2017 Missouri Valley Conference Season Preview

(STATS) - Don't wait for an overnight sensation to climb the Missouri Valley Football Conference standings.

It takes talent and time in the power FCS conference.

Consider that five teams had losing records in conference play last season yet all posted a win over a nationally ranked opponent. Or that three teams beat FBS opponents yet did not finish above .500 in the MVFC: Illinois State (Northwestern), Northern Iowa (Iowa State) and Western Illinois (Northern Illinois).

But coaching changes among the struggling programs have re-energized them, bringing a hint of future success, and definitely some upsets that could impact the title race this season.

Indiana State, Missouri State, South Dakota and Southern Illinois all have hired new coaches in the last few years. Curt Mallory took over at Indiana State this past offseason.

"I'll tell you what, I think the Valley looks really good. Not that it hasn't looked good in the past," South Dakota second-year coach Bob Nielson said. "But one thing when I talk to other guys in coaching, the one thing that I think is unique about the Valley is that everybody continues to get better, which makes it a very difficult league to catch up in because it's not the top teams are sliding backwards - they're getting better, too.

"I think the Valley has great personnel this year. I think it's going to be a year that requires the best teams in the league to play good football every week."

Last year's co-champions North Dakota State, which won five straight FCS titles from 2011-15, and South Dakota State again lead the way. Youngstown State finished only third in the conference, but made it all the way to the national championship game.

Add in playoff contenders Illinois State, Northern Iowa and Western Illinois and the race is exceptionally deep this year.

Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2017 Missouri Valley Conference race and STATS' predicted order of finish:

1. North Dakota State

2. South Dakota State

3. Youngstown State

4. Northern Iowa

5. Western Illinois

6. Illinois State

7. South Dakota

8. Southern Illinois

9. Indiana State

10. Missouri State

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TEAM CAPSULES=

1. NORTH DAKOTA STATE BISON=

LOCATION: Fargo, North Dakota

STADIUM: Fargodome

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

2016 RECORDS: 12-2, 7-1 Missouri Valley (Tie/1st); No. 3 in final STATS FCS Top 25

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: King Frazier, RB; Zack Johnson, LG; MJ Stumpf, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Easton Stick, QB, Jr. (169 of 288, 2,331 yards, 19 TD, 9 INT; 113 carries, 685 yards, 7 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Nick DeLuca Jr., MLB, Sr. (injured last season; 135 TT, 10 TFL, 3 Sacks, 2 INT, 6 PBU in 2015)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Lance Dunn, RB, Jr.; Bruce Anderson, RB/KR, Jr.; RJ Urzendowski, WR, Sr.; Darrius Shephard, WR, Jr.; Jeff Illies, TE, Sr.; Austin Kuhnert, OL, Sr.; Colin Conner, LT, Jr.; Nate Tanguay, DT, Sr.; Aaron Steidl, DT, Jr.; Matt Plank, LB, Sr.; Tre Dempsey, FS, Sr.; Robbie Grimsley, SS, Jr.; Jalen Allison, CB, Jr.; Jaylaan Wimbush, CB, Jr.; Cam Pederson, PK, Jr.; Jackson Koonce, P, Sr.

OUTLOOK: The Bison's run of FCS national championships ended at five last season, but their streak of consecutive Missouri Valley titles moved to six. They enter the season ranked second to James Madison, which beat the Bison in the national semifinals. The biggest news of the preseason wasn't good as All-America DE Greg Menard suffered a season-ending knee injury. The defense, though, will still be one of the best in the nation, fueled by the return of MLB DeLuca and DT Tanguay from season-ending injuries last year. On offense, veteran QB Stick has plenty of weapons, but the Bison seek to build their depth behind RBs Dunn and Anderson. The offensive line lost three starters and likely won't be as dominant as it's been all decade. The special teams should be terrific. Yup, it's national championship or bust.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, Mississippi Valley State

Sept. 9, at Eastern Washington

Sept. 23, Robert Morris

Sept. 30, Missouri State*

Oct. 7, at Indiana State*

Oct. 14, at Youngstown State*

Oct. 21, Western Illinois*

Oct. 28, Northern Iowa*

Nov. 4, at South Dakota State*

Nov. 11, South Dakota*

Nov. 18, at Illinois State*

* - Missouri Valley game

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2. SOUTH DAKOTA STATE JACKRABBITS=

