The depth of the Missouri Valley Football Conference was summed up best by North Dakota State last season.
At one end of their season, the Bison were one of only seven FCS programs to beat a FBS team last year - the University of Kansas. At the other end, they won two playoff games and seemingly deserved to beat eventual national champion Eastern Washington before falling in overtime of the quarterfinals.
In between, North Dakota State went 4-4 in Missouri Valley games - not great, not bad, just your typical team in the conference.
"We were certainly pleased to be in the playoffs," North Dakota State head coach Craig Bohl said. "Our players recognize what a great experience that was. I think more our players recognize we were 4-4 in the Valley ... the rugged and tough competition that we have in the Missouri Valley."
It may be difficult for this season to be as topsy-turvy as last season was in the conference. Northern Iowa was picked fourth in the 2010 preseason poll and won the title. Western Illinois was picked eighth and finished second. Six - count 'em, six - teams had 4-4 records, and then it dropped off to last-place Youngstown State.
Northern Iowa was a prohibitive favorite in this year's preseason poll, but everybody across the conference believes the ride will be up and down for many teams. The last three preseason favorites have not won the title.
What makes the Missouri Valley especially tough it that teams play well at home. They went a combined 46-11 (.807) last season. Missouri State, picked last in this year's preseason poll, won all five of its home games.
Last year, the conference had three playoff qualifiers - North Dakota State, Northern Iowa and Western Illinois - for the first time since 2006. Ironically, the champion Panthers were the only team not to win a playoff game.
"I know we got picked to win the league," Northern Iowa head coach Mark Farley said, "(but) I just think that our team is in that role of coming from behind (because it lost in the first round of the playoffs). I think we have to fight back from last season. There's some very good teams.
"We're going to have to earn everything that's coming in front of us."
The MVFC will feature terrific running backs and running-style quarterbacks this season. Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2011 race.
The Sports Network's predicted order of finish:
1. Northern Iowa
2. North Dakota State
3. Southern Illinois
4. Indiana State
5. Illinois State
6. Youngstown State
7. Western Illinois
8. South Dakota State
9. Missouri State
Offensive Player of the Year: Tirrell Rennie, QB, Northern Iowa
Defensive Player of the Year: Ben Boothby, DT, Northern Iowa
1. NORTHERN IOWA PANTHERS (7-5 overall; 6-2 MVFC)
COACH: Mark Farley (89-39 in 10 seasons at Northern Iowa)
STARTERS RETURNING: 18 (8 offense/10 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Tirrell Rennie, Sr. (94 of 168 for 1,526 yards, 8 TDs and 11 INTs; 232 carries, 1,291 yards, 15 TDs)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DT Ben Boothby, Sr. (56 TT, 16 TFL, 9.5 sacks)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB/RS Carlos Anderson, Jr. (172 carries, 974 yards, 2 TDs; 15 receptions, 122 yards; 27.2-yard KO return average, 2 TDs)
RB David Johnson, R-Fr.
RB Zach Cutkomp, R-So. (10 carries, 22 yards)
WR Jarred Herring, Sr. (31 receptions, 549 yards, 5 TDs)
WR Brett LeMaster, R-Fr.
WR Josh Collins, Sr. (18 receptions, 254 yards, 1 TD; injured last season)
WR Terrell Sinkfield, So. (5 receptions, 134 yards)
TE Austin Wells, Sr. (Nebraska-Omaha transfer)
TE Sam Rohr, Fr.
OL Jay Teply, Sr.
OL Kaleb Admire, Sr.
OL Brian Palangi, Jr.
OL Tim Sauer, Jr.
OL Misha Danilov, Jr.
