UNI ranked third nationally in pre-season poll

COLIN HORNING, Sports Editor

Last spring, the Football Championship Subdivision, or FCS, conducted their poll for the top-25 teams for the 2020-2021 season. Released on Tuesday, August 25, the STATS poll has Northern Iowa as the third-ranked team in the entire country. Defending national champion North Dakota State came in unanimously at first place in the poll, following up a perfect 16-0 season. The Bison are riding an FCS-record 37 game winning streak and have not lost since 2017. Last season’s FCS national runner-up James Madison comes in at number 2 in the poll, returning the #1 scoring defense in the FCS and #3 in total defense. The Missouri Valley Football Conference tied the Big Sky Conference for the most ranked teams with five. South Dakota State (5th), Illinois State (9th) and Southern Illinois (24th) are the other three teams representing the MVFC in the poll.

Despite the fall sports season being moved to the spring, the Panthers project to have one of the strongest teams in recent memory returning to the field. Coach Mark Farely led UNI to the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs last season after defeating San Diego in the first round and MVFC rival South Dakota State in the second round before falling to eventual national runner-up James Madison in the third round of the playoffs. The Panthers will return one of the top defenses in the entire nation, led by a strong defensive line and linebacking core that stood atop the Missouri Valley Football Conference in multiple categories. They will also return starting quarterback Will McElvain, who received second-team All-MVFC honors after a strong freshman season.

Even though the Panthers are projected as one of the top teams in the nation, the Missouri Valley Conference schedule can prove to be a grueling one. Last season, Northern Iowa played the toughest schedule of any FCS team with over half of their games coming against teams ranked in the top 25. Along with the gauntlet of the MVFC schedule, the conference also has a partnership with the Big Sky Conference to play each other in non-conference games. The Big Sky also consistently has some of the best teams in the FCS, such as Montana, Weber State and Eastern Washington. This extremely tough strength of schedule for UNI will make every game all the more important. With the spring football season schedule looking unpredictable, it’s anyone’s guess as to how things will turn out this coming year.