LOCATION: Brookings, South Dakota

STADIUM: Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium

COACH: John Stiegelmeier (137-94, 20 seasons)

2016 RECORDS: 9-4, 7-1 Missouri Valley (Tie/1st); No. 6 in final STATS FCS Top 25

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (9 offense/6 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Cole Langer, DT; Jesse Bobbit, LB; Nick Mears, SS

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Taryn Christion, QB, Jr. (279 of 434, 3,714 yards, 30 TD, 9 INT; 131 carries, 335 yards, 6 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Christian Rozeboom, LB, So. (132 TT, 5 TFL, 3 Sacks, 2 INT, 2 PBU, 1 QBH, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Brady Mengarelli, RB/KR, Sr.; Isaac Wallace, RB, Jr.; Kane Louscher, FB, Sr.; Jake Wieneke, WR, Sr.; Dallas Goedert, TE, Sr.; Jacob Ohnesorge, C, Sr.; Tiano Pupungatoa, OL, Jr.; Charlie Harmon, OT, Sr.; Kellen Soulek, DT, Sr.; Blake Whitsell, DT, Jr.; Ryan Earith, DE, So.; Chris Balster, FS/LB, Sr.; Nick Farina, S, Sr.; Makiah Slade, S, Jr.; Jacob Brown, CB, Jr.; Anthony Washington, CB, Sr.; Chase Vinatieri, PK, So.; Brady Hale, P, Jr.

OUTLOOK: Having earned a share of the Missouri Valley title for the first time last season, the Jackrabbits are ready to challenge for an even higher championship - the FCS title. Can they handle the expectations? The triumvirate of QB Christion (the 2016 MVFC offensive player of the year), TE Goedert (92 receptions, 1,293 yards, 11 TD) and WR Wieneke (78-1,316-16) is unmatched in the FCS. Plus, Mengarelli and Wallace offer solid running, having combined for 1,273 yards and eight TDs. The defense allowed 27.3 points and 403.7 yards per game - the highest averages of their five straight playoff seasons - so it's looking for improvement. Rozeboom, a sophomore, already is a star and DT Soulek seeks a big senior season.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 31, Duquesne

Sept. 9, at Montana State

Sept. 16, Drake

Sept. 30, at Youngstown State*

Oct. 7, Southern Illinois*

Oct. 14, Northern Iowa*

Oct. 21, at Missouri State*

Oct. 28, at Western Illinois*

Nov. 4, North Dakota State*

Nov. 11, Illinois State*

Nov. 18, at South Dakota*

* - Missouri Valley game

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3. YOUNGSTOWN STATE PENGUINS=

LOCATION: Youngstown, Ohio

STADIUM: Arnold D. Stambaugh Stadium

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

2016 RECORDS: 12-4, 6-2 Missouri Valley (3rd); No. 2 in final STATS FCS Top 25

STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (7 offense/5 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Jody Webb, TB; Derek Rivers, DE; Avery Moss, DE

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Tevin McCaster, TB, Jr. (129 carries, 638 yards, 11 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Armand Dellovade, LB, Jr. (105 TT, 11 TFL, 2.5 Sacks, 5 QBH)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Hunter Wells, QB, Sr.; Joe Alessi, RB, So.; Alvin Bailey, WR/RS, Sr.; Damoun Patterson, WR, Sr.; Kevin Rader, TE, Sr.; Justin Spencer, OT, Sr.; Gavin Wiggins, OG, Jr.; Vitas Hrynkiewicz, C, Jr.; Savon Smith, DT, Jr.; Johnson Louigene, DE, Jr.; Lee Wright, LB, Sr.; Malachi Newell, LB, So.; D.J. Thomas, DB, Sr.; Jalyn Powell, FS, Sr.; Zak Kennedy, PK, Jr.; Mark Schuler, P, So.

