Sunday, July 28, 2013

#8 Western Illinois

Bob Nielson will be looking to turn things around
in Macomb.
If you're a fan of Western Illinois, last year was a very long football season. Opponents scored an average of 28.3 points against the Leathernecks while Western could only muster a dismal average of 9.7 points per game. Throughout the season, Western was outscored 311-107. That was an awful, awful season. However, in 2013 there really is hope.

Western Illinois welcomes a new head coach. If you are unfamiliar with Bob Nielson, let me introduce you. Nielson has been a head coach since 1989. He started off at small Ripon College in Wisconsin. He spent two seasons there: first season 2-9-1, second season 7-2. After Ripon he left to take a job at Wartburg College in Iowa. He spent five seasons with the Knights. His first two were mediocre, finishing 6-4 and 5-5; his last three--9-2 (playoffs), 10-2 (playoffs), and 9-1. After his five seasons at Wartburg he moved back to college and took over the team at Wisconsin Eau-Claire. Again, he took over a team made significant improvement. He spent three seasons at Wisconsin Eau-Claire: 1996: (5-5), 1997: (7-3), and 1998: (10-3, playoffs). After three short seasons with Wisconsin Eau-Claire he took over at Minnesota-Duluth where he had his most success as a head coach. Nielson has posted a 170-59-1 head coaching record. I'll let you examine what he has done:

The biggest task ahead of Nielson will be turning around the Leatherneck passing game. Last year, Western threw the ball for just 1176 yards and only 2 TDs and 13 INTs. Yes, last year Western Illinois only had 2 passing touchdowns the entire season. Sophomore QB, Hayden Northern is slated to be the starter coming football season. Last year Northern threw for 321 yards, 0 TDs & 6 INTs. The running game should help out the development of the passing this year. Nikko Watson will take over the starting RB position after two solid seasons behind Caulton Ray. The big question mark will be whether or not the offensive line will continue to develop. Last year tackle, Sam Kachanuk, missed most of the season due to to injury. In 2011 he started the last two games. He, along with Jimmy Holtschlag and Jeff Lindsey, will provide leadership on the offensive line. 

Defensively, Martinez Davis and David McDaniel return at defensive back--between the two of them
Western Illinois Leathernecks 2013 Schedule
they have 9 interceptions, two returned for TDs. Western loses only one of its top tacklers (Theon Dixone) the rest, LB J.J. Raffelson, DB Jonathon Rollins, LB Devon Butler, LB Kevin Kintzel, and LB Luke Venegoni all return and should provide a solid base to a much improved Western Illinois defense.

The 2013 schedule should be favorable for Western Illinois. Although they have two FBS games--weak ones--their other non-conference games, Hampton & Quincy, are winnable games that should provide confidence early one. Of course, I said this exact same thing last season when Western faced Butler & Indianapolis. Western needs to beat South Dakota and Missouri State to keep themselves out of the bottom of the MVFC. I feel that with new leadership and the experience Bob Nielson brings to Macomb Western should make massive strives this season and get themselves out of a 2-year slump.

#9 Missouri State

QB Kierra Harris hands the ball to Mikael Cooper-Falls
against Western Illinois last season.
(Photo: Missouri State Athletics)
Missouri State finished the 2012 season 3-8. However, one of their wins came against Illinois State who made the playoffs and finished the season 9-4. They also came 5 points shy of upsetting #1 ranked North Dakota State. Here are some other close losses: Lost vs. Murray State 28-23, Lost vs. Southern Illinois 14-6, Lost @ South Dakota State 17-7. If the Bears were too find a way to win those close games they would have been looking at a 6-5 or 7-4 record instead of a 3-8--they also played Louisville and Kansas State last year as well.

Here is what makes this Missouri State Bears team interesting. Last year they decided to start a transfer QB from Missouri, Ashton Glaser. Glaser turned out to be a bust--half way through the season he put up dismal numbers (116-210 for 1221 yards, 2 TDs & 12 INTs). Kierra Harris finished the season with the starting QB job and although he wasn't phenomenal he was able to make big plays that helped the Bears get some momentum going. Kierra Harris finished the season with just under 1000 yards passing with 7 TDs & 8 INTs. If Harris could expand on his successes in 2012 the Bears might just find a grove and have a really good offense. The kicker, of course, is that they need to be consistent, balanced, and smart.

