Indiana State's five-game winning streak to finish the 2018 football season had many benefits. One of them was evident when the Missouri Valley Football Conference released its preseason media and coaches poll on Monday — respect from the rest of the league.
Even after winning seasons from 2010-12 and 2014, the Sycamores struggled to make any headway in the preseason poll. ISU has not been picked higher than fifth in a MVFC preseason poll in the 2010s.
That changed on Monday as the Sycamores were picked fourth in the preseason poll — ISU even received one first-place vote, the first the school has earned since 1996.
It's ISU best preseason standing since 1996 when the Sycamores were third in the annual poll. It's also just the third time in 33 preseason polls ISU has been a part of in the Gateway/MVFC Conference in which the Sycamores were picked to finish in the top half of the league. The other came in 1989.
Rarefied air for an ISU program that had been picked to finish last the previous two seasons and three times overall since 2014.
"I'm excited about this season. We had a good offseason and we have good experience. We return 16 starters and most of our staff intact," said ISU coach Curt Mallory on Monday's MVFC Media Day teleconference.
The biggest reason league observers feel good about ISU is because of the returning talent. Every starter on the offensive side of the ball is back, save running back Jaquan Keys, but two running backs behind Keys on the depth chart (Titus McCoy, Peterson Kerlegrand) that are on the 2019 roster had 100-yard games in 2018.
ISU has more holes to fill defensively, but has one of the league's best linebackers — Jonas Griffith — back to lead the defense.
Mallory reiterated to the league media what he's said locally — the experience is important, but the buy-in from veteran players is more so.
"We felt like that first [winless] year we had a good core of young men to build around. And we have. These guys have stuck with it. We have five fifth-year seniors on the offensive line and Jonas Griffith, who is a fifth-year senior. These are young men who were not recruited by myself, but they've stuck with the program and bought in. We built around these guys and I give them all the credit," Mallory said.
The team at the top was no surprise as defending FCS champions North Dakota State were chosen to win the league for the eighth year running. The Bison took 32 of the 40 available first-place votes. This despite the fact that NDSU has lost former head coach Chris Klieman to Kansas State and 15 starters, including long-time quarterback Easton Stick and seven other offensive starters.
That lack of experience isn't fooling anyone else in the league.
"I don't think it's any different. They're still the champions, they have good players and they have a good staff. They've won multiple national championships and they have players waiting to play," Spack said. "They're replacing quite a few, but in the years I've been here the names change on the back of the jersey, but the players looks the same. They're not going to stray from the formula. They're set up to be good for a long time. Until you beat the champion? I don't think things have changed."
The preseason favorite has won the league 21 of 33 times the poll has been taken.
South Dakota State was picked third and earned four first-place votes. Illinois State was chosen third with three first-place votes. The Bison, Jackrabbits and Redbirds were the only programs besides the Sycamores to earn any first-place votes.
Northern Iowa was picked fifth, just 13 points behind ISU.
ISU plays seven home games in 2019, including five of their first seven and three of their first four conference games. This is another reason the Sycamores could contend along with the MVFC team ISU misses on the schedule this year — NDSU.
The MVFC will begin the rollout of all-conference honors on Tuesday as it announces its preseason all-conference selections on offense. The defensive preseason all-conference members will be released Wednesday.
In ISU's press release, it indicated that NDSU tops the league with nine total selections, including a league-best six on the first-team unit. SDSU has the second-most selections, with eight total honorees. ISU will have seven All-MVFC selection which is tied for third-best.
MVFC preseason poll
1. North Dakota State (32)=392
2. South Dakota State (4)=348
3. Illinois State (3)=289
4. Indiana State (1)=279
6. South Dakota=176
7. Youngstown State=153
8. Western Illinois=128
9. Southern Illinois=89
10. Missouri State=80