The top of the 2023 Missouri Valley Football Conference preseason poll could be mistaken for a ranking of the entire, 128-school FCS.

Being the answer to “Who’s No. 3? – as in behind FCS powers South Dakota State, the defending national champion, then North Dakota State, the runner-up which also has captured nine national titles since 2011 – is pretty good distinction.

Northern Iowa grabbed the third spot in the MVFC poll, which announced on Tuesday, and the banner expectations tied in nicely with the Panthers about to celebrate their 125th anniversary season. Three or more FCS playoff qualifiers is all but a given in what’s been considered the Division I subdivision’s strongest conference, and the postseason is something UNI knows well under Mark Farley. The dean of MVFC head coaches enters his 23rd season with a 174-98 career record and having guided 13 of the Panthers’ 22 all-time playoff appearances.

“That’s a lot of respect and humbling to be anywhere in the rankings here. But, at the same time, that’s not goal, to be No. 3, either,” Farley said during an MVFC coaches conference call.

“But, man, if you’re in that count early, it says that you have a chance with some talent and some systems that are already incorporated.”


A program that annually takes on one of the higher strength of schedules in the FCS, Northern Iowa has been in a slump of sorts during the 2020s, finishing 6-5 overall and 5-3 in the MVFC last season, and just 15-15 and 12-11 over the last three years.

But the pieces could come together nicely as, similar to the preseason poll, UNI collected the third-most selections on the MVFC preseason team with 11, trailing SDSU (20) and NDSU (14). Defensive tackle Khristian Boyd, cornerback Woo Governor and place-kicker Matthew Cook were named to the first team; quarterback Theo Day, wide receiver Sam Schnee, tight end Alex Allen and offensive lineman Jared Penning were on the second team; and wide receiver Sergio Morancy, defensive end Cordarrius Bailey, punter Noah Pettinger and long snapper Isaiah Garman gained honorable mention.

Interestingly, the 6-foot-5 Day, who passed for 3,121 yards and 26 touchdowns as a junior, was selected as the MVFC first-team signal caller in last year’s postseason honors, but in a conference with plenty of standouts behind center, South Dakota State’s Mark Gronowski leaped over him on the preseason team. Gronowski was the MVFC’s offensive player of the year in the spring 2021 season, when the Jackrabbits were the FCS runner-up, and earned the most outstanding player award in their 45-21 win over North Dakota State in the 2022 title game.

“I just want to walk in the (UNI-)dome, lock the doors, turn the clocks off and go to work,” Farley said. “And when it comes down to go to school, let’s open the garage doors, and here come the Panthers – we’ll see where we are.”


Missouri Valley Football Conference Preseason Poll

  1. South Dakota State (2022: 14-1, 8-0), 539 points (44 first-place votes)
  2. North Dakota State (12-3, 7-1), 492 (1)
  3. Northern Iowa (6-5, 5-3), 409
  4. North Dakota (7-5, 5-3), 399
  5. Southern Illinois (5-6, 4-4), 337
  6. Youngstown State (7-4, 5-3), 323
  7. Illinois State (6-5, 4-4), 269
  8. Missouri State (5-6, 3-5), 229
  9. South Dakota (3-8, 2-6), 226
  10. Indiana State (2-9, 1-7), 148
  11. Murray State (2-9, 1-4 Ohio Valley), 74
  12. Western Illinois (0-11, 0-8), 65

(Murray State joins the Missouri Valley Football Conference)