2016 Missouri Valley Football Conference Preview

(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

By CRAIG HALEY

STATS FCS Senior Editor

(STATS) - It's now or never for the talented senior class on the Youngstown State football team.

By now, its 17 members had expected to qualify for the FCS playoffs, which would be the Penguins' first appearance since 2006. The drought is hardly fitting for a tradition-rich program that won four national titles in the 1990s under coach Jim Tressel, now YSU's school president.

The Penguins dabbled with playoff appearances in 2013 (8-4) and '14 (7-5), then had a surprising losing record (5-6) in coach Bo Pelini's first season last year.

Within their Missouri Valley Football Conference schedule last year, one of the losses was by two points, two came by three points each and another was suffered in overtime. Close wasn't good enough.

"Sometimes you have to learn your lessons the hard way," said Pelini, the former Nebraska coach. "And I think that we did in certain respects and I think it became very evident from the results, from some of the things that happened to us (that), hey, if we want to take that next step, our overall commitment as a football team, as a program, has to increase. I feel good going in that we've made some strides, but time will tell."

The urgent feelings within the senior class should fuel the Penguins this season. The class includes two players who made the 2015 All-MVFC first team, defensive end Derek Rivers and safety LeRoy Alexander, and another who was on the second team, tailback Jody Webb. Tailback Martin Ruiz and strong safety Jameel Smith also are among the key seniors.

Youngstown State was picked fifth in the Missouri Valley preseason poll. Five teams from the conference have made each of the past two playoffs.

The Penguins defense should remain among the best in the conference and in the FCS. But Pelini feels his team needs to get more of the little details correct for his team to achieve its goal.

"I've always said you have to earn every win," Pelini said. "You play in a conference like this - it's very competitive, extremely well-coached - you're gonna have to earn it."

Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2016 Missouri Valley Conference race and STATS' predicted order of finish:

1. North Dakota State

2. Northern Iowa

3. South Dakota State

4. Illinois State

5. Western Illinois

6. Youngstown State

7. Indiana State

8. Southern Illinois

9. South Dakota

10. Missouri State

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TEAM CAPSULES

1. NORTH DAKOTA STATE BISON

LOCATION: Fargo, North Dakota

STADIUM: Fargodome

COACH: Chris Klieman (28-3 in two seasons at North Dakota State; 31-10 overall)

LAST SEASON: 13-2 overall, 7-1 Missouri Valley (Tie/1st); FCS champion

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (6 offense/8 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Carson Wentz, QB; Joe Haeg, LT; C.J. Smith, CB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: King Frazier, RB, Sr. (219 carries, 1,158 yards, 11 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Nick DeLuca, LB, Sr. (135 TT, 10 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 INTs, 6 PBU, 1 QBH, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Easton Stick, QB, So.; Chase Morlock, RB, Sr.; Bruce Anderson, RB/KR, So.; Lance Dunn, RB, R-So.; RJ Urzendowski, WR, Jr.; Darrius Shepherd, WR, So.; Connor Wentz, TE, Jr.; Zack Johnson, OG, Sr.; Landon Lechler, OT, Sr.; Austin Kuhnert, C, Jr.; Greg Menard, DE, Jr.; Brad Ambrosius, DE, Sr.; Nate Tanguay, DT, Jr.; M.J. Stumpf, LB, Sr.; Pierre Gee-Tucker, LB, Sr.; Tre Dempsey, FS, Jr.; Robbie Grimsley, SS, So.; Jalen Allison, CB, R-So.; Cam Pederson, PK, So.

