(STATS) - Everybody's talking about what two-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State lost this offseason, but other Missouri Valley Football Conference teams are filling voids as well.
The average number of returning starters per team is under 13. Quarterback was especially ravaged by graduation loss.
The uncertainty should make for an intriguing, if not wild, title race in 2019 - even if NDSU has been the biggest certainty in the FCS this decade (seven national titles in the last eight seasons plus eight straight MVFC crowns).
Following is a predicted order of finish and a team-by-team breakdown of the 2019 Missouri Valley race:
1. North Dakota State
2. South Dakota State
3. Illinois State
4. Northern Iowa
5. Indiana State
6. South Dakota
7. Youngstown State
8. Western Illinois
9. Southern Illinois
10. Missouri State
1. NORTH DAKOTA STATE
LOCATION: Fargo, North Dakota
HEAD COACH: Matt Entz (first season)
2018 RECORDS: 15-0 overall, 8-0 MVFC (1st) - No. 1 in final STATS FCS Top 25
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 7 (3 offense/4 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Trey Lance, QB, R-So.; Zeb Noland, QB, Jr. (Iowa State transfer); Ty Brooks, RB, Sr.; Adam Cofield, RB, Jr.; Christian Watson, WR, So.; Ben Ellefson, TE, Sr.; Dillon Radunz, LT, Jr.; Zack Johnson, RT, Sr.; Derrek Tuszka, DE, Sr.; Spencer Waege, DE, So.; Cole Karcz, DT, Sr.; Jabril Cox, LB, Jr.; Jaxson Brown, LB, Sr.; Marquise Bridges, CB, Sr.; James Hendricks, FS, Sr.; James Kaczor, SS, So.; Garret Wegner, P, Jr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Easton Stick, QB; Bruce Anderson, RB; Robbie Grimsley, SS
OUTLOOK: Even with the loss of 15 starters and a switch to Entz from Chris Klieman (a part of all seven FCS championships), the Bison have reloaded for a run at a third straight national title and a ninth consecutive MVFC crown. The preseason spotlight has been at quarterback, where Lance or Noland will seek to replace Stick (FCS QB-record 49 career wins). RBs Brooks and Cofield have combined for 2,180 rushing yards and 20 TDs in supporting roles and will be joined by redshirt freshman Saybein Clark in the rotation. Opposing offenses will look to avoid pass rusher Tuszka and LB Cox, the 2018 MVFC defensive player of the year. There's a six-game stretch with five opponents that were ranked in the STATS FCS Preseason Top 25. The Bison may not win it all again, but they're the team to beat going into the season.
2. SOUTH DAKOTA STATE
LOCATION: Brookings, South Dakota
STADIUM: Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium
HEAD COACH: John Stiegelmeier (158-100, 22 seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 10-3 overall, 6-2 MVFC (2nd) - No. 3 in final STATS FCS Top 25
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: J'Bore Gibbs, QB, R-Fr.; Pierre Strong Jr., RB, So.; Mikey Daniel, RB, Sr.; Luke Sellers, FB, Sr.; Cade Johnson, WR, Jr.; Adam Anderson, WR, Sr.; Evan Greeneway, OT, Sr.; Eagan Lickiss, OL, Jr.; Ryan Earith, DE, Sr.; Krockett Krolikowski, DT, So.; Christian Rozeboom, LB, Sr.; Logan Backhaus, LB, Jr.; Marshon Harris, CB, Sr.; Bradey Sorenson, LS, Jr.; Chase Vinatieri, PK, Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Taryn Christion, QB; Tiano Pupungatoa, OG; Jordan Brown, CB
OUTLOOK: With 30 wins in the last three seasons and back-to-back appearances in the national semifinals, the Jackrabbits have elite status in the FCS. They were ranked No. 3 in the STATS FCS Preseason Top 25, just missing No. 2, and had a national-high five preseason All-Americans. But their offense has to replace 3½-year QB Christion, who set MVFC career records in passing yards (11,535), passing TDs (104) and total offensive yards (13,050). While that puts pressure on the youngster Gibbs, the talent in the surrounding skills position is superb, led by MVFC freshman of the year Strong (1,116 yards and 11 TDs on only 117 carries) and All-America WR Johnson (67 receptions for 1,332 yards and 17 TDs). LB Rozeboom (364 career tackles) and PK Vinatieri (38 field goals and 294 points in career) also are among the nation's best at their positions.
