Bison unanimous pick to win the Valley
By Jeff Kolpack
Forum News Service
FARGO — It was about as surprising as the sun coming up in the east. North Dakota State on Monday was tabbed the unanimous pick to win the Missouri Valley Football Conference title in a vote of league coaches, sports information directors and media.
NDSU picked up all 39 first place votes, the second time in league history a school got every No. 1 vote. The Bison were the unanimous pick in 2013, a season that ended 15-0 and a third straight FCS national title.
This year, NDSU returns a veteran team with experience at almost every position. It’s an arms race in the league with most programs continuing to invest in their product. Winless Indiana State, for instance, installed new artificial turf, new lights, a new weight room and new coaches offices into its program.
“When I took the job, I wanted it more than anything,” said Sycamores head coach Curt Mallory. “Then I met the athletic direction and the administration and I wanted it even more. The commitment level has been at the forefront.”
It appears it will still be a tough road for Indiana State in a league that qualified five teams for the Division I FCS playoffs last season. It was the third time in the last four years the Missouri Valley put five teams into postseason with NDSU winning its sixth title in seven years.
“There’s nothing like the gauntlet of games in the Missouri Valley,” said commissioner Patty Viverito, in her annual state of the address of the league. “A lot of teams at the start of the season know they likely need to win their conference to make the playoffs. In our league, if you go .500 in the conference it guarantees you serious consideration for an at-large berth.”
Viverito called the league’s power a blessing and a curse at the same time. The curse: There is not an easy week. The blessing: There are plenty of opportunities for quality victories.
There will be no easing into league play for the Bison, whose league opener is at home against South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits were picked to finish second this year in the preseason poll.
“We don’t ever look at what we did in the past, it puts unrealistic expectations on the guys,” said NDSU head coach Chris Klieman. “In the same respect, guys embrace those expectations and are excited about it. It gives them an edge in finding ways to win close games and we’ve done a good job here of finding ways to win close games. The expectations have created quite the monster here the last seven years and our kids know it. But what we did in the past doesn’t help what you’re going to do this year.”
Klieman said keeping ahead in the Valley is a matter of a couple things: Recruiting and developing players.
“I think one of the things that makes this league very difficult is nobody is ever going backwards,” said South Dakota head coach Bob Nielson. “Everybody is getting better and to catch teams in the upper division is really hard.”
Nielson elevated USD to a playoff berth last season. Other teams like Illinois State are looking to return to a deep run into the playoffs. The Redbirds reached the 2014 FCS title game against NDSU.
“None of us are standing still,” said Redbirds head coach Brock Spack. “The league is a lot better now than it was when I came in 10 years ago. It’s steadily gotten better every year. Our success, the whole league’s success in the playoffs and the Bison winning national championships have forced everybody to step up their game. No doubt about it, we’re all moving forward and that’s what makes it difficult.”
Northern Iowa’s Mark Farley, who is going into his 18th year as the Panthers’ head coach, said the league’s coaching has never been better. The schemes and the staffs are better, he said.
“The knowledge and the prep of their teams is much more evident than maybe 10 years ago,” Farley said.
Farley also said the overall talent level has never been better. He pointed to early-round NFL draft choices and the impact Missouri Valley graduates are having in the NFL. NDSU quarterback Carson Wentz was the second pick of the 2016 NFL Draft. Last year, South Dakota State tight end Dallas Goedert was billed a first round pick before the Eagles took him in the second round.
“The talent in this league has improved,” Farley said.
Said Southern Illinois head coach Nick Hill, whose team was picked eighth in the preseason poll. “We still have to line up against those guys and play. In week 7, when we’re trying to grind out a win in the Missouri Valley, nobody is going to remember where they picked us. The record will take care of itself. I like our roster, I feel like we can be as good as we want to be.”
Missouri State head coach Dave Steckel said it’s time for his program to produce. Getting wins is the next step in the Bears’ attempt to reach the upper division, he said.
“You have to find a way to win close games,” Nielson said. (In 2016) we had a lot of close games and we lost more than we won. Last year we found ways to win some close games. We were a year better in our system offensively and it showed.”
MVFC Preseason Poll
Team (First-place votes) Points
1. North Dakota State (39) 390
2. South Dakota State 340
3. Northern Iowa 270
4. Youngstown State 258
5. Illinois State 248
6. South Dakota 206
7. Western Illinois 163
8. Southern Illinois 139
9. Missouri State 90
10. Indiana State 41