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In the FCS Huddle: Missouri Valley spring football primer

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The Missouri Valley Football Conference beat its chest entering last season and then backed it up.

After gaining only two FCS playoff qualifiers in 2013, people around the Valley were incensed about it and entered last season saying it wasn't right for a conference they considered to be the best in the nation.

They weren't wrong when the Valley posted a dominant regular season, tied the FCS record with five playoff qualifiers and sent its co-champions, North Dakota State and Illinois State, into the first FCS championship game that matched two teams from the same conference.

NDSU rallied in the final minute for a 29-27 victory and its FCS-record fourth straight national title.

Heading toward the 2015 season, the Bison and Illinois State have reason to believe they will be back in Frisco, Texas, next January.

Northern Iowa, Youngstown State, South Dakota State, Indiana State, Western Illinois and others may play more than just spoilers.

Here's a look across the Missouri Valley Conference with spring practices getting underway around the nation:

STORY LINES

New coach Dave Steckel steps in at Missouri State, seeking to lift a Bears program that had only one winning record in conference play (5-3 in 2013) in Terry Allen's nine seasons. The Bears need more offensive consistency as they replace four-year starting quarterback Kierra Harris.

The biggest name among FCS head coaching changes was Youngstown State's Bo Pelini, who came aboard after an eight-year stint at Nebraska. Expectations are high with the Penguins after they fell just short of an at-large playoff berth following a second straight November meltdown.

For a change, the offense will be ahead of the defense at North Dakota State, which is replacing its two starting defensive ends, two outside linebackers and two safeties. The big loss on offense is running back John Crockett.

Illinois State might be NDSU's biggest threat in the nation again, not just in the Missouri Valley. But coach Brock Spack has to replace six starters on offense and five on defense. The Redbirds redshirted some players last season and brought in some transfers, so there are potential answers to the questions.

Northern Iowa was the only team to beat North Dakota State and it was the only one to beat Illinois State until NDSU did it in the national final. Coach Mark Farley has to get his squad ready early because the opening stretch of games is challenging.

It's a good thing South Dakota State returns an experienced defense (including nine starters) because on the other side of the ball, the Jackrabbits have lost career passing leader Austin Sumner, three-time 2,000-yard rusher Zach Zenner and all-conference wide receiver Jason Schneider.

Coming off its first FCS playoff bid in 30 years, Indiana State has to brace for a difficult road portion of the 2015 schedule. But the Sycamores return 10 starters from a strong defense, led by All-American linebacker Connor Underwood.

Injuries have plagued South Dakota since moving to the Missouri Valley in 2012, but, as a result, coach Joe Glenn has many experienced players at his disposal. A full season out of talented running back Trevor Bouma will go a long way.

What could have been for Western Illinois. The Fighting Leathernecks, at 5-7 a year ago, led both North Dakota State and Illinois State in the fourth quarter and trailed by six points at halftime at Wisconsin and by seven at halftime at Northwestern. With a solid returning cast, third-year coach Bob Nielson must feel this will be a breakthrough season.

Southern Illinois has fallen to the middle ranks of the Missouri Valley after being a former power, and the Salukis have lost plenty of key players off last year's disappointing 6-6 squad. They will be helped if quarterback Mark Iannotti can return to his high level at the start of last season before he lost the top job later on.

THEY'RE BACK

In a relatively injury-free season at Illinois State, the Redbirds did lose cornerback Dion Starnes to a knee injury after nine games. He will be limited in the spring, but will back to try to reclaim his spot.

North Dakota State wide receiver Zach Vraa is expected to gain a sixth season through an NCAA medical hardship. He has caught a pass in 41 of his 43 career games and ranks fourth all-time at NDSU with 155 receptions and third with 2,447 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns.

The Trenton Norvell-to-Lance Lenoir passing combination at Western Illinois will be excellent.

Northern Iowa senior place-kicker Michael Schmadeke was 27-for-29 on field goal attempts, including 15-for-16 at the UNI-Dome.

South Dakota State returns all three starting linebackers, none more important than fourth-year starter T.J. Lally.

South Dakota quarterback Kevin Earl will be improved by the return of the Coyotes' starting wide receivers, Eric Shufford Jr. and Riley Donovan, and a healthier tight end in Aaron Ramsey.

