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Preview: ‘Dakota Marker’ likely to determine Missouri Valley

Rivals NDSU and SDSU appear poised to battle it out for the Missouri Valley Conference’s championship.

(Icon Sportswire)

Not to completely dismiss the other eight programs in the conference — three or four of whom could be legitimate FCS playoff contenders — but the winner of this year’s “Dakota Marker,” the trophy awarded to the winner of the annual football game played between North Dakota State and rival South Dakota State, one of the most intense and heated rivalries in college football, will likely decide who prevails in the ten-team Missouri Valley Football Conference, arguably the strongest conference in the Division I Championship Subdivision.

With fourteen returning starters, John Stiegelmeier’s South Dakota State Jackrabbits (10-3) — The Fanatic’s FCS preseason favorite — have to be given the edge in the Valley.

Those starters include running backs Mikey Daniel, a 6-foot, 225-pound senior from Brookings, South Dakota, who averaged 4.5 yards per carry last year, and 1,100-yard rusher Pierre Strong, Jr. — the 2018 Missouri Valley Conference Freshman-of-the-Year — as well as wide receiver Cade Johnson, who had 67 receptions for 1,332 yards and 17 touchdowns last season.

Replacing four-year starter Taryn Christion at quarterback won’t be easy, but Coach Stig — the winningest coach in South Dakota State history — has several options. With the departure of Arizona State transfer Kurt Walding in early June, those options include redshirt freshman J’Bore Gibbs, junior Kanin Nelson and traditional pocket passer Matt Connors, another redshirt freshman. Gibbs and Nelson are both dual threats.

Other key returners for South Dakota State include placekicker Chase Vinatieri, the nephew of veteran NFL placekicker Adam Vinatieri, and All-America linebacker Christian Rozeboom, who led the team in tackles each of the three previous seasons. Rozeboom was credited with an eye-popping 105 tackles last season — including 53 solo tackles — while picking off a couple passes. The senior from Sioux Center, Iowa, is one of six returning defensive starters on SDSU’s front seven.

One of only two FCS schools in the country to reach the postseason in each of the past seven years, South Dakota State, which reached the semifinals the previous two seasons — losing 51-16 to national runner-up James Madison in 2017 and falling to powerful North Dakota State 44-21 last year — has an opportunity to make some serious noise in its season opener when it travels to Minneapolis on Aug. 29 to take on the Big Ten’s Minnesota Golden Gophers.

(South Dakota State)

While playing the always pesky Penguins of Youngstown State (4-7) on the road during the second week of October could prove to be a little tricky, South Dakota State should be undefeated in conference play when it hosts North Dakota State on October 26th in a rematch of last year’s FCS semifinal contest.

Look for South Dakota State to edge out reigning champion North Dakota State and the playoff-snubbed Sycamores of Indiana State (7-4) in the Missouri Valley Football Conference and enter this year’s FCS playoffs as the nation’s No. 1 seed.

While conventional wisdom suggests that it would be a mistake to rule out an eighth national championship in nine years, North Dakota State (15-0) could face a couple of serious tests this season, including an early season contest at nationally-ranked Delaware, a Sept. 21 contest against dangerous UC Davis and, of course, a late October trip to Brookings to take on archrival South Dakota State.

Despite the fact that the Bison won’t be playing an FBS opponent again this year — they’re having troubling scheduling any after winning six straight against Division I’s upper division since 2010 — an unblemished regular season record seems somewhat unlikely this year, but this is an enduring program that doesn’t rebuild. It simply reloads.

New head coach Matt Entz, the team’s former defensive coordinator, faces a somewhat depleted roster, but will still have plenty of talent available, including the addition of Iowa State transfer Zeb Noland, who is expected to compete with redshirt freshman Trey Lane for the starting quarterback position. The Bison should also have a pretty solid rushing attack, led by Ty Brooks, Adam Cofield and Seth Wilson.

Entz himself doesn’t seem too concerned about his team’s heavy losses or the departure of head coach Chris Klieman, who won four national championships in five seasons at NDSU. North Dakota State, he says, will be just fine.

“No one person has made this program, no one coach, definitely not me,” Entz told Lindy’s George Gordon. “It’s a mentality, it’s the environment. Sometimes culture’s an overused word, but this might be the greatest example of culture in college football. The things that make our program so special will not change.”

He could be right. Stay tuned.

Snubbed by the FCS selection committee after one of the most remarkable turnarounds imaginable, Indiana State (7-4), which was winless in 2017, has a lot to play for this season, not the least of which is a spot in the 24-team playoffs.

With Ryan Boyle — the MVFC Newcomer of the Year — at quarterback and linebacker Jonas Griffith, a prolific tackler, leading the defense, third-year Coach Curt Mallory should be able to get his team into the postseason.

Along with an outstanding receiving corps, senior tight end Briley Moore and running back Trevor Allen should keep perennial power Northern Iowa (7-6) in the at-large playoff picture.

Illinois State (6-5), which stunned Colorado State in an early FBS matchup last year, is also FCS playoff material after falling short the previous two seasons. With arguably one of the best offenses in the

Missouri Valley, including tailback James Robinson, who rushed for 1,290 yards and scored a dozen touchdowns last season, the Redbirds won’t disappoint their fans this year.

Youngstown State (4-7) has reached the playoffs just twice since 2000 and that is unlikely to change this year, particularly with the departure of tailback Tevin McCaster, who rushed for 1,235 yards in 2018. While there are several uncertainties, the good news is that the Penguins do have some pretty good wide receivers and its secondary appears to be strong.

Allowing 210.8 rushing yards per game last year, South Dakota (4-7) will need to tighten up its porous defense against the run if it has any hope of moving up in the MVFC. Quarterback Austin Simmons, the total offensive leader in the conference, should help keep the Coyotes in most games. A couple of potentially brutal early season games against Montana and Oklahoma, will sorely test USD.

Western Illinois (5-6) will be hard-pressed to replace three-year starting quarterback Sean McGuire and the league’s least productive running game, Missouri State (4-7) returns just one offensive linesman and will have to figure out a way to improve a defense that gave up nearly 472 yards per game in 2018, while Southern Illinois (2-9) will most likely find wins few and far between again this season, despite returning ten defensive starters.


  1. South Dakota State (10-3, 6-2 MVFC)
  2. North Dakota State (15-0, 8-0 MVFC)
  3. Indiana State (7-4, 5-3)
  4. Northern Iowa (7-6, 5-3 MVFC)
  5. Illinois State (6-5, 3-5 MVFC)
  6. Youngstown State (4-7, 3-5 MVFC)
  7. South Dakota (4-7, 3-5 MVFC)
  8. Western Illinois (5-6, 4-4 MVFC)
  9. Missouri State (4-7, 2-6 MVFC)
  10. Southern Illinois (2-9, 1-7 MVFC)

Darcy G. Richardson is a historian and the author of more than a dozen books. His latest is Loyola's Improbable Ramblers: 55 Years in the Making, available now on Amazon.

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