OUTLOOK: The fan base of any other team playing a non-conference schedule of Charleston Southern, Eastern Washington and Iowa would be in a panic. Not the Bison. With 14 returning starters, and young QB Stick (1,642 total yards and 18 total touchdowns) going 8-0 as a starter while Carson Wentz was sidelined by injury, the Bison appear primed to extend their NCAA-record five straight national titles. They have a 71-5 record since 2011. The style of play won't change: their power run game is incredibly deep with RBs Frazier, Anderson, Dunn and Morlock, and the physical defense will look to win field position with stars such as DL Menard and Tanguay, LB DeLuca and emerging SS Grimsley. The Bison are replacing two veteran cornerbacks, so that position will need maturation. The season's biggest game figures to be Oct. 29 when the Bison visit rival Northern Iowa.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 27, Charleston Southern

Sept. 10, Eastern Washington

Sept. 17, at Iowa

Oct. 1, Illinois State*

Oct. 8, at Missouri State*

Oct. 15, South Dakota State*

Oct. 22, at Western Illinois*

Oct. 29, at Northern Iowa*

Nov. 5, Youngstown State*

Nov. 12, Indiana State*

Nov. 19 at South Dakota*

* - Missouri Valley game

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2. NORTHERN IOWA PANTHERS

LOCATION: Cedar Falls, Iowa

STADIUM: UNI-Dome

COACH: Mark Farley (129-61 in 15 seasons at Northern Iowa)

LAST SEASON: 9-5 overall, 5-3 Missouri Valley (Tie/3rd)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (9 offense/5 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Brett McMakin, LB; Deiondre' Hall, DB; Makinton Dorleant, DB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Aaron Bailey, QB, Sr. (121-for-220, 1,656 yards, 13 TDs, 6 INTs; 257 carries, 1,334 yards, 19 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Karter Schult, DL, Sr. (81 TT, 22.5 TFL, 14 sacks, 3 PBU, 9 QBH, 1 FR, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Tyvis Smith, RB, Sr.; Michael Malloy, RB, Sr.; Daurice Fountain, WR, Jr.; Charles Brown, WR, Sr.; Cal Twait, OL, So.; Bryce Sweeney, OL, Sr.; Robert Rathje, OL, Sr.; Trevor Hanson, OL, Sr.; Preston Woods, DL, Jr.; Adam Reth, DL, Jr.; D'Shawn Dexter, LB, Sr.; Jared Farley, LB, Jr.; Damon Hendrix, DB, Sr.; Sam Kuhter, P, Jr.

OUTLOOK: UNI is a well-deserved fifth in the STATS FCS Preseason Top 25, boasting a physical style and dominant run game. But there should be concern over the Panthers' significant losses on defense, including McMakin's surprise decision to enter the NFL Draft after his junior season. Schult headlines the defense as one of the nation's top pass rushers, while Jared Farley is the team's top-returning tackler (97). The secondary was hit the hardest by graduation. The offense will be outstanding, with a veteran offensive line paving the way for two 1,000-yard rushers in QB Bailey and RB Smith (1,079 yards, 7 TDs). WR Fountain (41 receptions, 604 yards, 5 TDs) will emerge even more in an improved pass game. The special teams are retooled after a number of senior losses. The non-conference schedule is ambitious again (at Iowa State and Eastern Washington and home versus Montana), but it gets no different playing in the FCS' best conference. Mark Farley usually does an excellent job of building momentum heading into the postseason.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 3, at Iowa State

Sept. 10, Montana

Sept. 17, at Eastern Washington

Oct. 1, Southern Illinois*

Oct. 8, at South Dakota*

Oct. 15, at Youngstown State*

Oct. 22, Missouri State*

Oct. 29, North Dakota State*

Nov. 5, at Indiana State*

Nov. 12, at Western Illinois*

Nov. 19, South Dakota State*

* - Missouri Valley game

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3. SOUTH DAKOTA STATE JACKRABBITS

LOCATION: Brookings, South Dakota

STADIUM: Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium

COACH: John Stiegelmeier (128-90 in 19 seasons at South Dakota State)

LAST SEASON: 8-4 overall, 5-3 Missouri Valley (Tie/3rd)

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Bryce Siverling, OL; T.J. Lally, LB; Jimmie Forsythe, CB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Jake Wieneke, WR, Jr. (72 receptions, 1,472 yards, 11 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Cole Langer, DT, Sr. (43 TT, 9.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 2 PBU, 5 QBH, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Taryn Christion, QB, So.; Zach Lujan, QB, Sr.; Brady Mengarelli, RB, Jr.; Kyle Paris, RB, Sr.; Dallas Goedert, TE, Jr.; Jacob Ohnesorge, C, Jr.; Matt Clark, OL, So.; Nick Carr, OL, Sr.; Kellen Soulek, DT, Jr.; Jared Blum, DE, Sr.; Shayne Gottlob, DL, Sr.; Jesse Bobbit, LB, Sr.; Dallas Brown, LB, Sr.; Nick Mears, S, Sr.; Nick Farina, DB, Jr.; Chris Balster, DB, Jr.

