Considering the entire FCS college football is looking up to defending national champion South Dakota State and runner-up North Dakota State – also, a nine-time champ since 2011 – the rest of the Missouri Valley Football Conference can take solace in it being equipped come playoff time.

Of course, the teams in the strongest FCS conference tend to beat up on each other’s record, so the fact there were only three postseason qualifiers last season – just North Dakota in addition to NDSU and SDSU – is a sore point. Increasing that number this fall is a point of emphasis prior to a season that sees experienced quarterbacks leading the charge.

SDSU was a unanimous No. 1 in the Stats Perform FCS Preseason Top 25 Poll, presented by FedEx Ground, and NDSU was right behind in the second spot. UND, Illinois State, Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois and Youngstown State also were .500 or better in conference a year ago.

With Murray State in as a 12th member, here’s a preview of the upcoming MVFC season:

Predicted Order of Finish

*-FCS Playoff Qualifier (With 2022 Record)

1. *South Dakota State (14-1, 8-0; preseason No. 1 ranking) – Led by a national-high eight players on the Stats Perform FCS Preseason All-America Team, the Jackrabbits will chase a second consecutive national title in coach Jimmy Rogers’ first season. Quarterback Mark Gronowski accounted for 38 touchdowns (26 passing, 12 rushing) last season and was selected as the most outstanding player of the national title game. The offense is full of 2024 NFL Draft prospects, including running back Isaiah Davis (1,451 yards, 15 touchdowns), and a left side of the line that is ridiculously elite with tackle Garret Greenfield and guard Mason McCormick. The strength of the defense is at linebacker with Adam Bock, Jason Freeman and Isaiah Stalbird.


2. *North Dakota State (12-3, 7-1; preseason No. 2 ranking) – The Bison aura is a bit shaken given they lost a number of key starters after last season and are mired in a four-game losing streak to SDSU (is it a freak-out factor?). Of course, it also brings added motivation to coach Matt Entz’s squad. Quarterback Cam Miller has accounted for 52 career TDs, and running back TaMerik Williams should receive an expanded workload after two straight 700-yard campaigns. The Mostaert brothers, Eli and Will, anchor the defensive line, while linebacker Cole Wisniewski and cornerback Jayden Price also are veteran standouts. The schedule gets tougher in November, and the Bison expect to have the questions about them answered by then.      

3. *Southern Illinois (5-6, 4-4) – Even with an FBS win over Northwestern, the Salukis underwhelmed with five of their six losses coming by seven or fewer points. Given the loss of key players, they may have to do more with less, but having back QB Nic Baker (6,663 yards, 50 TDs in career) is a good start. He will work the ball to running back Ro Elliott and wide receiver D’Ante’ Cox. The defense’s top tacklers, safety PJ Jules and linebacker Branson Combs, are back.

4. *North Dakota (7-5, 5-3; preseason No. 17 ranking) – Returning a veteran squad, the Fighting Hawks seek a fourth playoff appearance since 2019. Tommy Schuster will remain a pinpoint passer with an excellent O-line and wide receivers Bo Belquist (140 career receptions) and Wesley Eliodor, a South Dakota transfer. UND scored on 43 of 47 trips into an opponent’s red zone, a 91.5 percentage that ranked sixth in the FCS. Cornerback C.J. Siegel is dangerous against the pass and on kick returns.

5. Northern Iowa (6-5, 5-3; preseason No. 23 ranking) – UNI has missed the playoffs in back-to-back years only once (2012 and ’13) in coach Mark Farley’s first 22 seasons, so the Panthers are hoping they can extend their 125th season. They may have the FCS’ best place-kicker Matthew Cook (67 field goals and 325 points in career), and have one of the better QBs in Theo Day. UNI allowed 25.7 points per game – more than a touchdown higher than a year earlier and the highest average since 2002 – so defensive tackle Khristian Boyd and cornerback Woo Governor seek to tighten the defense.

(More on UNI in a look back to MVFC media day)

6. Youngstown State (7-4, 5-3) – The loss of tailback Jaleel McLaughlin (3,924 scrimmage yards and 32 TDs in 28 YSU games) is devastating, but the Penguins also used QB Mitch Davidson’s passing to rally to some late-season wins. He has veteran receivers, including wideout Bryce Oliver coming off a breakout campaign (59 receptions, 821 yards, 10 TDs). The defensive line returns nearly intact, again featuring end Dylan Wudke (12 tackles for loss, five sacks) and tackle Chris Fitzgerald. Linebacker Alex Howard is flying under the radar.

7. Illinois State (6-5, 4-4) – Cole Mueller, who rushed for 977 yards as a rookie in 2021, was injured in the first game last season. That led to Wenkers Wright getting an opportunity in the backfield, and now the Redbirds and QB Zack Annexstad can call on two excellent running backs. It will be impossible to replace linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh, the 2022 Buck Buchanan Award recipient, but the defense, which ranked second in the MVFC in yards allowed per game (318), has key returnees in safeties Dillon Gearhart and Keondre Jackson, cornerback Jeff Bowens and defensive tackle Josh Dinga.