3. ILLINOIS STATE
LOCATION: Normal, Illinois
STADIUM: Hancock Stadium
HEAD COACH: Brock Spack (74-45, 10 seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 3-5 MVFC (Tie/6th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 16 (8 offense/8 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Brady Davis, QB, Jr.; James Robinson, RB, Sr.; Andrew Edgar, WR, So.; Cole Blackman, WR, Jr. (Virginia transfer); Drew Himmelman, OT, Jr.; Gabe Megginson, OG, Sr.; Adam Solomon, OL, Sr. (Illinois transfer); Romeo McKnight, DE, Jr.; John Ridgeway, NT, So.; Ty DeForest, MLB, Sr.; Luther Kirk, FS, Sr.; Devin Taylor, DB, Jr.; J.T. Bohlken, P, Jr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Spencer Schnell, WR; Zackary Mathews, LB; Mitchell Brees, S
OUTLOOK: With the Redbirds boasting increased experience and depth, it appears they won't disappoint this season. They did a year ago following a 5-1 start, including a win at Colorado State. Davis is one of the top quarterbacks in the MVFC, but the offense will go with a heavy dose of All-America RB Robinson (conference-high 1,290 rushing yards, 13 total touchdowns), who works behind a huge offensive line. Despite a solid season out of the defense, the Redbirds need to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks (only 15 sacks). FS Kirk is an NFL prospect. But note the Redbirds lost four fifth-year transfers, including two starters, LB/DE Jason Harris and DB Willie Edwards.
4. NORTHERN IOWA
LOCATION: Cedar Falls, Iowa
HEAD COACH: Mark Farley (149-78, 18 seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 7-6 overall, 5-3 MVFC (Tie/3rd) - No. 23 in final STATS FCS Top 25
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 12 (6 offense/6 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Jacob Keller, QB, R-So.; Will McElvain, QB, R-Fr.; Trevor Allen, RB, Sr.; Aaron Graham, RB, Sr.; Deion McShane, WR, So.; Jaylin James, WR, Sr.; Logan Wolf, WR, Fr.; Briley Moore, TE, Sr.; Jackson Scott-Brown, OG, Sr.; Spencer Brown, OT, Jr.; Nick Ellis, OL, R-Jr.; Seth Thomas, DL, Sr.; Elerson G. Smith, DL, R-Jr.; Chris Kolarvic, LB, R-So.; Xavior Williams, DB, R-Jr.; Shakespeare Williams, DB, R-Fr.; Korby Sander, DB, R-Jr.; Roosevelt Lawrence, DB, Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Eli Dunne, QB; Cal Twait, LT; Rickey Neal Jr., DE/OLB
OUTLOOK: Underestimate UNI at your own risk. The Panthers are consistently one of the toughest teams in the FCS and tend to reload even after suffering key graduation losses, like in this offseason. They're replacing a 2½-year starter at QB (Dunne), but the offense boasts a physical O-line, All-America TE Moore and strong receivers, and RB Allen, who rushed for 649 yards and five TDs last season. The front seven of the defense will have some new standouts, but the secondary is loaded, including Sander (93 tackles, three interceptions) and Xavior Williams (four interceptions). LB Kolarevic appeared to be headed toward MVFC freshman of the year before he was lost to a season-ending injury after six games. UNI will face one of the nation's more challenging road schedules (Iowa State, Weber State, North Dakota State, Missouri State, Illinois State and South Dakota State).
5. INDIANA STATE
LOCATION: Terre Haute, Indiana
STADIUM: Memorial Stadium
HEAD COACH: Curt Mallory (7-15, two seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 7-4 overall, 5-3 MVFC (Tie/4th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (9 offense/6 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Ryan Boyle, QB, R-Sr.; Titus McCoy, RB, Jr.; Nick Sims, RB, R-So. (Toledo transfer); Dante Hendrix, WR, R-So.; Dante Jones II, WR, R-Sr.; Wyatt Wozniak, C, R-Sr.; Keven Kcehowski, RT, R-Sr.; James Lang, RG, R-Sr.; Isaiah Edwards, LG, R-Sr.; Cade Peratt, DE, Jr.; Jonas Griffith, LB, R-Sr.; Clayton Glasco, LB, Sr.; Denzel Bonner, S, Sr.; Anthony Tucker Jr., CB, Sr.; Kaelub Newman, CB, R-Jr.; Jerry Nunez, PK, Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Ja'Quan Keys RB; Katrell Moss, LB; Rondell Green, CB
OUTLOOK: The Sycamores' seven-game improvement last season - from 0-11 in 2017 - was the largest in the FCS, but they fell just shy of a playoff berth. That perceived snub fuels the chip on their shoulder this season. QB Boyle, the MVFC newcomer of the year, was outstanding in his debut a year ago, but another difference maker was the run game as the Sycamores went from ranking last in the MVFC in 2017 to second last season at 241.5 rushing yards per game. The production should remain high because their offensive line has five fifth-year seniors. The defense will be even better in its second season with a 4-3 alignment, led by All-America LB Griffith (conference-high 132 tackles). Having seven home games is huge, but the Sycamores also face much higher expectations.
