Missouri Valley Football Conference Preview
Release: August 01, 2011
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Nearly everyone in the Missouri Valley believes Northern Iowa will be the team to beat in 2011.
After the way the Panthers finished in 2010, it doesn't feel that way to coach Mark Farley.
Though the Panthers won the Valley title last season at 6-2, they finished just 7-5 overall and were knocked out of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs with a humbling 14-7 home loss to Lehigh.
``I know we got picked to win the league, but I just think that our team is in the role of coming from behind. I think we have to fight back from last season,'' Farley said. ``It's just our temperament here.''
Northern Iowa was the overwhelming pick to win the conference again, receiving 29 of 36 first-place votes in the league's preseason poll of coaches, media and sports information directors released Monday. North Dakota State got six first-place votes and was second behind Northern Iowa, and Southern Illinois was third with one vote for first.
The pollsters believe the middle pack of the Valley will be tight. South Dakota State was picked fourth, but just three points ahead of Illinois State and four over Indiana State - which hasn't been picked this high since being sixth in the seven-team Gateway Conference poll in 2000.
Western Illinois, Youngstown State and Missouri State rounded out the poll.
Northern Iowa started 2-3 last season, only to bounce back with five straight wins to take the league title. But they got trounced by Western Illinois in the regular season finale, 30-14, and racked up just 251 yards of offense in the loss to Lehigh.
Much of the optimism surrounding the Panthers chances has to do with their dynamic dual-threat quarterback, senior Tirrell Rennie. The transfer from Ellsworth Community College threw for 1,543 yards in 2010 but with 11 interceptions against just eight TDs in his last season. He did much of his work on the ground, rushing for a team-high 1,291 yards and 15 touchdowns.
``We want to improve his passing game. Phenomenal runner, great athlete. Can make things happen when things break down,'' Farley said. ``We have to change because of some of the dynamics that (Rennie) brings to the table, and then (Rennie) has to adjust that, we need him to be a great thrower.''
North Dakota State went 4-4 in the Valley last year. But the Bison took advantage of the move to a 20-team playoff system, pounding Robert Morris and Montana State before falling to eventual national champion Eastern Washington 38-31 in overtime during the quarterfinals.
The Bison have 15 starters back, including eight on defense, and appear poised for a serious push at the league title.
``Our guys are very focused on our conference. We've got a great deal of respect for the teams in our conference,'' North Dakota State coach Craig Bohl said.
North Dakota State hosts Northern Iowa on Oct. 29 in a matchup that could determine the Valley's regular season champion.
Southern Illinois has won at least a share of the Valley title five times since 2003 and last won it outright in 2009, though it stumbled to a 5-6 mark in 2010.
The Salukis should be strong up front, with both center Bryan Boemer and tackle David Pickard earning first-team all-league selections. Sophomore quarterback Paul McIntosh will step in for Chris Dieker, who went 20-9 in three years as a starter, and Iowa transfer Jewel Hampton joins Shariff Harris and Steve Strother in a crowded backfield.
Perhaps the most fascinating team to watch in the Valley this season will be the Sycamores.
Indiana State broke through with a 6-5 record and a 4-4 finish in 2010, snapping a staggering streak of 60 losses in its last 62 games.
Coach Trent Miles was named the Valley's Coach of the Year for leading the once-moribund program to its first winning record since 1996, and 18 starters on offense and defense return this fall.
``Our expectation level is never to be satisfied with being a 6-5 football team. We don't want to be average,'' Miles said.