September 1st, 2021 6:00am
Minnesota State Mavericks
2019 Record 14-1
The Mavericks open this season in the unique spot of having to replace the brunt of their offensive production and defense from their 2019 National runner-up campaign. No longer in the huddle are household names like Gunn, Zylstra, and numerous others. In addition to those departures was offensive coordinator Joe Beschorner who is now the running backs coach at NDSU. Offensive line coach Collin Prosser will take over the OC role, but I wouldn’t expect much of a change in offensive philosophy from the Mavs.
MSU returns most of the offensive line from its historic ’19 run but brings back just quarterback JD Ekowa in terms of established weapons. While Ekowa wasn’t the starter, he played about 40% of the snaps and has thrown for over 3,000 career yards and rushed for another 1,000. Expect Kaleb Sleezer to become the next 1,000-yard Mankato ball-carrier as he brings some burst to the ground game, but also has the ability to run hard for the inside yards.
The passing game will be the area in which the Mavs will need to work on the most. Jalen Sample is a 6’6 slender wideout that’ll be expected to win on deep balls against defenses who’ll be focused on slowing down the battering ram rushing attack.
In speaking with Todd Hoffner a few weeks ago, I mentioned that they seemingly have more production to replace on defense than offense, since most of his offensive line is returning. Todd agreed with that take, but most eyeballs are drawn to the high-profile guys on offense like Zylstra and Gunn. At the linebacker spot the Mavs lost starters to graduation, along with the secondary. The defensive line lost two starters to North Dakota State. All said, returning nickel Jack Leius will be asked to lead a group that’ll be finding its way with only 3 starters returning.
Outlook: It seemed apparent in the offseason that Hoffner and company felt compelled to dip into D1 transfers more than in the recent past. The Mavs are looking to replace immediate needs while not lowering the bar of expectation. This might be easier said than done. While the MSU defense isn’t proven just yet, players like JD Ekowa, the offensive line, and the small glimpses of Kalen Sleezer have shown the Maverick offensive attack should still keep rolling along until someone in the NSIC can slow them down. I feel like the gap between Mankato and some of the top teams in the conference has tightened, yet I still have the Mavs in the top spot.
2019 Record 9-3
I almost pulled the trigger on the Vikings for the top spot in the conference. A handful of years ago I picked AU to win the league and they didn’t make the playoffs that season. So, I took a step back and looked at them critically and feel a little more comfortable landing them in the two spot.
What are the reasons that I had the Vikings nearly at the top of the league, you ask? They return key playmakers like Logan Swanson (DT) and the player that I think might be the top defensive player in the conference, safety Eli Weber. Along with backer TJ Liggett, the Vikings have top players at all three levels down the middle of the defense. The Vikings were tops in the NSIC in points allowed in 2019 and bring back much of that group again in 2021. However, they do have a new defensive coordinator as Jordan Malone took a job with Washington State, now ushering in the Mark Sipple era. Sipple was the DC for St. Cloud State and will bring in a slightly more aggressive approach.
Offensively the Vikings have good depth on the offensive line and have three running backs that would start for a good portion of the league. Jarod Epperson will likely get the most carries of the group as he burst on the scene in 2019 and rushed for over 700 yards and 6 scores. Rudy Sinflorant has battled injuries but can be counted on for strong workload when needed. The Vikings lost Braiden Petersen in the first game of 2019, but he returns to an already crowded backfield. Petersen has a build and skillset often seen at slot so I wouldn’t be shocked to see him utilized as a swiss army knife player for the Vikings, in an effort to get their best weapons on the field as much as possible. Augie also has Devon Jones who’s got a lot of wiggle for small wideout, along with 6’5 receiver Sean Engel, who led the squad in grabs in 2019.