DE Darren Branch, Sr. (37 TT, 5.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 3 PBU, 1 QBH)
DT Will Eilert, Sr. (36 TT, 9 TFL, 6 sacks, 1 PBU, 3 QBH, 1 FR)
LB James Conley, Jr. (69 TT, 12 TFL, 6 sacks, 1 INT, 5 PBU, 1 QBH, 2 FR)
LB Shawn Gerard, Sr. (27 TT, 1.5 TFL)
LB L.J. Fort, Sr. (92 TT, 11.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 3 INTs, 2 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF)
LB Jordan Smith, Sr. (67 TT, 4.5 TFL, 1 INT, 7 PBU, 2 QBH, 1 FF, 1 blocked kick)
LB Jordan Gacke, R-So. (22 TT, 2.5 TFL)
CB Varmah Sonie, So. (20 TT, 1 INT, 4 PBU, 1 FF, 2 blocked kick)
CB J.J. Swain, Jr. (37 TT, 2 TFL, 2 PBU)
S Andre Martin, So. (77 TT, 1.5 TFL, 5 INT, 5 PBU)
ROV Tre'Darrius Canady, Sr. (49 TT, 1 PBU, 2 FF)
DB Garrett Scott, Jr. (46 TT, 1 INT, 1 PBU)
DB Montari Leonard, R-Sr. (wide receiver last season)
P Kyle Bernard, Jr. (35 punts, 42.4 ypp)
OUTLOOK: Northern Iowa's MVFC-championship season limped to a finish November, when a loss to second-place Western Illinois in the regular-season finale cost the Panthers a FCS playoff bye and then they lost at home to Lehigh in the first round. But the Panthers are a deserving preseason favorite behind the return of 18 starters and a superb running game - 216.6 ypg to rank first in the conference and ninth in the FCS. The return of four starters to a huge offensive line will provide big holes again for option QB Rennie, who led all FCS signal-callers in rushing yards and touchdowns, and RB Anderson, who was 26 yards shy of a 1,000-yard season. Linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt was promoted to defensive coordinator and has a unit heavy on pass rushers, led by DTs Boothby and Eilert and LB Conley. Fort could replace Jamar Thompson as an All-MVFC first-team linebacker and opponents will struggle against the veteran secondary. The Panthers have to replace their all-time field goal leader in Billy Hallgren. The road schedule is particularly tough, including an Oct. 29 visit to North Dakota State.
2. NORTH DAKOTA STATE BISON (9-5 overall; 4-4 MVFC)
COACH: Craig Bohl (61-30 in eight seasons at North Dakota State)
STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB D.J. McNorton, Sr. (280 carries, 1,559 yards, 15 TDs; 25 receptions, 433 yards, 4 TDs)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DE Coulter Boyer, Sr. (58 TT, 13 TFL, 10 sacks, 1 INT, 6 PBU, 18 QBH, 3 FR, 4 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Brock Jensen, So. (59 of 131 for 950 yards, 7 TDs and 2 INTs; 68 carries, 231 yards, 4 TDs)
RB/P Matt Voigtlander, Sr. (29 carries, 202 yards)
FB Andrew Grothmann, So.
WR Warren Holloway, Sr. (49 receptions, 698 yards, 5 TDs)
WR Reed Duchscher, Jr.
TE Matt Veldman, Sr. (4 receptions, 33 yards, 1 TD)
TE Garrett Bruhn, Jr. (8 receptions, 59 yards)
LT Billy Turner, So.
LG Austin Richard, Sr.
C Joe Lund, Jr.
C Jesse Hinz, So.
RG Tyler Gimmestad, So.
RG Adam Schueller, R-Fr.
RT Paul Cornick, Sr.
NT Leevon Perry, So. (32 TT, 5.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 QBH, 2 FR, 2 FF)
NG Ryan Drevlow, So. (19 TT, 3.5 TFL, 2 FF)
DE Scott Stoczynski, Sr. (47 TT, 6 TFL, 1 PBU, 3 QBH, 1 FR)
DE Cole Jirik, So. (27 TT, 8.5 TFL, 7 sacks, 4 QBH, 1 FR)
DE Kyle Emanuel, R-Fr.
OLB Chad Willson, Sr. (74 TT, 4.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 4 PBU, 5 QBH)
MLB Preston Evans, Sr. (95 TT, 5.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 QBH, 2 FR, 1 FF)
MLB Grant Olson, So. (52 TT, 4.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 2 QBH)
OLB Brandon Jemison, So. (81 TT, 5.5 TFL, 1 FR, 1 FF)
CB Marcus Williams, So. (47 TT, 4 INTs, 12 PBU)
CB Brendin Pierre, Jr. (10 TT, 1 PBU)
SS Colten Heagle, So. (64 TT, 6 TFL)
FS Daniel Eaves, Sr. (74 TT, 2.5 TFL, 3 INTs, 6 PBU, 2 FR, 2 FF)
FS Danell Miles, Fr.
