By Kyle Roth
College Sports Journal
FARGO, ND. — After finishing atop most statistical rating services as the top FCS conference last year – not to mention the NCAA FCS National champions in North Dakota State – the Missouri Valley Football Conference enters the 2012-13 preseason expecting to once again contend as the toughest conference in the Championship Subdivision.
A number of teams in the upper half of the conference have cracked Top 25 polls across the country, and with that could come the Valley's first three-playoff-team bid since Northern Iowa, Western Illinois and NDSU all made the postseason in 2010 – and some Valley fans are thinking even bigger.
With that, here's my projected finish in the 2012 Missouri Valley Football Conference.
1. North Dakota State – The Bison return as a widely-accepted preseason #1 across many of the major Top 25 polls, coming off a championship run that saw the NDSU defense allow just 27 total points to four of the top offenses in the country. That defense has some holes to fill with the loss of six seniors that either started or played significant snaps, but the corps built around a stern defensive line and ball-hawking secondary led by All-American corner Marcus Williams should stay consistent with the results produced by one of the best defenses in school history. On offense, question marks at offensive line and wide receiver and new starters at running back, tight end, and two offensive line spots will put plenty of expectations on the plate of junior quarterback Brock Jensen, but with Jensen's ridiculous accuracy (a ludicrous 67.2% completion, with just four interceptions on the year in 2011), the Bison offense should maintain its one-two punch that played off the spectacular play of the defense last season.
2. Youngstown State – The Penguins have made significant strides in the last few seasons under third-year head coach Eric Wolford. The Penguins have quietly put together one of the most effective offensive attacks in the country led by junior quarterback Kurt Hess, and with a stacked running back corps led by senior Jamaine Cook, the Penguins finally might have the defense to match. The gamble for the 'Guins came two years ago when the team added roughly 50 new players through transfers and scholarships, and as that class continues to gel, the defensive output should only improve.
3. Illinois State – Matt Brown returns for another season as the Redbirds' starting quarterback, and with the snub from last year's playoff committee despite the team reaching seven wins in a brutal MVFC, ISU should be playing with a chip on their shoulder for most of the season. Star skill players Ashton Leggette and Marvon Sanders are gone, but Brown's favorite receiver remains in senior Tyrone Walker. With an improving defense that gave up just 19.2 points per game last season, the Redbirds should reach the seven-win mark and again challenge for a playoff spot.
4. Indiana State – Fourth-year head coach Trent Miles has transformed the Sycamores from cellar-dweller to contender in the MVFC, but has some hurdles in front of him with the loss of two-year phenom quarterback Ronnie Fouch. The reason the Sycamores contend this season can be summarized in two words: Shakir Bell. The star running back blew up on the field last season, and with the team needing a new answer at quarterback the team will look to Bell, just a junior in 2012, to be the focal point of the offense. With the defense led by All-American candidate Ben Obaseki on the defensive line, the Sycamores have the pieces to make a run at a playoff spot and could contend for a bit more if Bell can remain as unstoppable as he was last season.
5. Northern Iowa – Picking the Panthers fifth in a preseason conference breakdown might sound ludicrous, but this particular wound is rather self-inflicted as UNI faces an absolutely brutal quintet of games to start their season, visiting Big Ten members Iowa and Wisconsin, facing a playoff non-counter in D-II Central State University, then facing conference foes Youngstown State on the road and North Dakota State at home. A 2-3 or 1-4 finish in that set leaves the remainder of the season as mostly must-win if the Panthers want to return to the playoffs, and with the loss of quarterback Tirrell Rennie and defensive stars L.J. Fort and Ben Boothby, the Panthers simply have too many obstacles to overcome in their quest to claim another Valley championship.
6. South Dakota State – Arguably my dark-horse pick for most improved team in the Valley, the Jacks had little to look forward to last season until freshman quarterback Austin Sumner exploded onto the scene, taking over at mid-season as the starter and putting up huge numbers when the Jacks simply couldn't produce a running game. The Jacks have lost a few of the tools that helped Sumner produce, specifically surprise go-to receiver Dale Moss, but if the coaching staff can figure out how to put Sumner in position to win games, the sophomore can deliver. With a winnable FBS game to start the season at Big XII opponent Kansas, the Jacks could find an early spark and identify themselves as a team to be taken seriously as the season progresses.
7. Southern Illinois – Head Coach Dale Lennon finds himself on the hot seat as Southern Illinois continues to sputter as the team has gone from 9-3 and 11-2 in 2008 and 2009 to finishing at 5-6 and 4-7 the past two seasons. The Salukis haven't been able to match a stout defensive front with an offense that can move the ball, and as a result the Salukis find themselves trying to simply remain relevant in the Valley. Combined with facing Youngstown State, Illinois State, and North Dakota State on the road, the table is set for another disappointing finish for this once-proud program and a coaching change may be in the future.
8. Western Illinois – Since Matt Barr was able to propel the Leathernecks to a playoff spot in 2010, the team has reverted right back to contending in the lower half of the conference after finishing just 2-9 last season. The team's saving grace in the dual-headed rushing attack of Bryce Flowers and Caulton Ray returns for another shot at carrying the team on their shoulders, and the team does return last year's starting quarterback in senior Josh Hudson. The Leathernecks have a few promising elements that could spark a better 2012, but when those pieces simply didn't make it happen in 2011, it's difficult to see the Leathernecks finishing better than 6th place in the Valley.
9. Missouri State – To say that the wheels have fallen off in Springfield would be irresponsibly implying that they were ever on to begin with. Last year's go-to man in receiver-turned-quarterback Trevor Wooden was dismissed over the offseason for violation of team rules, and the resulting void has left the future bleak for MSU. With a thin returning receiving corps and little rushing attack to speak of, not to mention a defense that gave up an unreal 37 points per game last year, the Bears are likely to repeat as the Valley's punching bag and will, in all probability, contend with South Dakota for the conference's cellar. Combined with facing FBS opponents Kansas State and Louisville to open the season, the door could quickly shut on any hopes the Bears have this season of contending.
10. South Dakota – The Coyotes' inaugural season as official, playoff-eligible members of the MVFC will, in all likelihood, be a disappointing one. The 'Yotes followed up on their transition-highlighting win over Minnesota in 2010 by finishing that year 4-7 and ended last season with just two wins over Division-I teams, though one was over then top-ranked Eastern Washington. Opening the season at Montana, taking on Big Ten opponent Northwestern, and facing Youngstown State, South Dakota State, and North Dakota State away from home, the Yotes will find the Valley not so welcoming in their first year of active contention.
Offensive Player of the Year: Shakir Bell, RB, Indiana State
Defensive Player of the Year: Marcus Williams, CB, NDSU
Coach of the Year: Eric Wolford, Youngstown State