Quarterback Kyle Saddler was named the NSIC South Division Offensive Preseason Player of the Year. I found this an interesting choice given that Saddler completed only 54% of his passes while throwing 8 picks and 13 touchdowns in 2019. As a 4-year starter he’s accumulated nearly 7,000 career yards, 53 scores, but 41 interceptions. I’ve always felt Saddler was a solid player, but I’ve never considered him to be a prolific passer like predecessor Trey Heid. Given the experience Saddler has and the weapons at his disposal, this is the season for him to prove he’s the leader he can be and to quell those who’ve questioned his decision-making as a passer.
Outlook: I think Augustana has the pieces in place to have its best season in a long time. If the Vikings can get poise and performance at the quarterback spot, along with another strong year defensively, they might just win the league. In recent seasons the Vikings always seemed to lose a game that got away in the end. In 2019 it was a 21-20 setback at Bemidji. The Vikings start off with three teams I’m projecting to be near the bottom portion of the standings, but then gear up in the back half against their rival USF, a trip to MSU, and two weeks later to Duluth. I think AU wins 2 out of those 3 contests and those games should have major playoff implications.
2019 Record 8-3
UMD comes into the 2021 in the unusual position of not having been in the postseason the previous season. Much of that comes from how dramatically the loss of quarterback John Larson to injury impacts the overall performance of the ball club. When Larson is healthy the Dogs are among the NSIC elite but when he’s unable to go they fall quickly to a middle of the pack squad. Much of this is due to Larson’s ability to hurt defenses through the air but also via his feet in the ground game as a very slippery ball carrier who moves the chains and makes the defense worry about his scampers.
With Larson under center the Bulldog attack is near the top of the conference in points scored, with running backs Wade Sullivan and Cazz Martin sharing the workload on the ground. Through the air UMD will return Johnny McCormick and Armani Carmickle, along with tight end Zach Ojile who gets red zone touches as a ball carrier and pass catcher. Importantly, Duluth returns much of their front line offensively, which gives the squad a lot of experience with this group.
Defensively the Bulldogs will need to fill some shoes, especially in the back half, but they do bring a lot of their production upfront back for 2021. Backers Nate Pearson and Joe Kordus will lead a strong group that accounted for the brunt of their minus plays in seasons past.
Outlook: The Bulldogs should be ready for a strong season with the amount of experience they return but given how they stumbled in 2019 when injury hit, depth could be a question. If they can find a way to keep John Larson out of harms way (not really his style of play) they could be the best team in the NSIC in 2021. That said, Larson has played in just 14 of their last 23 contests, which indicates it might be a tall ask to have him around for all 11 games this fall. I’m guessing the Bulldogs have a bump in the road during an otherwise strong campaign. A week 2 matchup against a reloading MSU-Mankato might be the best shot UMD’s had during Curt Weise’s stint as head coach, in which he hasn’t been able to topple in the Mavs in 5 tries.
2019 Record 8-4
USF Head Coach Jon Anderson has taken the Cougars to the playoffs in 2 of his 3 campaigns at the helm, but the Cougars have not been able to come away with a postseason win in that time. Anderson is tasked with maintaining a high level of performance with the departure of defensive coordinator Nick Benedetto, who left for FCS Samford University. That said, the promotion of Joe Ford to that role offers the Cougars a coach with coordinator experience that also served under Benedetto.
USF returns top players at all three levels. Coach Anderson has spoken about how the defensive line appears to the strength of the squad and expect David Vargas to become a top performer in the conference along with the steady play of Joey Wehrkamp. At backer the Coo returns one of the hardest hitters and high-motor guys in the NSIC with Harvey Enalls. USF looks solid at corner as well, while having playmaking safety Nate Durfee flying around in the back half. If the Cougars get solid play at backer, they should be among the top defensive units in the conference.
With 2019 USF quarterback Caden Walters now playing in the Indoor Football League, the Cougars will turn to Adam Mullen who narrowly edged out Josh Swanson for the starting gig. Mullen is a player who’s been talked about a lot in the program over the years by the coaching staff as someone who gave the starting defense fits during his time on the scout team. Mullen is a redshirt freshman that’s 6’0 with a quick release and possesses escape ability. That said, Mullen hasn’t taken a college snap, so the Cougars will need to rely on their strong running game to ease the burden for their new signal-caller.