Missouri State's 2013 Football Schedule
The Bears return a few  running backs that should provide stability to the offense. Mikael Cooper-Falls, Scott Vernan, and Ryan Heaston all played a part in the running game last season. The running game needs to become more consistent for Missouri State if they hope to break through to that next level. In 2012, the Bears combined had only 1385 yards on the ground. Compare that to the top MVFC teams last year--North Dakota State had over 3000 yards on the ground (albeit they played 4 more games), South Dakota State had over 2300 yards, and Illinois State had 1700 yards (close, BUT Illinois State had 3400 yards passing compared to Missouri State's 2200 yards). Missouri State's offense just needs to become more dynamic--If they can't break through in the run game or the pass game, they'll continue to be at the bottom of the MVFC standings year-in & year-out.

Defensively, Missouri State returns alot of their key players. However, their top tackler is their safety--thats a problem. Kudos to Safety, Caleb Schaffitzel, who had 109 tackles and 5 INTs last year, but if you're making that many tackles as a safety...your front seven are not getting things done. At LB, Andrew Beisel & Nick Canavan will likely be the catalyst on how well the Bears will stop the run. Grady Anthony will return the most experience on the line with 49 tackles and 5 sacks.

Overall, Missouri State needs to find a sense of identity. With that identity will come consistency and momentum. The last time the Bears had a winning record was 2009 when the team finished a mediocre 6-5. Seven of the last 10 seasons, the Bears have finished under .500.

#10 South Dakota

South Dakota will need to improve on defense to be
more successful in 2013.
(Photo: USD Athletics)
The Coyotes had a disappointing first year in the Missouri Valley Football Conference last year. They
ended up 1-10 and didn't win a game in the conference. South Dakota will be a team to keep a close eye on the next couple years; they get good talent, but the inconsistent coaching--i think--has been what is keeping them down the last couple of years.

Last year they started a freshman quarterback, Josh Vander Maten, who is a dual-threat quarterback that can turn the burners on. Vander Maten struggled at times during the season, making costly mistakes that  restricted the Coyote offense from getting in a grove. If Vander Maten can limit his turnovers and become more efficient leading the offense, the 'Yotes could get hot. Vander Maten will not have standout receiver Will Powell this year, and also it looks like he might be without impact senior RB Jasper Sanders; Sanders injured his wrist in the gym recently. The Coyotes will need to find their niche' early in the season and if they desire to get out of the bottom of the MVFC there will need to be multiple players who have breakout seasons in 2013.

South Dakota Coyotes Schedule 2013
The Coyote defense is lead by All-American LB Tyler Starr. South Dakota needs to improve on defense--6 times last year the Coyote defense allowed more than 30 points--if they want to rack up some wins. South Dakota returns DB's Aaron Swift & Devin Taverna. Taverna led the Yotes in interceptions last year with 3 INT's returned for 37 yards. The secondary should be a strength for South Dakota. Kyle Guziec will provide some support alongside of Tyler Starr at Linebacker. However, both will need to be in overdrive to help out with the lack of experience on the defensive line. Drew Iddings returns the most experience up front--last year Iddings had 35 tackles (6 TFL) and .5 sacks.

South Dakota also has a very tough non-conference schedule (UC Davis, @ Kansas, @ Northern Arizona, & Montana). It will be important for the Yotes to get a solid win against UC Davis at the beginning of the season; if they don't there is a good chance that South Dakota will start 0-3 (assuming Northern Arizona will be as formidable as last year) and it will be a hard climb out of the hole the rest of the season. On the other hand, their first two conference games are against fellow bottom dwellars, Western Illinois & Missouri State. If the Coyotes can establish themselves with two conference wins, they'll be able to climb out from the bottom.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Preseason Poll Consternation and FCS Thoughts

I, and I'm sure many other fans and advocates of the Football Championship Subdivision, frequently find myself defending the FCS from its detractors by submitting that there is, in fact, a great deal of parity in the upper half of the subdivision. Just the other day I had a quick debate with a work client who said off-the-cuff that one NFL prospect on an FCS team would make them more or less a shoo-in for an FCS championship, or at least playoff appearance. Needless to say that to people like you and me this sounds completely ridiculous, but this is the stigma that we as fans of the "lesser" Division-I face and have to consider when interacting with fans of the FBS. This is all leading somewhere, rest assured.

