Published May 03, 2016
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Call it a clean sweep, the Missouri Valley Football Conference remains the home of both the official and unofficial champions in the FCS.
Officially, of course, it hasn't been close since the beginning of the 2011 season, with North Dakota State University claiming more national titles (four) than it has suffered defeats (three), going 58-3.
NDSU is a member of the Missouri Valley as well, and the four-time reigning champs aren't the only reason the 10-team conference claims the unofficial title as the best in the FCS.
Quality runs deep in the Valley. Its teams posted a 23-1 record against FCS non-conference opponents last regular season, pushing it to 30-2 in the playoffs while they set a new FCS standard with 10 postseason wins.
And, oh yes, the Valley became the first conference to have both national championship game qualifiers, with Illinois State joining NDSU and both playing to a fitting last-minute thriller before the Bison prevailed, 29-27.
This year looks quite similar for the best conference in the FCS.
Following is In the FCS Huddle's 2015 offseason ranking of FCS conferences:
1. Missouri Valley Football Conference (10 teams) - After meeting in the historic national championship game, four-time defending champion North Dakota State and 2014 runner-up Illinois State still headline the FCS' top conference, highly capable of returning to the final game in Frisco, Texas, come January. The depth of the conference is exceptional, with Northern Iowa, South Dakota State and Indiana State also registering wins in the playoffs last year, and Youngstown State, under new coach Bo Pelini (http://tinyurl.com/ltowcss), looking like a Top 10 team in the making this season.
2. CAA Football (12 teams) - New Hampshire elevated to the No. 1 ranking last November and has reached the national semifinals in each of the past two seasons, but coach Sean McDonnell's defending CAA champion is guarding against a drop-off following important senior losses. Villanova (2014 Walter Payton Award winner John Robertson) and James Madison (Vad Lee) have marquee talent under center, while Richmond is also coming off a playoff season. The depth in the conference is solid, including William & Mary, Maine, Delaware and Stony Brook.
3. Big Sky Conference (13 teams) - Speaking of depth, the Big Sky has it like the CAA, but its teams need to play better defense. That starts with three-time defending champion Eastern Washington, which isn't the same team following quarterback Vernon Adams Jr.'s upcoming transfer to Oregon. His loss opens up a terrific race with rivals Montana (under new coach Bob Stitt, http://tinyurl.com/l7qa4mk) and Montana State as well as Idaho State, Cal Poly and Northern Arizona.
4. Big South Conference (seven teams) - Last year's co-champions, Coastal Carolina and Liberty, have veteran teams to front a conference that has risen quite a bit in recent seasons. Coastal has the second-most wins (24) to North Dakota State among FCS programs over the last two years. Charleston Southern is pushing the Top 25 level under its terrific young coach Jamey Chadwell. Putting a trio of top teams there would say a ton about the Big South, which has a new member in start-up program Kennesaw State (http://tinyurl.com/nv7qm9w).
5. Southland Conference (11 teams) - There are a lot of good teams to go around this year's expanded nine-game conference schedule. There's even a national title contender in Sam Houston State, which has reached at least the playoff semifinals in three of the last four seasons. The big question is whether McNeese State gets back on track after a mediocre season. Southeastern Louisiana and Stephen F. Austin have lifted their games under new coaches, while Central Arkansas is always dangerous. Abilene Christian is a breakout candidate (http://tinyurl.com/n8wamgv).
6. Ohio Valley Conference (nine teams) - The offensive-laden conference won't change with the likes of Jacksonville State, Eastern Kentucky and likely a rebounding Eastern Illinois squad. After a big 2013, the OVC suffered a jolt in last year's playoffs when Jax State lost its first game at home as the No. 3 seed. UT Martin is a solid program but struggles to get to the next level, something Southeast Missouri State believes it can do this year.
7. Southern Conference (eight teams) - The SoCon took a step backward last year in the first season after the departure of powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, but Chattanooga had a breakout season with an unbeaten run through the conference, and the Mocs expect to play on a high level again. Samford and Western Carolina have plenty of talent, and Wofford seeks a return to prominence, so the conference should be improved. East Tennessee State is back in football as an FCS independent this season and will join the SoCon schedule as a ninth team in 2016.
8. Northeast Conference (seven teams) - NEC teams have done a great job in upgrading non-conference schedules and last year they combined to go 5-2 against CAA opponents. That's led to excellent title races in the conference and the parity adds up with plenty of teams, including last year's co-champs, Sacred Heart and Wagner. Bryant and Duquesne have experienced teams, and Saint Francis has made great strides as a program.
9. Patriot League (seven teams) - Graduation day will take a toll on Fordham after its big two-year run, so the Patriot League won't have a Top 10-15 staple this season. But everybody outside Georgetown, the only program not to offer scholarships, factors into the title picture, so there is depth in the race. Bucknell will likely have the favorite's role, but this is a league that will test itself out of conference, and the likes of Fordham, Colgate and Lafayette hope it pays off.
10. Ivy League (eight teams) - Harvard, the only unbeaten team in Division I last season, pumps out one excellent team after another. Dartmouth is capable of spoiling the Crimson's title bid this year and Yale, which beat Army last year after winning at Cal Poly in 2013, adds to the depth. The race is not the same without Penn being a power, but former Quakers coach Al Bagnoli remains in the non-scholarship league, hoping to lift doormat Columbia.
11. Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (11 teams) - A five-team tie for the title created a pulsating end to the regular season last year, but the MEAC lacked a true power. Still, North Carolina A&T, Bethune-Cookman (despite a head coaching change), South Carolina State, North Carolina Central and Morgan State, last year's playoff representative, will keep the race outstanding again. The champion is playing for a spot in the new Celebration Bowl ( http://tinyurl.com/oh5fwuj), not the FCS playoffs.
12. Southwestern Athletic Conference (10 teams) - The SWAC winner will take on the MEAC champ in the Celebration Bowl and that team must first survive the conference championship game. Defending champion Alcorn State rates as the favorite, although Southern, Grambling State and Alabama State are still among the top teams in the conference. The SWAC appears ready to build on a good season a year ago.
13. Pioneer Football League (11 teams) - Ineligibility has kept the PFL's best team from going to the FCS playoffs the last two seasons - San Diego in 2013 and Jacksonville last year. This year, the league hopes to get it right. Jacksonville is the one to beat, but there's depth in the race, although the lack of scholarships make it difficult for the PFL to be a big player nationally. Dayton and Drake are usually in the mix as well.