Welcome back to another season of NSIC football.
Last season was a good one, with more parity than the league has ever seen before, two teams reaching the playoffs, two more making a case for it, and league-champion Minnesota State coming just short of a national championship.
What does this year have in store? Probably more of the same. In a league with so many teams, records can be deceiving, but indications are that there should be just as much, if not more parity this year than in 2012. The teams in the middle of the pack are showing signs of taking the next step, the traditional powers are working to stay there, and the teams commonly seen as bottom-feeders are no longer the automatic win they’ve long been viewed to be.
We’ll get to the team-by-team breakdown in a minute, but first, last year’s standings, this year’s coaches poll, and my conference rankings.
2012 NSIC Standings
1. MSU-Mankato 11-0
2. Minn. Duluth 10-1
3. Winona State 9-2
4. Sioux Falls 9-2
5. St. Cloud State 7-4
6. Bemidji State 7-4
7. Northern State 6-5
8. Wayne State 6-5
9. Augustana 5-6
10. SMSU 4-7
11. Mary 4-7
12. Minot State 3-8
13. Upper Iowa 2-9
14. Concordia-SP 2-9
15. UM-Crookston 2-9
16. MSU-Moorhead 1-10
2013 NSIC Coaches Poll
2. Minn. Duluth
3. Winona State
4. St. Cloud State
5. Sioux Falls
6. Bemidji State
7. Wayne State
8. Northern State
13. Upper Iowa
14. Minot State
I’m gonna go ahead and say the coaches didn’t put all that much thought into the poll, since it basically reads the same as the prior year’s order of finish.
Then again, they’ve got more important things to do than go through the schedule and pick every game.
So again, in picking my order of finish I went through the schedule and picked a winner for each game, rather than just ranking the teams in order of how good I think they are. That might lead to a few teams getting picked a little too high or low, but I think it’s the best way to do it.
Here’s what I came up with.
1. MSU-Mankato 11-0
2. Minn. Duluth 10-1
3. St. Cloud State 9-2
4. Winona State 8-3
5. Northern State 7-4
6. Augustana 7-4
7. Concordia-SP 6-5
8. Wayne State 6-5
9. Sioux Falls 6-5
10. Bemidji State 6-5
11. Mary 4-7
12. Upper Iowa 2-9
13. SMSU 2-9
14. Minot State 2-9
15. MSU-Moorhead 1-10
16. UM-Crookston 0-11
As I said last year, I don’t necessarily expect anyone to go undefeated or winless, but Mankato is certainly good enough to run the table, and there just wasn’t a game in which I could favor Crookston to win. They get Moorhead at home, but Moorhead should be improved from last year, while Crookston probably won’t be as good as they were.
I respect SMSU and UIU more than their projected records would indicate, but again, with unbalanced schedules and so many strong teams at the top, it’s hard to find wins on the schedule for several teams.
Offensive Player of the Year: Phillip Klaphake, SCSU
Defensive Player of the Year: Zach Moore, Concordia-SP
Coach of the Year: Curt Wiese, Minn. Duluth
Games of the Week
Week 1: Wayne State at Northern State
Week 2: Winona State at St. Cloud State
Week 3: MSU-Mankato at Minn. Duluth
Week 4: Minn. Duluth at Wayne State
Week 5: St. Cloud State at Minn. Duluth
Week 6: Winona State at USF
Week 7: Bemidji State at Northern State
Week 8: Augie at USF*
Week 9: St. Cloud State at Bemidji State
Week 10: Minnesota State at USF
Week 11: Minn. Duluth at Northern State
* Obviously, Augie’s first trip to USF will be huge locally, but look at the schedule. Every single game in Week 8 is a big one in one way or another. Every one.
STADIUM: Kirkeby-Over (6,000)
COACH: Jerry Olszewski (1st year)
LAST YEAR: 5-6
KEY PLAYERS: RB Dajon Newell, RB CJ Ham, WR Grant Gebhardt, SS Tom Vanasek, LB Brandon Mohr
There’s definitely a different feeling around Augustana football this season. This is the third coaching change I’ve covered since I started covering the team, but when Brad Salem and Mike Aldrich were hired they were promoted from within. Now the Vikings have started over with essentially an entirely new staff.
