The 16-team NSIC kicks off its football season Thursday, with four early games: Minnesota State at Minot State, Minnesota-Duluth at Southwest Minnesota State, Minnesota-Crookston at Winona State, and USF at St. Cloud State. Upper Iowa then visits Bemidji State on Friday, before the rest of the league takes the field Saturday.
There are no more non-conference games — with 16 teams split into two, eight team divisions (North and South), all 11 games are conference games. This is going to make it a lot harder for Crookston to pick up their annual victory.
As I did last year, I went through the entire NSIC composite schedule and picked a winner for each game, then went back and added it all up to come up with my team-by-team predictions. While a couple of the teams at the bottom are likely to spring an upset or two to bring a few of the teams towards the top/middle down a bit, this is pretty close to how I would’ve picked the teams without going through the schedule week-by-week.
1. St. Cloud State 11-0
2. UMD 10-1
3. Augustana 8-3
4. MSU-Mankato 7-4
5. USF 7-4
6. Wayne State 7-4
7. Winona State 7-4
8. Bemidji State 6-5
9. Mary 6-5
10. Concordia-StP 5-6
11. Northern State 5-6
12. SW Minn. St. 4-7
13. Minot State 2-9
14. Upper Iowa 2-9
15. MSU-Moorhead 1-10
16. UM-Crookston 0-11
St. Cloud and Duluth seem like a toss-up to me. They play each other in St. Cloud, so I gave the Huskies the nod. Virtually nothing would surprise me from spots 3-11. Seriously. While some of those teams are a little better than others, I think they’re all capable of finishing somewhere between 5 and 8 wins depending on injuries, luck, etc. Obviously with that much parity in the middle of the pack, there are going to be at least a couple of teams who finish with a record that doesn’t truly represent how good they are. It could be any of them.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Minot or Upper Iowa won a couple more games than I’ve charted them for if they get a few breaks, but Moorhead and Crookston seem very much to be the bottom two.
If I didn’t do your team justice, I apologize. Information was easier to find for some teams than others.
STADIUM: Kirkeby-Over (6,000)
COACH: Mike Aldrich (3rd year, 17-7)
LAST YEAR: 6-5
KEY PLAYERS: QB Josh Hanson, RB Dajon Newell, LB Austin Luecke, LB Ross Peterson, WR Grant Gebhardt, TE Ike Jorgensen
The Vikings lost five games by a total of 24 points last year. That’s a stat they cite often, but it’s less an excuse or an attempt to rationalize their season than a constant reminder to themselves of what it takes to do what they did in 2010 (win 11 games and go to the playoffs).
Augie hadn’t been to the playoffs in over 20 years, but after getting there, they talked a lot about wanting to make that a regular occurrence. Well, everyone would like that, but it’s really hard. Lots of very good teams miss the playoffs every year.
Will Augie make it back this year? 8-3 won’t do it, but they’re capable of winning nine or 10. They’re also capable of losing four or five.
It all hinges on if their O-line can come together and if the team as a whole can eliminate the mistakes that led to last year’s 0-3 start. Keep an eye out for freshman fullback CJ Ham.
BEMIDJI STATE BEAVERS
STADIUM: Chet Anderson Field (3,500)
COACH: Jeff Tesch (17th year, 106-67)
LAST YEAR: 8-3
KEY PLAYERS: QB Lance Rongstad, TE Brian Leonhart, DT Matt Shaver, RB Dustin Kroeplin, WR Justin Lee, LB Cory Crosby
The Beavers have long since established that they’re a solid team capable of beating anyone in the NSIC, yet it still seems like people sleep on them every year. They’ve still never qualified for the playoffs in their history, but with 8 starters back on offense and 7 on defense, they’ll be a threat again this year.
I don’t like their chances, though, primarily because of their schedule. The Beavers have to go to Minnesota State, USF, Mary, Duluth and St. Cloud.
CONCORDIA-ST. PAUL GOLDEN BEARS
STADIUM: Sea Foam Stadium (3,500)
COACH: Ryan Williams (2nd year, 6-5)
LAST YEAR: 6-5
KEY PLAYERS: WR Tre Mason, DL Chris Campbell, LB Chris Sesson, TE Nate Thienes
The Bears won six games last year, but they didn’t do it in terribly impressive fashion. They upset Wayne State, otherwise their wins came against Minot, Northern, Crookston, Upper Iowa and Southwest Minnesota State. They graduated several important players, and have a very tough schedule in the very tough South.
