The official kickoff for the DII football season is set for Thursday, Aug. 31. The two-time defending champions, Ferris State, take the field against Mercyhurst to open things up, looking to be the first “three-peat” champions since North Alabama in 1993-95.
Much to no one’s surprise, the Bulldogs open the season at No. 1, but with the No. 2 team in the preseason Power 10 rankings hailing from their own division, the ‘Dawgs have their work cut out this year. Let’s jump into the first rankings of the season.
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As a reminder, these are my rankings, and mine alone. There is no voting process or other media and coaches contributing. I simply talk to coaches, SIDs and local beat writers, try to pair talent with selection committee criteria, and come up with a ranking that falls somewhere between the coaches poll, the media poll at D2Football, and the regional rankings.
The DII football preseason Power 10
No. 1 Ferris State
Coach Tony Annese could have new faces across the board and they'd still be the leading candidate for No. 1. The Bulldogs have back-to-back titles and have quarterbacks Mylik Mitchell and Carson Gulker — who led DII with 31 rushing touchdowns last year as a freshman — back to lead the charge. The Bulldogs open the season against Mercyhurst but also have a trip to FCS Montana and a big non-conference test at fellow Power 10-er Ashland before opening GLIAC play where they will have to worry about Grand Valley State. As the Bulldogs proved last year, they just need to find a way to the playoffs and they seemingly find another gear.
No. 2 Grand Valley State
The two best teams in the country (at least in my opinion) are a mere 65 miles apart. This year’s Anchor Bone Classic could be one for the ages — which says something. The Lakers may have one of the deepest rosters in DII football and have a few players — Cade Peterson, Tariq Reid, and Abe Swanson — who should hear their names in player of the year conversations. The experience returning on both sides of the ball, despite some big losses in the transfer portal, is second to none.
No. 3 Pittsburg State
The Gorillas went from 8-3 to 12-1 last year, which included an 11-0 romp through the MIAA — no small feat in its own right. Quarterback Chad Dodson Jr. is back and his favorite target — All-American tight end Devon Garrison — is as well, but it’s on the defensive side where things get tough for opponents. Dubem Okonkwo (who led the team in sacks), Alex Gaskill (who was second in both tackles for a loss and interceptions), Antione Nunn Jr. (who led the team in interceptions), and Michael Lacey (who led the team in pass breakups) are all back in an experienced defensive attack.
No. 4 Colorado School of Mines
Not only is 2022 Harlon Hill Trophy winner John Matocha back, but so is preseason All-America wide receiver Max McLeod. There is a changing of the guard at running back, but with the depth of experience on the offensive line, whoever becomes the bell cow should do just fine. Leading sack machine Nolan Reeve anchors a very experienced defense that will, like last year, pressure the quarterback more than most teams can do. The Orediggers test themselves once again out of the gates with Grand Valley State and Angelo State in the first two weeks, but they should once again dominate the RMAC.
No. 5 Northwest Missouri State
Much like Tyrion Lannister, the Bearcats are known for two things, and probably should have a T-shirt made that says “That’s what we do: we win football games and make the DII playoffs.” The Bearcats have made 18 straight DII football championship appearances since 2004, winning four national titles along the way. So, yes, this is a top-10 team and that model of consistency is exactly why. Oh, having Mike Hohensee back under center — and his two top targets as well — certainly helps.
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No. 6 Minnesota State
It took one year for the Mavericks to rebuild (if you even want to call it that) from their 2019 national runner-up campaign. They returned to the postseason behind a 10-3 record last year and finished the season with six straight wins — including three over top 25 teams — until they ran into the Orediggers in the second round of the playoffs. Back are the leading rusher (Shen Butler-Lawson) and star quarterback Hayden Ekern as well as second leading receiver DJ Barber, so there is plenty experience. Defensively, the Mavericks will have a newish look, but All-NSIC linebacker Jacob Daulton is a good anchor to have in the middle.
No. 7 Bemidji State
Well, if you’re curious at how competitive the NSIC will be, just take a look at the Power 10. Bemidji State and Minnesota State are separated by very little, so ultimately one of these two should reign supreme as the conference king. All-world quarterback Brandon Alt, who has been a Harlon Hill Trophy finalist the past two seasons, is back under center, but his favorite target is gone. There is plenty experience on the offensive line and in the receiver and running back room that the Beaver offense should continue to be a scoring machine. The top three tacklers will be wreaking havoc on defense, and Princeton Harris — who had a monster season with five interceptions and 10 pass breakups — will make this defense tough to beat.
