By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Everywhere you look around college football, offenses are spreading out opponents and defensive coordinators are sending in extra defensive backs to try to stop what's being thrown their team's way.
That's why the black-and-blue nature of the Missouri Valley Football Conference is a little different.
"I think we're a little bit of a throw-back league," North Dakota State coach Craig Bohl said.
Teams don't just run the ball a little more in the nation's heartland, they tend to trust in the adage that on any given Saturday one team can rise up, pound the other and walk (or limp) away a winner.
Northern Iowa could take some pleasure on Monday that it was installed as an overwhelming preseason favorite in the MVFC, but there's probably little room for comfort. Last year's race was turned so upside down in a parity- filled season that six of the nine teams finished with 4-4 conference records.
UNI hasn't gone on to win the conference title five of the last six times it was made the preseason favorite, but the Panthers are the last team to do so - in 2007 - as the last three preseason favorites fell short of the expectations.
"I do think the Missouri Valley has a little more of a run-first mentality," Southern Illinois head coach Dale Lennon said. "You can control a tempo of a game if you're capable of doing that. And I think just because of where we live, too, the weather's always going to be a factor in the games. Especially late-season, I think that's where you really do see the big physical teams step forward and kind of have the upper hand when it comes to trying to make some postseason runs. I think college football, the key is still running the football."
Only two of the MVFC's top 15 rushers last season were seniors. Northern Iowa's 216.6 rushing yards per game edged Youngstown State and Missouri State for the conference high, and six MVFC teams ranked in the FCS' top 25 in rushing offense.
The three teams picked atop the MVFC preseason poll feature rushing-style quarterbacks - Rennie at Northern Iowa, Brock Jensen at No. 2 North Dakota State and Paul McIntosh at No. 3 Southern Illinois. Each of the trio returns a veteran offensive line as well.
In addition to Rennie, the MVFC has returning 1,000-yard rushers in running backs D.J. McNorton of North Dakota State, Jamaine Cook of Youngstown State, Chris Douglas at Missouri State and Caulton Ray of Western Illinois.
"We have teams that certainly believe in spreading the field out," Bohl said, "but my mentor is a guy named Tom Osborne. When I worked for him at the University of Nebraska, he always believed in being able to run the football and defending the run. Those two axioms have stuck with me. I think within our league, there's a lot of great coaches, and I think if you just go down the list, there's probably very few of them that are not hard-nosed ball coaches who believe in being physical. So as a result of that, that's the nature of our league. To survive it, you better be tough and rugged."
Coaches across the MVFC agree the 2011 race could resemble last season's. Among the wackiness of a year ago, Southern Illinois, picked first, went from 11 wins in 2009 to a rare losing record at 5-6; Western Illinois went from a one-win season in 2009 to second place and a FCS playoff berth; Indiana State posted a 6-5 season after losing 60 of its prior 62 games entering the season; and North Dakota State, which went 3-8 in 2009, went all the way to the FCS semifinals in a nine-win season.
"I don't think it will be any different," said Illinois State coach Brock Spack, whose team, picked fifth, is the MVFC's exception rather than the rule as quarterback Matt Brown allows the Redbirds to think pass first over the run. "I think Northern Iowa is obviously the odds-on favorite; they have a great program, they won the league a year ago. But I think all the rest of us, you can throw us in a hat and swirl around. If you stay healthy and you play consistent every Saturday, you've got a chance to win and maybe have a chance to run at the conference championship and get in the playoffs. This league is very, very balanced."
"At game time," Western Illinois coach Mark Hendrickson said, "you need to be at your best every Saturday."
MISSOURI VALLEY FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL (Head Coaches, Media and Sports Information Directors)
1. Northern Iowa (29 first-place votes), 316 points
2. North Dakota State (6), 275
3. Southern Illinois (1), 207
4. South Dakota State, 172
5. Illinois State, 169
6. Indiana State, 168
7. Western Illinois, 151
8. Youngstown State, 88
9. Missouri State, 74
PRESEASON MISSOURI VALLEY FOOTBALL ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM
QB- Tirrell Rennie, Northern Iowa, Sr.
RB- Jamaine Cook, Youngstown State, Jr.
RB- D.J. McNorton, North Dakota State, Sr.
FB- Brock Lough, Indiana State, Sr. Terre Haute
WR- Jermaine Saffold, Missouri State, Sr.
WR- Tyrone Walker, Illinois State, Jr.
TE- Alex Jones, Indiana State, Sr.
OL- Bryan Boemer, Southern Illinois, Sr.
OL- Paul Cornick, North Dakota State, Sr.
OL- Cal McCarthy, Illinois State, Sr.
OL- David Pickard, Southern Illinois, Sr.
OL- Andrew Radakovich, Youngstown State, Jr.
OL- Jay Teply, Northern Iowa, Sr.
DL- Ben Boothby, Northern Iowa, Sr.
DL- Coulter Boyer, North Dakota State, Sr.
DL- Eric Brunner, Illinois State, Sr.
DL- Ben Obaseki, Indiana State, Jr.
LB- L.J. Fort, Northern Iowa, Sr.
LB- Josh Howe, Illinois State, Sr.
LB- Michael Lien, South Dakota State, Sr.
LB- Jacolby Washington, Indiana State, Jr.
DB- Calvin Burnett, Indiana State, So.
DB- Mike McElroy, Southern Illinois, Sr.
DB- Alex Sewall, Indiana State, Sr.
DB- J.J. Swain, Northern Iowa, Jr.
DB- Marcus Williams, North Dakota State, So.
PK- Ryan Jastram, North Dakota State, Sr.
P- Nick Liste, Youngstown State, So.
P- Kyle Bernard, Northern Iowa, Jr.
RS- Carlos Anderson, Northern Iowa, Jr.
QB- Matt Brown, Illinois State, Jr.
QB- Ronnie Fouch, Indiana State, Sr.
RB- Chris Douglas, Missouri State, Sr.
WR- Terriun Crump, Western Illinois, Sr.
WR- Marvon Sanders, Illinois State, Sr.
OL- Nick Bledsoe, Illinois State, Sr.
OL- Jonathan Fick, South Dakota State, Jr.
OL- Brian Palangi, Northern Iowa, Jr.
OL- Jordan Valle, Western Illinois, Sr.
DL- Chance Coda, Southern Illinois, Sr.
LB- Aaron Archie, Indiana State, Jr.
LB- James Conley, Northern Iowa, Sr.
LB- Preston Evans, North Dakota State, Sr.
DB- Jimmie Strong, Missouri State, Sr.
DB- Andre Martin, Northern Iowa, Jr.
DB- Ryan Davis, Western Illinois, Sr.
PK- Pat Smith, Western Illinois, So.
P- Jordan Chiles, Missouri State, Sr.
RS- Jarred Herring, Northern Iowa, Sr.