Mullen will have two big 6’5” targets to throw to in tight end Ben Sokup and wideout Ty Smith. Keep an eye on Alderson Broaddus transfer Dominic Pegley who can do a little of everything, including catching a fade for a score against NWMSU in their spring scrimmage.
The USF offense brings back two starters on offensive line and will start two transfers. Considering how USF likes to pound the rock and then do it some more, it’ll be imperative that this unit comes together quickly for the Coo to have a successful ’21 campaign. Having an offensive line that’s trying to figure things out would be very challenging for their style of football.
The top weapon for the Coo is returning 1,000-yard back Thuro Reisdorfer and his pounding running style. Reisdorfer scored 19 times in 2019 (13 times on the ground, 5 via reception and 1 KOR) and is the focal point of the offense, like how Nate Gunn was for Mankato. The Cougars don’t really have a high-volume guy who can carry the load after Reisdorfer, so keeping him healthy will be key for USF.
Outlook: USF loses a top of production at the quarterback spot as Caden Walters was the top signal-caller in the NSIC in 2019. The USF returns some nice weapons on offense but also has some uncertainty as well. I’d expect the Coo defense to be a little ahead of their offense as the season begins. A big matchup in week 1 is key, as Bemidji State is already very physical and will bring pressure on a new quarterback. Right now, I think the USF offense can be capable, but I’m not sure I see them being dynamic.
2019 Record 8-4
Warrior’s Head Coach Tom Sawyer will retire following the 2021 campaign. Sawyer is in his 25th season with Winona State and is an alum as well. In speaking with him a week ago I asked him if he plans to stay in Winona and be around the program. He stated he enjoys helping with fundraising and plans to be around the program, as long as they allow.
Sawyer will be bringing back about 15 starters from a squad that made a trip to the Mineral Water Bowl in 2019. Owen Burke returns at quarterback and has been a steady performer at that position. One of my all-time favorite NSIC players Jake Balliu will return for a final season with the Warriors. The do-everything wideout has been at WSU long enough that he caught passes from Jack Nelson. Seriously. Also, back are running backs Sam Santiago-Lloyd and Javian Roebuck, who’ve been productive players for years. WSU also boasts the brunt of their offensive line.
Defensively Winona State has key stars in linebacker Devon Moore and safety Cam Gavin but the Warriors lost key frontline studs Nick Pridgeon and Michael Gomez.
Overall: The Warriors have a good portion of highly productive players from the 2019 squad, but I’m not sure it puts them in the company of Augie, USF, and Duluth. The Warriors have struggled at times with all 3 squads, but I think they are still right there in the mix. The opener against CSP is important to set the tone for Coach Sawyer’s last season. A loss against an opponent they expect to beat, at home, could be a rough start to 2021.
2019 Record 8-3
The Beavers enter the 2021 campaign with high expectations as they return oft-injured starting quarterback Brandon Alt. It seems that I write about Alt every preseason but then he gets hurt before the end of September. This will be Alt’s 5th year at the school and has played in 3 football games. In his 3 contests for the Beavers he’s been a strong performer, throwing for 10 scores without an interception. Having taken a medical redshirt in 2019, and the COVID year not counting, Alt is considered just a redshirt sophomore now. Wayne State starting quarterback from 2019, Andy McCance (SO), has also become a Beaver and will help give the squad added insurance in the event of another untimely injury.
BSU did have an unfortunate setback with a season ending leg injury to the Northern Sun’s leading rusher from 2019, Jalen Frye. With Frye out, expect Sage Booker to get a healthy chunk of the load as BSU prides itself on running the football.
