March 15, 2017

(STATS) - If a defensive coordinator in the Missouri Valley Football Conference starts to believe his team is facing a better quarterback with each week this season, he won't be far off the mark.

The top seven teams in last year's standings return their starting signal-callers, led by the co-champions, South Dakota with Taryn Christian and North Dakota State with Easton Stick. Indiana State also returns its starter and Southern Illinois returns its late-season starter. Missouri State is the only team beginning anew.

The MVFC will be exceptionally strong in 2017, led by national title contenders NDSU and SDSU.

Following is a look across the MVFC with spring practices underway in college football:

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ILLINOIS STATE=

Head Coach: Brock Spack (62-35, eight seasons)

2016 Records: 6-6, 4-4 Missouri Valley

Spring Practices: March 25-April 22

What to Know: Despite qualifying for the FCS playoffs, last year's Redbirds team was in transition following the 2014 and '15 seasons in which they won shares of the Missouri Valley title. The defense seems ahead of the offense heading into spring practices. The 4-3 unit returns all of its starters and key reserves on the defensive line and in the secondary, but it's replacing all three starting linebackers, with FBS transfer Tyree Horton among the newcomers. On offense, graduation depleted the linemen and wide receivers, but quarterback Jake Kolbe figures to take a step forward in his second season as the starter, and the running backs unit is deep, headlined by James Robinson. The Redbirds tied for 65th in the FCS in scoring last season, so the unit needs to produce more.

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INDIANA STATE=

Head Coach: Curt Mallory (first season)

2016 Records: 4-7, 2-6 Missouri Valley

Spring Practices: March 21-April 21

What to Know: Mallory's father Bill was the head coach at four FBS programs (Indiana, Miami of Ohio, Colorado and Northern Illinois), and the Sycamores believe the right bloodlines are on campus. Mallory favors a strong running game, and though his new team has depth at running back with Dimitri Taylor, Jaquan Keys and LeMonte Booker (returning from an injury-filled season), the Sycamores have struggled in the run game in recent seasons. The offensive line must replace its two tackles to become formidable, but junior quarterback Isaac Harker is coming off a breakout season. The defense has been beat up the last two seasons and returns only four players who started at least six games.

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MISSOURI STATE=

Head Coach: Dave Steckel (5-17, two seasons)

2016 Records: 4-7, 2-6 Missouri Valley

Spring Practices: March 26-April 29

What to Know: One of the younger squads in the FCS matured quite a bit last season, winning three more games than in Steckel's first season in Springfield. This year's team ties for the conference high with 18 returning starters (eight on offense and 10 defense), but quarterback Brodie Lambert isn't one of them, and the Bears have turned to candidates who have no Division I game experience. Four starters on the offensive line and all the tight ends return, which means the new QB should benefit from solid protection. With a veteran defensive line, the Bears have a good chance of improving against the pass. Deion Holliman is one of the better returners in the FCS - the only player to have both touchdowns on punt and kickoff returns in each of the last two seasons.

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NORTH DAKOTA STATE=

Head Coach: Chris Klieman (40-5, three seasons; 43-12 overall)

2016 Records: 12-2, 7-1 Missouri Valley

Spring Practices: March 22-April 22

What to Know: The Bison's run of FCS national championships ended at five last season, but their streak of consecutive Missouri Valley titles continues at six. The offensive line will be an area of focus as the Bison replace both starting guards and right tackle Zack Johnson. The defense could be the nation's best behind eight returning starters and linebacker Nick DeLuca, but DeLuca (shoulder), defensive tackle Nate Tanguay and defensive end Greg Menard will be out or limited this spring as they recover from injuries. The offense returns seven starters, and while quarterback Easton Stick has plenty of offensive weapons, the Bison seek to build their depth behind running backs Lance Dunn and Bruce Anderson.

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NORTHERN IOWA=

Head Coach: Mark Farley (134-67, 16 seasons)

2016 Records: 5-6, 4-4 Missouri Valley

Spring Practices: N/A

What to Know: The Panthers seek redemption for an ugly 2016 season, which started with a preseason No. 5 ranking and an opening win at Iowa State. They return 16 starters (seven on offense and nine on defense) and will be transitioning 22 redshirt freshmen into contributing roles. Junior quarterback Eli Dunne took command of the offense during the season and will be helped by the return of all five starters on the offensive line. The Panthers led the conference in interceptions and return three of the four starters in the secondary. Senior linebacker Jared Farley, the coach's son, led the team with 80 tackles a year ago, but the defense needs a pass rusher after losing Karter Schult, the 2016 STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award winner.

