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South Dakota State stands as Missouri Valley’s preseason No. 1

Jackrabbits top preseason poll for first time after strong spring season

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South Dakota State running back Pierre Strong Jr. carries the ball during the Jackrabbits' FCS quarterfinal playoff game Sunday, May 2, 2021 at Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings. (Dave Eggen / Inertia Sports Media)
Dave Eggen/Inertia

South Dakota State has been picked to win the 2021 Missouri Valley Football Conference title, according to the conference’s preseason poll of league coaches, sports information directors and media that was announced Tuesday.

It marks the first time since joining the MVFC in 2008 that the Jackrabbits, who return 10 starters on both sides of the ball, have been tabbed as the preseason favorite. Similarly, it’s the first time in a decade that North Dakota State hasn’t been the preseason favorite.

The Jackrabbits received 24 of the 43 first-place votes to finish with 454 points, topping North Dakota State with 435 points and 18 first-place votes. North Dakota (357), Southern Illinois (345) and Northern Iowa (311) rounded out the top five, with UNI claiming the final first-place vote.

South Dakota was picked to finish eighth in the 11-team league, behind Missouri State and Illinois State and ahead of Youngstown State, Indiana State and Western Illinois.

SDSU shared the MVFC title with Missouri State, finishing with a 5-1 conference mark during an abbreviated 2020-21 season that was moved to the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Jackrabbits were awarded the league's automatic bid to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs and later advanced to the national championship game for the first time, ending the season with an 8-2 overall record following a 23-21 loss to Sam Houston.

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In addition, 12 Jackrabbit players were honored on the MVFC Preseason Team, including six first-team selections. Running back Pierre Strong, Jr., tight end Zach Heins and offensive lineman Garret Greenfield represent the Jackrabbit offense, while defensive tackle Caleb Sanders, linebacker Logan Backhaus and cornerback Don Gardner were the defensive honorees. All were first-team all-MVFC picks during the spring campaign.

Four more members of the Jackrabbit offense were recognized as second-team selections to the preseason honor squad: Offensive linemen Mason McCormick and Wes Genant, wide receiver Jaxon Janke and running back Isaiah Davis. Genant, a senior from Parkston, was an honorable mention selection in the spring.

SDSU is scheduled to open the fall season Sept. 3 at Colorado State, with the Jackrabbits kicking off their eight-game league slate Sept. 25 at Indiana State.

The Coyotes, who were 1-3 in an abbreviated spring 2021 season, were represented on the preseason all-Valley team by punter Brady Schutt, long snapper Dalton Godfrey, wide receiver Caleb Vander Esch and linebacker Brock Mogensen. Schutt and Godfrey were first-team preseason picks while Vander Esch and Mogensen were second team.

USD opens the new season on Sept. 3 at Kansas and plays its home opener on Sept. 11 against Northern Arizona.

COVID-19 forfeits are on the table for Missouri Valley

Aside from the potential action on the field, the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic were the hot topic at Missouri Valley Football Conference media day on Tuesday.

MVFC Commissioner Patty Viverito indicated that the conference will consider forfeits for games that have to be canceled due to COVID-19 outbreaks on rosters during the season.

She said the conference is awaiting guidance from the NCAA to make a final decision on those rules. Viverito reiterated it's likely that if a team reaches the 85% mark in player vaccinations the team will be able to avoid getting tested, including unvaccinated players. No teams have reached that point in the 11-team league, with SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier noting that his team had the “lowest percentage of guys vaccinated” in the conference, without noting a specific figure.

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"Sadly, team vaccinations are lagging and the delta variant is raging," Viverito said. "We are far from being out of the pandemic woods."

She said much of the vaccine hesitancy out there was related to “bad information on the internet.”

“We are urging student-athletes to speak with their physicians, speak with their trainers," Viverito said. "We're doing everything we can to get new information in their hands."

Related Topics: FOOTBALLCOLLEGE FOOTBALL
Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at mtraxler@mitchellrepublic.com.
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