Spring football games are nothing more than glorified scrimmages that aren't indicative of what's to come in the fall. But what leads up to these games for college football programs are vital. Depth, position battles, getting to work with new coaches on the field and underclassmen showing progress are just a few items on a long list of what can be accomplished in the spring.
For FCS teams, the road to Frisco begins once their season ends and winter workouts begin. The product on the field, though, starts coming together during spring ball.
The Missouri Valley Football Conference will be as intriguing as ever in 2017. While it no longer can call itself the home of the defending national champions, a few teams will have their name in that national title conversation come playoff time. The path there begins being paved in these early practices.
Here are the top storylines to pay attention to for Valley teams: [divider]
2016 record: 6-6, 4-4
In 2016, the Redbirds had to replace two stars in quarterback Tre Roberson and running back Marshaun Coprich. Ranked high nationally in the preseason, Illinois State lost four games in a row in weeks 2-6. But three consecutive wins to finish the regular season got the Redbirds into the playoffs at 6-5, where they lost 31-24 to Central Arkansas.
This season, ISU has to replace another offensive standout with wide receiver Anthony Warrum graduated. He racked up 1,031 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns in 2016. Junior quarterback Jake Kolbe will need to develop chemistry this spring and find a new go-to target. [divider]
2016 record: 4-7, 2-6
A major key for the Sycamores this spring is installing a new system and growing the comfort level between players and coaches. Curt Mallory enters his first season as a head coach at the collegiate level after spending 22 years as an assistant with his last being at Wyoming.
Mallory brings in an entire new staff to the Sycamores with the exception of running backs coach Jayden Everrett staying in Terra Haute. With new position coaches and coordinators, there will be a lot to learn for ISU players. [divider]
2016 record: 4-7, 2-6
The Bears need to replace two key positions on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Brodie Lambert has graduated along with linebacker Dylan Cole, a pro prospect who totaled 142 tackles in 2016.
MSU has two sophomores and a redshirt freshman at quarterback on its 2017 roster, making spring reps even more important. [divider]
2016 record: 12-2, 7-1
Is the pressure off the Bison? Probably not entirely. Expectations haven't lessened after NDSU's streak of five consecutive national titles was snapped. The team was not senior heavy in 2016 and returns experience at every position.
One of the bigger storylines in spring ball for the Bison is who will fill the three offensive line starting spots. NDSU breeds offensive linemen like a true Midwest program should. There's young and athletic guys who have waited their turn, but getting the right five is a top priority for the Bison.
The other notable storyline is new offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham, who held the same position previously at Montana State. All indications are the Bison's offensive style won't change much, although there will likely be new installments and language to the offense that the unit will need to learn in the spring. [divider]
2016 record: 5-6, 4-4
An anticipated 2016 season was quickly quieted after a 2-4 start. With uncertainly at quarterback, sophomore Eli Dunne got the start in four of UNI's final five games. He gave the Panthers a needed threat in the passing game and threw for more than 200 yards in all four games.
At 6-foot-5, Dunne looks to be UNI's guy. With him having the reigns in spring ball with the No. 1 offense, Dunne has an opportunity to make a lot of progress for his junior season. [divider]
2016 record: 4-7, 3-5
Minnesota transfer quarterback Chris Streveler was a menace for MVFC defenses in 2016. At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, the junior led the Coyotes in rushing with 823 yards and nine touchdowns. He totaled 1,947 yards through the air with another 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Streveler added a huge boost to a USD program that is slowly climbing the MVFC ranks and now has the spring to make more progress with his young receivers. Despite their 4-7 final record, the Coyotes were pushing for a playoff bid in Bob Nielson's first season as head coach. But their last four games ended in losses by a touchdown or less, three of which came against ranked opponents. [divider]
2016 record: 9-4, 7-1
The Jackrabbit players and coaches will give all the cliche answers in 2017.
"We're taking it one game, one day, at a time."
"Our focus is on the next opponent."
Inside the locker room walls, however, the defending MVFC co-champions have one trophy on their mind, and that's the national championship. Windows open and close quickly in the FCS for most programs and their opportunity to win it the big one. While SDSU has consistently been a playoff contender for years, the 2017 season may be its best opportunity to be celebrating in Texas.
SDSU returns most of its prolific offensive unit. If the Jacks can replace a few key departures on the defensive side, they are in for another success fall. [divider]
2016 record: 4-7, 2-6
Second-year head coach Nick Hill hopes to continue building the SIU program into a conference contender. The Salukis struggled to 2-6 MVFC record last year, but Hill's recruiting classes have gotten high praise. One thing he'll have to address during spring ball is defense. SIU allowed 30.73 points per game in 2016.
"There were too many times we had on film where there was miscommunication," Hill said at a Feb. 28 press conference. "Now in year two, we've played a ton of young guys and an entire secondary is coming back. The communication and the calls have to improve this spring." [divider]
2016 record: 6-5, 3-5
A sour taste likely remains for a Western Illinois team who held a 6-2 record and a sure bid into the playoffs, only to lose its final three games of the season. WIU is a program that's been in the middle of the Valley pack for awhile, but is always hanging with the top teams.
Quarterback Sean McGuire and running back Steve McShane return. The Leathernecks will need to find an outside threat this spring, though. All-conference receiver Lance Lenoir and Joey Borsellino combined for 1,593 receiving yards as seniors in 2016. [divider]
2016 record: 12-4, 6-2
The 2016 Penguins surprised everyone except perhaps themselves with a national runner-up finish. Bo Pelini had a talented squad entering the season, but YSU was on a long playoff drought with dreadful November performances. A year later, a lot of that talent has graduated. Pelini and his staff's recruiting ability will show this season.
Replacing the duos of running backs Martin Ruiz and Jody Webb, safeties Jameel Smith and LeRoy Alexander and defensive ends Avery Moss and Derek Rivers is a tall task. Quarterback Hunter Wells provides a nice piece to build the offense around along with Tevin McCaster.