That often leads to talk about ‘changing the culture’ but it remains to be seen just what that means, at least in regards to what takes place on the field. Players say the offensive and defensive schemes haven’t changed that much, and there weren’t a ton of surprises with the depth chart that was released this week, except for maybe the announcement that RS freshman Trey Heid beat out junior Justin Heinrich for the starting QB job.
I honestly feel like ‘Coach OJ’ has undersold the talent level that he inherited (either that or he expects to bring in some seriously elite talent of his own going forward), because there’s a lot to like about this team.
Newell, Ham, Gebhardt and a handful of other receivers and backs give them plenty of playmakers, and unless I’m missing something, the O-line doesn’t seem nearly as thin or inexperienced as the coaches keep saying it is. Those guys have played.
Defensively they’ve got tons of depth at linebacker, and I like the competition they’ve created at D-line, because that unit struggled last year despite having lots of experience.
The secondary will be better, and so will the kicking game.
I’m not sure I can see this team competing for a playoff spot, but they have a favorable schedule. I’ll be surprised if they don’t at least post a winning record.
BEMIDJI STATE BEAVERS
STADIUM: Chet Anderson Field (3,500)
COACH: Jeff Tesch (18th year, 113-71)
LAST YEAR: 7-4
KEY PLAYERS: LB Buckley Wright, LB Connor Quinn, OL Jordan Oien, DL Matt Shaver, FB Brent Kondziolka
The Beavers just kept doing what they do last year, which is put themselves on the fringe of contention without actually making the playoffs. They were 7-4, which included a three-point home loss to Wayne State, and a 21-5 loss to USF in which they played without starting QB Lance Rongstad. As bad as USF was that day, the Beavers might well have won if he’d been healthy.
This year the Beavers replace Rongstad with Alex Hass, the guy who started in his place against the Cougars, and the guys Hass will be giving the ball to don’t have much more experience than he does. Returning BSU receivers caught all of one pass last year.
Avery Walker steps in at running back, and he might be an upgrade from last year’s starter, after he averaged 5.6 yards per carry on 49 attempts.
There’s a lot of experience on defense, and it was a good defense last year, allowing under 19 points per game.
Linebackers Connor Quinn (73 tackles) and Buckley Wright (51 tackles, 3.5 sacks) are playmakers, and the secondary is experienced as well.
CONCORDIA-ST. PAUL GOLDEN BEARS
STADIUM: Sea Foam Stadium (3,500)
COACH: Ryan Williams (3rd year, 8-14)
LAST YEAR: 2-9
KEY PLAYERS: DE Zach Moore, DT Chris Campbell, LB Jordan Halverson, QB James Peterson, RB Tre Spears, OL Steven Davis
The Bears might be a dark horse in the ultra-tough South. Their 2-9 record from a year ago is a tad misleading, as they lost five one-score games.
On top of that, they return 10 starters on defense, including All-American sackmaster Zach Moore, and their starting quarterback and top tailback and receiver on offense.
Tre Spears rushed for 885 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry last year, while James Peterson threw for 2,560 yards and 21 touchdowns. Peterson also threw 20 INT’s — cutting down on that number will obviously be key to helping the Bears win the close games they lost last season. Cordell Smith is back at receiver after catching 43 passes last season.
The defense will obviously be led by Moore, who had 14 sacks — more than three NSIC teams — last year. He’ll have 300-pound senior tackle Chris Campbell alongside him, as well as linebacker and leading tackler Jordan Halverson. The Bears also have a top-flight kicker in Tom Obarski.
Returning so many starters doesn’t guarantee a big season for the Bears, but this is a team with good reason to have heightened expectations.
STADIUM: Bismarck Community Bowl (7,000)
COACH: Myron Schulz (15th year, 97-55)
LAST YEAR: 4-7
KEY PLAYERS: QB Craig Bagnell, DL John Oyloe, WR Elby Pope, LB Grant Singer, DB Scott Maldonado, WR Nick Jolliffe, LB Gary Gellerman
The Marauders were a trendy pick to surprise early last season due to the arm of QB Craig Bagnell, but he battled injuries all season and the Marauder defense gave up a lot of points. A loss to Minnesota-Crookston served as a low-point.