OUTLOOK: An 8-2 start to last season was undone by losses to Western Illinois to end the regular season and Montana in the first round of the playoffs. But there's plenty of energy surrounding the Jackrabbits' season as they will christen their new Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium on Sept. 10. Although Missouri Valley title contention is attainable, SDSU has road conference games against North Dakota State, Illinois State and Northern Iowa. Without much margin for error, the more realistic scenario is the Jackrabbits gaining a fifth straight playoff appearance. Christion has been named the No. 1 quarterback, although it might be surprising if Lujan doesn't get some playing time considering they shared the position last year. With All-America WR Wieneke and TE Goedert catching passes and Mengarelli (742 yards, 6 TDs) part of a solid unit of running backs, the offense will be potent. The concerns are on defense, where four-year starting MLB Lally and both starting cornerbacks, Forsythe and Je Ryan Butler, departed. LB Bobbit is coming off a breakout season and Langer is one the best defensive tackles in the FCS.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 3, at TCU

Sept. 10, Drake

Sept. 17, Cal Poly

Oct. 1, Western Illinois*

Oct. 8, at Southern Illinois*

Oct. 15, at North Dakota State*

Oct. 22, Youngstown State*

Oct. 29, at Illinois State*

Nov. 5, Missouri State*

Nov. 12, South Dakota*

Nov. 19, at Northern Iowa*

* - Missouri Valley game

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4. ILLINOIS STATE REDBIRDS

LOCATION: Normal, Illinois

STADIUM: Hancock Stadium

COACH: Brock Spack (56-29 in seven seasons at Illinois State)

LAST SEASON: 10-3 overall, 7-1 Missouri Valley (Tie/1st)

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (9 offense/6 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Tre Roberson, QB; Marshaun Coprich, RB; David Perkins, DE

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Anthony Warrum, WR/PR, Sr. (58 receptions, 1,290 yards, 15 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Alec Kocour, S, Jr. (78 TT, 1.5 TFL, 3 INTs, 3 PBU, 1 QBH, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Jake Kolbe, QB, R-So.; Jamal Towns, RB/KR, Sr.; George Moreira, RB/KR, So.; Christian Gibbs, WR, Jr.; Mark Spelman, OL, Sr.; Kyle Avaloy, OL, Sr.; Donavin O'Day, OL, R-So.; Dalton Keene, DT, Jr.; Matt McCown, DL, Jr.; Brannon Barry, DE, Jr.; Brent Spack, LB, Sr.; Alejandro Rivera, LB, Sr.; Davontae Harris, DB, Jr.; La'Darius Newbold, DB, Sr.; DraShane Glass, DB, Jr.; Sean Slattery, PK, Jr.; Reece Attard, P, Sr.

OUTLOOK: The Redbirds, like North Dakota State, are defending Missouri Valley co-championships of the last two seasons, but their two big losses on offense, QB Roberson and RB Coprich, suggest they will find it harder to post a three-peat. Kolbe, a pocket passer, unlike the dual-threat Roberson, won a start against Northern Iowa last season and is expected to break out as a redshirt sophomore. Towns and Moreira combined for only 310 rushing yards while backing up Coprich, making running back a little more unsettled. But the starters return at the other nine positions, with All-America WR Warrum and OL Avaloy leading the way. Perkins and LB Pat Meehan were the biggest losses on defense, which means some new leaders will emerge this season, including S Kocour, who is coming off an injury, and DT Keene. In the Missouri Valley's unbalanced schedule, Illinois State and UNI won't face each other.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 3, Valparaiso