PK Ryan Jastram, Sr. (14 of 23 FG, 51 long; 42 of 43 PAT)
RS/WR Ryan Smith, So. (20.3-yard KO return average; 10.7-yard punt return average)
OUTLOOK: The Bison expect to build on last year's playoff run with a number of influential returnees. But a lot went right for the Bison last season, which included them averaging 38.7 points in three playoff games after being shut out in their regular-season finale. McNorton is one of the top running backs in the FCS and QB Jensen (45-percent accuracy) should become a better passer in his second season. He will work behind a solid offensive line, featuring the 6-foot-6, 311-pound Cornick. The defense was the stingiest among MVFC teams, allowing 18.2 ppg, and helped the Bison to a plus-15 margin in turnovers. The loss of DT Matt Gratzek is substantial, but Boyer is a dominant defensive end who had 18 QB hits and 10 sacks last season, and Jirik will become a starter after totaling seven sacks as a freshman. The linebackers corp returnees four primary players. It doesn't seem fair that productive CBs Heagle and Williams are only sophomores. If the Bison improve their mediocrity on the road, they could win the MVFC title for the first time.
3. SOUTHERN ILLINOIS SALUKIS (5-6 overall; 4-4 MVFC)
COACH: Dale Lennon (25-11 in three seasons at Southern Illinois; 127-43 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (6 offense/6 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: LT David Pickard, R-Sr.
DEFENSIVE STAR: S/PR Mike McElroy, R-Sr. (9 TT, 1 INT; injured most of last season)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Paul McIntosh, R-Jr. (15 of 30 for 231 yards, 3 TDs and 2 INTs; 53 carries, 222 yards, 1 TD)
QB A.J. Hill, R-So. (Northern Illinois transfer)
QB Kory Faulkner, R-So.
RB/KR Paul Strother, Jr. (86 carries, 467 yards, 2 TDs; 10 receptions, 124 yards, 2 TDs)
RB Shariff Harris, R-Sr. (132 carries, 604 yards, 8 TDs)
RB Jewel Hampton, R-Jr. (Iowa State transfer)
WR Cam Fuller, R-Sr. (4 receptions, 55 yards, 2 TDs)
WR John Lantz, R-So.
WR Luke Staniford, R-Jr. (1 reception, 43 yards)
TE C.J. Robertson, R-Sr. (3 receptions, 33 yards, 1 TD)
TE De'Ron Flood, R-Fr. (Purdue transfer)
C Bryan Boemer, R-Sr.
RG George Danilkowicz, R-Sr.
RG Eric Bergman, R-Jr.
RT Richard Wilson, R-Jr.
OL Tucker Blanton, R-Fr. (Florida transfer)
DE Chance Coda, R-Sr. (30 TT, 8 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 4 QBH, 2 FF)
DE Kyle Russo, R-Sr. (13 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 QBH)
DE Kenneth Boatright, R-Jr.
NT Kayon Swanson, R-Jr. (24 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 QBH)
OLB E.J. Clark, R-So. (41 TT, 1 FR, 2 FF)
OLB Travis Littles, R-Sr. (14 TT, 3.5 TFL, 1 FF)
OLB Jayson DiManche, R-Jr. (50 TT, 11.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 4 PBU, 5 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF)
ILB Joe Okon, R-Jr. (71 TT, 6.5 TFL, 1 INT, 5 QBH, 1 FR)
ILB Connor James, R-Sr. (37 TT, 3.5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 3 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF)
CB Nick King, R-Sr. (13 TT, 1 PBU)
CB LaVarus Williams, R-Jr. (Central Michigan transfer)
CB Terrell Wilson, So. (18 TT, 1 INT, 3 PBU)
FS Boo Rodgers, So. (17 TT, 2 INTs, 1 PBU)
PK Jackson MacLachlan, So.
P Austin Pucylowski, So. (40 punts, 39.8 ypp)
RS LaSteven McKinney, R-Fr.