This is a tweener school — the Bears are by no means a pushover team, but they’ve yet to prove they’re a serious playoff contender. Coach Williams, a former Sioux Falls Storm quarterback, aims to change that.
STADIUM: Bismarck Community Bowl
COACH: Myron Schulz (14th year, 93-48)
LAST YEAR: 5-6
KEY PLAYERS: QB Craig Bagnell, WR Tyler Steffen, DL John Oyloe, LB Mike Ingemansen
The Marauders are a team on the rise, as they seemed to get a boost from their 10-0 shutout of Augie in week three of last year. There are too many other good teams in the NSIC for Mary to seriously contend for a playoff position, but the former NAIA school is not a team that can be overlooked in any week.
Bagnell is one of the most underrated players in the league, and is still just a junior. Steffen had a whopping 17 touchdown catches last year. This offense should score plenty of points. It will be up to their defense to get them to the next level.
MINNESOTA-CROOKSTON GOLDEN EAGLES
STADIUM: Ed Widseth Field (2,000)
COACH: Paul Miller (1st year)
LAST YEAR: 1-10
KEY PLAYERS: RB Richard Haley, QB AJ Barge, DB Tevin Kellum
Only being able to schedule NAIA teams like Mayville State have the Golden Eagles been able to earn a win here and there, but with the full slate of conference games, the odds are now in favor of Crookston running the table for a winless season.
Haley, who rushed for 1,556 yards last year, is their best hope, but he can only do so much when opposing teams know he’s essentially their only true weapon.
This is a program that should be in Division III or NAIA.
STADIUM: James Malosky Stadium (4,500)
COACH: Bob Nielson (10th year, 90-24)
LAST YEAR: 11-3
KEY PLAYERS: QB Chase Vogler, TE Ben Helmer, DE Joe Akey, SS Cameron Harper, CB Kenny Chowa, OL Garth Heikkien
The Bulldogs have some players to replace on the offensive and defensive lines and at linebacker, but until they show otherwise, this is a program that deserves the benefit of the doubt in assuming whoever steps in will do the job.
Vogler is back and he has weapons. This is a national title contender yet again.
MINNESOTA STATE-MANKATO MAVERICKS
STADIUM: Blakeslee Stadium (7,000)
COACH: Aaron Keen (Todd Hoffner)
LAST YEAR: 9-3
KEY PLAYERS: RB Andy Pfeiffer, WR Dennis Carter, WR Adam Thielen, LB Marcus Hall-Oliver, DB Jordan Hale, DE Chris Schaudt
The Mavs are one of the more loaded teams in the NSIC coming back, with several key returners on both sides of the ball.
But there’s that whole thing with their coach facing child pornography charges. Offensive coordinator Aaron Keen is the interim coach, and he does have head coaching experience.
Keen will likely have unproven QB Jon Wolf hand it off to the sophomore Pfeiffer quite a bit — he rushed for 1,226 yards as a freshman last year.
I didn’t really keep the Mavs’ off-field troubles in mind when picking the games, but it is certainly possible it becomes a season-long distraction that drags them down. It could also spark them to a big year. The talent is there for Mankato to be a playoff team.
MINNESOTA STATE-MOORHEAD DRAGONS
STADIUM: Alex Nemzek Stadium (5,000)
COACH: Steve Laqua (2nd year, 2-9)
LAST YEAR: 2-9
KEY PLAYERS: S Tyler Brody, LB Brad Hauer, DL Terrell Ayers
The Dragons had a ray of hope a few years ago when they won six games under the mercurial Damon Tomeo (now an assistant at Colorado-Pueblo), but it’s been downhill since then. It seems as though Laqua is respected by the league’s coaches, but he’s fighting an uphill battle.
On offense, redshirt freshman Myles Montplaisir — a Fargo Shanley standout — will run the offense at QB. Brandon Schell is expected to be the primary ball-carrier after playing sparingly a year ago.
Moorhead has some experience returning on defense, led by Brody, who had 115 tackles in the secondary a year ago, but considering this defense allowed 40 or more points seven times last year, that may or may not be a good thing.
Good thing for the Dragons they have Crookston on the schedule.
