(Stats Perform) - The 2020 FCS national champion could be hiding in plain sight.
It's odd when a team is so highly talented that it should have Big Ten member Iowa worried about their Sept. 5 opener would lack offseason buzz, but it's the result of North Dakota State playing in the same Missouri Valley Football Conference as UNI. The Bison have won three straight and eight of the last nine FCS titles, and beaten UNI six straight times.
The Panthers, though, may have the best chance to unseat NDSU. Illinois State and South Dakota State also have outstanding teams, and Southern Illinois wants the playoff bid that eluded it last season.
The ever-strong MVFC is going to have another banner season. It will increase to 11 teams with North Dakota's arrival.
Following is an offseason glance at the MVFC. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted activities across college campuses, shutting many down to help address the worldwide emergency.
HEAD COACH: Brock Spack (84-50, 11 seasons)
2019 RECORD: 10-5, 5-3 MVFC (Tie/3rd)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (8 offense/9 defense)
PRIORITIES: Finding more offensive firepower following All-America running back James Robinson's graduation. Developing consistency at quarterback.
NOTABLE: Much of last year's outstanding defense returns, but Robinson's loss is significant for the national quarterfinalist. The return of quarterback Brady Davis, running back Jeff Proctor and wide receivers Andrew Edgar and Taylor Grimes from injuries will add up in a productive way. The big offensive line still boasts 6-foot-10 tackle Drew Himmelman, and 6-5 offensive guard Gabe Megginson received a sixth year of eligibility. Last year's defense was probably the best of the Spack era, ranking in the top 10 nationally in eight defensive categories, including No. 1 with 52 sacks. The defense will remain strong with defensive end Romeo McKnight (12 sacks) and cornerback Devin Taylor headlining the returnees.
HEAD COACH: Curt Mallory (12-22, three seasons)
2019 RECORD: 5-7, 3-5 MVFC (7th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 10 (5 offense/5 defense)
PRIORITIES: Plugging in new starters on the offensive line after losing three redshirt seniors. Replacing linebackers Jonas Griffith and Clayton Glasco.
NOTABLE: The momentum of 2018 didn't carry into last season, but standout quarterback Ryan Boyle was injured early in the campaign and the Sycamores lost five times in a span of six games before closing with two wins. Ball security is an issue with the offense, but QB Kurtis Wilderman showed good accuracy, and it helps to have All-MVFC wide receiver Dante Hendrix returning. The secondary can grow with a pair of rising juniors, strong safety Michael Thomas and cornerback Mekhi Ware. It will be difficult to replace four-year place-kicker Jerry Nunez, the school's all-time leader in points, field goals and PATs.
HEAD COACH: Bobby Petrino (first season; 119-56 overall)
2019 RECORD: 1-10, 1-7 MVFC (Tie/9th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (9 offense/6 defense)
PRIORITIES: Find a new quarterback to replace three-year starter Peyton Huslig. Getting better on the defensive line after the Bears ranked last in the MVFC in rushing defense and had only nine sacks.
NOTABLE: Petrino, whose stops include Louisville, Arkansas and the Atlanta Falcons, was one of the more intriguing coaching hires of the FCS offseason. History suggests his team's schemes will zig while the rest of the conference zags. Despite the Bears' solid number of returning starters, there is competition across the lineup. They have to find ways to run the ball after ranking 124th out of 126 FCS programs, but running back Jeremiah Wilson's early season injury contributed to the demise. Only one of the team's top five tacklers is back: rising senior safety Titus Wall, who was third. Petrino's debut is at - gulp - Oklahoma.
HEAD COACH: Kyle "Bubba" Schweigert (37-32, six seasons; 58-53 overall)
2019 RECORD: 7-5 FCS independent
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (6 offense/8 defense)
PRIORITIES: Defend the run better after allowing 50 more yards per game last season than in 2018. Run the ball more consistently after dropping by nearly 40 yards per game last season.
NOTABLE: The Fighting Hawks competed the last two seasons as an FCS independent, but they've been hardened by Big Sky schedules before moving into the MVFC, where their first conference game is at Youngstown State on Sept. 26. Senior cornerback Evan Holm gaining a sixth year of eligibility is huge for a defense that already boasts linebacker Noah Larson and safety Jordan Canady. The offense will look differently in the skills position, and a freshman quarterback may wind up replacing two-year starter Nate Ketteringham. The Fighting Hawks were minus-eight in turnover ratio last season.
NORTH DAKOTA STATE
HEAD COACH: Matt Entz (16-0, one season)
2019 RECORD: 16-0, 8-0 MVFC (1st)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (9 offense/5 defense)
PRIORITIES: Replace three of the four starters on the defensive line. Overcome the emotional loss of linebacker Jabril Cox, who would have been the team's top defensive player, if not the FCS'.
NOTABLE: The Bison have won nine straight MVFC titles in addition to eight of the last nine national crowns. No college football program is better at replacing key players, but Cox's intention to transfer to an FBS program hurts a defense whose losses already included defensive end Derrek Tuszka, the MVFC's 2019 defensive player of the year, and the third All-MVFC first-teamer, free safety James Hendricks. Last year's two leading tacklers, though, are returning: linebacker Jackson Haney and strong safety Michael Tutsie (seven interceptions). Quarterback Trey Lance, the first freshman to win the Stats Perform Walter Payton Award, surely won't have a sophomore slump with the return of four starters on the offensive line and many of the key skills position players.