6. SOUTH DAKOTA
LOCATION: Vermillion, South Dakota
HEAD COACH: Bob Nielson (16-19, three seasons; 202-99-1 overall)
2018 RECORDS: 4-7 overall, 3-5 MVFC (Tie/6th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Austin Simmons, QB, Sr.; Kai Henry, RB, Jr.; Dakarai Allen, WR, Sr.; Levi Falck, WR, Jr.; Kody Case, WR/RS, R-So.; Mason Scheidegger, OL, Jr.; Tyler Johnson, OL, Sr.; Darin Greenfield, DE, Sr.; Kameron Cline, DE, Sr.; Jack Cochrane, LB, Jr.; Jonathan Joanis, LB, So.; Phillip Powell, FS, Jr.; Mark Collins Jr., CB, Jr.; Cameron Tisdale, DB, So.; Elijah Reed, DB, Jr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Nick Jensen, LT; Tyler Ciurej, C; Andrew Gray, FS
OUTLOOK: USD has the talent to be a playoff squad, like in 2017, but the schedule has difficult bookends - Montana and Oklahoma to start it and North Dakota State and South Dakota State to end it. The Montana and SDSU games are at the DakotaDome, where the Coyotes are 13-7 the past four seasons. New defensive coordinator Travis Johansen is tasked with reworking a defense that struggled against the run, which led to the Coyotes surrendering 34.2 points per game (95th in the FCS). All-America DE Greenfield enters his final season with 41 tackles for loss, 19 sacks and 33 QB hurries, while FS Powell's return after an injury-plagued season is important. With a lot back in the offensive skills positions, led by QB Simmons (MVFC-high 314.2 total yards per game), the offense figures to be explosive.
7. YOUNGSTOWN STATE
LOCATION: Youngstown, Ohio
STADIUM: Arnold D. Stambaugh Stadium
HEAD COACH: Bo Pelini (27-22, four seasons, 94-49 overall)
2018 RECORDS: 4-7 overall, 3-5 MVFC (Tie/6th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 9 (4 offense/5 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Nathan Mays, QB, Sr.; Joe Craycraft, QB, So.; Christian Turner, TB, Jr.; Joe Alessi, RB, Sr.; Braxton Chapman, RB, So.; Samuel St. Surin, WR, Jr.; Jermiah Braswell, WR, Sr.; Miles Joiner, TE, So.; Matt Jones, C, Sr. (West Virginia transfer); Dan Becker, OT, So.; Zaire Jones, DB, Jr. (Vanderbilt transfer); Myles Douglas, OL, Sr. (Tennessee Tech transfer); Justus Reed, DE, Jr.; Shereif Bynum, DE, Sr.; Wes Thompson, DT, Jr.; Ray Anderson, LB, So.; Bryce Gibson, DB, Jr.; Melvin Jackson, DB, So.; D.J. Smalls, CB, Sr.; Kyle Hegedus, FS, Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Tevin McCaster, TB; Vitas Hrynkiewicz, C; Armand Dellovade, LB
OUTLOOK: Only North Dakota State is replacing more starters in the MVFC than Youngstown State. Add in that the Penguins are starting over in the kicking game and the inconsistency of recent years could continue this season. But they're also not far removed from the 2016 national runner-up finish, so there's still talent. QB Mays was limited to only four games last season and provides a boast to the offense, which could spread around the carries in the backfield. TE Joiner may be ready to break out after catching four TDs as a freshman. On defense, the Penguins get back a difference maker in DE Reed, who missed all of last season with an Achilles injury. He will team with fellow DE Bynum, who had 11½ tackles for loss and 10 QB hurries as a junior. The season opens in Week Zero (Aug. 24) against Samford.