The good news for Mary is that they’ve got a strong core returning (six starters on offense, eight on defense). Bagnell will have his top target back in Elby Pope (63 catches, 977 yards), but this team’s success will come down to stopping people on defense.
Last year they were in their first season under a new coordinator, the hope is this year the coaches and players will be more on the same page.
John Oyloe is one of the best players in the conference at D-end, and Grant Singer had a fine season at linebacker. There’s experience in the secondary, too.
Another factor to consider: Mary coach Myron Schulz, who is a legend at the school, announced just before the season that he will retire from coaching after this year. This is Mary’s 25th year sponsoring football, and Schulz has been on the staff for 23, 15 as head coach. That should definitely be a motivator for the players throughout the season.
STADIUM: Ed Widseth Field (2,000)
COACH: Mike Fritze (interim coach)
LAST YEAR: 2-9
KEY PLAYERS: WR Marcus Cheatham, OL Sam Smith, DB Tevin Kellum, LB Ricky Jacobs
The Golden Eagles went 2-9 last year, with both wins coming versus NSIC opponents, which qualifies as a historically successful season for UMC. I’m not even being condescending.
It was nice to see, too, because frankly nobody deserves to suffer the way Crookston has over the years. I had heard from some others around the conference that Paul Miller — hired last year to take over the program — was a competent coach who would definitely make the Eagles better.
He obviously did, and now he’s been forced to step down for health reasons. That’s how things go in Crookston.
Some of Miller’s staff left, as did a few key players (again, this is Crookston), and Miller’s long-time friend, Mike Fritze, takes over as interim coach. Fritze had previously replaced Miller at Apple Valley High School.
The bad news for the Eagles is that they no longer have workhorse All-NSIC running back Richard Haley, who rushed for almost 3,000 yards the last two seasons, to rely on. QB AJ Barge is gone, too.
Veteran cornerback-turned-safety Tevin Kellum is back to lead a defense that returns eight starters, including linebacker Ricky Jacobs (55 tackles, three INT last year). Receiver Marcush Cheatham gives UMC a legit playmaker at receiver, and Keith McBride is a solid running back who gets his job back after losing it to Haley for two years.
Fritze has said he thinks the Eagles can flirt with a .500 season. Good luck, Mike. I’m pulling for you.
STADIUM: James Malosky Stadium (4,500)
COACH: Curt Wiese (1st year)
LAST YEAR: 10-2
KEY PLAYERS: LB Colby Ring, DB Kenny Chowa, OL Tom Olson, OL Grant Schnobrich, WR/KR Aaron Roth, RB Austin Sikorski
It would be easy enough to say the Bulldogs are vulnerable this year. Coach Bob Nielson has moved on to the Division I ranks (Western Illinois) and quarterback Chase Vogler graduated after a stellar career as a two-way threat.
Then again, this is a team that has gone 62-7 over the last five years. They obviously know how to rebuild, and with offensive coordinator Curt Wiese taking over for Nielson, it’s not like there’s going to be a big overhaul with the best college football program in the state of Minnesota (just making sure you’re paying attention).
And besides, the losses of Nielson and Vogler overshadow the fact that this team actually brings back lots of experience. 50 letterwinners, 18 starters. They have 22 seniors.
The big question for the Bulldogs is at quarterback, where RS freshman Drew Bauer won the job over SDSU transfer Eric Kline.
Even if he fails, which I doubt he will, the Dogs have depth there. UMD remains a playoff contender.
MINNESOTA STATE, MANKATO
STADIUM: Blakeslee Stadium (7,000)
COACH: Aaron Keen (2nd year, 13-1)
LAST YEAR: 13-1
KEY PLAYERS: DL Chris Schaudt, QB Jon Wolf, RB Connor Thomas, RB Andy Pfeiffer, OL Andrew Essman, OL Josh Meeker
Ranked No.2 in the nation and returning a handful of big-time playmakers on both sides of the ball, the Mavs are the consensus pick to win the NSIC.
Offensively, they have a dominant and experienced offensive line, and running behind it are Connor Thomas and Andy Pfeiffer, who both rushed for over 800 yards last year. QB Jon Wolf ran for 695 yards (the Mavs rushed for 3,300 yards as a team), and threw for 1,755 yards and 11 TDs.
