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It's Time for Spring Football in the FCS

Three and a half months ago the Herd got their one fall game in against Central Arkansas (a playoff participant in 2019). It was an uneven performance by the Herd. The offense showed the rust of playing the first game against a good opponent, taking a full quarter to hit any semblance of efficiency. Christian Watson seemed to be worried about the NFL scouts in the audience (missing out on the normal home crowd advantage hurt some as well), dropping two passes and tripping over his own feet on a wide open sweep. Watson needs to step up this spring. Trey was out of sorts as well, hitting only 50% of his passes.

Wow, Trey will be a first round pick and we only get this stud for one season, plus one game. We also only get a single senior game out of the second highest ranked FCS NFL prospect, Dillon Radunz. Covid has been a mean bitch!

Defensively the yardage given up was under 300 yards (297 yards with only 71 rushing yards). We gave up some deep balls to the two stud receivers CA had. There is some concern that this gets locked down when we face the spring slate. Again, this was an up & down performance by Code Green, but still a win.

Leading up to the opener on Sunday, February 21st at the Fargo Dome against Youngstown State I will be doing four articles. One on an early outlook on the Missouri Valley Football Conference, then analyzing the Bison roster, followed by early guessing on who the top playoff contenders will be and finally an in depth look at the YSU Penguins.

Now to this week’s task, how stiff will the competition be in the MVFC? First and foremost, the MVFC is the SEC of the FCS world for the decade of 2010-19. The Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) & Southern Conference shared in dominating the FCS from 2000-09. GA Southern won one and Appalachian State ran three in a row and from the CAA Delaware (2003), JMU (2004), Richmond (2008) and Villanova (2009) brought home four NC’s.

Looking at current league members (UND lost two playoff games, but joins MVFC this year), in the last decade the MVFC is 55-18 won/loss in the playoffs against Non-MVFC schools (there were also 10 head to head games against other MVFC teams). Even factoring out the Herds’ dominance (29-2), the other teams are 26-16. The CAA is a meager 36-32 won/loss against non-CAA teams in the tournament (they also played eight head to heads). Factoring out JMU’s 12-6 playoff record means the rest of the CAA is 24-26. A losing record! So if you run into any of the CAA is on parity with the MVFC idiots in the Twitter sphere, you can point this out.

Since NDSU will only be playing MVFC schools this spring means they will be facing the toughest schedule of any FCS team (5 opponents, including Central Arkansas, since they are included by the committee in playoff selection, will be playoff teams from 2019). I am going to list them in the order of who I think will be the toughest (also I won’t be commenting on Western IL, since we don’t play them). Remember this is a snap shot four weeks out from the start of the spring season. Roster changes could happen (seniors deciding not to participate) and by the time we play a team, a key injury could affect my rankings.

I feel our strongest challenge will be the UNI Panthers. Coach Farley always has his team dialed into playing the Bison. They also were the streak breakers back in 2014, stopping the Herd at 33 straight. I deeply respect how the Panthers play “old school” smash mouth defense. If the fall schedule had happened, I was doubly concerned with them. But they have been hurt by the Covid postponement even worse than the Herd (we were reduced to a single game from Trey, Schoening & Radunz) and Cofield hit the transfer portal. UNI had their best O Lineman (Spencer Brown), best D Lineman (Elerson Smith) opt to go through the NFL draft this spring. In addition, a stud young sophomore LB, Chris Kolarevic and All-American cornerback, Xavier Williams, hit the transfer portal to the FBS. Instead of just losing three seniors off the defense to graduation, they will lose six defensive starters. Since we don’t face the Panthers till the eighth game, Farley will have the replacements playing their normal tough defense by then.

I believe UNI will make its greatest gains on offense. QB McElvain is a gamer with great escape mobility (think Fran Tarkenton or Steve Young). You’re not going to build a QB run game around him (5’11” & 197 lbs can only take so many hits before it breaks), but he neutralizes the pass rush. His main target will be Isaiah Weston (probably the best returning receiver in FCS). In 12 games he caught 1053 yards, an average of 24.5/yards per catch. Now that is stretching the field.

UNI gets 4 of 5 starting Offensive Lineman back and an FBS transfer from Kansas, who will be eligible for the spring schedule and will replace Spencer Brown. They have a highly rated freshman RB & an FBS transfer. UNI’s hopes for a deeper playoff run revolve around their run game, which hasn’t been there for three years (2017 a 119.1 YPG rushing & 3.1/YPC, 2018 a 133.6 YPG & 3.5/YPC and 2019 a 110.9 YPG & 3.1/YPC). If they don’t take the run game to more than 160 YPG with over 4 YPC, Code Green will turn them into a single dimensional team like 2017 (99 yards rushing & 1.3 YPC & Code Green had 6 sacks), 2018 (104 yards rushing & 2.6 YPC) and 2019 (106 yards rushing & 3.2 YPC & Code Green 2 sacks).

If UNI is number one for the toughest Bison opponent this spring, SDSU is 1b. I put them second because they lose Cade Johnson. Many consider him to be the best receiver in the FCS. His two year totals for the Jackrabbits were 67 catches for 1332 yards and 17 TD’s in 2018 and in 2019 76 catches for 1222 yards with 8 TD’s. He also had 149 yards rushing last year. Add that they also lose Adam Anderson who had 47 receptions for 718 yards & 7 TD’s in 2018 (remember Christian was the QB throwing the ball in 2018). Last year Anderson had 37 catches for 474 yards. The Blue Bunnies lose 1696 receiving yards out of 2544 from last year from these two studs.