HEAD COACH: Mark Farley (159-83, 19 seasons)
2019 RECORD: 10-5, 6-2 MVFC (2nd)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)
PRIORITIES: Develop the run game which has slumped in recent seasons. Improve on special teams, especially with punting and on kickoff and punt returns.
NOTABLE: UNI is loaded with talented players and the number of returning starters are basically boosted by the return of tight end Briley Moore, wide receiver Deion McShane and safety Korby Sander from season-ending injuries. Quarterback Will McElvain set the MVFC's freshman record for passing yards (2,778) only to have it passed by NDSU's Trey Lance on his last completion of the national championship game. Defenses will want no part of defending wide receiver Isaiah Weston, and Kansas transfer Dom Williams is expected to boost the rushing offense. UNI's defense, which held 11 opponents to 14 points or less in regulation, is in the conversation for being the best in the FCS, its returnees including defensive end Elerson G. Smith and cornerback Xavior Williams.
HEAD COACH: Bob Nielson (21-26, four seasons; 207-106-1 overall)
2019 RECORD: 5-7, 4-4 MVFC (6th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (9 offense/6 defense)
PRIORITIES: Find a replacement for quarterback Austin Simmons, a two-year starter. Rebuild the defensive line and get better in coordinator Travis Johansen's second season.
NOTABLE: The Coyotes ended strong with a win over rival South Dakota State, but they allowed over 30 points in each of their seven losses. It led to a ninth-place finish in the MVFC in total defense. Senior linebacker Jack Cochrane is the center piece as the defense seeks a bounce back. Tyler Tsagalis was the backup quarterback last year and seeks the top job, but there's competition. It helps to have back rushing leader Kai Henry and most of the key receivers, including Kody Case, who was second in receiving yards in only half a season. The Coyotes were the most penalized team in the conference.
SOUTH DAKOTA STATE
HEAD COACH: John Stiegelmeier (166-105, 23 seasons)
2019 RECORD: 8-5, 5-3 MVFC (Tie/3rd)
PRIORITIES: 15 (6 offense/9 defense)
PRIORITIES: Get mentally stronger after having a highly disappointing season. Get better in short-yardage situations.
NOTABLE: Injuries to key players played a big role with the Jackrabbits last season, including quarterback J'Bore Gibbs at midseason and two-time 1,000-yard rusher Pierre Strong Jr. in November. Their return will lift an offense that also returns All-America wide receiver Cade Johnson. The defense's big loss is all-time leading tackler Christian Rozeboom, a four-time All-MVFC first-team selection at linebacker, but it's still a veteran unit, including the No. 2 (Seven Wilson) and 3 (Logan Backhaus) overall tacklers at linebacker. Cole Frahm, a 2019 transfer from Nebraska, should replace longtime place-kicker Chase Vinatieri.
HEAD COACH: Nick Hill (17-28, four seasons)
2019 RECORD: 7-5, 5-3 MVFC (Tie/3rd)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 16 (8 offense/8 defense)
PRIORITIES: Overcome the losses of All-America safety Jeremy Chinn and all-purpose back D.J. Davis. Building depth on the offensive line.
NOTABLE: The Salukis were one of three FCS teams to beat an FBS program (UMass), so they felt snubbed of what would have been their first playoff appearance since 2009. Opponents weren't quite ready for freshman Javon Williams Jr. out of the Wildcat, and quarterback Kare Lyles will get better with rising junior wide receivers Avante Cox and Landon Lenoir getting better. Chinn's replacement is likely Colorado transfer Aaron Maddox, who will be paired with leading tackler Qua Brown in the secondary. Starting outside linebacker Cody Crider has a sixth season of eligibility. This year's FBS opponent is a bit tougher: Wisconsin on Sept. 12.
HEAD COACH: Jared Elliott (6-17, two seasons)
2019 RECORD: 1-11, 1-7 MVFC (Tie/Tie/9th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 16 (9 offense/7 defense)
PRIORITIES: Improve ball security after committing an FCS-high 31 turnovers. Develop a defense that ranked last in the MVFC.
NOTABLE: The Leathernecks are coming off their worst record since going 0-8 in 1944, but have a veteran roster. Quarterback Connor Sampson settled in nicely as last season progressed, including passing for 368 yards and three touchdowns in the lone win over South Dakota, but the offense has to improve its ball control. Fullback Clint Ratkovich has two straight seasons over 50 receptions and wide receiver John Brunner's return from injury will improve third down efficiency. The top three tacklers are gone, leaving the defense to be a balanced unit.
HEAD COACH: Doug Phillips (first season)
2019 RECORD: 6-6, 2-6 MVFC (8th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 6 (2 offense/4 defense)
PRIORITIES: Get accustomed to Phillips and his coaching staff's schemes and terminology. Rebuild the offensive line.
NOTABLE: Phillips, an assistant at Cincinnati the last three seasons, isn't exactly replacing Bo Pelini at the right time because the Penguins have the fewest returning starters in the MVFC. The offense will look almost entirely different, with rising junior Joe Craycraft surely the favorite to be the new quarterback. The defense utilized freshmen last season, led by productive defensive tackle DeMarko Craig Jr. He will combine with defensive end Ma'lik Richmond for a solid pass rush. Phillips' first game is at Akron on Sept. 5.