FARGO — Now that the completely legitimate — and don't dare say it wasn't — spring Football Championship Subdivision season is in our rearview mirror and never to be talked about again except in Huntsville, Springfield, Grand Forks and Carbondale, let's look ahead to the fall.
In my weekly unpaid appearance on Dom Izzo's TV show (which airs 9-11 a.m. Central on WDAY Xtra and is streamed at www.inforum.com; my weekly appearance is Tuesdays from 9:30-10 a.m.), the host asked me a question he had not told me he was going to ask. Therefore I had not prepared for it by doing a lick of research or thinking. Despite that, I came up with a pretty good answer.
The question: What would your Missouri Valley Football Conference preseason poll look like?
Dom has a vote on the poll. I do not. So whatever I say on this literally doesn't matter. But since he asked, and I answered, here is my answer.
Disclaimer: While I don't think we can draw any sweeping conclusions about teams from the spring, the truncated season did provide a glimpse or two of the talent in the league (example: Otis Weah, UND running back, is really good). So some of that knowledge was applied here, but does anybody really think Missouri State will be in contention for a league title based on its spring finish?
The actual MVFC preseason poll will come out next week.
11. Indiana State — Out of sight, out of mind. Sycamores didn't play in the spring and haven't played since 2019 when they went 3-5 in the league and 5-7 overall. So who really knows what ISU-blue will look like? I'll put them in last place. Maybe the Sycs are the eighth-place team. Who knows?
10. Western Illinois — Head coach Jared Eliot went heavy on transfers for the spring season and the result was not good. The Leathernecks went 1-5 and opted-out of their last two games, to the everlasting chagrin of Southern Illinois and head coach Nick Hill. Long ways to go for Western to return to being a middle of the pack Valley team.
South Dakota State 25% North Dakota State 62% Somebody else 13%
Which team will win the Missouri Valley Football Conference title this fall?
Thank you for voting!
South Dakota State
North Dakota State
9. Youngstown State — Spring results were not good, but I'm picking the Penguins to be my "better than expected" team in the Valley. They will not contend for the playoffs, but they'll be better than they showed in spring. I like what head coach Doug Phillips is trying to do (reconnect with area high school coaches, stress running the football, get athletes on defense) and I think Youngstown has a shot to eventually return to the edge of playoff contention with that formula.
8. South Dakota — The Coyotes under head coach Bob Nielson looked to be on the upswing when they qualified for the playoffs and won a first-round game with Chris Streveler at quarterback in 2017. But the same problems seem to plague the program year after year — it can't get offensive and defensive linemen to allow USD to compete physically.
7. Illinois State — The Redbirds were poised to be a playoff team with an outstanding defense in 2020, with the usual questions at quarterback, before COVID led to opt-outs and transfers devastating Brock Spack's team. Then came revelations that at least a few players were unhappy with the veteran coach's handling of the spring season and his decision to opt out of ISU-red's final four games. Hard to think Illinois State is going to be bad, but just too many questions to put them much higher than this.
6. Missouri State — Veteran coach Bobby Petrino turned a better-than-expected spring season into a big contract extension and the Bears are celebrating their league co-championship, but I want to see what the Bears do over the course of an 11-game season when teams like Northern Iowa, Illinois State and North Dakota State have restocked their gutted rosters. Missouri State's spring team was better defensively and Petrino certainly got some better athletes on that side of the ball, but it's hard to forget that the Bears were an FCS non-entity for 30 years prior to the wacky spring season.
5. Northern Iowa — One of the teams that got crushed by transfers and opt-outs between the fall of 2020 and the spring of 2021. The Panthers were poised to be a top-three team in the league in the fall, but were basically playing a pieced-together squad by the end of the spring. Coach Mark Farley always has some dudes, especially defensively, and the Panthers are always physical. And they always contend for the playoffs in "normal" times. I wouldn't be surprised to see UNI slip into the fourth spot, but it has a tough road schedule playing at NDSU and SDSU.
4. Southern Illinois — The Salukis were an improved team in 2019 and I thought were going to be slightly better in the fall of 2020. Then with the goofy spring season they ended up as a quarterfinal playoff team that trounced NDSU in the regular season. Do I think SIU is that good over a full season? No, but coach Nick Hill is finally getting some athletes and isn't afraid to dip into the transfer portal for immediate help. One thing to keep in mind: The Salukis were going to miss the spring playoffs after losing back-to-back games and having their next two games canceled. Only when they found a last-minute game against Southeast Louisiana and won it (despite allowing 541 yards of offense) did they assure a playoff spot. But I'll give Hill's club the benefit of the doubt — it's better, so I'll give it the edge over Northern Iowa for the fourth spot.
3. North Dakota — Possibly the program that benefitted most from the spring season, certainly in terms of national perception. UND was picked to finish seventh in the spring season (after being picked to finish sixth in the fall 2020 season that was cancelled), and then finished 4-1 and grabbed a share of the spring co-championship and won their first-ever FCS playoff game. Are the Hawks that good? The spring showed that Weah is a program-changer at running back, their offensive line was improved and young quarterback Tommy Schuster was better than expected. Defensively, UND got physically whipped by a patchwork NDSU offensive line and by James Madison in the playoff quarterfinals. If UND's lines of scrimmage hold up over an 11-game season (a problem in the years leading up to the truncated spring season), the Hawks will be fine. If not, they'll struggle. Much will be learned Oct. 4 when UND hosts NDSU.
2. North Dakota State — No program lost more from the fall season being called off. The fall 2020 Bison were set to be epic with Trey Lance at quarterback, Dillon Radunz at left tackle and a host of other key veteran players. The spring 2021 Bison didn't resemble epic after losing a wealth of talent to opt-outs and transfers and basically was playing a 'B' team by the end of the season after a number of defensive injuries. That said, if the Bison had even received mediocre quarterback play during the season and in their playoff loss at Sam Houston they would've had a shot at another national title. Senior Zeb Noland was a disappointment and true freshman Cam Miller wasn't ready, however. The fall 2021 Bison have a chance to be really good and will likely be a favorite for another trip to Frisco if they get decent quarterback play from presumed starter transfer Quincy Patterson II or Miller. If Patterson is electric, the Bison offense is going to be loaded. Defensively, NDSU still lacks a big-bodied stud tackle and will be thin at linebacker and young at cornerback.
1. South Dakota State — After a decade of trying, it looks like the Jackrabbits can finally physically match up to NDSU. Terrific offensive line. Strong defensive line. Athletic linebackers. Two top-tier running backs. If freshman Mark Gronowski was returning to play quarterback, the Jackrabbits would be the clear favorite in the league. But Gronowski suffered a knee injury that will apparently keep him out of the fall season and so the Jackrabbits have a question mark at that position. Backup Keaton Heide is an option and SDSU brought in transfer Chris Oladokun, who has bounced around in his college career going from FBS South Florida to FCS Samford and then committing to FBS Florida Atlantic before decommitting and transferring to SDSU. Like the Bison, if the Jackrabbits get stellar QB play they will be a favorite to return to Frisco after making their first trip to the title game in the spring.