Youngstown State has an athletic mix on defense, led by ends Derek Rivers and Terrell Williams and linebacker Dubem Nwadiogbu.

The leadership of Missouri State will shift from the secondary - Caleb Schaffitzel and Andrew Beisel departed - to junior linebacker Dylan Cole, who had an impressive 14.5 tackles for loss.

POSITION BATTLES

Northern Iowa has a highly experienced quarterback in Sawyer Kollmorgen, but he will be pushed by JUCO transfer Dalton Demos.

Illinois State quarterback Tre Roberson will seek new options at wide receiver with Jon-Marc Anderson, Anthony Warrum, Christian Gibbs and others.

Missouri State running back Calan Crowder is coming off a strong freshman campaign, but he will have competition from Phoenix Johnson, Ryan Heaston and Cedric Miller, perhaps even redshirt freshman Jason Randall.

Western Illinois will be hard-pressed to replace linebackers Kevin Kintzel and Luke Venegoni. Then-redshirt freshman Brett Taylor played well in the middle last November.

South Dakota State junior quarterback Zach Lujan, who was 5-2 as a starter last season, would seem to have the inside track to the starter's job over redshirt freshman Chris Little and sophomore Dalton Douglas. The starter will benefit from passing to sophomore standout Jake Wieneke.

Southern Illinois returns running back Cameron Walter (323 yards, two touchdowns), but JUCO transfer Aaron Stanton and some true freshmen will get a chance to win playing time.

Joey Cejudo handled all the place-kicking and punting duties as a senior at Youngstown State last season. Sophomore Connor McFadden and true freshman Zak Kennedy will battle for top place-kicker's job.

FIVE BREAKOUT PERFORMERS

Indiana State's transfer quarterback Zach Kline did the opposite of Green Bay Packers star Aaron Rodgers in going from Cal to Butte College. His assignment is to fill the shoes of Sycamores record-setting QB Mike Perish.

Northern Iowa has the difficult task of replacing do-everything star David Johnson. Rutgers transfer running back Savon Huggins will get the first shot.

Illinois State's addition of Iowa transfer Reggie Spearman at linebacker may allow Oshay Dunmore to move back to safety.

Chase Morlock will have his big moments, but North Dakota State junior running back King Frazier appears ready to fuel the power run game. He will work behind four returning starters on the offensive line as well as 2013 left guard Zack Johnson, who missed all of last season.

South Dakota State is counting on redshirt freshman Isaac Wallace to replace Zach Zenner as the No. 1 running back.

NUMBERS NEVER LIE

There's no shame for North Dakota State in finishing third in the FCS in scoring defense (14.1 ppg) after ranking No. 1 in each of the previous three seasons.

Indiana State relied heavily on the pass last season and had the worst-ranked rushing offense in the run-heavy conference - 88.6 yards per game.

As a junior, Illinois State's Marshaun Coprich had the most rushing yards in the FCS - a school-record 2,274 to go along with 27 touchdowns.

Incredibly, Northern Iowa converted 48 of 49 chances (98 percent) in the red zone.

Western Illinois will need to defend the pass better after allowing a conference-worst 252.4 passing yards per game.

South Dakota, winless in the Valley, has to do a better job of stopping the run after allowing 5.6 yards per carry and 234.5 rushing yards per game.

Six Missouri Valley players return off seasons with 100 or more tackles - Indiana State's Kendall Walker (123) and Mark Sewall (114), South Dakota State's T.J. Lally (117), Illinois State's Pat Meehan (115) Youngstown State's Dubem Nwadiogbu (104) and Northern Iowa's Brett McMakin (103).

SPRING PRACTICE DATES

With 2014 records in parentheses

Illinois State (13-2, 7-1): March 28-April 25

Indiana State (8-6, 4-4): March 23-April 24

Missouri State (4-8, 1-7): March 16-April 11

North Dakota State (15-1, 7-1): April 1-24

Northern Iowa (9-5, 6-2): April 1-24

South Dakota (2-10, 0-8): March 24-April 25

South Dakota State (9-5, 5-3): March 27-April 25

Southern Illinois (6-6, 3-5): March 23-April 17

Western Illinois (5-7, 3-5): March 24-April 24

Youngstown State (7-5, 4-4): March 17-April 18