Defensively, the Mavs welcome back my pick for NSIC MVP last year, DE Chris Schaudt, who will work opposite Shonquille Dorsey, with a pair of 300-pound tackles between them in Kaleb Wendricks and Barry Ballinger.
Also back are linebacker Kris Fleigle, safeties Nathan Hancock and Jordan Hale, All-America kicker Sam Brockshus and, well, I don’t need to go on. These guys are going to be good. A legit national championship contender.
STADIUM: Alex Nemzek Fieldhouse (5,000)
COACH: Steve Laqua (3rd year, 3-19)
LAST YEAR: 1-10
KEY PLAYERS: QB Jake Hodge, WR Adam Jiskra, RB Brandon Schell, LB Nick Seedorff, CB Sheldon Jones
The Dragons sure took their lumps early last season, getting blown out game after game in getting off to an 0-6 start. Considering Crookston was improved last year, Moorhead looked like they might be staring a winless season in the face, but they routed Crookston 35-13 in Week 7 on their home field, and were a much more competitive team from there. They lost by just 10 to Bemidji in the penultimate game of the season, then narrowly missed a huge upset of St. Cloud in the finale, losing 39-37.
The Dragons were extremely young, throwing a very young roster onto the field, so there’s reason to believe they’ll be much improved this year with 18 starters back. Whether or not that translates to more wins is another story.
Much has been made of the Dragons losing safety Shea DeJong, the Roosevelt grad who led the NSIC in tackles last year, but, no disrespect to DeJong, safeties aren’t supposed to lead teams in tackles, so I don’t know that this is an insurmountable loss.
Offense is probably the biggest question mark for MSUM, but they’ve got experience in QB Jake Hodge, who threw for 1,423 yards last year, running back Brandon Schell (370 yards rushing, which, sadly, led the team), receiver Adam Jiskra (41 catches, 617 yards, 6 TD) and tight end Wade Youngblom (13 catches).
MINOT STATE BEAVERS
STADIUM: Herb Parker Stadium (4,000)
COACH: Paul Rudolph (7th year, 31-31)
LAST YEAR: 3-8
KEY PLAYERS: DL Luke Artz, DL Logan Jones, OL Admir Mujakovic, LB Chad Marshall, DL Josh Zimmer, LB Josh Weidler
Obviously there’s a pall hanging over this team right now, with the news last week that five Beaver players were arrested for an incident that involved a fight with cops, which left one player charged with attempted murder after knocking out an officer.
If the Beavers can move on from that ugly incident, they do have some areas of strength to build around, notably a deep defensive line and a linebacking core with lots of experience. On offense, QB Zac Cunha returns after learning some hard lessons last year, throwing 21 INTs. Randel Barber is an intriguing prospect at running back, while receivers Porter Sturm and Wayne Peters are both back after catching 39 passes a year ago.
NORTHERN STATE WOLVES
STADIUM: Swisher Field (6,000)
COACH: Tom Dosch (4th year, 13-20)
LAST YEAR: 6-5
KEY PLAYERS: QB Jordan Jacobson, OL Jacob Holguin, DE Ikee Sirleaf, DB Logan Dosch, LB Devin Olson
The Wolves were considered an up and coming team last year, then got off to a deflating 0-3 start. They rallied to finish 6-5, though, which included beating St. Cloud State and threatening to beat Winona State and Duluth.
By the end of the season they were playing about as well as anyone in the NSIC.
They’ve got lots of talent returning from that team, too. Playmaking QB Jordan Jacobson is back after rushing for 628 yards and 9 TDs and throwing for over 2,500 yards and 19 TD with just 8 INT. Running back John Hughes is back, too, and the Wolves will start four upperclassmen on the O-line.
The defense returns sparkplug D-end Ikee Sirleaf, and safety Logan Dosch has been on the receiving end of numerous preseason awards.
The Wolves have a very favorable schedule — they could definitely improve on last year’s six wins. At the same time, there were times last year that they proved they still weren’t as far along as some of the NSIC’s upper echelon teams.
Tom Dosch has done an impressive job with the Wolves in short order. This is a big year for them.