I don't think it's any secret that NDSU is the team to beat in the race to the national title game this coming season, and I think a lot of preseason polls (my own submissions included) are going to reflect that. The Bison return a bevy of starters from a squad that's won ten playoff games in the last three years and boast a BCS-caliber defense. Your average FBS fan would note that the Bison have some legit NFL prospects in guys like Marcus Williams and Billy Turner and cite that that much talent on an FCS team is obviously going to run amok in that subdivision the way NDSU has.

The purpose of this exposition is to establish that even though there is one very dominant team in the FCS now, there is plenty of quality to be found in the top echelon of the FCS. Fans of the subdivision know this, and guys like me get Twitter follows for mashing on it. It's a swell deal.

However, I came to an odd conclusion as I was submitting my preseason poll submission when I suddenly found that Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, and Old Dominion weren't eligible for poll nomination as they've all announced intent to move up to the FBS. My top five was pretty solid, but after that I suddenly realized I had no clue who should be going in spots 6-25 (and gods help the folks who submit their 26-35 or beyond spots on some of those submissions). I'm sitting there perusing ESPN and looking over schedules of teams last season and actually almost included three teams from the Patriot League because I flat-out ran out of teams to consider with the exclusion of so many mainstay teams that had qualified success last season. Is that a knock on me for not knowing my teams as well as I probably should? You could make the case. But does it also allude to the coming disparity that's starting to show itself in the FCS with so many teams starting to migrate to the perceived greener pastures of the FBS? Perhaps.

In an ideal league, the top-25 are all fairly competitive with one another. Obviously teams at the top are going to fare better against the teams that are sneaking in to the 20-25 spots, but in the case of the coming season and perhaps beyond, I think we're going to start to see a subdivision where the top five-to-eight teams would just absolutely crush even middling teams in the ten-to-twenty range. My top five ended up looking like this:

1. North Dakota State
2. Sam Houston State
3. Eastern Washington
4. Montana State
5. Illinois State

Right there are three teams that would be supplanted by the aforementioned FCS departed, and three teams that would help build a demonstrable bridge between the top echelon and the middle-of-the-road teams in the FCS. Suddenly now we're including a team like Illinois State, who I think will be good-not-great, and two Big Sky teams that will probably go 6-2 or 7-1 in conference play but then get smacked as their penance for not playing defense (although EWU does have one of the top DB prospects in all of college football as a transfer from UCLA in Tevin McDonald). It makes for a poll that will probably stay fairly consistent at the top (though my Illinois State prediction here is probably going to go all over the place) and get shaken up every single week in reasonably dramatic fashion.  I'm certainly making no assertions that my poll is "right" and preseason polls are, of course, a massive crapshoot as you can't factor in the months without games that teams have used to either progress or regress, so maybe this entire post will be rendered moot when twenty legit teams are starting to form a meniscus-like barrier in the subdivision.

In any event, it's almost a little unsettling to start to see the divide emerging in the FCS not unlike that which came about in the twilight years of Division-II, a yawing gulf that prompted NDSU, Northern Colorado, North Dakota, and a whole bunch of other schools to try their luck in Division-I. Obviously for some like NDSU, that move worked out pretty well. Other schools like Northern Colorado haven't had a whole lot of success, and for fans it's probably tough to rationalize the move up when your team(s) are having the kind of year-in, year-out struggles that the Bears are having. Is this some manner of dark precursor to an en-masse FBS move up as those FCS teams with the finances to do it are forced to jump the FCS ship and crowd the FBS? What kind of ramifications will that have on the teams themselves, their financial and athletic futures, and the ever-depleting FCS? It's a sobering scenario, and one that will be interesting to watch unfold over the next season or two as we adjust to life without a few of the FCS mainstays that are now leaving.

I'll post the rest of my poll when AGS gets their submissions out and will break down the official poll when it comes out as it's pertinent to the MVFC. Should be a good five or six teams that make the cut, by my reckoning.

UPDATE: Here's the poll, feel free to tear it apart because it's not great - that's the joy of doing preseason polls. This will certainly look way different after week one.

