FARGO, N.D. (AP) - Three-time defending national champion North Dakota State has a new coach and a new quarterback, but Missouri Valley Football Conference followers said Tuesday they don't expect a change in fortunes for the Bison.
A poll of league coaches, media and sports information directors picks the Bison to finish first despite losing their head coach to Wyoming and the all-time winningest quarterback in the Football Championship Subdivision to graduation.
"It doesn't matter who the head football coach is here at North Dakota State. There's always going to be high expectations," said Chris Klieman, last year's defensive coordinator who took over the program from Craig Bohl. "That's a good thing."
The Bison, who have won 24 in a row and 43 of their last 45 games, received 24 out of a possible 39 first-place votes and 370 points. South Dakota State, the only other league team to make the playoffs last season, was the second choice with eight first-place votes and 330 points.
SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier said the lofty prediction is a reflection of the program's recent success.
"I think we're a mature enough team to understand that it doesn't matter at the start, it matters at the end," Stiegelmeier said. "That's what we've always preached."
Northern Iowa, with seven first-place votes and 324 points, is picked to finish third, followed by Youngstown State (240 points), Southern Illinois (237), Illinois State (197), Missouri State (180), South Dakota (121), Western Illinois (96) and Indiana State (50).
The Bison had eight players named to the preseason all-conference team that was released Tuesday. Those players will be called upon to help the team overcome a lack of experience in the offensive line, defensive line and quarterback. Junior Carson Wentz will take over at quarterback for Brock Jensen, who won 48 games in his career.
"He has all the physical tools. He just doesn't have the snaps; he doesn't have the experience," Klieman said of the 6-foot-6, 230-pound Wentz. "We have to get him some experience quickly."
The Jackrabbits have an experienced quarterback in senior Austin Sumner, the school's career leader in completions, yards and attempts. He's flanked by fellow preseason all-conference selections in running back Zach Zenner, already the league leader in all-purpose yards, and wide receiver Jason Schneider, who last year set a school record with 78 catches.
"I think it puts pressure on a whole defense," Stiegelmeier said of the trio.
The conference is on a mission this season to bump up the number of qualifiers for the FCS playoffs. South Dakota head coach Joe Glenn, who coached in the Big Sky Conference, said he didn't want to get in a squabble with his former league, but believes Youngtown State deserved to get into the playoffs ahead of two Big Sky teams.
"I feel really strong about that," Glenn said. "I flat tell you right now that this league is strong."
Patty Viverito, the league commissioner, said coaches are understandably frustrated with what they view as a lack of respect from the playoff committee. She thinks any team finishing in the top half of the league should be considered after the FCS last year bumped up the number of playoff qualifiers from 20 to 24.
"Having only two teams in an expanded bracket is not OK. We have playoff-caliber teams that aren't being selected. That's not OK," Viverito said. "We need to do everything we can to have the committee understand and respect strength of schedule."