OUTLOOK: Southern Illinois' seven-year run of FCS playoff berths ended with a thud last season amid inconsistent play, turnovers and injuries, but the Salukis appear ready to rebound this season. Lennon will benefit from his many FBS transfers. Offensively, the Salukis return their five starting linemen, including four 300-pounders who will pave the way for an outstanding running game. It has become even stronger because former Army transfer McIntosh won the three-way battle at quarterback, although he isn't an accomplished passer. He will have to pass to the least-experienced wide receiver's unit in the conference. The Salukis ranked first in the conference in total defense (332.1 ypg), making the team's 25 turnovers especially glaring. The linebackers unit is strong and adds Clark, who was a free safety last season. McElroy's season- ending ankle injury was the biggest in an injury-hampered secondary, so the return of the potential All-America is huge. The Salukis are anxious to get back on track.
4. INDIANA STATE SYCAMORES (6-5 overall; 4-4 MVFC)
COACH: Trent Miles (7-27 in three seasons at Indiana State)
STARTERS RETURNING: 17 (7 offense/10 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Ronnie Fouch, Sr. (168 of 289 for 2,252 yards, 20 TDs and 5 INTs)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DE Ben Obaseki, Jr. (70 TT, 16 TFL, 9 sacks, 1 QBH, 5 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: TB/KR Shakir Bell, So. (95 carries, 649 yards, 2 TDs)
TB George Cheeseborough, Jr. (23 carries, 126 yards, 2 TDs)
FB Brock Lough, Sr. (50 carries, 243 yards, 1 TD)
WR/PR Justin Hilton, Sr. (40 receptions, 684 yards, 7 TDs)
WR Ednut Egberongbe, Sr. (10 receptions, 105 yards, 1 TD)
WR Leonard Riston, So. (13 receptions, 136 yards)
WR John Goodlett, Jr. (11 receptions, 130 yards)
WR Donald Spencer, So. (Michigan State transfer)
TE Alex Jones, Sr. (30 receptions, 545 yards, 4 TDs)
LT Casey Paswater, Jr.
LG Ben Geffert, Sr.
C FN Lutz II, Jr.
RG Evan Borchers, Sr.
RT Luke Ecimovic, So.
DT Rod Hardy, Sr. (34 TT, 4.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FF)
DT Lawrence Young, Sr. (9 TT, 1 blocked kick)
DE Josh Scott, Jr. (9 TT)
OLB Aaron Archie, Jr. (60 TT, 2.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 2 QBH)
MLB C.J. Crook, Sr. (37 TT, 1 sack, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 2 QBH, 1 FR)
OLB Jacolby Washington, Jr. (92 TT, 10 TFL, 5 sacks, 1 PBU, 4 QBH)
CB Larry Carter, Sr. (46 TT, 6 PBU)
CB Calvin Burnett, So. (46 TT, 6 INTs, 8 PBU)
CB Ryan Roberts, Jr. (48 TT, 8.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 4 PBU, 3 QBH, 2 FF)
S/PR Alex Sewall, Sr. (70 TT, 1 sack, 2 INTs, 4 PBU, 1 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF)
S Larry King, So. (65 TT, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 3 INTs, 2 PBU, 2 QBH, 2 FF)
PK Cory Little, So. (5 of 7 FG, 32 long; 39 of 45 PAT)
P Santino Davis, Sr. (30 punts, 38.4 ypp)
OUTLOOK: Indiana State's banner season a year ago goes way beyond it enjoying its first winning season since 1996. The Sycamores had won only two of their prior 62 games entering the season. They were second in the MVFC with a 31.9- point average - up nearly 23 points from 2009. QB Fouch helped fuel the turnaround in his first season as a University of Washington transfer and will challenge to be the conference's top signal-caller. Darrius Gates, a 1,000- yard, 17-TD rusher, is gone, but RB Bell was outstanding as a freshman and should be even better behind a veteran offensive line. It helps to have the conference's best tight end (Jones) and maybe its best fullback (Lough). DE Obaseki and OLB Washington lead the defense, which returns its top nine tacklers. Sewell and Burnett made the All-MVFC preseason team, so the secondary is sound. The Sycamores didn't beat the better MVFC teams last season. That would be the next step.