Sept. 10, at Northwestern

Sept. 17, Eastern Illinois

Sept. 24, at Indiana State*

Oct. 1, at North Dakota State*

Oct. 8, Youngstown State*

Oct. 15, Southern Illinois*

Oct. 22, at South Dakota*

Oct. 29, South Dakota State*

Nov. 5, at Western Illinois*

Nov. 12, Missouri State*

* - Missouri Valley game

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5. WESTERN ILLINOIS FIGHTING LEATHERNECKS

LOCATION: Macomb, Illinois

STADIUM: Hanson Field

COACH: Charlie Fisher (first season at Western Illinois)

LAST SEASON: 7-6 overall, 5-3 Missouri Valley (Tie/3rd)

STARTERS RETURNING: 17 (9 offense/8 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Nikko Watson, RB; Eddy Holtschlag, DE; Kris Harley, DL

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Lance Lenoir, WR/RS, Sr. (83 receptions, 1,184 yards, 7 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Brett Taylor, LB, Jr. (144 TT, 10.5 TFL, 2 INTs, 1 PBU, 3 QBH, 4 FR, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Sean McGuire, QB, So.; Trenton Norvell, QB, Sr.; Steve McShane, RB, So.; Devon Moore, RB, Sr.; Joey Borsellino, WR, Sr.; Stacey Smith, WR, Sr.; Jacob Judd, OL, Jr.; Matt Zobrist, OL, Sr.; James Torgerson, OL, Jr.; Matt Zobrist, OL, Sr.; Pete Swenson, DL, So.; Khalen Saunders, DL, So.; Adam Brott, LB, Jr.; Michael Bishop, LB, So.; Riggs Baxter, LB, So.; Tim Smith, DB, So.; Xavier Rowe, DB, So.; Aaron Diggs, DB, Jr.; David Griffith, DB, Jr.; Nathan Knuffman, PK/P, Sr.

OUTLOOK: Fisher, the former offensive coordinator at Richmond, steps into a terrific situation at WIU. There are 17 starters and 46 letter-winners returning from the first team to earn an at-large playoff bid after a 6-5 regular-season record. It was the result of a difficult schedule under then-coach Bob Nielson and it's rugged again. The Leathernecks have two experienced quarterbacks with Norvell (168-for-304, 2,110 yards, 13 TDs, 8 INTs) and McGuire (85-for-158, 1,159 yards, 6 TDs, 6 INTs), and WRs Lenoir and Borsellino (62 receptions, 849 yards, 4 TDs) combined on 145 receptions last season. Moore seeks a banner senior season as he replaces All-Missouri Valley RB Watson, and his offensive line should be excellent. On defense, the headliner is LB Taylor, whose 144 tackles were the fourth-most in the FCS. But the next five players in tackles also return to the lineup. The biggest task for new defensive coordinator David Elson is overcoming the loss of several key defensive linemen.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 1, at Eastern Illinois

Sept. 10, Northern Arizona

Sept. 24, at Northern Illinois

Oct. 1, at South Dakota State*

Oct. 8, Indiana State*

Oct. 15, at Missouri State*

Oct. 22, North Dakota State*

Oct. 29, at South Dakota*

Nov. 5, Illinois State*

Nov. 12, Northern Iowa*

Nov. 19, at Southern Illinois*

* - Missouri Valley game

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6. YOUNGSTOWN STATE PENGUINS

LOCATION: Youngstown, Ohio

STADIUM: Arnold D. Stambaugh Stadium

COACH: Bo Pelini (5-6 in one season at Youngstown State; 72-33 overall)

LAST SEASON: 5-6 overall, 3-5 Missouri Valley (Tie/6th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (8 offense/6 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Andrew Williams, WR; Andre Stubbs, WR; Terrell Williams, DB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Jody Webb, TB/KR, Sr. (122 carries, 857 yards, 9 TDs; 17 receptions, 172 yards; 33.7-yard KO return average, 2 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Derek Rivers, DE, Sr. (52 TT, 15.5 TFL, 8 sacks, 13 QBH, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Hunter Wells, QB, Jr.; Trent Hosick, QB, Jr. (Arizona Western College transfer); Martin Ruiz, TB, Sr.; Isiah Scott, WR, So.; I'tavious Harvin, WR, Jr.; Shane Kuhn, TE, Jr.; Justin Spencer, OT, Jr.; Gavin Wiggins, OG, So.; Avery Moss, DE, Sr.; Jaylin Kelly, LB, Jr.; Lee Wright, LB, Jr.; Armand Dellovade, LB, So.; LeRoy Alexander, FS, Sr.; Jameel Smith, SS, Sr.; David Rivers, CB, Sr.; Eric Thompson, CB, Jr.; Zak Kennedy, PK, So.

