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In the FCS Huddle: Missouri Valley on a playoff push

<p>Anybody and everybody across the FCS embraced the expansion of the playoff field by four teams to 24 last year, knowing it would bring in more deserving qualifiers.</p>

(SportsNetwork.com) - Anybody and everybody across the FCS embraced the expansion of the playoff field by four teams to 24 last year, knowing it would bring in more deserving qualifiers.

The conference that has been considered the strongest in the FCS likely never envisioned its playoff qualifiers would go in the other direction - dropping from three to two.

Quite simply, Missouri Valley Football Conference programs found this result to be unacceptable.

They were particularly vocal about their dissatisfaction on Tuesday during a preseason coaches conference call in which North Dakota State - the three-time defending FCS national champion - was announced as the team to beat again in the 10-team Missouri Valley. South Dakota State was picked second and Northern Iowa third in the 10-team conference's head coaches, media and sports information directors poll.

"Having only two teams in an expanded bracket is not OK," MVFC commissioner Patty Viverito said. "We have playoff-caliber teams that aren't being selected. That's not OK. I know the coaches are frustrated - rightfully so.

"I think we need to do everything we can to help the (playoff selection) committee understand and respect strength of schedule. There's no doubt that over the last several years the Valley has been the No. 1 FCS conference, and I think that if any team finishes in the top half of the Valley standings, that that should automatically put them into consideration for at-large selection."

In 2003, the Missouri Valley became the first FCS conference to have four playoff teams ... and that was when the playoff field was only 16 teams deep. The Valley also has sent three qualifiers in 2006, 2010 and 2012, and its 33-20 record in the playoffs over the past 10 seasons is better than any other conference.

But the strength of the Missouri Valley was also its downfall by late November last season. After NDSU (15-0, 8-0), which ran away from the field by three games, the other teams kept beating up on each other, and it created parity.

South Dakota State (9-5, 5-3) was the only other playoff qualifier, and it went on to win a road playoff game before bowing out.

But as deep as the Missouri Valley was, its next-best playoff possibilities had flaws on their resume:

- Youngstown State (8-4 including a loss to Michigan State, 5-3) ended the season by losing three straight conference games.

- Northern Iowa (7-5, 3-5) was as good as many FCS teams - beating FBS Iowa State, hammering McNeese State and edging Youngstown State - but it still had a sub-.500 record in conference games.

- Southern Illinois (7-5, 5-3) had only six wins over Division I competition despite tying for second place in the Missouri Valley.

The Big Sky Conference had four playoff qualifiers, while CAA Football and the Ohio Valley and Southland conferences had three each. That the Missouri Valley had only two qualifiers has UNI coach Mark Farley, who has led seven teams into the FCS postseason, believing his conference should consider new ways to make sure it never happens again.

"We need to kind of plan ahead and project some possibilities of what we can do to figure out a way to get the third or the fourth team in a playoff system," he said. "I guess scheduling is a big part of that - how much do we actually play each other? Should we play everybody in the league or should we drop down and play less people in the league and more non-conference games. Possibly divide the teams in half is a thought - a North and a South (and) an East and a West, add some teams, cut it in half and try to get two winners and you'd probably get a third team possibly that way."

"If the MVC is one of the best conferences and only gets two teams in and your (eight-win) team doesn't get in, I think you really have to go back and look at your process again."

Added Youngstown State coach Eric Wolford: "I think it's very clear that we should have three or four teams in. I think everyone knows that, every coach knows that. I think Farley brought up a great point about having a game plan for those playoff selections about how we're going to represent ourselves, and then continue to look at ways for marketing our conference."

Viverito remains open to suggestions, but she doesn't believe playing fewer conference games is a likely move. Missouri Valley teams play eight conference games each season, missing one other opponent in their unbalanced scheduling.

The only football commissioner the Missouri Valley has ever known added the best way for her teams to make people notice them is to go outside the conference to play, and beat, Top 25 FCS teams.

But Viverito's conference is so strong that she says getting Top 25 opponents on schedules may be more challenging than actually beating them.

The Missouri Valley has soared to such an elite level in recent years behind the success of North Dakota State. The Bison, under first-year coach Chris Klieman, put a conference-high eight players on the preseason team. They figure to enter the season ranked No. 1 or 2 nationally, anxious to prove they can overcome the loss of 24 seniors and former coach Craig Bohl.

If NDSU weakens, the Missouri Valley race should tighten this season. The Bison are one of six teams that has a new starting quarterback or no clear-cut decision on one, joining Indiana State, Illinois State, Southern Illinois, Western Illinois and Youngstown State.

MISSOURI VALLEY FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL

Head Coaches, Media and Sports Information Directors Poll

1. North Dakota State (24 first-place votes), 370 points

2. South Dakota State (8), 330

3. Northern Iowa (7), 324

4. Youngstown State, 240

5. Southern Illinois, 237

6. Illinois State, 197

7. Missouri State, 180

8. South Dakota, 121

9. Western Illinois, 96

10. Indiana State, 50

PRESEASON ALL-MISSOURI VALLEY FOOTBALL TEAM

Offense

QB - Austin Sumner, South Dakota State, Sr.

RB - David Johnson, Northern Iowa, Sr.

RB - Zach Zenner, South Dakota State, Sr.

FB - Andrew Bonnet, North Dakota State, Jr.

WR - Jason Schneider, South Dakota State, Sr.

WR - Zach Vraa, North Dakota State, Sr.

TE - MyCole Pruitt, Southern Illinois, Sr.

OL - Robert Booker, Missouri State, Jr.

OL - Zack Cooley, Missouri State, Sr.

OL - Richard Galbierz, Missouri State, Sr.

OL - Trevor Greger, South Dakota State, Sr.

OL - Zack Johnson, North Dakota State, Jr.

OL - Jack Rummells, Northern Iowa, Sr.

LS - Chris Highland, Illinois State, Sr.

PK - Thomas Kinney, Southern Illinois, Sr.

Defense

DL - Kyle Emanuel, North Dakota State, Sr.

DL - Drew Iddings, South Dakota, Jr.

DL - Cole Langer, South Dakota State, So.

DL - Xavier Williams, Northern Iowa, Sr.

LB - Andrew Beisel, Missouri State, Sr.

LB - Auston Johnson, South Dakota, Sr.

LB - Carlton Littlejohn, North Dakota State, Sr.

LB - Pat Meehan, Illinois State, Jr.

LB - Connor Underwood, Indiana State, Jr.

DB - Martinez Davis, Western Illinos, Sr.

DB - Makinton Dorleant, Northern Iowa, Jr.

DB - Colten Heagle, North Dakota State, Sr.

DB - Caleb Schaffitzel, Missouri State, Sr.

P - Ben LeCompte, North Dakota State, Jr.

RS - Andre Stubbs, Youngstown State, Jr.

Honorable Mention

QB - Sawyer Kollmorgen, Northern Iowa, Sr.; TB - Martin Ruiz, Youngstown State, So.; FB - Drew Potter, South Dakota, So.; WR - Kevin Vereen Jr., Northern Iowa, Jr.; LS - Nathan Gibbs, Youngstown State, Sr.; OL - Jermaine Barton, Illinois State, Sr.; LB - Kevin Kintzel, Western Illinos, Sr.; LB - T.J. Lally, South Dakota State, Jr.; DB/RS - Christian Dudzik, North Dakota State, Sr.

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