8. South Dakota (3-8, 2-6) – After ranking ninth in the MVFC in total defense last season, the Coyotes figure to be improved with the return of linebackers Stephen Hillis and Brock Mogensen, who led the conference with 115 and 107 tackles, respectively, and cornerback Myles Harden. Of course, the offense struggled even more, ranking 10th with just 286.1 yards per game and only 16.3 points on average. Quarterback Aidan Bouman is more acclimated to the offensive system, which features running back Travis Theis (2,064 scrimmage yards, 15 TDs in career).

9. Missouri State (5-6, 3-5) – Ryan Beard was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach following Bobby Petrino’s departure. During the 2020s, the Bears have rallied to an FCS-high nine wins after trailing in the second half, but they have to replace two-year QB Jason Shelley – Jacob Clark was the backup last season – so they may think run first with the return of Jacardia Wright (711 yards, nine TDs). Long snapper Caden Bolz and punter Grant Burkett made the MVFC preseason first team.

10. Indiana State (2-9, 1-7) – The Sycamores appear primed to exceed expectations in the MVFC because they don’t play South Dakota State, North Dakota State and Missouri State in the unbalanced schedule. That Justin Dinka had 156 rushing yards and safety Ryan Cole 18 tackles against NDSU last season underscore their selections to the MVFC preseason first team, and linebacker Geoffrey Brown tied for the team high with 84 tackles. Quarterback Cade Chambers was the Sycamores’ first-ever MVFC freshman of the year.

11. Murray State (2-9, 1-4 Ohio Valley) – The Racers’ struggles in their final OVC season didn’t bode well for their move into the MVFC, but coach Dean Hood’s squad lost standout QB DJ Williams to a season-ending injury in the opener. His team now has some influential transfers to take on the MVFC challenge. Among the returnees, DJ Jones and Jacob Frye will fortify the offensive line, and Cody Goatley and Cade Shupperd are a solid duo at linebacker. Lefty Jayden Stinson made eight starts behind center following Williams’ injury.

12. Western Illinois (0-11, 0-8) – This is WIU’s final season in the MVFC before the football program joins the rest of its athletic program as an OVC member. Significant improvement is needed in coach Myers Hendrickson’s second season after the Leackernecks ranked last in the conference in both scoring offense and defense, and total offense and defense. Defensive back JJ Ross and linebacker Juan DelaCruz are key returnees. After last year’s QBs combined to throw for 19 interceptions – more than twice any other MVFC team – junior Clay Bruno seeks to improve the group’s efficiency.

How the Conference Predicted the Race

Five Players to Watch

Isaiah Davis, RB, South Dakota State (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) – Chosen as the MVP of SDSU’s national championship squad, Davis has surpassed 100 rushing yards in 16 of 31 career games (nine of 12 in the postseason),

Theo Day, QB, Northern Iowa (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) – The 2022 All-MVFC first-team QB led the FCS’ top-ranked conference in passing yards (3,121), TD passes (26) and pass efficiency (169).

Myles Harden, DB, South Dakota (Buck Buchanan Award preseason nominee) – Was enjoying a banner season with three interceptions and four forced fumbles in six games before it was ended by injury.

Tommy Schuster, QB, North Dakota (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) – Schuster’s 66.3 career completion percentage (635 of 958 for 6,819 yards) ranks No. 1 among active FCS signal callers.

TaMerik Williams, RB, North Dakota State (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) – Having shared carries in a deep NDSU backfield, the two-time 700-yard rusher will be the featured back this season.


Five Must-See Matchups

1. North Dakota State at South Dakota State (Nov. 4) – The biggest game of the FCS season comes with a staggering statistic: the team with the higher time of possession has won the last 20 meetings.

2. North Dakota State at North Dakota

3. Northern Iowa at South Dakota State

4. South Dakota State at Southern Illinois

5. Southern Illinois at Youngstown State

FBS Matchups

Youngstown State has the most FBS wins (20) out of all programs in their FCS era, but the Penguins have only one since 2001 (Pittsburgh in 2012).

This season’s 11 MVFC matchups against FBS programs:

Indiana State: Indiana (Sept. 9) and Ball State (Sept. 16); Missouri State: Kansas (Sept. 1); Murray State: Louisville (Sept. 7) and Middle Tennessee (Sept. 16); North Dakota: Boise State (Sept. 16); Northern Iowa: Iowa State (Sept. 2); South Dakota: Missouri (Sept. 2); Southern Illinois: Northern Illinois (Sept. 9); Western Illinois: New Mexico State (Sept. 2); Youngstown State: Ohio State (Sept. 9)

Fast Fact

The MVFC has had a team make 12 straight FCS championship games since the 2011 season (North Dakota State 10 times, South Dakota State twice, and Illinois State and Youngstown State once each). It far exceeds the second-longest streak, CAA Football’s five straight appearances from 2006-10.