(STATS) - It wouldn't have mattered if Illinois State had graduated its entire roster, because the Missouri Valley Conference squad was going to face something different this season: A schedule full of opponents that have extra motivation.
The Redbirds lifted their program to a higher level last season, coming within two minutes of winning the FCS national championship, and they know this season they have added attention from everyone else, including the North Dakota State program it nearly dethroned in Frisco, Texas.
NDSU, the national champion for an FCS-record four straight seasons, remained the title favorite Monday in the MVC preseason poll. But Illinois State received eight of the 40 first-place votes and was picked second as the nation's premier FCS conference seeks to build on last year's historic season, in which it became the first league to produce both national finalists.
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"Your role is going to change a little bit," coach Brock Spack said. "You played for the national championship a year ago, you tied for the league title, you're not going to sneak up on people. You're going to get folks' best effort every Saturday. That will be different.
"We've got some players in some key positions that have to figure it out. It will be a little different. Our approach won't be any different. We worry about us."
There's a lot for others to worry about with the Redbirds, who set a single-season school record for wins in finishing 13-2. They have arguably the nation's best quarterback-running back combination in Tre Roberson and Marshaun Coprich, respectively, although the two STATS Offensive Player of the Year candidates face big losses around them on the offensive line and at wide receiver.
Coprich led the FCS in rushing yards (2,274) and touchdowns (27) last season. There's now a brighter spotlight on the hard-running senior, who was suspended from the program earlier this year following his arrest on a drug charge. He was reinstated in May after pleading guilty and receiving probation, and Spack doesn't expect Coprich to receive additional punishment from the university.
"He had a spotless record and was never in any type of trouble at all," Spack said. "Before he came to Illinois State, his high school people were very, very high on him. The only way he would lose playing time is if something else popped up. If that happened, I don't think he would be playing for us at all. I don't see it happening."
Roberson, who figures to be pushed by North Dakota State's Carson Wentz for All-MVC first-team honors, also returns more acclimated to the Redbirds' offense. The former Indiana quarterback didn't transfer to Illinois State until last June, so his dual-threat style could be even more dangerous this season.
"I think we're way ahead of where we were a year ago, particularly offensively," Spack said. "Roberson had just finished up maybe a couple weeks of summer conditioning. Our whole line was back, but our skill positions were relatively new because some guys were coming off injuries. I think this summer's been a lot different. I think they've worked awful hard and they know what to expect. They got a taste of success and they kind of really like it."
NDSU, which rallied late to beat Illinois State 29-27 in the title game last season, returns 12 starters - one more than the Redbirds - and will have an offense that should be even better than its storied defense.
The Bison placed a conference-high nine players on the MVC preseason team, but coach Chris Klieman knows a run at a fifth straight national championship starts with surviving the conference that tied the FCS record with five playoff qualifiers last season. Northern Iowa, South Dakota State and Indiana State again harbor those aspirations, with Youngstown State, under former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, also expected to be part of the deep mix.
"We talk about remaining humble," Klieman said. "We have kind of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately (mentality). We had an exceptional finish to last year, but this year's a new year. You better remain humble in what you're done. And you better remain hungry. Because if you're not hungry, you're going to get picked off. It's neat to be the hunted, but in the same respect, all of us in the Missouri Valley are the hunted. We've got the best league in FCS."
MISSOURI VALLEY FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL=
Head Coaches, Media and Sports Information Directors Poll=
1. North Dakota State (32 first-place votes), 389 points
2. Illinois State (8), 366
3. Northern Iowa, 300
4. Youngstown State, 265
5. South Dakota State, 251
6. Indiana State, 190
7. Southern Illinois, 143
8. Western Illinois, 139
9. Missouri State, 91
10. South Dakota, 66
MISSOURI VALLEY FOOTBALL PRESEASON TEAM=
QB - Tre Roberson, Illinois State, Sr.
RB - Marshaun Coprich, Illinois State, Sr.
RB - Martin Ruiz, Youngstown State, Sr.
FB - Andrew Bonnet, North Dakota State, Sr.
WR - Lance Lenoir Jr., Western Illinois, Jr.
WR - Jake Wieneke, South Dakota State, So.
TE - Braden Lehman, Northern Iowa, Sr.
OL - Robert Booker, Missouri State, Sr.
OL - Joe Haeg, North Dakota State, Sr.
OL - Jacob Ohnesorge, South Dakota State, So.
OL - Justin Spencer, Youngstown State, So.
OL - Matt Zobrist, Western Illinois, Jr.
LS - Joshua Appel, Indiana State, Jr.
PK - Michael Schmadeke, Northern Iowa, Sr.
DL - Isaac Ales, Northern Iowa, Sr.
DL - Teddy Corwin, Illinois State, Sr.
DL - Cole Langer, South Dakota State, Jr.
DL - Derek Rivers, Youngstown State, Jr.
LB - T.J. Lally, South Dakota State, Sr.
LB - Brett McMakin, Northern Iowa, Jr.
LB - Pat Meehan, Illinois State, Sr.
LB - Connor Underwood, Indiana State, Sr.
DB - Deiondre' Hall, Northern Iowa, Sr.
DB - Tim Kilfoy, Northern Iowa, Sr.
DB - Mark Sewall, Indiana State, Sr.
DB - Travis Starks, Indiana State, Sr.
P - Ben LeCompte, North Dakota State, Sr.
RS - Je Ryan Butler, South Dakota State, Sr.
QB - Carson Wentz (North Dakota State); RB - Calan Crowder (Missouri State); TE - Luke Albers (North Dakota State); TE - Jamar Brown (Indiana State); WR - Andrew Williams (Youngstown State); WR - Eric Shufford (South Dakota ); LS - James Fisher (North Dakota State); OL - Zack Johnson (North Dakota State); OL - Jeremy Kelly (North Dakota State); OL - Sam Ellifrits (Missouri State); OL - Ethan Wirth (Southern Illinois); DL - Drew Iddings (South Dakota); DL - Terrell Williams (Youngstown State); LB - Chase Allen (Southern Illinois); LB - Dylan Cole (Missouri State); - DB C.J. Smith (North Dakota State); RS - LeMonte Booker (Indiana State)
FIVE KEY CONFERENCE GAMES=
Northern Iowa at Illinois State (Oct. 3) - UNI handed Illinois State its only regular-season loss in 2014, but the Redbirds haven't lost at home since 2012.
Northern Iowa at North Dakota State (Oct. 10) - Also last season, UNI was the only team to defeat the Bison. Carson Wentz and Co. remember.
Illinois State at Youngstown State (Oct. 10) - Bo Pelini's introduction to the MVFC schedule goes from South Dakota (Oct. 3) to an assignment against last year's national finalist.
Indiana State at South Dakota State (Oct. 10) - The defensively strong Sycamores shift their attention from Zach Zenner to Jake Wieneke.
North Dakota State at Youngstown State (Nov. 14) - Here's a big chance for the host Penguins to avoid another November collapse.