In 2004, Concordia (Moorhead) won the MIAC title. That is the only year since 1998 that a team other than Bethel, St. John's or St. Thomas has claimed the conference title.

St. Thomas, which has won five conference titles in the past seven years, is expected to continue the trend. The Tommies are ranked No. 5 in the D3football.com poll and picked as the favorite by MIAC coaches. It is the ninth consecutive year the Tommies have been picked either first or second in the preseason poll.

The Tommies, who have won 23 consecutive regular-season games, return 14 position players with starting experience from last year's team, which went 12-1 and reached the Division III quarterfinals.

Among the returnees are running back Jordan Roberts. The 2015 D-III Offensive Player of the Year, Roberts was limited to two games last year because of injury. Roberts and tight end Jackson Hull are preseason All-Americas.

Consistent Johnnies

St. John's, one of only six programs that has reached at least the second round of the D-III playoffs the past three years, was picked to finish second.

The Johnnies, ranked No. 10 in the D3football.com preseason poll, were 10-2 last year. Their only loss in eight MIAC games was a 12-point decision against St. Thomas. It's the third consecutive season the Johnnies were 10-2 overall and 7-1 in the MIAC.

Among the Johnnies' returning starters are QB Jackson Erdmann, RB Dusty Krueger, WR Evan Clark and DL Nathan Brinker.

Erdmann passed for 1,290 yards and 20 TDs in eight games, completing 60 percent of his passes with only six interceptions. Clark led the Johnnies with 43 receptions and 16 touchdowns and led the MIAC with an average of 22.6 yards per catch. Krueger had a team-leading 690 rushing yards and nine rushing TDs.

Brinker led the MIAC in sacks (9½) and tackles (15) for loss last season as a sophomore.

Kilian takes over

After seven seasons as an assistant coach, James Kilian is in his first season as the St. Olaf coach. He will try to turn around the program, which has won only six of 40 games and gone just 3-29 in the MIAC since the beginning of the 2013 season.

In his relatively brief coaching career, he already has coached in two national championship games.

Kilian began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at his alma mater — the University of Tulsa — in 2010. In 2011, he served as an offensive analyst on the staff of LSU, which won the SEC championship and appeared in the BCS title game.

Kilian spent the 2012 and 2013 seasons as an assistant at Carleton, before coaching at St. Thomas for three seasons. The Tommies reached the D-III championship game in 2015.

Biggest MIAC drawing card

The MIAC has led all D-III conferences in attendance the past six seasons and 11 of the past 12. That streak is expected to continue this season, especially when this year's St. John's-St. Thomas game is considered.

The Johnnies and Tommies will meet Sept. 23 at Target Field. The game, the first college football game to be played at the Twins stadium, already has sold 23,000 tickets.

The record for a Division III game is 17,535 set last season when Wisconsin-Oshkosh played at UW-Whitewater. That figure broke the mark of 17,327 set at the 2015 Tommies-Johnnies game in Collegeville.