cofield transferred to Western Kentucky. NDSU suffered a handful of other opt outs and transfers as well. I am sure there are several stellar options waiting in the wings, but there will be some uncertainty surrounding NDSU this year. Still, anything less than the National Championship will be a disappointment in Fargo.
And that is the list. Let’s get at it!!