CARBONDALE — Fresh off its first playoff berth in 12 years, the SIU football team was picked fourth in the Missouri Valley Football Conference preseason poll released Tuesday.
South Dakota State, the national runner-up in the spring 2021 season, received 24 of 43 first-place votes from a panel of league media, coaches and sports information directors to top the poll. North Dakota State (18 first-place votes) was second, followed by North Dakota and SIU. Northern Iowa, which got the other first-place vote, was fifth.
SIU's preseason ranking was its highest since getting picked third in 2011. The Salukis (6-4 overall, 3-3 MVFC in 2020-21) had a league-best 13 preseason all-conference picks, including six on the first team. Wide receiver Avante Cox, a consensus All-American last season, offensive guard ZeVeyon Furcron, defensive lineman Jordan Berner, safety Qua Brown, cornerback James Ceasar and running back Javon Williams Jr. (all-purpose back) were named to the first team. Cox, Brown, Ceasar and Williams were all All-Americans last season.
Berner, a Chester native that usually plays at end, filled in at defensive tackle late in the season and still finished with 27 tackles and a team-best 7.5 tackles for loss. Williams, a former Centralia High School quarterback, rushed for a team-high 532 yards and seven touchdowns last season on 122 carries. He also threw for three touchdowns and caught eight passes for 61 yards in nine games.
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Quarterback Stone Labanowitz, fullback Jason Garrett, defensive end Anthony Knighton, linebacker Bryson Strong and punter Jack Colquhoun were named second team. Kicker Nico Gualdoni and long snapper Dan Heilbron were honorable mention all-conference picks. Tommy Schuster, a redshirt sophomore at North Dakota, was the first team quarterback.
SIU went 3-3 in the league, beating two nationally-ranked conference opponents, and knocked off 15th-ranked Southeastern Louisiana in its season finale, 55-48. The Salukis were rewarded with an at-large bid to the 16-team playoff field, and went to third-ranked Weber State. SIU won 34-31 behind Labanowitz's last-second touchdown flick to Branson Combs, and took top-seeded SDSU to the wire on the road in a 31-26 loss in the FCS quarterfinals. SDSU lost in the national championship game to Sam Houston State and returns 10 starters on both sides of the ball.
SIU, ranked ninth in Athlon Sports' preseason top-25 poll and fifth in HERO Sports' list, returns 23 starters (11 on offense, 10 on defense and both specialists). Salukis coach Nick Hill said his team embraces its high expectations after knocking off five top-25 teams.
"If you want to get to the position of expectations, which, now, I believe we've sustained being a top-whatever-type of team the last couple years, but I believe you want to get to the point in your program where it's really not about anybody else. It's about how good can we be?" Hill said. "Like, how good can the 2021 Salukis be? If we can do that, and we can do that at our best, and our A-plus players play like A-plus players, then we'll have a pretty good team. But so does everybody else in our league, so that doesn't equal wins, either."
SDSU's biggest hold could be under center. Quarterback Mark Gronowski, the 2021 MVFC Offensive Player of the Year, Newcomer of the Year and Freshman of the Year, was injured during the 2021 playoffs and will not play this year, coach John Stiegelmeier said. The Jackrabbits do return running back Pierre Strong Jr. (707 yards, 3 TDs, 5.4 ypc.), running back Isaiah Davis (818 yards, 10 TDs, 8.5 ypc.), tight end Zach Heins, offensive lineman Garret Greenfield, defensive lineman Caleb Sanders, linebacker Logan Backhaus and defensive back Don Gardner. All but Davis were preseason first team all-conference picks.
Missouri State, which reached the playoffs in coach Bobby Petrino's first season as its new head coach, was sixth in the preseason poll. Illinois State was seventh, South Dakota was eighth, Youngstown State was ninth, Indiana State was 10th, and Western Illinois was last. The Sycamores sat out the 2020 season and return 10 starters (five on each side of the ball). The league returns approximately 88% of its starters from the 2020-21 season (including ISU's 2019 team), but experience only goes so far.
"Our team has bought in, and what you saw down the stretch, it's like the NFL. Ninety-percent of the games come down to the last five minutes," Hill said. "It's going to be situational football. It's details. It's execution. It's not highlight-reel plays. Everyone that you're gonna talk to today has players that can make outstanding plays, and talented players. It's really about us diving into the details. It sounds pretty boring, but that's what wins games."
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