What’s my point? I think SDSU is going to be this year’s Illinois State. Pierre Strong left, next play, Strong right. Third down, Strong up the middle for short yardage first down. Next series, repeat. Strong is an NFL quality back. Expect him to average over 20 carries a game. I don’t think they have anyone on the roster at WR to stretch the field like the Cade/Anderson duo. We play them in game seven, so we will know what they have.

Their defense loses their all time leader in tackles in Christian Rozeboom. That’s a big loss! They have eight starters back, so they will be solid on defense.

Southern Illinois is my third ranked Bison opponent. They jump over Illinois State since the Indiana State drop out schedule change. They have a horse (Javon Williams), the Red Birds lost theirs to the NFL (James Robinson). ISU has been consistently better at defense than the Salukis, but I think at the end of last year SIU was playing playoff quality football after DC Petrino got them into an MVFC style defense. In 2018 their defense was atrocious, last year it had some backbone. They gave the Herd a solid effort the last game of the season down in Carbondale. We get to go there the last week of February (don’t get me started on why we didn’t get Western Illinois in the schedule change). Weather problems and a big back make this a tricky game. Our track to a return trip to Frisco got harder with this change, but the Herd has thrived on challenge the last decade. In the nine games that make up this season (includes Central Arkansas), we will face six playoff quality teams, JMU will face none, but I will discuss this more in my article on top potential playoff teams this year in a few weeks.

Illinois State is still my fourth strongest opponent pick, but I see a big drop off from this team compared to last years. They have no James Robinson. He not only is the best running back to jump from the FCS to the NFL, he probably is the NFL rookie of the year. Add to this that the announcement that 6th year starting QB Brady Davis isn’t going to play this spring. Think the playoff game last year, but without James Robinson. Sorry, QB Bryce Jefferson isn’t, at this stage, a game changer. Also, their top offensive Lineman, All-American Drew Himmelman has opted for the NFL. The Redbirds have gone from a one pony offense, to no ponies.

They are suffering a similar fate as UNI on defense. Pre-Covid, the top three tacklers from the team graduated, including all American safety, Luther Kirk. Since then, the next three top tacklers have entered the portal & transferred with one declaring their intent to go into this year’s NFL draft. So the Redbirds will have to replace their top sack man, the top two linebackers and three of four DB’s. They will have to sort this out in the first three games of the season, because they come to Fargo in game four. In this year’s reduced playoff field (16 teams versus the normal 24), I don’t think ISU has enough horses to get there.

The fifth ranked opponent is UND (still slip up in my mind and call them the Sioux, lol). The Fighting Hawks are scrappers. Head Coach Bubba was a miracle worker last year getting this team to the playoffs; I picked them, at best, as a 5 win and 6 loss team going into the year. I think their overall success is that they understand defense better than the Coyotes, hence I place them ahead of USD. I think the upgrade of UND’s schedule to the MVFC is going to lead to a losing record this year.

On offense they lose their top two QB’s, their top rusher and top two receivers. On defense they lose 4 of 6 LB’s who had more than 33 tackles, including Donnell Rodgers (team leader with 126), their top DL, Mason Bennett (sack & TFL team leader). Coming into this spring they are thin & small in DL. They have all their DB’s back (and are very good), but they only produced 29 sacks last year. D backs job is very hard without a good pass rush. I just don’t think UND has enough horses to play 500 ball in the MVFC this year.

The Coyotes fall to sixth in my rankings of the Herd’s opponents. They are coming off a four year run of good offense fueled by two stud QB’s. They had the Chris Streveler run of 2016-17 (a U of M transfer). It culminated into their first FCS playoff appearance in 2017. Then Austin Simmons became the dual threat head of their offense. None of these years did they play good defense. Unless they pull a rabbit out of the hat, the QB run is over and they still have bad defense. I think you can figure that one out.

The seventh ranked Bison foe is their opener against the Youngstown State Penguins at the Fargo Dome. Since I will be diving into a game week on them soon, I will just highlight why I pick them 7th. Bo Pelini schemed his defenses well to play the Herd. He is gone. A whole new coaching staff will be coming to Fargo on Feb. 21st. Whoever plays QB (and they have two good candidates) will be charging into a 50% capacity crowd ready for some Bison football. They lose 4 out 5 starters off their OL as well as their top rusher. The problem the Herd will face is no tape on who they will be offensively or defensively. I remember back to Ferris State, our only DII opponent during our current run of excellence (In 2013 Montana backed out on us that year to play SMU). They had a new coach and like 19 FBS transfers. The highest run totals given up in the last ten years in the regular season were by this DII team (228 yards, 4.9 YPC). We still won 56-14.

The bottom of the barrel for our spring opponents is the Missouri State Bears. They won one game last year, but still gave us a good game (22-0). We moved the ball (447 total yards on offense with 222 from rushing), a yardage clip that would score 35-45 points usually.

The Bears played three fall games with their new coaching staff and about 20 Junior College and FBS transfers. They got killed by Oklahoma and lost both ends of a home and away series with Central Arkansas. They could have won both of these if not for multiple turnovers. They needed this developmental time.

Bobby Petrino is a quality coach and is in a good area of the country for hidden talent; however, I think it will take a few years to build the talent base he will need to win in the MVFC.

Overall, I think the MVFC is down this spring because of the exodus of the NFL level talent because of the Covid delay added to the regular loss of top end talent thru graduation. When all is said and done, the Bison are still the cream of the crop. Next week I will give my analysis as to why I still feel this way. Ain’t it great to be talking Bison football!!

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