In the passing game the Beavers return one of the top playmakers in the NSIC, do-everything wideout Malik Williams. While slight in size (5’8) Williams is electric with the football in his hands and will surely be the focus of defensive coordinators throughout the league. The Beavers also return dangerous wideout Brandon Beaulieu, who led the squad with 856 receiving yards in 2019.
Defensively BSU is led by All-American linebacker Gabe Ames. Ames is a menace at the point of attack, often disrupting plays in the backfield. Overall, BSU won’t have their top four tacklers from a season ago as the the 2021 campaign begins. The Beavers will miss All American safety Michael Junker and will need to look to fill lost production in a group that doesn’t have a lot of experience in the Beaver secondary. All said, BSU has a good chunk of production missing from their 2019 defense.
Outlook: I think BSU will be strong upfront defensively and could control some football games at the point of attack, but with the loss of a game breaking running back like Jalen Frye, and the uncertainty of Brandon Alt finishing a season, the Beavers are an at-risk squad offensively. If Alt can stay in the lineup and the defense can slow down ground attacks, they can beat teams like USF, Duluth, and others. For a northern squad, the Beavers have about as tough a schedule as a team could ask for, having dates at USF, Mankato, and then hosting Augie all within the month of September.
2019 Record 6-5
For a good portion of the D2 world Concordia is that school current Los Angeles Rams defense end Chris Garrett attended. While the Golden Bears have shown yearly improvement under Head Coach Shannon Currier, the squad is now at the mid-level of the conference and leaving many to wonder if they can break into the upper tier.
No one team in the NSIC has benefitted more from St. Cloud State getting rid of its football program than CSP. The Bears took in 11 former Huskies in hopes of filling needs due to losses on both sides of the ball. Expect for wideout Nathan Gimza to highlight that group, along with the handful of offensive linemen who migrated to the Twin Cities as well.
I anticipate Conner Cordts and his dual-threat skill set to be taking the snaps for the Bears this Fall. Cordts is from suburban Phoenix and will be seeing his first action with the squad. A quarterback’s best friend is often a good running game, and the CSP has brought in two high profile transfers to lighten the load for the new signal-caller. Jaylin Richardson (Northern Iowa) and local St. Paul native Brian Lankford-Johnson (Purdue) should be among the league’s best backfield duos. Langford-Johnson rushed for over 300 yards with the Boilermakers while also netting a 127-yard outing versus Illinois.
In 2019 the Golden Bears were in the top half of the conference with 22 points allowed per contest. With some key losses on that side of the football, the Bears still return a good portion of their defense. Linebacker Dalton Smerchek had 60 tackles and 8.5 TFL’s and will be called on to lead the Bears. They are also strong at corner with one of the league’s best in Preston Piltoff who led the conference in pass breakups in 2019.
Outlook: Concordia should benefit from being moved to the North Division, which was caused by the football departure of Crookston and St. Cloud. Historically the South has been plenty stronger than the North, winning roughly 2 out of every 3 games between the divisions. Their first game of the year feels like it’ll be telling, traveling to Winona State.
2019 Record 6-5
First year Head Coach Mike Schmidt takes over a squad that’s trying to make a move from being a perennial 5 or 6-win program to becoming a team that competes for the NSIC North title. The Wolves also will have a brand-new home, Dacotah Bank Stadium. The venue is instantly among the best in the conference and will surely be on the short list of top stadiums nationally at the D2 level.
Moving to things on the field, the Wolves return quarterback Hunter Troutman. He’s been a productive signal-caller but will be pushed by Miami of Ohio transfer Michael Bonds. Dakota Larson might be the most talented returning wideout in the NSIC and will be accompanied by NSU’s leading rusher in 2019, Isaiah Cherrier.
The defensive side of the football will be telling for the outlook of the 2021 NSU campaign. In 2019 the Wolves incurred five setbacks in which they allowed an average of 36 points per game.