OUTLOOK: An easier second half to the Valley schedule - with the exception of North Dakota State - is welcome news to the Penguins, who have gone 3-8 over the last three Novembers while their playoff drought has been extended from 2006. With a senior-led lineup, the Penguins have no excuse in Pelini's second season back in his hometown. Despite some retooling in the front seven of the defense, DE Rivers is a mainstay, entering his senior season as the program's all-time sacks leader. Alexander is the leader in the secondary as the Penguins come off a season in which they led the FCS in fewest passing yards allowed per game (116.7). The offense needs a better season out of QB Wells (159-for-291, 1,975 yards, 13 TDs, 7 INTs), who doesn't get back his two leading receivers. But Webb and Ruiz (739 yards, 4 TDs) provide a 1-2 rushing punch that few teams can boast. YSU is tough at home and should do well over those six games.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 1, Duquesne

Sept. 10, at West Virginia

Sept. 17, Robert Morris

Oct. 1, South Dakota*

Oct. 8, at Illinois State*

Oct. 15, Northern Iowa*

Oct. 22, at South Dakota State*

Oct. 29, Indiana State*

Nov. 5, at North Dakota State*

Nov. 12, Southern Illinois*

Nov. 19, at Missouri State*

* - Missouri Valley game

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7. INDIANA STATE SYCAMORES

LOCATION: Terre Haute, Indiana

STADIUM: Memorial Stadium

COACH: Mike Sanford (9-17 in two seasons at Indiana State; 25-60 overall)

LAST SEASON: 5-6 overall, 3-5 Missouri Valley (Tie/6th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 11 (5 offense, 6 defense)

KEY LOSSES: Matt Adam, QB; Connor Underwood, OLB/DE; Kendall Walker, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Robert Tonyan, Jr., WR, Sr. (40 receptions, 601 yards, 6 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Jameer Thurman, LB, Sr. (75 TT, 2.5 TFL, 2 INTs, 3 PBU, 4 QBH, 1 FR)

OTHER KEY LOSSES: Isaac Harker, QB, So.; Roland Genesy, RB, R-Sr.; Sampson Levingston, WR, Sr.; Kelvin Cook, WR, R-So.; James Officer, C, Jr.; Preston Collier, RT, Sr.; Dakota Vermillion, LT, Sr.; Conlan Cassidy, DL, Sr.; Tyshon Waller, DE, Jr.; Katrell Moss, LB, So.; Antonio Broadus, LB, R-Jr.; Tsali Lough, S, Sr.; Marcus Gray, S, Sr.; Phil Wilson, S, Sr.; Lonnell Brown Jr., CB, Sr.; Joshua Appel, LS, Sr.

OUTLOOK: Already losing many key seniors, the Sycamores gained more bad news in the offseason. Starting QB Adam will sit out the 2016 season to focus on academics and RB LeMonte Booker suffered a torn ACL in spring practice. The Sycamores have regrouped, but they likely won't challenge for a playoff berth, as they might have with Adam and Booker returning the starting lineup. Harker hopes to grab the quarterback job, although Wyoming transfer Aaron Young has entered the picture. Injuries to Booker last season allowed RB Genesy (582 yards, 3 TDs) to establish himself. The offensive standout is WR Tonyan, who will miss Adam's passing ability. The offensive line allowed an MVFC-high 43 sacks and needs significant improvement. Thurman (75), Gray (74) and Lough (70) are a good start to what's returning on defense. Some junior college transfers will fill some spots. The Sycamores will play 11 straight weeks without a bye.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 3, Butler

