(Sports Network) - Eric Wolford thinks back to his three most recent stops on
the coaching trail before he became Youngstown State's head coach following
the 2009 season.
He believes the Missouri Valley Football Conference, home to reigning FCS
national champion North Dakota State, more resembles the Southeastern
Conference than the Big Ten or the Pac-12.
"It's got that same feel," Wolford said, "as far as, from top to bottom,
you've got great coaches, great players, great football teams."
The Missouri Valley's take-no-prisoners depth was on display the best with
Youngstown State last November.
Youngstown State went to the Fargodome and handed North Dakota State its only
loss in a 14-1 season. One week later, on the final Saturday of the regular
season, the Penguins needed to beat a one-win Missouri State team at home to
likely qualify for the FCS playoffs. They blew a 17-point halftime lead,
lost the game and stayed home for the postseason.
Well, you know that on-any-given-Saturday feel of conference play - especially
a conference like the Missouri Valley
This might be an even better season, which is saying a lot considering North
Dakota State won the national title. The Bison were installed Thursday as the
conference's preseason favorite - gaining 37 of 38 first-place votes in the
poll of head coaches, media and sports information directors - but there are
plenty of good teams hot on their heels.
A season after only two Missouri Valley teams made the playoffs, no fewer than
five are worthy of Top 25 consideration heading into the season. After NDSU,
Northern Iowa (which made the playoffs), Youngstown State, Illinois State and
Indiana State follow in the top half of the conference poll.
"I guarantee you, if there's 10 teams in the league, nine of them probably
aren't happy with their pick," said Joe Glenn, coach of Missouri Valley
newcomer South Dakota.
"Anything can happen. That's the beauty of competition."
Wolford appears to be guiding Youngstown State to a high level again. After
arriving on campus, he felt a sense of entitlement among the players because
of the program's rich history, which includes four national championships in
But the Penguins had stumbled in recent years, including a four-win season in
2008 and a three-win campaign in Wolford's first season in 2010.
Through hard work, the sense of entitlement has since dissipated, and the
Penguins went on to post a 6-5 record last year, with their four FCS losses by
a combined 17 points.
Their offense was the most prolific in school history - averaging 36.2 points
and 458.6 yards per game. This season, they return junior quarterback Kurt
Hess and senior running back Jamaine Cook, who are both on the Walter Payton
Award Watch List as potential national players of the year.
"It's a good feeling to know you that you have a good football team coming
back, and expectations are high," Wolford said, "but really it's all talk. We
need to go out and do it."
The way the season ended last year, when a first playoff berth since 2006 was
snatched away by Missouri State, "was a learning process," Wolford said.
"Really it was devastating at the time, but it's made this football team so
hungry that our player representatives, our leaders, our seniors, are driven."
Defending champion North Dakota State returns the perceived best team behind
quarterback Brock Jensen, running back Sam Ojuri, strong safety Colten Heagle
and All-America cornerback Marcus Williams.
But the Bison have few seniors on their roster. In fact, only center Joe Lund
and perhaps middle linebacker Brandon Jemison head into preseason camp as
"Football is a physical game, it's a game of emotional maturity and certainly
experience comes into play," North Dakota State coach Craig Bohl said.
"There's nothing you can replicate that with more than years of experience.
We've got a very small senior class. We're going to ask a lot of those seniors
that are out there competing. Our staff and our players, we've noted that. The
proof's going to be in the pudding. But I'm certainly concerned about it."
He's also concerned with Northern Iowa, Youngstown State, Illinois State,
Indiana State and, well, a very deep Missouri Valley race.
MISSOURI VALLEY FOOTBALL CONFERENCE FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL
(Head Coaches, Media and Sports Information Directors)
1. North Dakota State (37 first-place votes), 379 points
2. Northern Iowa, 300
3. Youngstown State, 291
4. Illinois State (1), 287
5. Indiana State, 228
6. South Dakota State, 182
7. Southern Illinois, 167
8. South Dakota, 97
9. Western Illinois, 90
10. Missouri State, 69
PRESEASON ALL-MVFC TEAM
QB - Kurt Hess, Youngstown State, Jr.
RB - Shakir Bell, Indiana State, Jr.
RB - Jamaine Cook, Youngstown State, Sr.
FB - Jordan Neukirch, Illinois State, Jr.
WR - Aaron Rollin, South Dakota State, Sr.
WR - Tyrone Walker, Illinois State, Sr.
TE - MyCole Pruitt, Southern Illinois, So.
OL - Chris Elkins, Youngstown State, Jr.
OL - Jimmy Holtschlag, Western Illinois, Sr.
OL - FN Lutz, Indiana State, Sr.
OL - Mark Pratt, Youngstown State, Sr.
OL - Bryan Witzmann, South Dakota State, Jr.
DL - Kenneth Boatwright, Southern Illinois, Sr.
DL - Ben Obaseki, Indiana State, Sr.
DL - Nate Palmer, Illinois State, Sr.
DL - Kayon Swanson, Southern Illinois, Sr.
LB - Aaron Archie, Indiana State, Sr.
LB - Evan Frierson, Illinois State, Sr.
LB - Tyler Starr, South Dakota, Jr.
LB - Jacolby Washington, Indiana State, Sr.
DB - Colten Heagle, North Dakota State, Jr.
DB - Varmah Sonie, Northern Iowa, Sr.
DB - Marcus Williams, North Dakota State, Jr.
DB - Winston Wright, South Dakota State, Jr.
First-Team Special Teams
PK - Tyler Sievertsen, Northern Iowa, Jr.
P - Lucas Hileman, Indiana State, Sr.
RS - Steve Strother, Southern Illinois, Sr.
Honorable Mention (minimum of five votes):
QB - Matt Brown, Illinois State, Sr.; WR - Will Powell, South Dakota, Sr.; TE
- Matt Thayer, Missouri State, Sr.; OL - Misha Danilov, Northern Iowa, Sr.; OL
- Billy Turner, North Dakota State, Jr.; OL - Tim Ross, South Dakota, Sr.; PK
- Kevin Robb, South Dakota, Jr.; DE - Cole Jirik, North Dakota State, Jr.; DL
- Andy Mink, South Dakota State, Sr.; DL - Dwight Harris, Western Illinois,
Sr.; LB - Teven Williams, Youngstown State, So.; LB - Andrew Beisel, Missouri
State, So.; LB - Travis Beck, North Dakota State, So.; DB - Kieron James,
Western Illinois, Sr.; DB - Garrett Scott, Northern Iowa, Sr.; P - Cole
Zwiefelhofer, South Dakota, Sr.; RS - Ryan Smith, North Dakota State, Jr.
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