ST. LOUIS — There isn’t any doubt regarding the team to beat in the 2013 Missouri Valley Football Conference.

With back-to-back national championships and 18 returning starters who include three players on national preseason watch lists and 10 preseason all-MVFC picks, North Dakota State was an overwhelming No. 1 in the league’s preseason poll released Monday morning.

The Bison, who have posted consecutive 14-1 seasons, received all 39 first-place votes in the annual poll of the league’s coaches, media and sports information directors.

The University of Northern Iowa, coming off a rare losing season (5-6), was tabbed for third behind South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits went 9-4 a year ago, reached the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs and have 15 starters back.

The case can also be made for several other Valley teams.

Illinois State was a playoff qualifier last season and returns a strong nucleus and plenty of young talent as it christens a new stadium. Youngstown State also has a solid foundation back, plus a veteran starting quarterback in Kurt Hess.

Indiana State took a giant step in 2012 when it went 7-4 and just missed the postseason. The Sycamores feature one of the most exciting and productive players in FCS in running back Shakir Bell as Mike Sanford takes over as head coach.

Missouri State and head coach Terry Allen are counting on a senior class that is 21 strong and will lean on 17 returning starters. Dale Lennon’s Southern Illinois squad went 6-5 a year ago with a handful of games that were decided by a single play or two.

Western Illinois also has a new coach in Bob Nielson, who built an impressive resume at Wartburg College and Minnesota-Duluth. And South Dakota expects to take a step forward as former Montana coach Joe Glenn reshapes the Coyote program.

“What will define the Valley (in 2013) is the number of good teams,” UNI head coach Mark Farley said Monday during the league’s preseason kickoff teleconference. “We’ve always said we have been balanced, which we have to a point. We’ve been balanced with a lot of good teams. Now we’re balanced with a lot of great teams.

“If you look at the top half of our league, you’re looking at Top 10 teams, not just Top 25 teams.”

A few more facts back up Farley’s assessment.

In all, there are nine MVFC players on national preseason watch lists. The Buck Buchanan defensive list includes linebacker Grant Olson and defensive back Marcus Williams of North Dakota State, defensive back Caleb Schaffitzel of Missouri State, linebacker Tyler Starr of South Dakota and defensive lineman Colton Underwood of Illinois State. The Walter Payton offensive watch list includes Indiana State’s Bell, UNI runningback David Johnson, North Dakota State quarterback Brock Jensen and South Dakota State runningback Zach Zenner.

The three playoff qualifiers from the MVFC last season all won at least one postseason game.

Within the league, every week was a battle in 2012 and likely will be again. Valley teams played 22 games last season that were decided by eight or fewer points, including 16 league contests.

“This league is so tough top to bottom,” noted Illinois State coach Brock Spack. “There isn’t any team you can say is a definite win. It’s the best league I’ve ever been a part of as far as the quality from top to bottom.”

Even North Dakota State’s Craig Bohl, whose program has almost seemed bullet-proof the past two seasons, takes nothing for granted.

“I think we won four games last year by a margin of three points or less,” he said. “If our players haven’t recognized it, they need to recognize that it’s not too far from the penthouse to the outhouse. That may be a little dramatic, but to achieve lofty goals is very difficult.

“We’re also aware that the two losses we’ve had the last two years have been against Missouri Valley teams at home, and neither of those teams were in the playoffs. That’s the competitive nature of Missouri Valley football. Our players recognize it and our coaches recognize it, and we certainly know we’ve got our hands full in the Valley.”

There are plenty of major challenges awaiting in non-league play, as well.

North Dakota State faces an Aug. 30 road game at Kansas State. UNI plays at Iowa State, and Missouri State visits Kinnick Stadium to face Iowa. Southern Illinois will tangle with Illinois, South Dakota plays at Kansas, Western Illinois will take trips to Minnesota and UNLV, Youngstown State goes to Michigan State, South Dakota State is at Nebraska, and Indiana State has games at Indiana and Purdue.

Ultimately, however, it’s about the MVFC season and trying to reach the FCS playoffs, which will expand from 20 to 24 this season, including three additional at-large berths.

“To be a top team in this league means you’re one of the top teams in the country,” said Western Illinois’ Nielsen.

Preseason MVFC poll

(First-place votes in parentheses)

Team Pts.

1. North Dakota St. (39) 390

2. South Dakota St. 323

3. Northern Iowa 269

4. Illinois St. 264

5. Youngstown St. 253

6. Indiana St. 197

7. Southern Illinois 188

8. Missouri St. 123

9. Western Illinois 77

10. South Dakota 61

Preseason All-MVFC

Offense

QB - Brock Jensen (N.D. St.)

RB - Shakir Bell (Ind. St.), David Johnson (UNI), Zach Zenner (S.D. St.)

FB - Jordan Neukirch (Illinois St.)

WR - Dorian Buford (Miss. St.), Ryan Smith (N.D. St.)

TE - MyCole Pruitt (Southern Ill.)

OL - Chris Elkins (Youngs. St.), Jimmy Holtschlag (W. Ill.), Dan Kruger (UNI), Billy Turner (N.D. St.), Bryan Witzmann (S.D. St.)

PK - Adam Keller (N.D. St.)

Defense

DL - Cole Jirik (N.D. St.), Doug Peete (S.D. St.), Leevon Perry (N.D. St.), Colton Underwood (Ill. St.)

LB - Grant Olson (N.D. St.), T.J. Lally (S.D. St.), J.J. Raffelson (W. Ill.), Tyler Starr (S. Dak.)

DB - Calvin Burnett (Ind. St.), Martinez Davis (W. Ill.), Caleb Schaffitzel (Miss. St.), Marcus Williams (N.D. St.)

PT - Ben LeCompte (N.D. St.)

RS - Ryan Smith (N.D. St.)

Honorable mention

Sawyer Kollmorgen, qb (UNI), Kurt Hess, qb (Youngs. St.), Brett LeMaster, wr (UNI), Josh Aladenoye, OL (Ill. St.), Jermaine Barton, ol (Ill. St.), FN Lutz III, ol (Ind. St.), Tyler Sievertsen, pk (UNI), Anthony Grady, dl (Miss. St.), Jake Farley, lb (UNI), Travis Beck, lb (N.D. St.), Austin Pucylowski, pt (S. Ill.)

Sports Editor for The Courier

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