The Missouri Valley Football Conference has long been one of the deepest and most competitive leagues in the Championship Subdivision.
Rarely has a team been as big of a preseason favorite as North Dakota State.
The two-time defending national champions were a unanimous pick to win the league in a poll released Monday. North Dakota State, which returns 18 starters from a team that went 14-1 and trounced Sam Houston State in the title game, got all 39 first-place votes from a collection of league coaches and media.
South Dakota State was second, followed by Northern Iowa and Illinois State.
"Certainly windows of opportunity (like this) don't come along very often," North Dakota State coach Craig Bohl said. "Our guys do recognize the great opportunity that we do have, that's out there, But to do that, we can't get the cart before the horse."
The Bison aren't just an overwhelming bet to win the Valley again. They appear deep enough to make a serious run at a third consecutive national title.
MVFC Preseason Poll
Team (first-place votes), Pts.
1. North Dakota St. (39), 390
2. South Dakota St., 323
3. Northern Iowa, 269
4. Illinois St., 264
5. Youngstown St., 253
6. Indiana St., 197
7. Southern Illinois, 188
8. Missouri St., 123
9. Western Illinois, 77
10. South Dakota, 61
North Dakota State had a league-high 10 selections on the preseason all-Valley team, including senior quarterback Brock Jensen. He threw for 17 touchdowns and ran for 12 more last season.
"The really good football teams that we've been associated with here and that I've been personally associated with ... those seniors had their best year," Bohl said. "Certainly our experience has been helpful. But experience without productivity won't get you very far."
Youngstown State was picked fifth, 16 points behind the Panthers and 11 behind the Redbirds. Indiana State, Southern Illinois, Missouri State, Western Illinois and South Dakota rounded out the preseason poll.
With fall practice set to begin soon, South Dakota State appears to be the program best poised to make a run at the Bison.
The Jackrabbits finished a game behind North Dakota State in the Valley in 2012, losing 20-17 in Fargo last November in perhaps the best league game of the year. South Dakota State was later trounced by the Bison 28-3 in a rematch in the FCS playoffs. But the Jackrabbits have 15 starters back, including star back Zach Zenner, and they host the Bison in the league opener on Sept. 28.
"You can't make your season one game. Obviously it's huge for our goals ... but I've been at programs where they focus on one game and they celebrate when they win that game," South Dakota State coach John Stiegelmeier said. "You've got to able to come back and come back every week and every day and every play. I've got a lot of respect for Craig Bohl and his team. But we play in a tough league, and we're all going to have to battle. But there's no doubt they're the star right now."
The preseason poll shows that the league views Northern Iowa's rough 2012 as an aberration.
The Panthers spent a Valley-record 99 weeks in the FCS Top 25 before falling out last October en route to a 5-6 record, its first losing season since 2002.
But Northern Iowa got six players named to All-Valley preseason team, second only to North Dakota State, and sophomore quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen has the potential to emerge as one of the best players in the nation.
Kollmorgen threw for 2,460 yards and 21 touchdowns as a freshman, and he nearly beat Wisconsin in his debut with 3 TD passes.
"We have to really define ourselves and what's important to UNI and get those players on the football field," Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley said. "No matter what, you're going to have to win a lot of close football games if you're going to end up on top in the end."