(STATS) - North Dakota State's unprecedented run of five straight FCS national championships is a model for sustained success despite the natural turnover that exists in all levels of college football.
Although it's clear the Bison have created a juggernaut that seems well-prepared for another title run, the rest of the Missouri Valley Football Conference is proving they can compete on the national stage, too.
Not even North Dakota State came out of league play unscathed this year, making it the fourth time during its streak it has suffered a loss to a conference foe. Half of the 10-team league qualified for the playoffs and finished in the final STATS FCS Top 25.
Co-champion Illinois State, which nearly ended the Bison's run in last year's national championship game before allowing the winning touchdown in the final minute, joined NDSU and Northern Iowa in the quarterfinals after beating Western Illinois in the second round.
The Bison then had to snap the Panthers' seven-game winning streak to reach the semifinals. South Dakota State was the only team of the playoff qualifiers not to get out of the first round, losing to a Montana team that beat NDSU at home in the thrilling nationally televised college football opener Aug. 29.
There was depth beyond those squads, too. NDSU's lone conference loss came at home to a South Dakota team that finished 5-6 and 3-5 in the MVFC, and that was before quarterback Carson Wentz, who is considered the FCS' best NFL prospect, missed seven-plus games with a broken wrist.
The MVFC finished ahead of two FBS conferences in the Jeff Sagarin rankings - the Sun Belt and Conference USA - and rated higher than the East Division of the MAC.
About the only disappointment was that the schedule didn't allow for North Dakota State and Illinois State to meet in a rematch of last year's national title game.
"It's tremendous. There's not a team you can rest on," Illinois State coach Brock Spack said in October. "You never have any breathing room on Saturday afternoon. From top to bottom, it's the most competitive league I've ever been a part of. There really isn't that much of a disparity in talent. If you win the Missouri Valley, you have a chance to do some damage at the national level."
Not a bad way to prepare the Bison for the rigors of a playoff run. Freshman Easton Stick won every game in Wentz's absence before the senior returned for the national title game, throwing for a touchdown and rushing for two more in a 37-10 rout of then-No. 1 Jacksonville State on Jan. 9.
There's little reason to believe Stick won't be at the helm next season when NDSU again tries to navigate its way through the Missouri Valley gauntlet as it shoots for a sixth consecutive title.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: For the second straight season, ISU earned a share of the MVFC title with NDSU but couldn't beat the Bison to the big prize in the postseason. Behind quarterback Tre Roberson, running back Marshaun Coprich and wideout Anthony Warrum, the Redbirds ranked second in the league with 425.6 total yards per game and third with 34.7 points per game. Running back King Frazier helped NDSU rank second in scoring (34.9) and third in yards (423.1). The Bison, however, also limited opponents to 15.3 points per game - fourth-lowest nationally. Three members of the defense were all-conference first-team selections.
GAME OF THE YEAR: In a highly anticipated battle between top-10 teams, Wentz threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Darrius Shepherd with just 35 seconds remaining to give No. 3 NDSU a 31-28 home win over No. 10 Northern Iowa on Oct. 10. The Panthers seemed poised to hand the four-time defending champs their second loss but missed a 38-yard field goal attempt before Wentz led the Bison on the 10-play winning drive. Shepherd's dramatic catch came with two defenders draped all over him in the corner of the end zone.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Coprich was named the conference's offensive player of the year for the second consecutive season - and finished third in STATS' FCS Offensive Player of the Year voting - after leading the league in most rushing categories. The senior workhorse also finished second in the nation with 1,967 yards while pacing the FCS with 23 touchdowns. He extended his most impressive stretch late in the season, rushing for 722 yards and nine scores in three games from Nov. 14- Dec. 5.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Northern Iowa cornerback Deiondre' Hall earned MVFC defensive player of the year honors and was fifth in the STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year voting after leading the league with six interceptions. He's set to participate in both the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine this spring after racking up a career-high 82 tackles.
SURPRISE OF THE YEAR: Not much was expected of Western Illinois after it finished 5-7 in 2014, and the Leathernecks were picked to finish eighth in the 10-team league back in July. WIU, however, went on a three-game win streak in October - including a 24-19 win at then-No. 12 Northern Iowa - and another in November - including a 24-21 victory over No. 5 South Dakota State - to finish 7-6. In their first playoff appearance since 2010, the Leathernecks knocked off Dayton in the first round before falling to the league-rival Redbirds. After guiding WIU to No. 22 in the final poll, MVFC coach of the year Bob Nielson announced he was leaving to take over the reins as South Dakota's coach.
DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE YEAR: After former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini agreed to take over Youngstown State, the school was expected to take a step toward returning to its glory days. The Penguins were picked fourth in the MVFC and started 3-1, but went 2-3 in October, 1-2 in November and frustration seemed to boil over when Pelini received a reprimand from the conference for his use of profane language toward referees in a Nov. 14 loss to NDSU. Ultimately, YSU finished 5-6 and missed the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season.
BY THE NUMBERS:
5 - Consecutive FCS national championships for North Dakota State.
8 - Victories without a loss for NDSU while Wentz was out with a broken right wrist.
6 - Games pitting Missouri Valley teams against each other in the FCS playoffs over last three years.
20 - Consecutive playoffs victories for NDSU
23 - Rushing touchdowns for Illinois State's Coprich - most in the FCS.
4 - 200-yard rushing efforts by Coprich, including three straight from Nov. 14-Dec. 5.
1,344 and 19 - Rushing yards and touchdowns for Northern Iowa's Aaron Bailey - both most in the FCS by a quarterback.
1,472 - Receiving yards for South Dakota State's Jake Wieneke - second-most in the FCS
911 - Receiving yards for Illinois State's Warrum over his last six games.
NEXT YEAR: The more things change, the more they stay the same. With a veteran-laden cast set to return, North Dakota State will likely be the favorite to win a sixth straight national crown. Wentz will be gone, but the Bison proved more than capable of winning with Stick under center this season. Expect two-time MVFC co-champ Illinois State to take a step back without Roberson and Coprich, but Northern Iowa to rise behind 1,000-yard rushers Bailey and Tyvis Smith.