Outlook: NSU has shown it can beat the teams it’s are supposed to but loses one-sided games to the top 5-6 teams in the NSIC. If Mike Schmidt is going to change things at Northern and play for league titles, he’s going to need to start competing more in those high-profile contests and start winning a few as well. The school seems to be very much behind the football program given the recent changes it’s made, so this story will be an interesting one to follow in years to come.
2019 Record 4-7
There’s excitement coming from the Wildcat camp as the squad won spring scrimmages against Chadron State and Nebraska-Kearney, both schools with winning records in 2019.
New Head Coach John McMenamin was an offensive coordinator with Wayne State in the past and most recently led the Central Missouri offense to prolific marks in 2019.
WSC has a competition for the starting quarterback role, but I’m expecting experienced Tavian Willis and his dual threat ability to win the spot. The squad returns an experienced receiving corps and should have some of the more athletic skill players in the league.
Defensively the Wildcats return a handful of starters including leading tackler Nicholas Joynt. Expect Kevin Ransom to lead the squad in the back half, entering his third season as a starter.
Outlook: I like what Coach Mac has done so far, but I’m not sure the Wildcats are ready to make the jump to being a .500 team just yet. I have them falling one game short of that.
2019 Record 6-5
Steve Laqua took the Dragons to the Mineral Water Bowl in 2018 during an 8-4 season. In 2019 the squad took a step back to their normal spot in the middle of the pack. Overall, I’ve always felt Coach Laqua does more with less, especially in the shadow of NDSU in his immediate community.
The last few seasons MSUM had gotten pretty good play from the quarterback position and was potent offensively. In 2021, the squad is figuring out their starter through a quarterback competition but will likely be inexperienced at the position. Wideout Grady Bresnahan has some of the best hands in the conference and could very well lead the NSIC in grabs.
On the defensive side Darius Woods-Steichen (DL) will lead the squad, as he’s amassed 23 tackles for loss over his career. Overall, the squad will be young and might continue to struggle with the physicality of the top squads in the North.
Outlook: I saw Moorhead in the spring, and I walked away feeling like the Dragons were maybe a year away from returning to being one of the better teams in the North.
2019 Record 3-8
The Mustangs have seen sizable roster movement during the COVID period, and the influx of plenty of transfers into the program. QB Steven Nava, who played two games for the Mustangs during the 2019 season is once again in the mix, but I’m expecting Head Coach Cory Sauter to turn the reigns over to Northern Illinois transfer Andrew Haidet. The 6-foot 5-inch senior has athletic escape-ability and a strong arm. No matter the starter, SMSU will have to microwave its offensive cohesion as they return only one starter, but Coach Sauter is confident his line has the makings of one of the best units he’s had at Southwest.
Linebacker Onte Burns is one of the top returning defenders in the NSIC, leading the NSIC in tackles in 2019. In all the Mustangs return four starters on defense and have been putting a lot of their efforts in recruiting on that side of the ball to shake the perception that they’re a team that has to win high scoring contests.
Outlook: I think the Mustangs opener in Marshall this Thursday against MSU-Moorhead might be telling for fans. I feel this is a winnable game for SMSU, and that with Mary in week 3 they might be able to start 2-1, compared to 0-3 each of the last two seasons. Unfortunately, the last 3 weeks of the year the Ponies will finish at Bemidji, hosting Mankato, and at Augie. I went back and forth on 3 wins or 4 for the Mustangs, but I’m staying at 3 given the amount of roster turnover.
2019 Record 3-8
While Minot State won 3 games in 2019, wins could be harder to come by with a tougher schedule in which they cross paths with 6 Southern squads (including Concordia who was just moved to the North).
Head Coach Mike Aldrich has been working diligently to change the culture of Beaver football but hasn’t topped the 3-win mark as he enters his 4th campaign. Aldrich will have the athleticism of returning quarterback Ben Bolinski to lean on during the 2021 season, along with budding star ball carrier Ali Mohamed who rushed for over 800 yards in 2019.
