(STATS) - With the Missouri Valley Football Conference's opening night fast approaching, all eyes are on what South Dakota State's prolific aerial attack can do for an encore after helping the Jackrabbits roll to a share of the conference title last season.
Behind its nation-high three STATS FCS Walter Payton Award Watch List selections, No. 4 SDSU hopes to begin a march to another MVFC crown Thursday night when the team opens the season against defending Northeast Conference co-champ Duquesne.
"Our guys have embraced the fact that there is a target on their back," Jackrabbits coach John Stiegelmeier said. "They embrace that, and they are going to play their best football."
Returning MVFC Offensive Player of the Year Taryn Christion directs Stiegelmeier's high-powered offense, which averaged a conference-best 33.2 points and ranked second with 437.5 yards per contest in 2016. The junior quarterback set a school record with 3,714 passing yards and tied a program mark with 30 touchdown passes, while Dallas Goedert established an SDSU single-season record with 92 receptions to go along with 1,293 receiving yards and fellow All-American Jake Wieneke caught 78 passes for 1,316 yards and matched his own school record with 16 scores.
Wieneke only needs three catches against the Dukes to break the school record with 226 career receptions. He already holds SDSU and league career records with 4,192 receiving yards and 43 touchdown grabs.
Christion, Goedert and Wieneke now hope to put on a show on the home turf - SDSU (9-4 in 2016) has won five straight games there - as it faces a Duquesne team that has eight starters back from a defense that allowed an NEC-best 190.5 passing yards per game. The Dukes (8-3), who won their last four games in 2016, have captured at least a share of the league title in four of the last six seasons.
The Jackrabbits surely will have their hands full with STATS FCS Jerry Rice Award winner A.J. Hines, who ran for a Duquesne freshman record 1,291 yards and 13 touchdowns last season.
"(The Jackrabbits) are very explosive on offense," Dukes coach Jerry Schmitt conceded. "It'll be a big challenge for us."
In other MVFC openers Thursday night, No. 25 Western Illinois (6-5) travels to face Tennessee Tech (5-6) and Indiana State (4-7) hosts Eastern Illinois (6-5).
NATIONAL RUNNER-UP RETURNS=
SDSU isn't the only high-profile MVFC squad opening play this week as No. 9 Youngstown State looks to begin a journey it hopes ends up back in Frisco.
It won't be an easy start with Saturday's visit to FBS foe Pittsburgh, which finished 8-5 last season and was the only team to beat eventual champ Clemson.
"We'll get a starting point this Saturday - where we are and where we need to progress as a football team and move forward," Youngstown State coach Bo Pelini said. "Win or lose. We're going to assess it, see where we are, and see what we need to do to get better."
The Penguins (12-4) have had to adjust defensively after star ends Derek Rivers and Avery Moss were selected in the NFL draft, but they welcome back All-MVFC first-team preseason pick Armand Dellovade at linebacker and a veteran group of 20 seniors on the roster overall.
Dellovade, a junior, led the Penguins with 105 tackles last year and finished third with 11 1/2 tackles for loss. He'll have to have another big season if Youngstown State is to continue its dominant ways on that side of the ball.
The Penguins, who ranked second in the MVFC with 19.9 points allowed per game in 2016, are 1-3 all-time versus Pitt but split their two most recent trips with a 31-17 win in September 2012 before falling 45-37 in September 2015.
The Panthers have finished second in the ACC's Coastal Division in each of the past two years under coach Pat Narduzzi, who was a starting linebacker for his father and coach Bill Narduzzi at Youngstown State in 1985.
OTHER SATURDAY OPENERS=
For the first time since 2011, North Dakota State isn't opening the season as the defending national champion. With 16 starters back from last year's 12-2 team that reached the semifinals, the second-ranked Bison hope to begin their return to the top Saturday when they host Mississippi Valley State.
They'll have to do it without two-time All-America defensive end Greg Menard, who will miss the 2017 season with a knee injury suffered during the opening week of fall camp. NDSU still has preseason all-MVFC picks in senior defensive tackle Nate Tanguay, senior linebacker Nick DeLuca, senior safety Tre Dempsey and junior safety Robbie Grimsley back on a defense that ranked fifth in the nation with just 16.6 points allowed per game last season.
"We just feel like we have more depth this year, throughout the spring and throughout fall camp, that we have been able to develop," said Bison coach Chris Klieman, whose squad has won the two all-time meetings with the Delta Devils (1-10) by a combined 103-7.
Later Saturday, No. 18 Northern Iowa (5-6) opens with an FBS test at Iowa State (3-9), while rising quarterback Jake Kolbe looks to take another step forward when No. 20 Illinois State (6-6) hosts Butler (4-7). Missouri State (4-7) travels to Missouri (4-8) and South Dakota (4-7) visits Drake (7-4) earlier Saturday.