SIOUX FALLS COUGARS
STADIUM: Bob Young Field (6,000)
COACH: Jed Stugart (4th year, 27-7)
LAST YEAR: 9-2
KEY PLAYERS: WR Carrington Hanna, DB John Tidwell, DL/LB Michael Tolkamp, DL Jarrett Grabbe, TE Austin VanHove
The Cougars have made headlines this fall by pitting a pair of true freshmen against one another for the starting QB job. That’s the kind of thing you maybe expect to see from a rebuilding or perpetually struggling team, but for a team that went 9-2 last year and insists they’re not going to lower expectations, it’s a big step.
Luke Papilion won the job, and at 6-5, 220, he certainly looks the part. His primary goal (besides not making the rookie mistakes so many people are no doubt expecting) will be getting the ball to WR Carrington Hanna, who I thought might have been the best offensive player in the NSIC last year.
The O-line is young and the running backs have little experience. It should be interesting on offense.
On defense, USF has three returning starters on the D-line, and while they lose a ton of experience at linebacker, the guys stepping in are pretty talented.
USF says they’re shooting for the playoffs. I don’t see it.
But this team has always thrived off proving people like myself wrong. There’s certainly a bright future with this team, and if the young guys come along quicker than expected (by people like me, anyway) they might be pretty good in the present, too.
SOUTHWEST MINNESOTA STATE MUSTANGS
STADIUM: Mattke Field (4,000)
COACH: Cory Sauter (4th year, 11-22)
LAST YEAR: 4-7
KEY PLAYERS: DB Tate Bunkers, OL Brandon Puffer, OL Jake Thiel, DT Jacob Levtzow, OL Kyle Johnson
Coach Cory Sauter was given a contract extension yesterday, which was a mild surprise, because he hasn’t won yet. Last year the Mustangs were talking pretty confidently about raising expectations and having a big year, and they went 4-7. That included a loss to Crookston. That’s not to say they were a bad team; they were competitive most of the time, nearly handing MSU-Mankato what would’ve been their only loss in a 34-31 loss in Mankato, and soundly defeating a very good Wayne State squad. At one point running back Gannon Moore told me they were the best (1-5, or whatever their record was at the time) team in the nation.
Of course, the reason SMSU had high hopes last year was they had several offensive weapons returning for a big senior season. This year they’ll need new playmakers, and they’re facing a much tougher schedule.
The Mustangs have a strong offensive line and return five of their six top tacklers, but they’ve had experience back on defense before, and it hasn’t stopped them from not being able to stop anybody.
If they can’t figure out a way to hold opponents to under 400 yards and 35 points per game, it’s going to be another long season.
ST. CLOUD STATE HUSKIES
STADIUM: Husky Stadium (4,500)
COACH: Scott Underwood (6th year, 40-18)
LAST YEAR: 7-4
KEY PLAYERS: QB Phil Klaphake, S Jack Moro, RB Michael Walker, DL Jeff Bias, LB Todd Bestgen, WR Eli Shoemaker, WR Renard Robinson, WR Chad Peterson
Last year I picked the Huskies to win the league. Then they got whipped in their season opener, at home, by USF. That seemed to throw their season off its axis and they never got things together. Yes, they handed Duluth a dramatic 51-49 loss, but that, not to mention close calls against Wayne State, MSU-Moorhead and even Crookston shows how close a team many picked to go to the playoffs came to finishing under .500.
In hindsight, maybe we were all just a year too early on jumping on board the Husky bandwagon. SCSU returns nine starters on offense and seven on defense this season.
QB Phillip Klaphake and safety Jack Moro are seniors coming off huge seasons, with Klaphake having three senior standout receivers to work with and a talented senior running back.
Defensively, the Huskies start three seniors at linebacker, and Marvin Matthews is a standout corner who gets overshadowed by all of Moro’s interceptions.
I expect this to be a highly motivated team. The Huskies were just 2-3 at home last year. That means they’ll have six home games this season, and with so many standout players entering their senior year, they know the time is now.