OUTLOOK: The Penguins smashed their 10-year FCS playoff drought by winning four times en route to a national runner-up finish last season. They lost plenty of key players in the offseason, including DEs Rivers and Moss to the NFL, but they're still a national factor under Pelini, who enters his third season. QB Wells became a steady performer last season and playoff standout McCaster and a strong offensive line are used to the big games. On defense, Dellovade was the Penguins' leading tackler last season, and it's imperative to retool the pass rush. North Dakota State and South Dakota State will both visit Stambaugh Stadium.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, at Pittsburgh

Sept. 9, Robert Morris

Sept. 16, Central Connecticut State

Sept. 30, South Dakota State*

Oct. 7, at South Dakota*

Oct. 14, North Dakota State*

Oct. 21, at Northern Iowa*

Oct. 28, Illinois State*

Nov. 4, at Indiana State*

Nov. 11, at Southern Illinois*

Nov. 18, Missouri State*

* - Missouri Valley game

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4. NORTHERN IOWA PANTHERS=

LOCATION: Cedar Falls, Iowa

STADIUM: UNI-Dome

COACH: Mark Farley (134-67, 16 seasons)

2016 RECORDS: 5-6, 4-4 Missouri Valley (Tie/4th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 17 (8 offense/9 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Michael Malloy RB/TE; Karter Schult, DE; D'Shawn Dexter, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Eli Dunne, QB, Jr. (95 of 149, 1,175 yards, 7 TD, 8 INT)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Jake Farley, LB, Sr. (80 TT, 3.5 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PBU, 2 FR)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Trevor Allen, RB, So.; Marcus Weymiller, RB, Jr.; Daurice Fountain, WR, Sr.; Jaylin James, WR, So.; Jalen Rima, WR/RS, So.; Elias Nissen, TE, Jr.; Cal Twait, OL, Jr.; Jackson Scott-Brown, OL, So.; Preston Woods, DL, Sr.; Hezekiah Applegate, DL, So.; Bryce Douglas, DL, Jr.; Rickey Neal, LB, Jr.; Blake Thomas, LB, Jr.; Duncan Ferch, LB, Jr.; Elijah Campbell, DB, Jr.; Malcolm Washington, DB, Sr.; A.J. Allen, DB, Jr.; Austin Errthum, PK, Jr.; Sam Kuhter, P, Sr.

OUTLOOK: Last year's 5-6 record tied for the low mark in the Farley era (he has a .667 career winning percentage), so the Panthers seek redemption in their brutally strong conference. There's no replacing Schult, the 2016 STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award winner, but nine starters return to the conference's top-ranked defense from last year, including All-MVFC LB Farley, the coach's son. With all five starters returning on the offensive line, the Panthers should be able to control some opponents. Dunne took command of the offense during the second half of last season and teams again with No. 1 WR Fountain. As usual, the Panthers won't shy away from a tough nonconference schedule leading into an MVFC schedule that's front-loaded with the big boys.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, at Iowa State

Sept. 9, Cal Poly

Sept. 16, at Southern Utah

Sept. 30, at Southern Illinois*

Oct. 7, Western Illinois*

Oct. 14, at South Dakota State*

Oct. 21, Youngstown State*

Oct. 28, at North Dakota State*

Nov. 4, South Dakota*

Nov. 11, at Missouri State*

Nov. 18, Indiana State*

* - Missouri Valley game

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5. WESTERN ILLINOIS FIGHTING LEATHERNECKS=

LOCATION: Macomb, Illinois

STADIUM: Hanson Field

COACH: Charlie Fisher (6-5, one season)

2016 RECORDS: 6-5, 3-5 Missouri Valley (Tie/6th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 18 (8 offense/10 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Lance Lenoir, WR; Joey Borsellino, WR; Steve Mercado, DL

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Steve McShane, QB, Jr. (182 carries, 917 yards, 8 TD; 23 receptions, 234 yards, 1 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Brett Taylor, LB, Sr. (135 TT, 8.5 TFL, 4 Sacks, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 1 QBH, 1 FR)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Sean McGuire, QB, Jr.; Isaiah LeSure, WR, Jr.; Jarid Brown, WR, Sr. (Ohio U. transfer), Tony Harper, TE, Sr.; Jacob Judd, OL, Sr.; James Torgerson, OL, Sr.; Josh Baldus, OL, Sr.; Khalen Saunders, DL, Jr.; Mick Nelson, DL, Sr.; Quentin Moon, LB, Jr.; Pete Swenson, LB, Jr.; Riggs Baxter, LB, So.; David Griffith, DB, Sr.; Xavier Rowe, DB, Jr.; Aaron Diggs, DB, Sr.; Mike Viti, DB, So.; Eric Carrera, DB, So.