8. WESTERN ILLINOIS
LOCATION: Macomb, Illinois
STADIUM: Hanson Field
HEAD COACH: Jared Elliott (5-6, one season)
2018 RECORDS: 5-6 overall, 4-4 MVFC (5th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 11 (6 offense/5 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Connor Sampson, QB, Jr.; Max Norris, RB, Sr.; Clint Ratkovich, FB, Jr.; John Brunner, WR, Sr.; Chris Age, TE, Jr.; Austin Hopp, OL, So.; Kyle Williams, DE, Jr.; Shabar Wilson, DT, Jr.; LaCale London, DL, Jr.; Zach Glisan, LB, Sr.; Demetri Royer, DB, Sr.; Bryce Cross, DB, So. (Georgia Southern transfer); Marquis Smith, CB, Jr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Sean McGuire, QB; Khalen Saunders, DL; Pete Swenson, LB
OUTLOOK: After losing senior leaders such as McGuire, Saunders, Swenson and LB Quentin Moon (109 tackles), it appears the Leathernecks will take a further step backward (they made the 2017 playoffs), but Elliott points to the healthy competition in camp as a driving force for his team. Sampson faces the tough task of replacing McGuire, a 3½-year starter who guided two playoff squads in his career. The offense returns two 600-yard receivers in WR Brunner and FB Ratkovich. The defense returns No. 2 tackler (LB Glisan), but has to develop new pass rushers (London will factor in). The Leathernecks will play six home games for the first time since 2014.
9. SOUTHERN ILLINOIS
LOCATION: Carbondale, Illinois
STADIUM: Saluki Stadium
HEAD COACH: Nick Hill (10-23, three seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 2-9 overall, 1-7 (10th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (5 offense/10 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Stone Labanowitz, QB, R-So.; Karé Lyles, QB, R-Jr. (Scottsdale CC transfer); Nic Baker, QB, R-Fr.; D.J. Davis, RB, Sr.; Landon Lenoir, WR, R-Jr.; Avante Cox (Wyoming transfer), WR, Fr.; Nigel Kilby, TE, R-Sr.; Jacob Marnin, C, R-Sr.; Ernest Dye, OT, R-Sr.; Anthony Knighton, DE, R-Jr.; Ricky Williams Jr. (Independence CC transfer), OLB, R-So.; Bryce Notree, OLB, R-Jr.; Luke Giegling, OLB, So.; Jeremy Chinn, S, Sr.; Torian Lewis, CB, R-Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Sam Straub, QB; Matt DeSomer, QB; Raphael Leonard, WR
OUTLOOK: To try to get over the proverbial hump, Hill has brought in new coordinators - Blake Rolan (offense) and Jason Petrino (defense) - for his fourth season. The defense was the MVFC's worst a year, allowing on average the most yards (483.4) and points (40.7). There is the chance for considerable improvement because the Salukis boast one of the top defensive duos in the conference in DE Knighton and S Chinn. On offense, the Salukis will open the season with Labanowitz at the controls. RB Davis was fourth in the conference in rushing and first in all-purpose yards per game as a junior last season. The Salukis haven't had a winning conference record since 2013.
10. MISSOURI STATE
LOCATION: Springfield, Missouri
STADIUM: Plaster Sports Complex
HEAD COACH: Dave Steckel (12-32, four seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 4-7 overall, 2-6 MVFC (9th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (6 offense/7 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Peyton Huslig, QB, Sr.; Jeremiah Wilson, RB, So.; Tyler Currie, WR, Sr.; Lorenzo Thomas, WR, Jr.; Jordan Murray, TE, So.; Casey O'Brien, C, Jr.; Edd Becton, DL, So.; Matt McClellan, DE, Sr.; Anthony Payne, DE, So. (Kansas State transfer); McNeece Egbim, LB, Sr.; Angelo Garbutt, LB, Sr.; Kam Carter, S, Jr.; Darius Joseph, CB, Sr.; Zack Sanders. CB, Jr.; Chandler Collins, LS, Sr.; Parker Lacina, PK, So.; Brendan Withrow, P, Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Jason Randall, RB; Marquis Prophete, OL; Jared Beshore, S
OUTLOOK: The struggling Bears took important steps with quality wins over Northern Arizona, Illinois State and Indiana State last season. They're challenging themselves again with a nonconference schedule of NAU and Tulane on the road and a home date versus Kennesaw State. Dual-threat QB Huslig has to cut down on turnovers, having thrown 27 interceptions the last two seasons. But he has a strong receiving corps to help the cause. O'Brien, at center, is the only full-time starter returning to the offensive line. The defense should be improved behind the return of nine of last year's top 11 tacklers, including LBs Garbutt and Egbim with a combined 195 stops.