5. ILLINOIS STATE REDBIRDS (6-5 overall; 4-4 MVFC)
COACH: Brock Spack (12-10 in two seasons at Illinois State)
STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (9 offense/7 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Matt Brown, Jr. (221 of 344 for 2,665 yards, 22 TDs and 11 INTs)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DT Eric Brunner, Sr. (53 TT, 9.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 2 QBH, 1 FR)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Erik Smith, Jr. (142 carries, 656 yards, 4 TDs; 27 receptions, 192 yards)
RB Ashton Leggett, Sr. (139 carries, 599 yards, 8 TDs)
RB/KR Cameron Hunt, So. (20 carries, 75 yards, 1 TD; 25.1-yard KO return average)
WR Tyrone Walker, Jr. (59 receptions, 974 yards, 12 TDs)
WR/PR Marvon Sanders, Sr. (73 receptions, 754 yards, 2 TDs)
WR Corey Shandrick, So. (9 receptions, 82 yards, 1 TD)
WR Matt Younger, So. (9 receptions, 126 yards, 3 TDs)
TE Brandon Venson, Sr. (6 receptions, 80 yards)
TE Joe Farmer, Fr.
C Cal McCarthy, Sr.
RG Keenan Wimbley, Sr.
LG Nick Bledsoe, Sr.
LT Cody White, Sr.
DT Albert Sparks, So.
DE Shelby Harris, So. (39 TT, 4 TFL, 1 PBU, 6 QBH, 1 blocked kick)
DE Nick Broome, Jr. (49 TT, 5.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 3 QBH, 1 FF, 2 blocked kicks)
DE Nate Palmer, Jr. (Illinois transfer)
LB Josh Howe, Sr. (112 TT, 7.5 TFL, 1 INT, 4 PBU)
LB Mike Zimmer, Jr. (65 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 2 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF)
LB Austin Davis, Jr. (75 TT, 6 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 2 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF)
LB Mike Gordon, Sr.
LB Evan Frierson, Jr. (Illinois transfer)
CB Ryan Givens, So. (37 TT, 2 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF)
CB Otis Merrill, Sr. (13 TT, 1 PBU)
CB Marcus Harrison, So. (injured much of last season)
FS Matt Goldsmith, So. (8 TT, 1 PBU)
SS Anthony Boddy, R-Fr.
SS Adam Rebholz, So. (1 TT)
PK Mike Aussieker, R-Fr.
P/PK Mike Wood, So.
OUTLOOK: The first one to 40 points wins. The Redbirds might develop the most potent offense in the MVFC, but it might allow the most points, too. In Normal, Ill., it's anything but that. QB Brown, who is entering his third season as a starter, is the top-returning passer in the conference and he will work behind a senior-dominated offensive line, with all of his primary weapons back - Smith and Leggett in the backfield, and Sanders and Walker on the perimeter. Of course, the Redbirds allowed an astounding 39.6 ppg last season - the fifth-worst average in the FCS - and Spack is handling the defensive coordinator position this season. Givens is the only returning starter in the secondary and that unit has to improve dramatically. The situation is more stable in the front seven, with DT Brunner and LB Howe a pair of standout seniors. When Northern Iowa visits on Nov. 19, the Redbirds might be playing for a FCS playoff berth.
6. YOUNGSTOWN STATE PENGUINS (3-8 overall; 1-7 MVFC)
COACH: Eric Wolford (3-8 in one season at Youngstown State)
STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: TB/KR Jamaine Cook, Jr. (241 carries, 1,276 yards, 11 TDs; 62 carries, 141 yards, 3 TDs)
DEFENSIVE STAR: LB John Sasson, Sr. (89 TT, 2 TFL, 2 PBU, 4 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Kurt Hess, So. (179 of 304 for 2,117 yards, 12 TDs and 8 INTs)
TB Jordan Thompson, So. (36 carries, 144 yards, 4 TDs)
TB/WR Adaris Bellamy, So. (110 carries, 545 yards, 11 TDs; 10 receptions, 59 yards)
WR Kevin Watts, So. (11 receptions, 141 yards, 2 TDs)
WR Julian Harrell, Jr. (12 receptions, 114 yards)
WR Ely Ducatel, Sr. (27 receptions, 336 yards, 2 TDs)
WR Andre Barboza, Sr. (3 receptions, 86 yards, 1 TD)
WR Christian Bryan, Fr.
WR Jelani Berassa, So.
