Penguins fourth in league poll

Some onlookers may scoff at the Youngstown State football team’s fourth-place ranking in the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s preseason poll.

Those same spectators probably don’t know much about the MVFC.

The most successful — and deepest — conference in the FCS, based off of playoff appearances and titles, announced that returning national champion North Dakota State was the top choice for a seventh straight season. While the Penguins were slotted fourth, behind South Dakota State and Northern Iowa, the standing wasn’t exactly offensive.

“You’ve got to keep developing your program to move into the upper echelon of this conference,” said YSU coach Bo Pelini about a league that sent five teams to the playoffs last year and four in 2016. “You’re going to see teams in this conference each and every year that don’t make the playoffs that could beat a lot of teams that are going to make the playoffs.

“That’s reality. You’ve got to really fight week in and week out to get in that (24-team) tournament at the end and move into the top half of this conference.”

Following the Penguins in the poll were Illinois State, South Dakota, Western Illinois, Southern Illinois, Missouri State and Indiana State.

YSU, which reports to camp Wednesday and starts practice Thursday, finished seventh in the conference last year. A four-game losing streak midway through the season curtailed the Penguins’ chances of finishing near the top and reaching the playoffs for a second straight year.

A conference with very few weak spots sounds like it might not be worth being a part of, but Pelini said the weekly competition pays off.

“There’s really good balance in the conference,” he said. “The coaching in this conference is outstanding, top to bottom. It’s difficult. It’s difficult to win on the road in this conference. It’s difficult to win at home. Each week you get challenged.

“In the end, that competition, from a coaching standpoint, knowing what you’re going to face each week, it develops a sense of urgency on your football team that’s going to make you better in the end.”

Keeping his team alert and focused isn’t the only benefit.

The longtime coach, who also had stints in the Southeastern Conference, Big 12, Big 10 and NFL, among others, said being on the big stage attracts better players.

“That sense of urgency, that idea of carrying that into the recruiting trail,” Pelini said, “kids want to compete at the highest level, so it’s going to draw better players to your program.”

The Penguins open the season hosting Butler before traveling to West Virginia and then returning home for a matchup with Valparaiso. After a bye week, they open conference play Sept. 29 at Western Illinois before hosting Southern Illinois and traveling to South Dakota State. They then host South Dakota and Indiana State before traveling to host the champion-laden Bison. YSU finishes the year by hosting UNI and facing Illinois State on the road.

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