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Valley Looks Vicious
No easy path for Jackrabbits in conference
South Dakota State opens Missouri Valley Football Conference play - and the home portion of its schedule - on Saturday against Illinois State.
But familiar may not equate to friendly. The league doesn’t figure to be any sort of sanctuary for a team coming off its most lopsided loss to a Football Championship Subdivision squad in four years.
The top tier in the Valley is as strong as ever, with three teams ranked in the top 15 of the national polls last week. That’s nothing new.
However, you could make a case that each of the next six squads are better now than they were last year. All of those programs have been ranked or received votes so far this season.
It’s going to be a challenge for the No. 20 Jacks (0-1) to remain in the top three, where they’ve finished in both of their first two years in the nine-team conference.
“I think the programs are run the way football programs were meant to be run,” SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier said. “They’re not fast-food recruiting and bringing in transfers and junior college guys and trying to move on. Coaches are coaching like they’re going to be here forever.”
That said, there has been an influx of new faces in the coaching ranks the past three seasons.
Brock Spack (Illinois State), Eric Wolford (Youngstown State) and Trent Miles (Indiana State) each landed their current jobs after serving as assistants at schools in BCS conferences.
Southern Illinois, the overwhelming favorite in the preseason poll coming off an undefeated league record in 2009, has added two national championship coaches in that time. Head man Dale Lennon led North Dakota to a Division II crown, and offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer won three NAIA titles as the top dog at the University of Sioux Falls.
Mark Farley, coach of perennial power Northern Iowa, believes that to be indicative of the priorities of people beyond the sidelines.
“I think what you’re finding out is that a lot of universities have put a lot into making sure they have competitive teams, and they’ve really invested in their programs,” he said. “I think that holds true when you look at what’s going on with those teams.”
The bottom six of the preseason poll is each scary in its own way.
Indiana State and Western Illinois were one-win teams last year. But the Sycamores put up their highest point total since 1999 in the first game for quarterback Ronnie Fouch - a former starter at the University of Washington - and were within 12-7 of Cincinnati in the second half Saturday. The Leathernecks won their opener 45-0 and gave Purdue a scare in a 31-21 defeat in Week 2.
Coming off a three-win season, North Dakota State stunned Kansas in its opener.
Missouri State is the best it’s been in five years under Terry Allen, the former head coach at Kansas.
Youngstown State turned heads in the offseason by bringing in touted transfers and multi-star recruits.
Illinois State is picked to finish third in the league - ahead of UNI - and was 26th in the preseason national poll.
It won’t be easy for SDSU to remain on an upward progression from 6-2 in the Valley in 2008 to 7-1 last year.
“Everybody is improving,” Stiegelmeier said. “The concern is that those guys at the top improve, also. Some of us have to figure out a niche, something really unique in your program to get you to take that next big leap. That’s what we’re trying to figure out at South Dakota State.”
By Terry Vandrovec, Argus Leader