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Jeff Kolpack, Published September 24 2012

Conference slate to offer plenty of challenges for No. 1 Bison

FARGO – The victory against Robert Morris University (Pa.) was fine for starters. Another win against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent, this time Colorado State, made for good ESPN talk.

Last week, Prairie View A&M (Texas) was overmatched and NDSU made sure it stayed that way for 60 minutes. Three games. Three wins.

The voting members of the Sports Network and the Football Championship Subdivision coaches polls rewarded the start with convincing No. 1 rankings.

But all of that is secondary to this Saturday’s opponent. Northern Iowa is not only considered a fierce rival to North Dakota State, but represents the beginning of the Missouri Valley Football Conference season.

“The No. 1 goal we set at the beginning of the year was to win the conference,” said NDSU head coach Craig Bohl. “It’s a tough thing to do and to do it, you have to go through Cedar Falls.”

The 6:07 p.m. kickoff at the UNI-Dome is expected to be close to a sellout.

“It certainly has a different flavor,” Bohl said. “This is an intense game. Every game in the Valley has a different flavor, but this is the start of the conference deal for us so it will be intense.”

NDSU has held the top spot in the coaches poll all four weeks this season, which so far has seen the Missouri Valley show some strength. Youngstown State’s No. 3 ranking is the highest for the school since 2001.

At No. 12, Illinois State is at its highest spot since the final poll of 2006 and South Dakota State entered The Sports Network poll for the first time since early in 2010. UNI, at No. 14, has been ranked a league-record 98 straight weeks

That run could be in jeopardy this weekend with NDSU coming to town. The Panthers are 1-3 albeit two of the losses were to Big Ten Conference teams Wisconsin and Iowa and last week’s 42-35 loss to Youngstown that went to the final seconds.

Still, UNI does not have a countable Division I win because its victory was over Division II Central State (Ohio).

Bohl said starting receiver Ryan Smith and starting cornerback Marcus Williams will return to the lineup Saturday. Smith has been out with a hamstring injury and Williams had a minor scope procedure to his knee.

NDSU did make one depth chart change inserting junior Bryan Shepherd as the starting strong safety over senior Bobby Ollman. Shepherd is also the backup free safety to Christian Dudzik.

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546.

Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia