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Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley walks the sidelines in the first half of the game at Jack Trice Stadium Saturday in Ames in 2017

CEDAR FALLS -- The Northern Iowa football team was picked to finish third in a Missouri Valley Football Conference poll released by the league Monday.

The Panthers with 270 points, were picked to finish behind defending FCS national champion North Dakota State (390) and South Dakota State (340). UNI returns 16 starters -- eight on offense, five on defense, and three specialists. 

In a teleconference with league media, MVFC commissioner Patti Viverito said the 2018 season promises to be another great one for the Valley.

A year ago, the MVFC put five teams in the FCS 24-team playoff field with NDSU and SDSU each reaching the semifinals. In the past decade, the MVFC has produced a 52-23 playoff record, with only one other conference, the CAA, with as many as 20.

"Much to be proud of and expectations are high again," Viverito said.

NDSU received all 39 first place votes as it was named the league preseason favorite for the seventh consecutive season. It is just the second team a league team has received every first place vote, the last, was the Bison in 2013.

The MVFC will release its preseason offensive team Tuesday and defensive team on Wednesday.

Viverito and the league's 10 coaches discussed several topics during the two-hour long teleconference. One theme was common among the coaches, the road to the post-season will not be easily traveled.

"What makes this league so difficult is nobody is going backwards," South Dakota head coach Bob Nielson said. "Everybody is getting better, so trying to catch a team in the top division is difficult."

Northern Iowa head coach Mark Farley said much of the league's growth has to do with the personnel within it.

"You probably have to start with the coaching aspect of it," Farley said of the growth of the league over the last decade. "The game staffs on these teams are extraordinary. That is much more evident now."

NORTH DAKOTA IN 2020: The MVFC will grow to 11 teams in 2020 when the University of North Dakota joins the conference.

Viverito said Monday that the conference schedule will remain with eight games with the addition of the Fighting Hawks.

Among the primary reasons Viverito said the conference will stick with an eight-game conference schedule is to keep a balance within the schedule.

"It is a really important balance with four home and four away games with the fairness that presents and an understanding we don't play a full round-robin schedule any way," Viverito said. "It also maintains three non-conference opportunities."

Viverito added there is no challenge quite like that of the MVFC schedule, calling it, "a blessing and a curse."

THURSDAY OPENER: For the first time in league history, the conference slate will start with a Thursday night game when UNI travels to Indiana State on Sept. 27.

"At this time it is just a one-time deal," Viverito said. "When that game was scheduled both teams had a bye week prior so it was a function of opportunity, and we wanted to take advantage of that."

UNI was to have a bye week before the game, but added a home game with Hampton University on Sept. 22 to complete its schedule. The Panthers open at Montana on Sept. 1, and have an off-week before playing at Iowa on Sept. 15.

"With the short turnaround ... it will be a challenge playing on a Thursday night after playing our first home game," Farley said. "Our focus is to run our camp (preseason camp) so we are in position to be ready when we hit our schedule."

NEW REDSHIRT RULE: Every coach said they like the new NCAA rule that allows them to play in-coming freshmen up to four games without burning their redshirt season.

Farley said it will create opportunities for some young players.

"There are two ways to do it," Farley said. "Play them early to see if you will use them the rest of the season ... make that decision to play him in that fifth game or redshirt him."

Farley added it will be easier to play those players earlier in the non-conference season when there is no travel-size roster limitations, noting MVFC teams can only travel with 63 players for conference games. He said there will probably be more instances trying to use them within a particular game plan.

Indiana State head coach Curt Mallory had a view point that it will keep freshman players engaged.

"It changes the mindset of a freshman that you can play at anytime," Mallory said. "You have that question of a guy who is redshirting is he still pushing toward the future, still progressing toward getting better. The mindset now is you can go in at anytime whether it is the start, middle or end (of season)."

PELINI CONTRACT: Youngstown State head coach Bo Pelini is entering the final year of an initial four-year contract to coach the Penguins after being let go at Nebraska following the 2014 season.

Pelini said he and the school have not had any discussions on a new contract. After going 5-6 in his first season in 2015, Pelini led YSU to the FCS national title game in 2016. A year ago, the Penguins went 6-5, including a win over FCS playoff semifinalist South Dakota State as well as winning their final three games.

"When the time comes we will talk about it," Pelini said. "It is not something I'm worried about. There is a time and place for all of that to happen."

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Sports Reporter

Sports reporter for The Courier

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