1: North Dakota State Bison
2: Sam Houston State Bearkats
3: Eastern Washington Eagles
4: Montana State Bobcats
5: Illinois State Redbirds
6: Villanova Wildcats
7: Montana Grizzlies
8: Stony Brook Seawolves
9: Wofford Terriers
10: Cal Poly Mustangs
11: Central Arkansas Bears
12: James Madison Dukes
13: South Dakota State Jackrabbits
14: Richmond Spiders
15: The Citadel Bulldogs
16: Towson Tigers
17: Murray State Racers
18: Delaware Fightin' Blue Hens
19: Colgate Raiders
20: McNeese State Cowboys
21: Chattanooga Mocs
22: Northern Iowa Panthers
23: Lehigh Mountain Hawks
24: Eastern Illinois Panthers
25: Southern Illinois Salukis

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Blog Resurrection, Preseason Rankings, Player Watch lists, and more!

It's been a quiet summer for us here at the MVFF, but with kickoff of the 2013 season just a scant month ahead it's high time to get talking about what will likely shape up to be, once again, the most daunting conference in the Football Championship Subdivision. With North Dakota State returning as the back-to-back champion of both the nation and conference the table looks set to have the Bison continue their dynastic run through the slate, but make no mistake that plenty of challenges await as some very good teams appear to be shaping up here in the Midwest. The league boasts (in my opinion) six or seven teams that have a reasonable shot at being in the top half of the conference, and as all Valley fans will attest, any of the Valley members could steal a couple of games and surprise some folks. With that said, let's get right to my preseason rankings for the Valley - the numbers in parentheses indicate a team's 2012 record followed by their record in conference play.

Craig Bohl and the Bison are 37-7 over the past three seasons.
Photo credit:
1. North Dakota State (14-1, 7-1) - No surprise here, as the Bison return 19 starters from a team that has won ten playoff games and two national championships in the last three years. Senior quarterback Brock Jensen returns behind center to continue as the rock on offense, and a few tools at wide receiver will only benefit a passing game that has largely been the only weakness of this squad for the past few years. This year's Bison defense should again cement itself as one of the top units in the country, and a number of players on that side of the ball have pro prospects to live up to. The Bison have a good early litmus test at Kansas State on August 31st, and a victory there would be an early herald of the continuing dominance the Bison are showing the FCS.

Kollmorgen returns as the reigning MVFC Newcomer of the Year
Photo credit: Getty Images

2. Northern Iowa (5-6, 4-4) - A rare losing season from Cedar Falls will be quickly rectified, in my opinion, as sophomore QB Sawyer Kollmorgen should continue to improve from what was a remarkable freshman campaign that nearly resulted in an early upset of ranked Wisconsin last season. The Panthers also return running back David Johnson, who's found himself on the 2013 Walter Payton watch list and should factor in as a potent weapon behind Kollmorgen. Tab October 5th as a slobberknocker, as the Panthers travel to Fargo to face the Bison in what should be the usual slugfest we expect between those two teams. Otherwise, the Panthers face some adversity in games at South Dakota State and Illinois State; can they endure?

Zach Zenner broke out last season with a 99-yard touchdown
run versus the Kansas Jayhawks. Photo credit: ESPN 99.1
3. South Dakota State (9-4, 6-2) - The Jacks are the sexy pick at second in the league, and have a very favorable home league schedule as NDSU, UNI, and both ISU's come to Brookings. The Jacks also return most key pieces from their playoff-earning campaign from last season. Those factors aside, the question for the Jacks is whether or not junior quarterback Austin Sumner can take the pressure off of last year's 2000-yard rusher Zach Zenner at running back. Zenner is on a nearly endless list of award watch lists for 2013, and rightfully so, but if Sumner can't improve on last year's 15-14 TD:INT ratio, then it will be all teams need to do to load the box and force the diminutive Zenner to pound out tough yards. The Jacks will be a good team, but it's up to Sumner to make them a great team in 2013.

Barnett's claim to fame is Iowa State's 2011 stunning upset of
then-second-ranked Oklahoma State. Credit:

4. Illinois State (9-4, 5-3) - The Redbirds don't go higher by virtue of losing do-everything quarterback Matt Brown last season, and although they are bringing in a few promising candidates to replace the position (including Iowa State transfer Jared Barnett, whom my partner-in-crime detailed in the blog post prior to this one), they still face a number of questions on offense that preclude any discussion of placing them higher than about here. The Redbirds defense fared surprisingly well last season, and though they lose beastly interior tackle Shelby Harris, that unit should be playing with a bit of pride this year that could lead ISU to shake up the conference standings and possibly repeat their playoff contention of last season.

