SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) -- North Dakota State and South Dakota State may have the numbers to back up the optimism found in North Central Conference football camps this fall.
Both have plenty of experienced players returning, without holes to fill at the skill positions.
The NDSU Bison, who return 20 starters and the bulk of the league's best defense in 1999, are the preseason favorite in polls of coaches and media covering the 10-team league.
"That means nothing to us," NDSU coach Bob Babich said. "Last year, we felt like we had a talented football team. But we lost two games by a total of five points. We were sitting at home after 11 games and the season was over.
"We understand we have to be prepared every week to play good football," he said. "That's our focus, to prove we're a mature football team and to come out every week at the level we're expected to play. We realize if we don't, we can lose any football game any week."
North Dakota and Northern Colorado shared the NCC title last year with records of 8-1 and advanced to the playoffs. Both lost to the eventual NCAA Division II champion, Northwest Missouri State. North Dakota State lost to the NCC co-champions and finished third in the conference at 7-2.
"Our biggest concern is our depth on the offensive line. We have to make sure we stay healthy there," said NDSU's Babich.
One plus for the Bison is home games against North Dakota, Northern Colorado and South Dakota State, teams expected to finish in the upper division.
North Dakota and Northern Colorado will operate with new quarterbacks this season.
The North Dakota Sioux are going with a sophomore at quarterback and are missing three All-Americans on defense.
Northern Colorado is without quarterback Corte McGuffey, who was voted the nation's outstanding Division II player in 1999. South Dakota State picked up one first-place vote and three second-place votes in the coaches' poll.
"This is probably the most veteran team that I've had as a head coach, and it's unusual to have this many starters back," said John Steigelmeier.
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