North Dakota State celebrates after fullback Andrew Bonnet (46) scored against Jacksonville State during the first half of the FCS championship NCAA college football game, Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016, in Frisco, Texas. (AP Photo/Mike Stone)
Mike Stone
March 16, 2016

(STATS) - Any complaint that too many at-large bids in the NCAA basketball tournament go to power conference schools doesn't translate to the FCS and the Missouri Valley Football Conference.

Home to five-time reigning FCS champion North Dakota State, the Valley has tied the record with five overall bids - four at-large - in each of the past two seasons.

And nobody's saying it wasn't warranted.

OK, Western Illinois' bid with a 6-5 regular season fired up some folks last year. But the Leathernecks went on to win a playoff game.

Factor in some of the FCS powers (Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Coastal Carolina) going for FBS riches (perhaps) and it appears the Missouri Valley is getting even stronger on the national scene.

In 2016, the conference looks even deeper. Last year's playoff teams - NDSU, Northern Iowa, Illinois State, South Dakota State and Western Illinois - are strong enough to make it back, and Youngstown State and Indiana State join the conversation. NDSU, of course, is just about everybody's preseason favorite.

Here's a look across the MVFC with spring practices getting underway.

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ILLINOIS STATE=

2015 Records: 10-3 overall, 7-1 Missouri Valley (tied for first place).

Spring Practices: March 23-April 23.

Storyline: There are plenty of returnees, but the loss of quarterback Tre Roberson and running back Marshaun Coprich overshadows everything this spring. Pocket-passer Jake Kolbe, who won a start against Northern Iowa, will run the offense as a redshirt sophomore. Less is settled at running back, where Georgia Moreira, Jamal Towns and DeMarco Corbin could be part of a committee. The starters return at the other nine positions, so the transition will be smoother than some may think, especially for Kolbe with all the veteran offensive linemen and wide receivers, led by All-American Anthony Warrum. Coach Brock Spack will do significant rehauling in the defensive front seven, which lost both ends and two linebackers. Defensive end Donavin O'Day is shaking off the rust after sitting out the last two seasons, and some redshirt freshmen will factor into the new-look defense. Safety Alec Kocour also is coming off an injury, and along with defensive tackle Dalton Keene should take big a leap forward as they become defensive leaders.

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INDIANA STATE=

2015 Records: 5-6 overall, 3-5 Missouri Valley (tied for sixth).

Spring Practices: March 29-April 29.

Storyline: Injuries to key players caught up to the Sycamores last season after they opened 4-2. It gave playing time to a lot of players, especially on the hard-hit defense, so that's a bonus heading into this season. Coach Mike Sanford has 15 returning starters (eight on offense, seven on defense). They are strong in the skill positions, especially with playmaking quarterback Matt Adam and wide receiver Robert Tonyan Jr. being two of the more overlooked talents in the FCS. The offensive line allowed an MVFC-high 43 sacks and needs significant improvement, although it will have at least three senior starters this year. It's never easy to replace both cornerback spots, so there is emphasis there. Linebacker Jameer Thurman is the top returning defensive player and some junior college transfers will fill some spots. This season, the Sycamores will play 11 straight weeks without a bye - certainly a negative.

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MISSOURI STATE=

2015 Records: 1-10 overall, 0-8 Missouri Valley (10th).

Spring Practices: March 14-April 23.

Storyline: The Bears haven't had a winning season since 2009 and bottomed out with a young team in coach Dave Steckel's first season in Springfield - the lone win was a struggle past Chadron State. They need improvement everywhere after being outscored 535-108, but having 10 freshmen in the starting lineup bodes well for the future. The defense, which returns seven starters, features all-MVFC senior linebacker Dylan Cole and safety Jared Beshore - coming off a banner freshman season. Offensively, there are eight returning starters. Quarterback Breck Ruddick played in seven games as a freshman and is battling senior Brodie Lambert for the top job. The position needs more consistency, but there's experience in the skill positions, including running backs Calan Crowder and Jason Randall.

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NORTH DAKOTA STATE=

2015 Records: 13-2 overall, 7-1 Missouri Valley (tied for first).

Spring Practices: March 23-April 23.

Storyline: With 14 returning starters and quarterback Easton Stick going 8-0 as a starter while Carson Wentz was sidelined, the Bison are primed to extend their NCAA-record five straight national titles. The Bison, who are 71-5 since 2011, always seem to be motivated by the next goal. Coach Chris Klieman's squad will have one of the nation's deeper running games (King Frazier, Bruce Anderson, Lance Dunn and Chase Morlock) and likely the best defense (linebacker Nick DeLuca, defensive tackle Nate Tanguay and defensive end Greg Menard). Morlock and wide receiver Darrius Shepherd are sitting out spring practices. An influential freshman class contributed to last season's title run and will play even bigger roles this year.

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NORTHERN IOWA=

2015 Records: 9-5 overall, 5-3 Missouri Valley (tied for third).

Spring Practices: March 22-April 29.

