Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - There's a true X-factor involved even after North Dakota State lost the best senior class in the FCS following last season.
The Bison left behind are going to have a chip sitting squarely on their shoulder.
Opponents are going to perceive the three-time reigning national champions as vulnerable this year following the loss of 24 seniors and head coach Craig Bohl.
Yet the Bison aren't quite ready to give up their throne. They return 13 starters (five on offense, six on defense and their two kickers) for new coach Chris Klieman and remain a threat to become the first program to win four straight FCS titles.
Here's a look across the conference with spring practices getting underway across the nation:
Despite the returning talent, North Dakota State still has to plug plenty of holes. The Bison are counting on the idea that some of their backups just needed the opportunity to become standouts. Well, it's knocking at the front door.
South Dakota State senior Zach Zenner and former Sacramento State running back Charles Roberts are the only two FCS players to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season twice. Zenner will try to become the first player to do it three times.
Spring practices clearly are a time for assessment and Southern Illinois head coach Dale Lennon will do some with his assistant coaches after having to replace five who left for other schools this offseason. Lennon has taken on defensive coordinator duties and promoted offensive line coach Bill O'Boyle to offensive coordinator.
As Western Illinois hopes to build in coach Bob Nielson's second season, its linebacker play will sneak up on some opponents. J.J. Raffelson is a true building block but had an elbow injury for half of last season, and Kevin Kintzel accounted for eight takeaways and scored touchdowns on three of them.
An improved season is likely at Indiana State when factoring in the team's overall health can only be better this season. In coach Mike Sanford's first season last year, the Sycamores (1-11) had 40 players miss time due to injury and 19 experience season-ending injuries.
Missouri State had a big season in Missouri Valley play, going 5-3 to be part of a four-way tie for second place. The Bears return a solid defensive unit, led by All-America safety Caleb Schaffitzel.
It will be interesting to see if Illinois State avoids redshirting three-star recruit Jake Kolbe to give him a chance to be the Redbirds' starting quarterback.
Western Illinois can still play tag-team at running back with seniors J.C. Baker, who rushed for 1,149 yards as the runner-up for 2013 MVFC newcomer of the year, and Niko Watson, who has 1,648 career yards.
Injuries piled up for Northern Iowa last season and the Panthers are thrilled to welcome back Jake Farley, who was their leading tackler until he went down with a broken ankle against North Dakota State.
Southern Illinois returns three productive senior running backs in Malcolm Agnew, Tay Willis and Ken Malcome.
An Underwood is still among the best in the Missouri Valley, and it's now Indiana State defensive end Connor Underwood, younger brother of former Illinois State standout Colton Underwood.
The graduation of four-year starting quarterback Kurt Hess has Youngstown State searching for a replacement. Dante Nania, the little-used backup last season, will battle for the top job with Tanner Gary and Ricky Davis.
South Dakota senior running back Jasper Sanders figures to recapture the starting job after being sidelined by a wrist injury. But Trevor Bouma and Jordan Roberts were outstanding as freshmen in Sanders' absence and both deserve touches as well.
The Missouri Valley Conference is always strong at running back. Missouri State, which averaged 179.1 rushing yards per game last season, has its share with Ryan Heaston, Phoenix Johnson and Cedric Miller.
South Dakota State has to fill two wide receiver spots. They should go to Connor Landberg, Trevor Wesley, Brandon Andrews or redshirt freshman Jake Wieneke.
North Dakota State will clearly get smart play out of new starting quarterback Carson Wentz, who won the NCAA Elite 89 award as the student-athlete with the highest cumulative grade-point average among the two FCS championship game participants. His predecessor with the Bison, Brock Jensen, set the FCS record with 48 career wins.
In November, Southern Illinois inside linebacker Carl Bivens received the first two starts of his redshirt freshman campaign. All he did was lead the Salukis in tackles in each game. Now comes a full-time starting job.
Illinois State defensive tackle Brandon Prate is ready to come out of the shadow cast by former Redbirds All-American defensive end Colton Underwood.
Safety, cornerback, linebacker, wide receiver, the position hardly matters with Northern Iowa's Deiondre Hall. He's a difference maker.
Cincinnati transfer Deionte Buckley could step in and become Indiana State's starting tailback.
Missouri State wide receiver Julian Burton took a big step last season. This season, the offense hopes for the same from tight end Gannon Sinclair.
READY FOR IMPROVEMENT
Northern Iowa's 7-5 record last season would have looked oh so better if the Panthers had not been the second FCS team to suffer three consecutive overtime losses.
Similarly, South Dakota may be closer to a winning season than last year's 4-8 record suggests. Under coach Joe Glenn, the Coyotes lost by a combined 14 points to Northern Arizona, Youngstown State and Montana, which all finished with at least eight wins.
Illinois State was 5-0 at home and embraces having seven games at Hancock Stadium this season. But the Redbirds must play better on the road after going 0-6 and losing the first five by 18 or more points.
South Dakota State senior quarterback Austin Sumner will get a boost from better pass protection.
Youngstown State ranked 116th in the FCS in stopping third downs, and the Penguins' 48.3 percent conversion rate rose to 56 percent in MVFC games. Playoff teams, and YSU hasn't been one since 2006, don't allow such high percentages.
OK, it's nit picking, but North Dakota State was only 2-for-4 on field goal attempts of 40 yards or longer. Kicker Adam Keller is coming off surgery and likely will be tested more from long range with the Bison losing a lot of personnel on offense.
SPRING PRACTICE DATES
Illinois State: March 29-April 26
Indiana State: March 24-April 25
Missouri State: April 1-26
North Dakota State: March 29 or 31-April 26
Northern Iowa: March 26-April 25
South Dakota: March 29-April 26
South Dakota State: March 28-April 26
Southern Illinois: March 24-April 18
Western Illinois: March 21-April 12
Youngstown State: March 22-April 25