TE Carson Sharbaugh, So. (10 receptions, 123 yards, 1 TD)
TE David Rogers, Sr. (7 receptions, 103 yards, 1 TD)
TE Will Shaw, Jr. (safety last season; 48 TT, 2.5 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU)
LT Andrew Radakovich, Jr.
LG Lamar Mady, Jr.
C Mark Pratt, Jr.
RG Chris Elkins, So.
RT D.J. Main, Jr.
DT Andrew Johnson, Sr. (24 TT, 2 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 QBH)
NT Aronde Stanton, Jr.
DE Obinna Ekweremuba, Sr. (24 TT, 4 TFL, 2 QBH, 1 FF)
DE Daniel Stewart, Sr. (11 TT, 2 sacks, 1 QBH, 1 FF)
DE Josh Fenderson, Jr. (Rochester CTC transfer)
LB Dom Rich, So. (15 TT, 2 TFL)
LB Deonta Tate, Sr. (52 TT, 4 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT, 3 PBU)
LB Davion Rogers, R-Fr.
LB Travis Williams, R-Fr.
CB Devont'a Davis, R-Fr.
CB Jamarious Boatwright, So. (18 TT, 4 PBU, 1 FF)
CB Donald D'Alesio, So. (69 TT, 2 PBU, 1 FF)
SS Jeremey Edwards, Jr. (Compton College transfer)
FS Josh Garner, So. (1 FF)
PK David Brown, Jr.
P Nick Liste, So. (41 punts, 41.4 ypp)
OUTLOOK: There's a lot to be optimistic about at Youngstown. It's true the Penguins ended last season with seven straight conference losses, but five were by six points or less and the other two were by 10 points. So the once- dominant FCS program could improve by two, three wins this season. Poised QB Hess, the 2010 MVFC freshman of the year, improved throughout his first season and is the building block for Wolford, who will rely on plenty of freshmen and sophomores. RB Cook is a Walter Payton Award candidate who excelled behind a porous offensive line last season. Bellamy also had a superb season rushing the ball. LT Radakovich anchors the retooled offensive line. Defensively, the Penguins feature a deep linebackers unit, led by Sasson. They have to improve against the pass and that starts with the four-man defensive front generating more of a pass rush (12 sacks as a team). With six home games, the Penguins should be much improved.
7. WESTERN ILLINOIS FIGHTING LEATHERNECKS (8-5 overall; 5-3 MVFC)
COACH: Mark Hendrickson (13-15 in 2 1/2 seasons at Western Illinois)
STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (6 offense/6 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Caulton Ray, Jr. (246 carries, 1,075 yards, 9 TDs)
DEFENSIVE STAR: S Tyler West, Jr. (75 TT, 3 INTs, 6 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Wil Lunt, Jr. (1 of 2 for 16 yards and 1 TD)
QB Josh Hudson, Jr. (College of the Siskiyous transfer)
RB/KR Bryce Flowers, So. (150 carries, 804 yards, 8 TDs; 19 receptions, 332 yards, 1 TD; 19.8-yard KO return average)
RB/KR Larry Patterson, R-Fr.
FB Josh Gabelmann, Sr. (5 carries, 26 yards, 3 TDs)
WR Terriun Crump, Sr. (56 receptions, 888 yards, 5 TDs)
WR Charles Chestnut, Jr. (18 receptions, 222 yards, 1 TD)
WR Justin Morgan, Jr. (19 receptions, 192 yards, 1 TD)
WR/KR Myles Daughtry, So. (New Mexico transfer)
WR Tynan Murray, Jr. (Palomar CC transfer)
TE Aaron Muhammad, Sr. (3 receptions, 42 yards, 1 TD)
OG/C Andrew Robiskie, Jr.
OL Jimmy Holtschlag, So.
OL Enock Presendieu, Sr.
OL Jordan Valle, Sr.
DT Dwight Harris, Jr. (30 TT, 4.5 TFL, 1 QBH, 2 FR)
NT Emeka Nwankwo (Notre Dame transfer)
NT Brent Turner, Sr. (2 TT)
DE Ryan Demming, So. (26 TT, 3.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FR)
LB Kevin Palmero, Sr. (52 TT, 3.5 TFL, 1 PBU)
LB Mike Garoppolo, Sr. (24 TT, 3 TFL)
LB Theon Dixon, Jr. (Ball State transfer)
LB Luke Venegoni, Fr.