The Beavers were one of only four squads who allowed over 400 points during the 2019 season. Coach Aldrich is a defensive coach at heart, and he’ll need to show improvement on that side of the ball if they are looking to continue their climb.
Outlook: I could very well be selling Minot State short, but they open with both Sioux Falls teams (@ AU then home vs. USF) and have a difficult first month. At the moment I’m having a hard time seeing more than a few wins.
2019 Record 2-9
New UIU Head Coach Jason Hoskins will be trying to pick up the pieces of a rough 2-9 campaign in 2019. Hoskins started his second stint with the Peacocks in 2019 and has been on staff in Fayette in the past. He will be tasked with a turnaround after their worst season since 2012.
With Crookston no longer playing football, the Peacocks return the lowest scoring offense in the conference at 17 points per game, while being among the bottom in points allowed as well at 37 per contest.
Star defensive lineman Erik Hansen will be in his final season for UIU. The defensive end notched 18.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks in 2019.
Upper Iowa has a competition at the signal-caller position but will bring back some good weapons at wideout. The Peacocks have been very good at quarterback over the last 10 years but will need to once again get good production at that spot to get back to .500 or better. As odd as it may seem, one of the Peacocks wins during their most recent campaign was at Duluth, 23-13. They host the Bulldogs squad Thursday in their opener, a game that UMD will likely have circled on the calendar.
Outlook: Given that UIU plays in the very tough South Division of the NSIC, it’s hard to see a significant jump for the Peacocks in 2021 since they are still figuring out the quarterback position and just recently had turnover in the summer at the defensive coordinator spot.
University of Mary
2019 Record 2-9
Former Marauder gunslinger Craig Bagnell looks improve on his squads 2-win season in 2019 and brings back plenty of offensive weapons in the process. Expect to see veteran quarterback Logan Nelson to lead Mary, while he’s flanked by one of the league’s top playmaking duos in Danny Kittner and Luke Little.
The challenge for the Marauders will be improving a porous defensive unit that allowed 41 points per contest against a North schedule.
Outlook: Without Crookston in the league as a football member, getting a win could be tough to come by for Mary. The squad should have some firepower offensively but have a long way to go on defense.
Week 1 Games
Duluth at Upper Iowa
UMD simply brings back too much and is anxious to avenge an embarrassing setback the last time they played in Duluth. UMD 41-13
Northern at MSU-Mankato
I’d love to see new coach Mike Schmidt get off to a great start but is there a tougher opener in the NSIC than at Mankato? I don’t think so. Mavs could sputter at times as they get learn to play together as a cohesive unit, but I think they’ll still be able to control the football game on the ground. Don’t be shocked if NSU gives them a first half scare. MSU 38-17
Bemidji at Sioux Falls
Certainly, the game of the week in the conference. Both squads want to run the football and play physical defense. In many ways I feel this game is a toss-up, but I’m taking USF in a lower scoring rain-soaked defensive struggle. USF 20-16
Mary at Wayne State
Both teams wanna bust out the offense here but I think Wayne will get more stops defensively. WSC 37-20
Moorhead at Southwest
I’m not sure either team has a real good idea what they have at this moment, but I’m taking SMSU as the Mustangs typically play fairly well in openers in Marshall. SMSU 30-27
CSP at Winona
One of the hardest games on the board to call. Most will just assume Winona State, but CSP has been outstanding when it comes time to jerk back the curtain and start a new season. I really wanna pull the trigger on the Golden Bears, but it’s Coach Sawyer’s final season and I’m picking the Warriors to play out for the Dean of the NSIC coaches. WSU 29-21
Minot at Augustana
There’s gonna be plenty of close games in week one, but I don’t have this as one of them. If the Vikings are the squad that I think they are, they run and hide in this one. Former Augie coach Mike Aldrich returns to the KO and would like nothing more than to get a signature win for himself and his program. AU 44-13