OUTLOOK: After starting last season with a 5-1 record, including a win at Northern Illinois, WIU disappointed in the second half of MVFC play. This season, the Leathernecks are tied with Missouri State for the most returning starters in the conference with 18. The defense returns its top nine tacklers, and it doesn't get much better than LB Taylor, the MVFC leader for two straight seasons. The offense is charged with replacing the program's top two all-time receivers, Lenoir and Borsellino. But the unit should still be strong with QB McGuire, RB McShane and an excellent O-line. By surrendering a home game against new FBS member Coastal Carolina, the Leathernecks play at Hanson Field only four times.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 31, at Tennessee Tech

Sept. 9, at Northern Arizona

Sept. 23, at Coastal Carolina

Sept. 30, South Dakota*

Oct. 7, at Northern Iowa*

Oct. 14, Missouri State*

Oct. 21, at North Dakota State*

Oct. 28, South Dakota State*

Nov. 4, at Illinois State*

Nov. 11, at Indiana State*

Nov. 18, Southern Illinois*

* - Missouri Valley game

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6. ILLINOIS STATE REDBIRDS=

LOCATION: Normal, Illinois

STADIUM: Hancock Stadium

COACH: Brock Spack (62-35, eight seasons)

2016 RECORDS: 6-6, 4-4 Missouri Valley (Tie/4th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (6 offense/8 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Anthony Warrum, WR; Mark Spelman, C; Alejandro Rivera, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Jake Kolbe, QB, Jr. (226 of 365, 2,703 yards, 22 TD, 7 INT; 3 rushing TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Davontae Harris, CB, Sr. (59 TT, 5.5 TFL, 1 Sack, 2 INT, 13 PBU, 1 QBH, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: James Robinson, RB/KR, So.; Christian Gibbs, WR, Sr.; Spencer Schnell, WR/PR, Jr.; Anthony Fowler, WR, Sr.; Chad Kanugh, OL, Jr.; Dean Helt, OL, Sr.; Dalton Keene, DL, Sr.; Adam Conley, DL, Sr.; Jason Harris, DE, So.; Matt Swaine, DE, Jr.; Bryce Holm, LB, Sr.; Tyrone Horton, LB, Jr. (TCU transfer), Alec Kocour, S, Sr.; Mitchell Brees, S, Jr.; Willie Edwards, DB, So.; DraShane Glass, DB, Sr.; Sean Slattery, PK, Sr.

OUTLOOK: 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. They should be improved this season, especially if they rank much better than 65th nationally in scoring and allow fewer sacks than last year's 37. The strong-armed Kolbe has gone through a full season and should be team nicely with Schnell (59 receptions). The defense will lead the way with an experienced line and the likes of Harris and Kocour anchoring the secondary. Slattery is a clutch kicker. With their September schedule, the Redbirds should get off to a fast start.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, Butler

Sept. 16, at Eastern Illinois

Sept. 23, at Missouri State*

Sept. 30, Indiana State*

Oct. 7, at Northern Arizona

Oct. 14, at Southern Illinois*

Oct. 21, South Dakota*

Oct. 28, at Youngstown State*

Nov. 4, Western Illinois*

Nov. 11, at South Dakota State*

Nov. 18, North Dakota State*

* - Missouri Valley game

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7. SOUTH DAKOTA COYOTES=

LOCATION: Vermillion, South Dakota

STADIUM: DakotaDome

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

2016 RECORDS: 4-7, 3-5 Missouri Valley (Tie/6th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (9 offense/5 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Tyson Graham, LB; Jacob Warner SS; Miles Bergner, PK/P

