ST. LOUIS, Mo. (SDSU) – South Dakota State has been picked to win the 2021 Missouri Valley Football Conference title, according to a poll conducted among the league’s coaches, sports information directors and a media panel that was announced Tuesday.
The Jackrabbits received 24 of the 43 first-place votes to finish with 454 points, edging North Dakota State with 435 points and 18 first-place votes. North Dakota (357), Southern Illinois (345) and Northern Iowa (311) rounded out the top five, with UNI claiming the final first-place vote.
It marks the first time since joining the MVFC in 2008 that the Jackrabbits, who return 10 starters on both sides of the ball, have been tabbed as the preseason favorite, after finishing second in the annual forecast six times.
The remainder of the poll included: Missouri State, sixth, 256; Illinois State, seventh, 196; South Dakota, eighth, 163; Youngstown State, ninth, 126; Indiana State, 10th, 112, and Western Illinois, 11th, 83.
SDSU shared the MVFC title with Missouri State, finishing with a 5-1 conference mark during an abbreviated 2020-21 season that was moved to the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Jackrabbits were awarded the league’s automatic bid to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs and later advanced to the national championship game for the first time, ending the season with an 8-2 overall record following a 23-21 loss to Sam Houston.
In addition, 12 Jackrabbit players were honored on the MVFC Preseason Team, including six first-team selections. Running back Pierre Strong, Jr., tight end Zach Heins and offensive lineman Garret Greenfield represent the Jackrabbit offense, while defensive tackle Caleb Sanders, linebacker Logan Backhaus and cornerback Don Gardner were the defensive honorees. All were first-team all-MVFC picks during the spring campaign.
Strong, a junior from Little Rock, Arkansas, rushed for 707 yards (78.6 yards per game) and three touchdowns during the 2020-21 spring season. He also ranked third on the team with 20 catches for 178 yards and a touchdown.
A sophomore from Sioux Falls, Heins tallied 12 receptions for 200 yards during the 2020-21 spring season.
Greenfield, a sophomore from Rock Valley, Iowa, helped pave the way for an offensive unit that averaged 29.2 points and 403.1 yards of total offense per game. He went on to be a consensus All-America selection at right tackle.
Sanders led the Jackrabbits with five sacks among his seven tackles for loss last season. The junior from Glenwood, Iowa, posted 26 total tackles.
Backhaus, a senior from Spirit Lake, Iowa, paced the Jackrabbits with 9.5 tackles for loss and ranked second on the squad with 72 total tackles en route to earning All-America honors from several media outlets.
Gardner, a senior from Chicago, led the team with seven pass breakups and added an interception during the spring season. He also ranked fifth on the squad with 44 tackles, including three for loss.
Four more members of the Jackrabbit offense were recognized as second-team selections to the preseason honor squad: Offensive linemen Mason McCormick and Wes Genant, wide receiver Jaxon Janke and running back Isaiah Davis.
McCormick, a sophomore from Sioux Falls, was a second-team all-MVFC pick this past spring, while Genant, a senior from Parkston, earned honorable mention recognition.
A sophomore from Madison, Janke earned second-team all-MVFC honors after leading SDSU in nearly every receiving category, posting 32 receptions for 473 yards and six touchdowns.
Davis, from Joplin, Missouri, finished as the team’s leading rusher with 818 yards (81.8 ypg) and 10 touchdowns as a freshman. A second-team all-league performer and a member of the MVFC All-Newcomer Team, Davis topped the 100-yard mark in rushing four times while also seeing action as a kick returner.
Also a second-team selection was senior long snapper Bradey Sorenson. The Yankton native sat out the spring season, but previously has been honored on the all-MVFC squad.
Rounding out the list of preseason award recipients for the Jackrabbits was honorable mention selection Reece Winkelman. A junior defensive end from Marshall, Minnesota, Winkelman tied for second on the team with three sacks and finished with 25 tackles last spring.
SDSU is scheduled to open the fall season Sept. 3 at Colorado State, with the Jackrabbits kicking off their eight-game league slate Sept. 25 at Indiana State.