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Parity part of MVFC chase
The Missouri Valley Football Conference had an unprecedented logjam in 2010, with six of the nine teams finishing tied for third at 4-4 in league play.
But judging by the 2011 preseason poll released Monday and comments from coaches in the media teleconference, the offseason didn’t supply much separation.
Defending champion Northern Iowa and perennial power Southern Illinois were picked first and third, respectively, sandwiched around North Dakota State, a squad that pushed eventual national champion Eastern Washington to overtime in the Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinals last fall.
“Those are no-brainers,” Indiana State coach Trent Miles said. “Everybody else is a toss-up in this conference.”
South Dakota State, Illinois State and Indiana State were picked 4-5-6, separated by a total of just four points in the voting.
The Jackrabbits lost to both of those squads last year in going .500 in Valley action, graduated more all-conference performers - including four now in NFL training camps - and have fewer representatives in the preseason picks. The Sycamores have six, the Redbirds have four and the Jacks just one - senior linebacker Mike Lien.
“For us, we’re wondering a little bit what kind of football team we’re going to have,” SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier said.
Yet his squad received the benefit of the doubt from many voters, having finished in third place or better with a combined conference record of 17-7 since entering the league in 2008.
As for what’s behind this potential trend of parity, several coaches mentioned the physical nature of the league keeping scores lower and bringing injuries into play.
There’s also a history of continuity in terms of league membership - only one charter member has left in 27 years - and coaching turnover. It’s hard to surprise anybody.
To that end, there are no new head coaches in the league this season, compared to two last year.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a league more balanced than this one,” said Illinois State coach Brock Spack, a veteran of the Big Ten, WAC and Ohio Valley. “It’s not overly top-heavy.”
Still, UNI received 29 of 36 first-place votes and is ahead of where it was at this time last year largely because quarterback Tirrell Rennie - a candidate for the Walter Payton Award, given to the top offensive FCS player - has been in the system longer.
Of course, there’s no guarantee the preseason polls will pan out.
Southern Illinois entered 2010 as the defending champ and preseason favorite only to wind up in that 4-4 mess and miss the playoffs for the first time in eight years. Meanwhile, Western Illinois made the postseason - and advanced to the second round - after being tabbed eighth.
The Leathernecks have been fitted into the seventh spot this time around, more an indication of the unpredictable state of the league than an indictment of that program.
“Anybody in this league can win on any given Saturday,” WIU coach Mark Hendrickson said. “Therefore, you need to prepare to the best of your ability at every opportunity.”
By Terry Vandrovec, Argus Leader