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MVFC power Northern Iowa in unfamiliar underdog role

The other Missouri Valley Football Conference teams might want to give Northern Iowa a round of applause for their era of achievement. With UNI's installation in fourth place in the conference's preseason poll, announced today, folks around the league are effectively saying the Panthers' run is over.

Northern Iowa just might caution them to hold the applause until after the season, however. They don't have any plans to oblige the prediction.

UNI has been the premier program in the MVFC (and formerly Gateway Conference) since it won the first conference title in 1985. While something of a slight, the team's prediction of fourth in the preseason is also an indication of how the Panthers' elite play has prompted other programs to aspire to reach that level.

The Panthers haven't finished as low as fourth in the conference since 2002, and their 2-5 conference record that season is their only one below .500 through 25 seasons of MVFC play.

"I think what you're finding out through the parity of this is a lot of the universities have really put a lot into making sure that they have competitive teams, and they've really invested in their programs," Northern Iowa head coach Mark Farley said. "I think that holds true when you look at what's going on with those teams. And that parity is because of the coaches they've hired, the changes they've made, the emphasis they put into recruiting."

Within the MVFC, UNI has the most outright titles (nine), shared titles (five) and total titles (14). Southern Illinois and Western Illinois are second with five total titles each. Southern Illinois, coming off an unbeaten run through the conference last season, is expected to repeat as the conference champion, earning 30 of the 36 first-place votes in the preseason poll.

The voting for second through fourth places was close. South Dakota State was second, with Illinois State third and then, in its unfamiliar position, UNI fourth out of nine MVFC programs.

"You can always say that you're the underdog, and we've kind of lived our life up here based off of trying to take a harder path or hope there's a little more adversity," Farley said. "At the same time, it gives a lot respect to your team when you're picked towards the top. But when you're picked fourth, as we are, right in the middle of the pack, it speaks to the strength and the parity of what people are talking about. I agree with the rankings; I think they're very close to probably what they should be going in because of the experience coming back. This is going to be a very difficult season for us. And a very competitive season. We have to make sure that we're ready from the very first week."

Three Key Games
Northern Iowa at Southern Illinois, Oct. 9 - These MVFC powers have combined to win or share seven of the past nine conference titles. Southern Illinois had five players on The Sports Network/Fathead.com Preseason All-America Team (cornerback Korey Lindsey, fullback John Goode, offensive tackle David Pickard, safety Mike McElroy and place-kicker Kyle Dougherty).

South Dakota State at Southern Illinois, Oct. 16 - This game caps a 15-day run in which SIU, the MVFC's preseason favorite, plays the teams picked second, third and fourth in the preseason poll. South Dakota State running back KyleMinett, who has 42 career touchdowns, could be the MVFC's offensive player of the year.

South Dakota State at North Dakota State, Nov. 13 - These rivals play for the Dakota Marker, a trophy that is a replica of a stone boundary marker that can be found along the border between their states. South Dakota State won 28-13 last season, but the host Bison could pose a problem through their strength in the trenches.

While nobody should be hustling to Las Vegas to bet that UNI's fourth-place prediction will come true, the preseason nod was reasonable. The Panthers, 7-4 overall and 5-3 in the MVFC last season, lost to the three teams voted ahead of them, including a 22-20 nail biter to Illinois State when their FCS playoff hopes were on the line in the season finale.

They are replacing all five starters on the offensive line and all but Darren Branch on the defensive line. Their experience on offense lies with skill- position players like wide receivers Josh Collins and Maurice Turner, tight end Skylar Oordt and preseason all-conference running back Carlos Anderson, who all could be getting the ball from quarterback Zach Davis. On defense, linebackers L.J. Fort and Jamar Thompson headline a more experienced group.

If anybody outside UNI should know what the Panthers' model has done for the rest of the conference, it's Missouri State head coach Terry Allen. He compiled a 75-26 record as the Panthers' head coach, taking them to seven straight shared or outright titles from 1990-96 and a pair of national semifinal appearances.

"The quality of our best teams made the viability of the Missouri Valley a better place for kids to go at this level," said Allen, whose Missouri State squad was picked fifth in the preseason poll. "So, yeah, I think the good teams have made the league better."

Defending champion Southern Illinois is replacing 1,694-yard rusher Deji Karim and 20 other seniors, but has an MVFC-high seven players on the preseason all- conference team. Their roster includes two defensive backs, seniors Korey Lindsey and Mike McElroy, who are nominees for The Sports Network's Buck Buchanan Award, sponsored by Fathead.com, which is given annually to the FCS' outstanding defensive player.

A preseason favorite has claimed the conference crown 13 times in 24 previous preseason polls.

"I think the best way to describe this year's team," Southern Illinois coach Dale Lennon said, "is we still have some very good experience returning at key positions, but we'll be complementing that experience with some younger players that have kind of been waiting their turn to play the game and learning from the older players in front of 'em. Now it's their turn."

MISSOURI VALLEY PRESEASON POLL
(Head Coaches, Media and Sports Information Directors)

1. Southern Illinois (30 first-place votes), 313 points;
2. South Dakota State (2), 252;
3. Illinois State (3), 249;
4. Northern Iowa (1), 244;
5. Missouri State, 164;
6. North Dakota State, 151;
7. Youngstown State, 130;
8. Western Illinois, 70;
9. Indiana State, 47

PRESEASON MISSOURI VALLEY ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM

Offense

QB
Matt Brown, Illinois State

RB
Carlos Anderson, Northern Iowa;
Kyle Minett, South Dakota State

FB
John Goode, Southern Illinois

WR
Joe Allaria, Southern Illinois;
Dominique Barnes, Youngstown State;
Lilo Senatus, Western Illinois

TE
Schuylar Oordt, Northern Iowa

OL
David Arkin, Missouri State;
Nick Bledsoe, Illinois State;
Ryan McKnight, South Dakota State;
David Pickard, Southern Illinois;
Eric Rodemoyer, Youngstown State.

Defense

DL
Eric Brunner, Illinois State;
Matthew Gratzek, North Dakota State;
Waylon Richardet, Missouri State;
Kyle Russo, Southern Illinois

LB
Aaron Archie, Indiana State;
Derek Domino, South Dakota State;
Kyle Glazier, Western Illinois;
Antoine Wilkinson, Missouri State

DB
Kelvyn Hemphill, Illinois State;
Conrad Kjerstad, South Dakota State;
Korey Lindsey, Southern Illinois;
Mike McElroy, Southern Illinois.

Specialists

PK
Kyle Dougherty, Southern Illinois

P
Dean Priddy, South Dakota State

RS
Todd Speight, Western Illinois.

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director


Southwestern Athletic Conference
Media Day - July 20

Big Sky Conference
Media Day - July 20

Ohio Valley Conference
Media Day - July 26

Southern Conference
Media Day - July 27

Colonial Athletic Association
Media Day - July 28

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Media Day - July 28

Big South Conference
Media Day - July 29

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference
Media Day - July 30

Missouri Valley Conference
Media Day - August 2

Patriot League
Media Day - August 3

Northeast Conference
Media Day - August 4

Pioneer Conference
Media Day - August 9

Ivy League
Media Day - August 10

Great West Conference
Media Day - August 11



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