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Chris Streveler, QB, Sr. (164 of 273, 1,947 yards, 22 TD, 9 INT; 161 carries, 823 yards, 9 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Danny Rambo, CB, Jr. (56 TT, 3 TFL, 3 INT, 9 PBU, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Austin Simmons, QB, So.; Michael Fredrick, RB, Jr.; Tacari Carpenter, WR, Jr.; Brandt Van Roekel, WR, Sr.; Alonge Brooks, WR, Sr.; Randy Baker, WR, So.; Trystn Drucker, WR, So.; Nick Jensen, LT, Jr.; Jake Leohr, DT, Sr.; Taylor Lambert, DT, Sr.; Kameron Cline, DE, So.; John Wessel, LB, Sr.; Alex Gray, LB, LB; Jim Litrenta, LB, Sr.; Alex Coker, LB, Jr.; Adam Harris, CB, Sr.; Andrew Gray, FS, Jr.; Brandon Godsey, LS, Sr.

OUTLOOK: In another conference, USD would be picked higher. In the MVFC, the Coyotes are a dark horse, or can at least pull some upsets, because of their experienced offense. Dual-threat QB Streveler, the conference's 2016 newcomer of the year, and his deep receivers corps will be dangerous again. The focus is on improving the conference's lowest-ranked defense a year ago. The secondary is a strength of the unit. Not to be overlooked is the loss of the All-American Bergner, who was a dominant place-kicker and punter last season. But Nielson was the 2015 MVFC coach of the year at Western Illinois and is putting the pieces in place.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, at Drake

Sept. 9, at Bowling Green

Sept. 16, North Dakota

Sept. 30, at Western Illinois*

Oct. 7, Youngstown State*

Oct. 14, Indiana State*

Oct. 21, at Illinois State*

Oct. 28, Southern Illinois*

Nov. 4, at Northern Iowa*

Nov. 11, at North Dakota State*

Nov. 18, South Dakota State*

* - Missouri Valley game

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8. SOUTHERN ILLINOIS SALUKIS=

LOCATION: Carbondale, Illinois

STADIUM: Saluki Stadium

COACH: Nick Hill (4-7, one season)

2016 RECORDS: 4-7, 2-6 Missouri Valley (Tie/8th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Billy Reed, WR; Israel Lamprakes, WR; Chase Allen, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Sam Straub, QB, Jr. (74 of 131, 1,175 yards, 8 TD, 3 INT)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Craig James, CB, Sr. (30 TT, 1 TFL, 3 INT, 9 PBU)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Daquan Isom, RB, Jr.; Cameron Walter, RB, Sr.; Jonathan Mixon, RB, Jr.; D.J. Davis, RB/RS, So.; Hans Carmien, FB, Sr.; Connor Iwema, WR, Sr.; Darrell James, WR, Jr.; Jimmy Jones, WR, Jr.; Austin Olsen, OT, Sr.; DeVondre Seymour, OT, Sr.; Jacob Marnin, C, So.; Kyron Watson, LB, Sr.; Cody Crider, LB, So.; Markese Jackson, LB, Sr.; Roman Tatum, CB, Jr.; Jefferson Vea, S, Jr.; Jeremy Chinn, S, So.; Ryan Neal, S, Sr.

OUTLOOK: Optimism abounds for Hill's second season after the Salukis beat South Dakota and Western Illinois last November. Straub broke out with 1,150 passing yards in the final three games and hopes to reach an all-conference level over a full season. The Salukis, who were first in the MVFC in offensive yards per game (470.2), return two of their FCS-high four 500-yard receivers, Iwema and James, and Jones was headed there until he was injured. The defense is vulnerable up front, having lost four starters on the line plus Allen at middle linebacker. For the second consecutive season, the Salukis won't face North Dakota State.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 9, Mississippi Valley State

Sept. 16, at Southeast Missouri State

Sept. 23, at Memphis

Sept. 30, Northern Iowa*

Oct. 7, at South Dakota State*

Oct. 14, Illinois State*

Oct. 21, at Indiana State*

Oct. 28, at South Dakota*

Nov. 4, Missouri State*

Nov. 11, Youngstown State*

Nov. 18, at Western Illinois*

* - Missouri Valley game

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9. INDIANA STATE SYCAMORES=

LOCATION: Terre Haute, Indiana

STADIUM: Memorial Stadium

COACH: Curt Mallory (first season)