CB Chris Boone, Jr. (27 TT, 1 INT, 5 PBU)
CB Kieron James, Jr. (42 TT, 1 INT, 7 PBU, 1 FF)
DB Keith Enderlin, Sr. (35 TT, 1 INT, 3 PBU)
DB Ryan Davis, Sr. (29 TT, 6 PBU, 1 FR)
DB Tim Franken, Sr. (29 TT, 2 TFL, 1 PBU)
DB Raynard Pamilton, Sr. (30 TT, 1.5 TFL, 3 PBU)
PK/P Pat Smith, So. (5 of 7 FG, 38 long; 21 of 21 PAT)
P Michael Shroble, Fr.
PR/WR Myers Hendrickson, Sr. (9.3-yard punt return average)
OUTLOOK: Western Illinois was one of the feel-good stories of 2010, as it improved by seven wins from 2009 and had the runners-up for the Walter Payton (QB Matt Barr), Buck Buchanan (LB Kyle Glazier) and Eddie Robinson (Hendrickson) awards (all sponsored by Fathead.com). However, after graduation hit the Fighting Leathernecks hard, it will be difficult for them to contend for the conference title and another FCS playoff berth. While Barr was injured in 2009, Lunt became the starter and was 104-for-196 for 994 yards, four touchdowns and 12 interceptions. That doesn't bode well for last year's plus-11 turnover margin. Crump will give either Lunt or Hudson a go-to receiver, but the Leathernecks will think run first as they have enjoyed eight straight seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher - a streak both Ray or Flowers, or both, figure to extend this season. The secondary, featuring S West and CB James, is deep, while the rest of the defense is without a major star (look for DT Harris and LB Palmero to gain a higher level of play). The Leathernecks could have the best return game in the conference.
8. SOUTH DAKOTA STATE JACKRABBITS (5-6 overall; 4-4 MVFC)
COACH: John Stiegelmeier (88-66 in 14 seasons at South Dakota State)
STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (8 offense/6 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Tyrel Kool, Jr. (64 receptions, 808 yards, 2 TDs)
DEFENSIVE STAR: MLB Mike Lien, Sr. (98 TT, 5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 4 QBH, 1 FR)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Thomas O'Brien, Jr. (201 of 375 for 2,236 yards, 10 TDs and 15 INTs)
QB Jordan Thomas, Jr.
WR Brandon Hubert, So. (32 receptions, 375 yards, 1 TD)
WR/KR Trevor Tiefenthaler, So. (9 receptions, 116 yards, 1 TD; 27.9-yard KO return average)
WR Aaron Rollin, Jr. (24 receptions, 292 yards, 2 TDs)
WR Dale Moss, Sr.
TE Seth Daughters, Jr.
TE Kyle Sheehan, Sr. (2 receptions, 8 yards)
LT Jon Fick, Jr.
LG Zach Buchner, Sr.
C Will Castle, Jr.
RG Alex Parker, So.
RT Bryan Witzmann, So.
DE Zacharia Bowers, Sr. (26 YY, 3.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 8 QBH, 1 FF)
DT Chase Douglas, So. (26 TT, 2 sacks, 1 PBU)
NT Andy Mink, Jr. (59 TT, 4.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF)
DE Jake Steffen, Sr. (35 TT, 5.5 TFL, 7 PBU, 3 QBH, 1 FR)
OLB Dirk Kool, Sr. (70 TT, 7 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 INTs, 1 PBU, 1 FR)
OLB Chris Tracy, Jr. (15 TT, 3 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF)
OLB Erich Feller, Sr. (18 TT, 3 PBU)
CB Winston Wright, So. (18 TT, 1 PBU, 2 FR)
OLB Ross Shafrath, Jr. (23 TT, 1 FF)
CB Darryl Jackson, Sr. (37 TT, 2 PBU)
CB David Godley, Jr. (Glendale College transfer)
SS Anthony Wise, Sr. (76 TT, 5 PBU, 2 FF)
FS Bo Helm, Jr. (12 TT, 1 PBU, 2 blocked kicks)
FS Rodkem Matthews, Sr. (9 TT)
PK Kyle Harris, Sr. (2 of 8 FG, 35 long; 5 of 5 PAT)
P Ethan Sawyer. R-Fr.