You look Dale Lennon's mustache in the eye when you let
it down. Credit:
5. Southern Illinois (6-5, 5-3) - Salukis head coach Dale Lennon once again found himself as the target for fans' ire following an unremarkable 6-5 campaign that seemed to feature as many defensive scores as offensive ones (which was to say, not many). Nevertheless, SIU finished with a winning record and returns a fair number of pieces, but has to travel to UNI, SDSU, and Indiana State in the coming season. Maybe that isn't so daunting, though, considering that the Salukis had a brilliant three-game stretch last year that included wins over ranked Illinois State and Youngstown State, both of which came by double-digits and were separated by a win over scrappy Northern Iowa. SIU found ways to win tough games, and sometimes in convincing fashion, and a feisty returning defense (the kind always fielded by 3-4 mastermind Bubba Schweigert) should have SIU trending upward for 2013.

Hess's numbers last year: 63.3% completion, 15 TDs, 7 INTs. Zero
career playoff games. Credit:
6. Youngstown State (7-4, 4-4) - Kurt Hess entered the MVFC as a superstar freshman three years ago,
and in his final year at YSU he'll doubtless look to return to the that form and bring the Penguins back to conference relevance after two debacles last year that saw the then-ranked  'Guins get crushed by first NDSU (falling 48-7 after a 4-0 start and a top-five ranking) then SIU (losing at home 38-21 to the unranked Salukis). Youngstown State has a lot to live down this year, and while I think they have the ability to do better than sixth, they haven't demonstrated that they can be better year and, more importantly, that they can deliver in the big game. I want to believe, really.

Bell was a 2011 Payton finalist and averaged 5.5 yards per
carry last season. Credit:
7. Indiana State (7-4, 5-3) - Trent Miles and lowly Indiana State was one of the best feel-good stories in college football: 33 straight losses snapped when the hometown hero returns to coach his alma mater and brings the Sycamores to conference relevance the next few years. All ruined when Miles accepted a position to coach at FBS-bound Georgia State. Now the Sycs are feeling targeted as many are predicting a fall from glory back to the cellar days of lore, and outside of running back Shakir Bell, there isn't much they can do about it. Granted, Bell needs just over 700 yards and four touchdowns to take over the career leader spots in both categories at InSU, but that might be all the team can look forward to with the new coaching staff.

8. South Dakota (0-8, 1-10) - Joe Glenn's first season at South Dakota was a harsh wake-up call, and it goes to show that even a famed FCS coach can't make the necessary changes overnight. South Dakota should be a bit better, though their schedule does them no favors. There isn't much to take away from last season except that things can't get much worse (55-0 "home" loss to NDSU in Sioux Falls, anyone?), and really any movement almost by default has to be upward. This feels like more of a "dark horse" pick than UNI at second, that's for sure.

9. Missouri State (3-8, 3-5) - Missouri State lost some baffling games last year, and in a few were a mere score away from notching as many as three more wins in their docket last season. They even had a chance to defeat reigning champ NDSU, save for a timely last-second endzone interception by Bison DB Christian Dudzik. A 19-34 seven-year record in the Valley is all you need to look at to know why Bears' fans are clamoring for Allen to be fired despite his impressive resume. MSU does face just one FBS opponent this year, but as they face Southland foe Central Arkansas as well on their non-conference schedule, seeing more than four or five wins for the Bears is a tough call.

10. Western Illinois (3-8, 1-7) - WIU managed to score ten points just once in their final six games, and cracked 20 just three times (albeit to Butler, South Dakota, and something called Indianapolis). The team got flat-out run over in conference play, and doesn't seem to be trending any better, though with Missouri State, South Dakota and a DII team coming to Macomb, the opportunities for crowd-sating victories are there. Otherwise, it's going to be a long season if last year's finish is any indication.

2013 Offensive Player of the Year: Sawyer Kollmorgen, QB, Northern Iowa
2013 Defensive Player of the Year: Marcus Williams, DB, North Dakota State
2013 Coach of the Year: Mark Farley, Northern Iowa
2013 Newcomer of the Year: Jared Barnett, QB, Illinois State

Eager to hear your thoughts and takes on the upcoming season. The countdown is barely a month off!