2016 RECORDS: 4-7, 2-6 Missouri Valley (Tie/8th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 9 (5 offense/4 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Roland Genesy, RB; Robert Tonyan Jr., WR; Jameer Thurman, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Isaac Harker, QB, R-Jr. (214 of 370, 2,559 yards, 19 TD, 8 INT)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Kenyota Rollins, DE, Sr. (45 TT, 9 TFL, 3 Sacks, 1 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: LeMonte Booker, RB, Sr.; Dimitri Taylor, RB, R-Sr.; Jaquan Keys, RB, R-Jr.; Kelvin Cook, WR, R-Jr.; Bob Pugh, WR, R-Sr.; Jacquet McClendon, TE, Sr.; Matt Byrne, OL, Sr.; Norvell McGlaun, DT, Sr.; Antonio Broadus, LB, R-Sr.; Jonas Griffith, LB, R-So.; Justin Hornsby, LB, R-Sr.; Jordan Jackson, LB, R-Sr.; Katrell Moss, LB, R-Jr.; Devin Brockington, DB, Sr.; Kevin Scott, S, R-So.; Jerry Nunez, PK, So.

OUTLOOK: This is Mallory's first head coaching position. His father Bill was the head coach at four FBS programs (Indiana, Miami of Ohio, Colorado and Northern Illinois). In his first season, Mallory wants to jump-start the running game, which gets a boost from a healthier Booker. Regardless, QB Harker proved himself as a sophomore. The defense has been beat up the last two seasons and returns only four players who started at least six games. The three players with over 50 tackles last season are gone.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 31, Eastern Illinois

Sept. 9, at Tennessee

Sept. 16, at Liberty

Sept. 30, at Illinois State*

Oct. 7, North Dakota State*

Oct. 14, at South Dakota*

Oct. 21, Southern Illinois*

Oct. 28, at Missouri State*

Nov. 4, Youngstown State*

Nov. 11, Western Illinois*

Nov. 18, at Northern Iowa*

* - Missouri Valley game

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10. MISSOURI STATE BEARS=

LOCATION: Springfield, Missouri

STADIUM: Plaster Sports Complex

COACH: Dave Steckel (5-17, two seasons)

2016 RECORDS: 4-7, 2-6 Missouri Valley (Tie/8th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 18 (8 offense/10 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Zac Hoover, WR; Riley Shantz, OL; Dylan Cole, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Deion Holliman, WR/RS, Sr. (30 receptions, 246 yards, 3 TD; 23.5-yard KO return average, 1 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Colby Isbell, DL, Sr. (33 TT, 12 TFL, 6.5 Sacks, 3 PBU, 6 QBH, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Peyton Huslig, QB, So.; Jason Randall, RB, Jr.; Calan Crowder, RB, Sr.; Malik Earl, WR, Sr.; Erik Furmanek, TE, Sr.; Coleman Clanton, OL, So.; Marquis Prophete, OL, Jr.; Jordan Turner, OL, Jr.; Tristan Crowder, DL, So.; Cecil Bratton, DL, Sr.; Kurran Blamey, LB, Sr.; McNeece Egbim, LB, So.; Darius Joseph, CB, So.; Darius Daniel, CB, Sr.; Jared Beshore, S, Jr.; Cameron Price, S, So.; Zach Drake, PK/P, So.

OUTLOOK: The Bears increased their win total by three in Steckel's second season and did so with one of the younger squads in the FCS. Like Northern Iowa, the Bears return an MVFC-high 18 starters. But they're breaking in a new quarterback, likely Huslig. The big-play ability of WRs Earl and Holliman will help with the transition, but they have to improve on a minus-10 turnover margin. Holliman is the only player to have touchdowns on both punt and kickoff returns in each of the last two seasons. The defense surrendered too many points (35.7) and yards (443.4) each game, so it needs to take a big step this season. Pass rusher Isbell will be the senior leader.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, at Missouri

Sept. 9, at North Dakota

Sept. 16, Murray State

Sept. 23, Illinois State*

Sept. 30, at North Dakota State*

Oct. 14, at Western Illinois*

Oct. 21, South Dakota State*

Oct. 28, Indiana State*

Nov. 4, at Southern Illinois*

Nov. 11, Northern Iowa*

Nov. 18, at Youngstown State*

* - Missouri Valley game

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