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SOUTH DAKOTA=

Head Coach: Bob Nielsen (4-7, one season; 190-87-1 overall)

2016 Records: 4-7, 3-5 Missouri Valley

Spring Practices: March 18-April 21

What to Know: With nine offensive starters returning for Nielsen's second season, the Coyotes can focus on improving the conference's lowest-ranked defense of a year ago. The defense, which returns five starters, has key position battles up front. More than half of Nielsen's first full recruiting class (24 members) were offensive and defensive linemen. Dual-threat quarterback Chris Streveler was the conference's 2016 newcomer of the year and is surrounded by a lot in the skills positions. Not to be overlooked is the loss of All-American Miles Bergner, who was a dominant place-kicker and punter last season.

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SOUTH DAKOTA STATE=

Head Coach: John Stiegelmeier (137-94, 20 seasons)

2016 Records: 9-4, 7-1 Missouri Valley

Spring Practices: March 18-April 22

What to Know: The defending Missouri Valley co-champs expect to move beyond last year's first quarterfinal-round appearance, but they will have to handle the higher expectations surrounding this season. They return nine starters on offense, six on defense and their place-kicker and punter. The triumvirate of quarterback Taryn Christion (the conference's 2016 offensive player of the year) and All-Americans Jake Wieneke (wide receiver) and Dallas Goedert (tight end) is unmatched in the FCS. The defense has to fill its outside linebacker spots after the loss of multi-year starters Jesse Bobbit and Dallas Brown. The Jackrabbits allowed 27.3 points and 403.7 yards per game - the highest average of their fifth straight playoff seasons.

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SOUTHERN ILLINOIS=

Head Coach: Nick Hill (4-7, one season)

2016 Records: 4-7, 2-6 Missouri Valley

Spring Practices: Feb. 28-April 8

What to Know: After a solid end to last season brought momentum in the offseason, the Salukis return 14 starters (eight on offense and six on defense) for Hill's second season. Quarterback Sam Straub passed for 1,150 yards in the final three games and may be an all-conference candidate over a full season. The Salukis return two of their FCS-high four 500-yard receivers, Conner Iwema and Darrell James, and Jimmy Jones was headed there until he got hurt, so the passing game will be powerful. But in a conference of physical offensive lines, the defense must overcome the loss of its four starters on the line plus middle linebacker Chase Allen. It's an important year for the Salukis if they are going to move up to title contention in 2018.

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WESTERN ILLINOIS=

Head Coach: Charlie Fisher (6-5, one season)

2016 Records: 6-5, 3-5 Missouri Valley

Spring Practices: March 23-April 21

What to Know: A collapse in the second half of last season has kept the Leathernecks motivated throughout the offseason. They have an experienced squad (18 returning starters) seeking to make amends. While they must build depth at wide receiver and improve the pass defense, anything short of a playoff season would disappoint the Leathernecks. Junior Isaiah Lesure and Ohio transfer Jarid Brown are asked to fill some of the void left by the graduation of the program's top two all-time receivers, Lance Lenoir and Joey Borsellino. Still, the offense will follow the lead of quarterback Sean McGuire, running back Steve McShane and an excellent O-line. The defense will be under a new coordinator, but it lost only one starter and has a first-team All-America linebacker in Brett Taylor, who ranked No. 3 in the FCS in tackles.

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YOUNGSTOWN STATE=

Head Coach: Bo Pelini (17-10, two seasons, 84-37 overall)

2016 Records: 12-4, 6-2 Missouri Valley

Spring Practices: Feb. 27-April 7

What to Know: Not only did the Penguins end a 10-year playoff drought last season, but they reached the FCS championship game before losing to James Madison. They're kind of a wild card nationally because they don't appear as strong following the loss of some stalwarts, including running backs Jody Webb and Martin Ruiz and defensive ends Derek Rivers and Avery Moss. The biggest concern is the defense, which returns only four starters - two defensive tackles and two linebackers. Finding some pass rushers is key to keeping the new secondary from being exposed. Senior quarterback Hunter Wells, running back Tevin McCaster and offensive tackle Justin Spencer are the standouts of an offense that returns eight starters.

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