Even though the Valley isn't home to the defending national champions for the first time since 2011, that doesn't mean it's no longer the strongest conference in the FCS. The MVFC has consistently had the most teams represented in the Top 25 polls and the playoff field. And even when James Madison took down the five-time defending champs North Dakota State at the Fargodome, the third-place team out the the MVFC, Youngstown State, still represented in Frisco.
The Bison remain a strong national championship favorite. South Dakota State has the roster to make a push as well. Illinois State is a few years removed from the national title game. And you have to respect the 2016 national runner-ups, even though the Penguins lose a lot of talent on defense.
And then you have Northern Iowa, who was probably the second best team in the 2015 playoffs. Add in Western Illinois and South Dakota as rising programs and that's seven teams who on paper look worthy of a playoff bid this season.
All of which means the middle-of-the-pack race may be just as exciting as the heavyweights battling it out for the conference title.
South Dakota State quarterback Taryn Christion returns after winning the MVFC Offensive Player of the Year award. (SDSU Athletics)
Names to Know
THE NFL PROSPECT: TE Dallas Goedert and WR Jake Wieneke, South Dakota State
Every single NFL team will likely have a scout in Brookings this season. Let's just hope they remember to bring two notebooks.
THE VETERAN COACH: John Stiegelmeier, South Dakota State
The head coach at SDSU since 1997, he has led the Jacks through a Division 1 transition and has reached the playoffs every year since 2012.
TOP PASSER: Taryn Christion, South Dakota State
Threw for 3,714 yards and 30 touchdowns last season.
TOP RUSHER: Lance Dunn, North Dakota State
Despite splitting carries, Dunn rushed for 996 yards.
TOP RECEIVER: Jake Wieneke, South Dakota State
Racked up 78 catches for 1,316 yards and 16 touchdowns.
TOP TACKLER: Brett Taylor, Western Illinois
The linebacker's 134 tackles ranked second last year in the MVFC and third in the FCS.
TOP SACK MAN: Kellen Soulek, South Dakota State
The defensive lineman got to the quarterback 7.5 times.
TOP INT ARTIST: Tre Dempsey, North Dakota State
Snagged six of them from his safety position.
BOUNCE BACK ARTIST: Nick DeLuca, North Dakota State
The linebacker would be in the NFL if not for a shoulder injury sidelining him after three games.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Jalen Rima, Northern Iowa
He played as a true freshman and is an absolute burner at wide receiver and returner.
North Dakota State – The Bison ranked No. 5 in the FCS with an average attendance of 18,556 fans.
DID YOU KNOW?
Since 2011, a team from the MVFC has made the playoff quarterfinals 13 different times while three different teams have played in the championship game.
Strength of schedule is a huge factor for the FCS playoff committee. It's a big reason why the MVFC has had a 6-5 team make the playoffs the last two seasons. Usually seven is the magic number, but the committee recognizes a six-win team in the Valley is more competitive nationally than a 7-8 win team in lower conferences.
South Dakota. While it is hard to imagine the Coyotes jumping all the way to the top of the Valley, you can't deny the strides they've made in the last two seasons. They won just three conference games in their first three seasons from 2012-2014. 2015 saw a huge, program-changing upset at NDSU. And last season, they went 4-7 overall, losing five conference games by a touchdown or less, including 28-21 to SDSU and NDSU, who split the MVFC title. USD returns plenty to turn those close losses to wins. [divider]
North Dakota State. While it's easy to predict NDSU and SDSU will split the title again (because they probably will), the nod still goes to the Bison here. On paper, NDSU looks better than last year's team. And don't underestimate the motivation factor. Just ask Montana in the 2015 playoffs and SDSU in last year's playoffs. The Bison want the Dakota Marker back after SDSU won during the regular season. They want a conference title on their own and to reclaim their throne at the top of the FCS. The Jackrabbits showed they have narrowed the gap on NDSU. But if the 36-10 NDSU playoff win is an indication, there's still a lot of ground to make up.
Easton Stick is just a junior this season, but he already has a 20-2 record as a starter and wants to join Brock Jensen and Carson Wentz as a Division 1 national championship winner for the Bison. (NDSU Athletics)
FCS PREVIEWS CONFERENCE BY CONFERENCE
Aug. 15 – The Northeast Conference and The Patriot League
Aug. 16 – Big South and Southern Conference
Aug. 17 – Southland and Ohio Valley
Aug. 18 – Pioneer League
Aug. 23 – Missouri Valley and Big Sky
Aug. 24 – Ivy League and CAA
Aug. 25 – SWAC and MEAC