Storyline: UNI reached the national quarterfinals before falling to rival North Dakota State last season. This year, they figure to be a preseason top-five team. The offense has 10 returning starters and features two 1,000-yard rushers in quarterback Aaron Bailey and Tyvis Smith. The passing game will improve with the return of acrobatic wide receiver Daurice Fountain, and 6-foot-7 offensive lineman Carl Twait is ready to get into the mix when he recovers fully from a lower leg injury. The defense suffered a big loss when All-America linebacker Brett McMakin opted for early entry into the NFL draft. It leaves just five returning starters, although one is defensive end Karter Shult coming off a 14-sack season. But developing defensive depth is the focus for coach Mark Farley's squad. The nonconference schedule is ambitious again (at Iowa State and Eastern Washington and home against Montana), but it gets no different playing in the FCS' best conference.

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SOUTH DAKOTA=

2015 Records: 5-6 overall, 3-5 Missouri Valley (tied for sixth).

Spring Practices: March 29-April 23.

Storyline: USD orchestrated one of the more interesting coaching hires of the offseason when Bob Nielson stepped across the conference from Western Illinois, which he led to the FCS playoffs last season. The Coyotes had an encouraging season as well under former coach Joe Glenn, including the surprising win at North Dakota State. Nielson and his staff had to be greatly disappointed when last year's freshman sensation, defensive end Andrew Van Ginkel, transferred to Iowa Western Junior College, with a look to a future move to the FBS. It leaves only four returning starters on defense, with competition expected to be fierce this spring. Quarterback Ryan Saeger enters his senior season and will be supported by the running back tandem of Michael Fredrick and Trevor Bouma, who has been injury-plagued for two seasons. Kicker Miles Bergner, who hit the game-winning field goal against NDSU, also enters his senior season.

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SOUTH DAKOTA STATE-

2015 Records: 8-4 overall, 5-3 Missouri Valley (tied for third).

Spring Practices: March 28-April 23.

Storyline: As they prep for a run at the MVFC title and a fifth straight playoff bid, the Jackrabbits need to decide between quarterbacks Zach Lujan and Taryn Christion - although using both might be the way to go again. The passing will be strong with All-America wide receiver Jake Wieneke and possible All-America tight end Dallas Goedert. The running back stable is deep and the loss of offensive tackle Bryce Siverling is tempered by the return of Nick Carr, who suffered a knee injury during last year's spring practices. Coach John Stiegelmeier certainly has more concerns on defense with the loss of four-year starting middle linebacker T.J. Lally and both starting cornerbacks, Jimmie Forsythe and Je Ryan Butler. The 'Jacks will remain strong up the middle with a plethora of defensive tackles, led by Cole Langer.

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SOUTHERN ILLINOIS=

2015 Records: 3-8 overall, 2-6 Missouri Valley (ninth).

Spring Practices: March 21-April 23.

Storyline: New coach Nick Hill will be a little bit country when he introduces recording artist Chase Rice for a concert in Carbondale on the night of the April 23 spring game, but he'd prefer his alma mater get back to being rock and roll. It's been a tough decade for the Salukis following a period as a Division II and then FCS power (the 2007 graduate Hill was a quarterback). Most of the playmakers outside quarterback Mark Iannotti return, but the first-team all-conference selection was a huge loss. Transfer Josh Straughan or Sam Straub figure to have the first crack at succeeding him. Running back Daquan Isom and wide receiver Billy Reed are among the key returnees for an offense that has six or seven returning starters depending on wideout Israel Lamprakes' petition for a sixth year. The struggling defense, which has seven returning starters, is returning to a 4-3 base under new coordinator Kraig Paulson. Linebacker Chase Allen and safety Kenny James both went over 100 tackles last season. Leonard Garron will move from linebacker to defensive end in the new scheme.

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WESTERN ILLINOIS=

2015 Records: 7-6 overall, 5-3 Missouri Valley (tied for third).

Spring Practices: March 24-April 22.

Storyline: A strong nucleus returns for coach Charlie Fisher's first season. Included are 46 letterwinners and 17 starters (nine on offense, eight on defense). The standout group includes quarterback Trenton Norvell, wide receiver Lance Lenoir, center Jacob Judd and linebacker Brett Taylor. It will be impossible to replace all-MVFC tailback Nikko Watson, but Devon Moore could have a strong senior campaign. Plus, Fisher knows offense, having been the offensive coordinator for Richmond's national semifinalist squad last season. Former Southern Illinois defensive coordinator David Elson takes over the same duties with the Leathernecks. His chief assignment is to keep the line strong after some key losses. Otherwise the defense played a lot of underclassmen last season. Strong safety and No. 3 tackler David Griffith is sitting out the spring.

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YOUNGSTOWN STATE=

2015 Records: 5-6 overall, 3-5 Missouri Valley (tied for sixth).

Spring Practices: March 14-April 15.

Storyline: The signing of junior college transfer quarterback Trent Hosick suggests second-year coach Bo Pelini wants to put a jolt into what has been an underachieving program. Incumbent QB Hunter Wells has been good, but not great, so expect competition for playing time with the Penguins anxious to get to the playoffs for the first time since 2006. They return eight offensive starters, including highly productive running backs Martin Ruiz and Jody Webb, but there are question marks at wide receiver. The pass defense should remain among the nation's best, but there's some retooling going on in the front seven. Defensive end Derek Rivers enters his senior season as the program's all-time sacks leader. The Penguins need to finish the season stronger, having gone 3-8 in November over the last three seasons.

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