No. 8 Ouachita Baptist
What would a Power 10 be without the Tigers? Ouachita Baptist has become one of the premier programs in DII football in recent years, and despite the graduation of a few big pieces, that shouldn’t change this year. This was one of the best offenses in DII last year, and despite having a somewhat new look, quarterback Riley Harms, offensive lineman Zacary Henson, and running back Kendel Givens are three great cornerstones to have in place. An experienced defensive unit and one of the best punters in the land make the Tigers the early season pick in the GAC.
No. 9 Ashland
There is a lot of change at Ashland this season, starting with new head coach Doug Geiser. The Eagles had one of the best defenses in DII football last season. It won't be easy to maintain that, but six starters— including All-G-MAC defensive end Jeffrey Barnett and All-G-MAC linebacker Jackson Myers— do return to anchor the unit. What hasn't changed is the dynamic duo of Larry Martin and Gei'vonni Washington in the backfield. If the two stay healthy, it could be one of the best backfield tandems in DII.
No. 10 Indiana (PA)
The Crimson Hawks lose quite a bit, but the addition of Karst Hunter — a true dual-threat quarterback from Colorado Mesa and 2021 RMAC freshman of the year — has IUP as the team to beat in the PSAC. He will have last year’s leading rusher (Dayjure Stewart) back, and although All-American Duane Brown has graduated, Hilton Ridley should step into the No. 1 wide receiver spot quite easily. On the defensive side of the ball, the Crimson Hawks return three of their five top tacklers from a year ago, including defensive back Darius Bruce, who led the PSAC in interceptions last year.
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First five out (in alphabetical order)
- Angelo State: The Rams should win the Lone Star Conference, but the amount of star-level talent this team lost has them just outside the first top 10. Make no mistake, Angelo State has three big games to open the season — if it wins those games, the Rams are right back in it.
- Delta State: Quarterback Patrick Shegog, who led the team in rushing and passing, is back under center and alone makes the Statesmen a Gulf South favorite. Having their leading sacker and a pair of tough defenders in the secondary back make this a real tough team.
- Harding: Harding wins football games by running the ball, having led DII football in rushing three years in a row. With a pair of All-GAC offensive lineman back and quarterback Cole Keylon and running backs Jhalen Spicer and Will Fitzhugh back, it should be more of the same.
- Virginia Union: Jada Byers is arguably the best running back in college football. Not DII… all college football. With the amount of talent returning, the Panthers should win the CIAA and find their way back to the playoffs and probably the Power 10.
- West Florida: Well, we’ve never known the Argos with anyone other than Pete Shinnick in charge. KalebNobles is a nice replacement, but man, those are some humongous shoes to fill. The defense should be solid, but before we anoint the Argos with their annual top-10 spot, let’s see how things go with the new regime.
Five to watch (in alphabetical order)
Here are five teams easily in the top 25 but could be potential top-10 teams quickly if they reach their fullest potential and answer some questions early on.
- Benedict: Benedict went from 5-5 to 11-1 and the No. 1 seed in a tough Super Region Two last year. Loobert Denelus leads a solid defense, but with a new look offense, can the Tigers repeat in the SIAC?
- Emporia State: Braden Gleason could be the best quarterback in the division this year, but the Hornets have a pair of Power 10 teams in their way in the gauntlet that is the MIAA. We know the offense can play, can a relatively experienced defense keep them in ball games?
- Lenoir-Rhyne: Can Dwayne McGee return to his 2021 dominance? The Bears had a lot of learning to do last year, but now return a lot of that talent. Can they refocus and climb back to the top of an absolutely stacked SAC?
- Limestone: Another feel-good story from 2022, head coach Mike Furrey took an 0-9 team to the DII playoffs in one year. Running back Tre Stewart is back along with a slew of starters from that team. Are the Saints heading for a sophomore slump or rising to the top?
- UIndy: The Greyhounds are always in the hunt. They typically do it with one of the best running backs in the division. Can DIII transfer Jon Lewis — who led DIII in rushing yards per game to go along with 17 touchdowns — be the next great back and keep the UIndy train rolling?
The final five (in alphabetical order)
- Slippery Rock
Just missed (five teams that can easily be top 25 by Week 2):CSU Pueblo, Davenport, New Haven, West Georgia, Winona State