MINOT STATE BEAVERS
STADIUM: Herb Parker Stadium (4,000)
COACH: Paul Rudolph (6th year, 28-23)
LAST YEAR: 2-8
KEY PLAYERS: QB Bryce Jorgenson, QB CJ Evans, OL Mitch Haugeberg, WR Glyn Borel, WR Wayne Peters, LB Chad Marshall, DB Levi Freidt
The Beavers were a solid NAIA program, going 8-3 in 2009 and reaching the playoffs (where they were drilled in the first round by USF). They lost a pair of games to USF last year, though both were closer than I expected. Minot has an impressive stadium and a good coach in Rudolph, so they have a chance to be competitive in the NSIC. They have an experienced offensive line that should give their offense a chance, but the rest of their team seems fairly young.
With a few breaks, Minot could win five games this year, but somewhere between one and three seem more likely.
NORTHERN STATE WOLVES
STADIUM: Swisher Field (6,000)
COACH: Tom Dosch (3rd year, 8-14)
LAST YEAR: 5-6
KEY PLAYERS: QB Jared Jacobson, TE Ben Jastram, WR Chris Morton, WR Jordan Piatz, DB Logan Dosch, DB Marquis Mulkey, DB Paul Woodward, LB Logan Fahnhorst
Dosch, a former Southern Illinois assistant and prior to that head coach at Jamestown, has made the previously woeful Wolves competitive in short order.
They outplayed Augustana in Aberdeen last year, falling late in a game that, had they won, would’ve given them a winning record and NSIC bragging rights within the state.
This year the Wolves should again be a very solid team, but they won’t be able to surprise people this time around.
Jacobson is a two-way threat under center, having rushed for 446 yards in limited playing time last year. He has to prove he can move the ball in the air, but will at least have some quality targets to throw to.
Defensively, the Wolves have lots of experience back at all three levels — this is a physical team that can play with just about anyone in the league.
STADIUM: Bob Young Field (6,000)
COACH: Jed Stugart (3rd year, 18-5)
LAST YEAR: 5-4
KEY PLAYERS: LB Eric Anderson, LB Nick Bonte, DL Jameel Medlock, DB Robert Virgil, RB Kristian Porter, QB Taylor Perkins
USF seems to fit in well amongst the swelling middle of the NSIC pack. After years of going against a schedule littered with patsies while dominating NAIA (five straight appearances in the NAIA championship between 2006-2010, with three wins), I’m not sure they’re going to be able to make the adjustment to having to play a full 60 minutes week in and week out.
They are well aware of that task, but I wonder if you can do it if you’ve never had to before.
Talent-wise I don’t think USF is quite on par with Duluth, SCSU, Mankato, etc., but they’re certainly not far off. This is a team that played three times against Division I teams since 2009 and were highly competitive in all three (they whipped UND, lost by 14 to McNeese State, then blew a chance to beat UND again last year).
Lump them in with the Bemidjis, Waynes and Winonas — teams that could win 8 or 9 games if everything goes right, but could go 4-7 if they drop each of their tough games.
I love their linebackers, and Medlock is a stud if he can stay out of trouble. The NSIC is a quarterback league, and I expect that to test the Cougar secondary.
On offense it remains to be seen if the O-line, with Porter and Jordan Taylor behind them, can move NSIC defenses. Perkins is a good one under center, and while there’s lots of talent at receiver, they’re unproven.
SOUTHWEST MINNESOTA STATE MUSTANGS
STADIUM: Regional Events Center (4,000)
COACH: Cory Sauter (3rd year, 7-15)
LAST YEAR: 3-8
KEY PLAYERS: QB Tyler Peschong, RB Gannon Moore, RB Warren Matthews, LB JJ Bobrowicz, S Joe Stupka
The Mustangs return lots of experience on both sides of the ball, and from the sounds of it, they’re tired of losing and expecting big things of themselves this season.
The offense should be good, with Peschong (3,041 yards, 20 TD passes, 7 TD rushes) working behind an O-line that returns four starters. He also has his top two running backs and several experienced receivers back.
But the defense was a sieve last year, and graduated six starters. Perhaps replacing them will be a good thing.
Despite winning only seven games in the last two seasons, the Mustangs do not deserve to be lumped in with the bottom-feeders of the NSIC, but so far they haven’t proved they belong in the discussion with the contenders, either.