OUTLOOK: The Jackrabbits won five of their final seven games last season, but that didn't stop them from suffering their first losing season since 2004. Stiegelmeier didn't believe his squad was fundamentally sound and stressed improvement this offseason. Four starters return on the offensive line and they will provide great protection, but the one loss is big - All-America center Ryan McKnight. Also lost was RB Kyle Minett and his 4,277 career rushing yards. To replace him, Tyrel Kool has moved back to his natural running back position (he caught 64 receptions at wide receiver last season). The Jackrabbits, though, will need steadier play at quarterback, presumably from returning starter O'Brien. The defense lost leading tackler Derek Domino at linebacker, but the unit still has standouts in Lien and Dirk Kool. Northern Iowa, North Dakota State, Southern Illinois and Indiana State will visit Brookings, S.D. It's up to the Jackrabbits to make good use of the home schedule.
9. MISSOURI STATE BEARS (5-6 overall; 4-4 MVFC)
COACH: TERRY ALLEN (23-32 in five seasons at Missouri State; 118-91 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 9 (5 offense/4 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: WR/KR Jermaine Saffold, Sr. (53 receptions, 869 yards, 5 TDs)
DEFENSIVE STAR: OLB Nick Canavan, So. (50 TT, 6 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 2 QBH)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Trevor Wooden, So. (wide receiver last season; 21 receptions, 284 yards, 1 TD)
QB Mitchell Jenkins, R-Fr.
RB Stephen Johnston, Sr. (147 carries, 752 yards, 5 TDs)
RB Chris Douglas, Sr. (152 carries, 1,051 yards, 11 TDs; 17 receptions, 108 yards, 1 TD)
RB Vernon Scott, So. (23 carries, 103 yards)
WR Cadarrius Dotson, So. (38 receptions, 495 yards, 1 TD)
WR Willie White, Sr.
WR/RS Julian Burton, R-Fr.
TE Matt Thayer, Jr. (10 receptions, 109 yards, 1 TD)
LT Zack Cooley, R-Fr.
LG Travis Simmons, Sr.
C Harrison Menke, Jr.
RG Kurt Kutter, So.
RT Kyle Hahn, So.
DE Mikel Ruder, Sr. (42 TT, 3.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 PBU, 3 QBH, 1 FF, 1 blocked kick)
DE Garrett Wade, Jr.
DE Martin Montgomery, Jr. (15 TT, 1 sack, 1 QBH)
NT Tevan Ferguson, Jr. (18 TT, 1 QBH)
OLB Rodney Kelly, Jr. (14 TT, 3 QBH, 1.5 TFL, 1 QBH)
MLB David Ingram, Sr. (13 TT, 2 PBU, 1 FR)
MLB Ryan Callender, So. (2 TT)
OLB Nick Canavan, So. (50 TT, 6 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 2 QBH)
CB Howard Scarborough, So. (47 TT, 1 INT, 7 PBU, 3 FR)
CB Sybhrian Berry, So.
CB Jimmie Strong, Sr. (31 TT, 4 INTs, 2 PBU; injured last season)
SS Jarrett Wright, Sr. (6 TT)
FS Anthony Lee, Jr. (12 TT)
PK Austin Witmer, So. (6 of 9 FG, 42 long; 10 of 10 PAT)
P Jordan Chiles, Sr. (56 punts, 38.3 ypp)
OUTLOOK: It might have shocked people at Missouri State to see its program last in the MVFC's preseason poll. But the Bears have the conference's fewest returning starters, the defense was pushed around regularly last season and the offense's losses include QB Cody Kirby, who was third in MVFC history with 9,019 yards of total offense. As they look for a new quarterback, Wooden has switched from wide receiver. The Bears still have one of the conference's better wide receivers in Safford, and the rushing game has an excellent 1-2 punch in Douglas (6.9 ypc) and Johnston. But up front LG Simmons is the only returning starter on the offensive line. The defense lost a lot on the line and at linebacker, including standout Antoine Wilkinson. Canavan, though, is one of the rising young linebackers in the conference. Missouri State was 5-0 at home and 0-6 on the road last season. This season, seven of its 11 games are on the road, including all four games in September. Allen hasn't suddenly forgotten how to coach, so the Bears could sneak up on some opponents.