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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Three-peat.

Three-peat.

Three-peat

It's all you're going to hear with the North Dakota State football team this year. The Bison have championship DNA, having won the last two FCS championships, and now are looking to stand alongside the 2005-07 Appalachian State teams that are the only ones in FCS history to combine on a national title three-peat.

Coach Craig Bohl returns a veteran team to make the Bison a heavy favorite.

STORY LINES

NDSU has been pulling away from the pack, but the rest of the conference is tightening. Youngstown State has fallen just short of the FCS playoffs the last two seasons and seeks to get over the hump. Missouri State and Western Illinois, under new coach Bob Nielson, hope for big steps this season.

Northern Iowa released a 2013 schedule that listed every weekend of the FCS playoffs dates. Yes, no doubt the Panthers are planning to get back to the postseason after a forgettable 2012.

After a national quarterfinal finish, Illinois State has lost quarterback and Missouri Valley offensive player of the year Matt Brown and 1,000-yard running back Darrelyn Dunn. The Redbirds hope to plug in transfers Jared Barnett at quarterback and Colin Keoshian at running back, and keep the momentum going.

South Dakota State quarterback Austin Sumner played better as a freshman in 2011 than this past season and is coming off offseason thumb surgery, but his Jackrabbits appear to be a Top 10 team.

Missing the playoffs the last two seasons has been agonizing at Youngstown State. With a November wrap-up at Northern Iowa and then home games against North Dakota State and South Dakota State, the Penguins better be sitting pretty early in the month.

After a rough first season in the Missouri Valley under coach Joe Glenn, South Dakota needs to start winning the close games. In conference play, the Coyotes lost four times by three points and one time by seven points.

Missouri State coach Terry Allen has seven starters back on offense and nine returning on defense, but last year's squad, which was dangerous despite a 3-8 record, has to reverse a minus-13 turnover margin.

Southern Illinois looked a little more like the Salukis of old last season, but their strong defense lost its entire starting front and the two middle linebackers. It might be outside linebacker Tyler Williamson's time to shine this season.

New Western Illinois coach Bob Nielson, having moved up from two-time NCAA Division II national champion Minnesota-Duluth, has made a smart move by entrusting a lot in a coaching staff with a Missouri Valley background.

OH, YES, THEM AGAIN

Would you rather have to game plan for Indiana State speedster Shakir Bell or South Dakota State 2,000-yard back Zach Zenner? They're both back this season.

Cornerback Marcus Williams is the FCS' version of Deion Sanders.

Like USD, linebacker Tyler Starr had a big drop-off last season, going from 14 sacks in 2011 to four. The 6-foot-5 senior needs to play like his last name for the defense to stand out.

In a conference with terrific offensive linemen, it's easy to overlook Western Illinois senior tackle Jimmy Holtschlag. That's a mistake.

Speaking of terrific offensive linemen, Youngstown State's Chris Elkins is an All-America. He will move from guard to center this season.

At least last year's subpar season at Northern Iowa yielded a terrific young quarterback, Sawyer Kollmorgen, to pair with junior running back David Johnson.

With all-conference fullback Jordan Neukirch, emerging tight end James O'Shaughnessy and four starting offensive linemen back, Illinois State has the type of physical offense necessary in the Missouri Valley.

BREAKOUT PERFORMERS

After opening the 2012 season as Georgia's starting tailback, transfer Ken Malcome hopes to be an impact player for Southern Illinois. He was a four-star high school recruit.

Colton Underwood, the Illinois State star, isn't the only Missouri Valley defensive end in the family. Indiana State's Connor Underwood, who could switch to outside linebacker, enjoyed a strong season last year, but this year he will come out of some of his teammates' shadows and be the defensive leader.

As if North Dakota State needed anything else, the Bison believe senior tight end Kevin Vaadeland will take a big step in 2013.

Missouri State running back Ryan Heaston had two 100-yard games off the bench before he missed the final three games. The Bears are anxious to see what he can do as a possible starter.

Youngstown State quarterback Kurt Hess will look to his wide receivers more after losing his running back (Jamaine Cook) and tight end (Will Shaw). Expect lanky Andrew Williams, who came on late last season, to blossom as a go-to threat.

POSITION BATTLES

North Dakota State needs someone to replace Andre Martin Jr. for the corner spot opposite Williams. Brendin Pierre, C.J. Smith, Jordan Champion and Zach Colvin will battle for the spot.

Having to replace its two leading receivers, South Dakota State is throwing senior Trevor Tiefenthaler, juniors Jason Schneider and Dom Wright, and sophomores Brandon Andrews and Trevor Wesley into the mix.

It's not a given Mike Perish will remain Indiana State's starting quarterback. The Michigan State transfer will face competition from redshirt freshman Robert Tonyan as new head coach Mike Sanford tries to take the offense to a higher level.

Southern Illinois' important noseguard position will go to T.J. Beelen or junior college transfer Raysean Golden.

SPRING PRACTICE DATES

Illinois State: March 26-April 27

Indiana State: March 19-April 20

Missouri State: March 21-April 20

North Dakota State: April 4-27

Northern Iowa: TBA-April 27

South Dakota: March 23-April 20

South Dakota State: March 22-April 20

Southern Illinois: March 25-April 19

Western Illinois: March 20-April 19

Youngstown State: March 19-April 19

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