That could change if they can put together a winning season in 2012.
ST. CLOUD STATE HUSKIES
STADIUM: Husky Stadium (4,200)
COACH: Scott Underwood (5th year, 33-14)
LAST YEAR: 9-3
KEY PLAYERS: QB Phil Klaphake, DB Marvin Matthews, RB Michael Walker, LB Mark Martin, DT Chris Rupe
I don’t really expect the Huskies — or anyone in the NSIC — to go undefeated, but SCSU sure has a shot when you look at their schedule. They have tough games, but they’re all at home, including the showdown with Duluth. There isn’t a game all year in which I wouldn’t favor them to win.
They’re not without their question marks — offensive line in particular — but they have serious star power (Klaphake and Matthews are the preseason conference offensive and defensive players of the year), and Walker quietly rushed for 14 touchdowns last year.
The Huskies have a bit of a trap game in their opener Thursday against USF, and it sounds like they’re a little banged up early on. They, like every other team in the NSIC, are vulnerable to at least half the teams in the ever-improving league, but their talent and schedule make them, in my mind, the best bet to win the league.
UPPER IOWA PEACOCKS
STADIUM: Harms-Eischeid Stadium (3,500)
COACH: Tom Shea (4th year, 8-25)
LAST YEAR: 3-8
KEY PLAYERS: RB Chris Smith, LB Tony Leggett, QB Cole Jaeschke, LB Ethan Douglas, WR Shay Gutman, OL Matt Steffansmeier
As the only Division II program in the state of Iowa, and with impressive renovations being done to the Peacocks stadium, there are factors in place to give UIU a chance to win. But it feels like there’s a culture of losing that they’re struggling to shake.
I think Tom Shea is on the right track — the Peacocks have had more than their share of near-misses against some of the top teams in the NSIC of late, and while they’re probably not a serious threat to surpass the .500 mark this year, they’ll beat a team that sleeps on them.
Smith is a 1,000 yard performer out of the backfield and there are other weapons on offense, but the Peacock defense has not fared well against the NSIC’s better offenses.
WAYNE STATE COLLEGE WILDCATS
STADIUM: Memorial Stadium (3,500)
COACH: Dan McLaughlin (8th year, 46-33)
LAST YEAR: 7-4
KEY PLAYERS: DL Richard Daniel, DL Jeff Pokorny, RB Nick Pulscher, WR Kevin Paulsen, LB Nick Monzu, DB Jared Curry, QB Nate Most
The Wildcats seem perpetually underrated; they continually prove they belong in the discussion amongst conference title contenders, but are never really treated as such, and people still seem surprised whenever they win a big game. That’s in part because they’ve shown themselves susceptible to letdowns to lesser teams on occasion, but otherwise it’s time to acknowledge that Wayne is a yearly playoff contender. They snapped Duluth’s 31-game NSIC winning streak last year, and return a number of key standouts from last year’s team.
Daniel is probably the league’s best pass rusher, and at both linebacker and secondary they have experienced young players who can still get better.
It’s possible the Wildcats will have a playoff berth on the line when they visit Bob Young Field in the season finale.
WINONA STATE WARRIORS
STADIUM: Verizon Wireless Stadium (5,000)
COACH: Tom Sawyer (17th year, 131-53)
LAST YEAR: 7-4
KEY PLAYERS: RB Rayon Simmons, QB John Teigland, QB Bryan Bradshaw, LB Ryan Gerts, LB Alex Coulter, S Ryan Williams
The last of what you should realize by now is a very large group of teams that will be looking to make the jump from the second tier to the first tier. The Warriors boast arguably the best running back in the league in Simmons (1,326 yards, 16 TD last year), though Theo Burkett, his partner in the backfield, will sit the season out as a medical redshirt.
At last check they hadn’t chosen a QB between Teigland and Bradshaw, but they should be OK either way, as they won seven games last year despite seeing the QB position decimated by injuries that forced them to use players they didn’t want to.
They return their three interior O-linemen but might be thin on the D-line.
2012 NSIC Preseason Coaches Poll
2. St. Cloud State
4. Winona State
6. Bemidji State
7. Wayne State
10. Concordia-St. Paul
11. Northern State
12. SW Minn. State
13. Upper Iowa
14. Minot State
St. Cloud State
SW Minnesota State