Sept. 10, at Minnesota

Sept. 17, at Southeast Missouri State

Sept. 24, Illinois State*

Oct. 1, Missouri State*

Oct. 8, at Western Illinois*

Oct. 15, South Dakota*

Oct. 22, at Southern Illinois*

Oct. 29, at Youngstown State*

Nov. 5, Northern Iowa*

Nov. 12, at North Dakota State*

* - Missouri Valley game

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8. SOUTHERN ILLINOIS SALUKIS

LOCATION: Carbondale, Illinois

STADIUM: Saluki Stadium

COACH: Nick Hill (first season at Southern Illinois)

LAST SEASON: 3-8 overall, 2-6 Missouri Valley (9th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (6 offense/6 defense)

KEY LOSSES: Mark Iannotti, QB; Ethan Wirth, OL; Kenny James, S

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Daquan Isom, RB/KR, So. (78 carries, 548 yards, 4 TDs; 36 receptions, 408 yards, 4 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Chase Allen, ILB, Sr. (120 TT, 8 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 PBU, 8 QBH, 2 FR, 2 FF, 3 BK)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Josh Straughan, QB, Grad (Stillman College transfer); Cameron Walter, RB, Jr.; Billy Reed, WR, Sr.; Jimmy Jones, WR, So.; Israel Lamprakes, WR, Sr.; Austin Olsen, OL, Jr.; Reid Sealby, OL, Sr.; Leonard Garron, DE, Sr.; T.J. Neelen, NT, Sr.; Dakota Upchurch, DL, Jr.; Khari Waithe-Alexander, DL, Jr.; Markese Jackson, ILB, Jr.; Tori Millender, ILB, So.; Ryan Neal, S, Jr.; Jefferson Vea, CB, So.; Austin Johnson, PK, Sr.; Derek Mathewson, P, Grad

OUTLOOK: Hill, a 2007 SIU graduate, was the Salukis' quarterback when they were enjoying a terrific decade of success as both a Missouri Valley and FCS power. He hopes to put pieces in place for a turnaround. Transfer QB Straughan has impressed since arriving on campus, but he's replacing the All-MVFC first-teamer, Iannotti, who led the FCS in total offense. Still, the Salukis are strong in the skills positions, returning RB Isom and WR Reed (56 receptions, 805 yards, 4 TDs), among others. The struggling defense is returning to a 4-3 base under new coordinator Kraig Paulson. LB Allen is the defensive leader, with Garron making a move from linebacker to defensive end. The September schedule is manageable before the Salukis move into conference play. That part of the schedule doesn't include North Dakota State.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 3, at Florida Atlantic

Sept. 10, Southeast Missouri State

Sept. 17, Murray State

Oct. 1, at Northern Iowa*

Oct. 8, South Dakota State*

Oct. 15, at Illinois State*

Oct. 22, Indiana State*

Oct. 29, at Missouri State*

Nov. 5, South Dakota*

Nov. 12, at Youngstown State*

Nov. 19, Western Illinois*

* - Missouri Valley game

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9. SOUTH DAKOTA COYOTES

LOCATION: Vermillion, South Dakota

STADIUM: DakotaDome

COACH: Bob Nielson (first season at South Dakota; 186-80-1 overall)

LAST SEASON: 5-6 overall, 3-5 Missouri Valley (Tie/6th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (9 offense/4 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Eric Shufford, WR; Andrew Van Ginkel, DE; Keyen Lage, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Ryan Saeger, QB, Sr. (165-for-299, 1,984 yards, 12 TDs, 7 INTs; 115 carries, 350 yards, 3 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Tyson Graham, FS, Sr. (65 TT, 1.5 TFL, 4 INTs, 3 PBU, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Chris Streveler, QB, Jr. (Minnesota transfer); Trevor Bouma, RB, Sr.; Michael Fredrick, RB, So.; Riley Donovan, WR, R-Jr.; Brandt Van Roekel, WR, Jr.; Aaron Ramsey, TE, Jr.; Nick Jensen, LT, So.; Nile Banks, LG, Sr.; Colin Mertlik, DE, Sr.; John Wessel, LB, Sr.; Jet Moreland, LB, Sr.; Devon O'Farrell, LB, Sr.; Jacob Warner, SS, Sr.; Adam Harris, CB, Jr.; Miles Bergner, PK/P, Sr.