UPPER IOWA PEACOCKS
STADIUM: Harms-Eischeid Stadium (3,500)
COACH: Tom Shea (5th year, 10-34)
LAST YEAR: 2-9
KEY PLAYERS: WR Keaton Hosch, OL Casey Beck, OL Alex Gonzalez, LB Ethan Douglas, DB Jordan Andera
For a couple of years now, the Peacocks have been just good enough to lose a close game to good teams. They’ve still laid their share of eggs, to be sure — they lost 70-7 to Mankato last year and 66-20 at home to Augie — but a 3-point loss to Wayne State, a one-point loss at SMSU, a 3-point loss to Winona and a two-point loss at Bemidji show that this team wasn’t far off from being around .500 last year.
Still, half the league is saying that every season. The league has more parity, which in a lot of cases just means the bottom-feeding teams are losing by three points instead of 30. You still have to find ways to win games.
Can UIU do that this year?
They still have standout quarterback Cole Jaeschke and receiver Keaton Hosch (who absolutely torched USF last year) is back, and they will be working behind an O-line that is huge and has some experience. UIU totaled 4,674 yards of offense last year while allowing only 10 sacks. Impressive.
But like a lot of the teams in the NSIC, particularly the ones coming off losing seasons, the question is the defense.
Four year starting linebacker Ethan Douglas is the leader of the unit, while the Peacocks have an experienced secondary.
Defensive line is where UIU needs to be better. They allowed well over 200 rushing yards per game last season. First year D-line coach Justin Wyatt, a former All-Big 12 defensive end at Missouri, will be tasked with changing that.
WAYNE STATE WILDCATS
STADIUM: Memorial Stadium (3,500)
COACH: Dan McLaughlin (9th year, 52-38)
LAST YEAR: 6-5
KEY PLAYERS: RB Charlie Davidson, LB Zach Bierman, LB Nick Monzu, DB Austan Pomajzl, DB Ben Radel
I called Wayne State ‘perpetually underrated’ in last year’s preview, and I think that still applies. The Wildcats went 6-5 last year, but a look at their scores indicates they weren’t far off from competing for the playoffs. They lost to St. Cloud by five, to MSU-Mankato by seven, to Winona by four, to USF by 10. The one outlier was a 40-24 loss at SMSU.
The Wildcats return excellent running back Charlie Davidson, who will be running behind an experienced O-line. RS freshman Zach Osborn beat out senior Nate Most for the starting QB job, who took most of the snaps last season, which must mean he’s got some talent, because I don’t think they’re looking to rebuild.
On defense, I expect Mike Aldrich to make a positive impact. He’ll no doubt bring his pressure schemes with him, but I think the Wildcat personnel could benefit from his more sophisticated and varied schemes. They lost two studs from the line in Jeff Pokorny and Richard Daniel, but there’s experience at linebacker and in the secondary. Those guys will have to be ready to play, because Aldrich won’t be afraid to put them in single coverage
WINONA STATE WARRIORS
STADIUM: Verizon Wireless Stadium (5,000)
COACH: Tom Sawyer (18th year, 141-55)
LAST YEAR: 10-2
KEY PLAYERS: QB John Teigland, OL Richard Lilla, WR Tony Mueller, TE Alex Jensen, LB Ryan Gerts
The Warriors rubbed elbows with the conference heavyweights last season, going 9-2, just missing the playoffs and settling for a Mineral Water Bowl berth, where they defeated Lindenwood.
They’ve since graduated all-everything running back Rayon Simmons and several other key contributors, but that doesn’t mean the cupboard is bare.
John Teigland returns at QB after completing 61 percent of his throws for 2,942 yards and 24 TDs last year, and he’ll have an intriguing new target in receiver Tony Mueller, who joins the Warriors after spending the last two seasons playing minor league baseball in the Braves system.
Chichi Ojika will be the man tabbed to replace Simmons in the backfield, and there’s reason to believe he won’t be a huge dropoff. Ojika averaged 6.5 yards per carry on 59 attempts last season, and he’s working behind an O-line that returns four starters from last year.
On defense, the entire front seven got significant playing time last year, but the secondary is less experienced.
It’ll be hard for Winona to top last year’s 9 wins, and with the regional layout being what it is, that would probably mean missing the playoffs again, but there’s enough talent on both sides of the ball that the Warriors need to be considered a postseason contender.
LINK: Composite NSIC schedule.