OUTLOOK: Nielson, coming off MVFC coach of the year honors at Western Illinois, made the unique move of stepping across the conference to USD, replacing the retired Joe Glenn. The Coyotes posted a stunning win at North Dakota State last October, underscoring the talent in the program. Among the 95 players, 38 are new to the program and another 12 were freshman redshirts last season. There's more returning on offense than on defense. QB Saeger has come into his own and will be supported in the new spread attack by the running back tandem of Fredick (622 yards, 2 TDs) and Bouma (435 yards, 6 TDs). Getting WR Donovan back from injury is important. Nielson and his staff had to be greatly disappointed when last year's freshman sensation, DE Van Ginkel, transferred out of the program. Only four starters return on defense, but LB Wessel, DE Mertlik and safeties Graham and Warner ranked the top six in tackles. PK Bergner, who hit the game-winning field goal against NDSU, could win some more games this season.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 1, at New Mexico

Sept. 10, Weber State

Sept. 17, at North Dakota

Oct. 1, at Youngstown State*

Oct. 8, Northern Iowa*

Oct. 15, at Indiana State*

Oct. 22, Illinois State*

Oct. 29, Western Illinois*

Nov. 5, at Southern Illinois*

Nov. 12, at South Dakota State*

Nov. 19, North Dakota State*

* - Missouri Valley game

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10. MISSOURI STATE BEARS

LOCATION: Springfield, Missouri

STADIUM: Plaster Sports Complex

COACH: Dave Steckel (1-10 in one season at Missouri State)

LAST SEASON: 1-10 overall, 0-8 Missouri Valley (10th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Ryan Heaston, RB; James Barnes, DL; Christian Hoffmann, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Deion Holliman, WR/RS, Jr. (13 receptions, 92 yards; 21.2-yard KO return average, 1 TD; 17.4-yard punt return average, 1 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Dylan Cole, LB, Sr. (152 TT, 12.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 4 PBU, 2 QBH, 1 FR)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Brodie Lambert, QB, Sr.; Breck Ruddick, QB, So.; Calan Crowder, RB, Jr.; Jason Randall, RB, So.; Zac Hoover, WR, Sr.; Malik Earl, WR, Jr.; LeMarcus Stewart, WR, Sr.; Riley Shantz, C, Sr.; Jordan Turner, OL, So.; Aaron Clardy, OL, So.; Marquis Prophete, OL, So.; Colby Isbell, DL, Jr.; Tony Jones, DL, Jr.; Alexz Jones, LB, Jr.; Kurran Blarney, LB, Jr.; Jared Beshore, FS, So.; Tre Betts, SS, So.; Anthony Upchurch, SS, So.

OUTLOOK: The Bears haven't had a winning season since 2009 and bottomed out with a young team in Steckel's first season in Springfield (the lone win was a struggle past Chadron State). They were outscored 535-108 in the forgettable season. But they used 10 freshmen in the starting lineup, so Steckel has something to build around. QB Lambert (103-for-194, 776 yards, 3 TDs, 11 INTs) struggled last season, which led to Ruddick playing in seven games. RBs Crowder and Randall will combine on an improved run game. Just as Randall had a solid freshman campaign on offense, FS Beshore did the same on defense. It's a defense that features All-America LB Cole, whose 13.8 tackles per game ranked third in the FCS. Improvement might come slowly in the MVFC, but the Bears are intent on getting there.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 1, Southwestern College

Sept. 10, Murray State

Sept. 24, at Kansas State

Oct. 1, at Indiana State*

Oct. 8, North Dakota State*

Oct. 15, Western Illinois*

Oct. 22, at Northern Iowa*

Oct. 29, Southern Illinois*

Nov. 5, at South Dakota State*

Nov. 12, at Illinois State*

Nov. 19, Youngstown State*

* - Missouri Valley game

Updated August 25, 2016

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