As has been the case for many years, any discussion of DIII football begins and ends with Mount Union. After all, the Purple Raiders have won 21 consecutive conference championships and 11 national titles, including four of the past eight. Still, with some shuffling around in the preseason top 10, it's possible this year could be unlike any other in recent memory.

Mount Union

This season marks the beginning of a new era for Mount Union. It is the first season for new head coach Vince Kehres, who took over head coaching duties in May from his father Larry Kehres. It is also the first season since 1974 that the elder Kehres has not been on the coaching staff.

Vince spent 13 years as an assistant coach for the Purple Raiders, with the last eight as defensive coordinator. His defense has consistently been ranked among the nation's best and last year was no exception as the Raiders were ranked No. 1 in total defense, scoring and rushing defense. In total, Vince Kehres has been part of 10 of the Raiders' 11 national titles as either a player or coach.

Kehres will remain defensive coordinator and there are four starters returning on that side of the ball in seniors Matt Fechko and Nyejel Thomas, junior Ted Rosalva and sophomore Hank Spencer. Fechko is an All-American lineman that has played in every game each of the last three seasons while Thomas has played in all but three of those games and the duo have combined for 40.5 sacks. Rosalva led the team a year ago with 6.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss while as a true freshman Spencer was third on the team in tackles as each were All-OAC honorable mention picks.

The offense is led by All-American junior quarterback Kevin Burke, who was the OAC's Offensive Back of the Year as he was the nation's highest rated signal caller for the No. 1 scoring offense in the nation. Burke threw for nearly 3,800 yards, rushed for 776 yards to account for 4,543 yards of total offense and topped all of NCAA Division III with 9.14 yards per play.

A core of 38 letterwinners with 22 of those that were on the depth chart at the end of last year all return in 2013.

St. Thomas

Coming off a school-record 14-1 finish and Stagg Bowl title game appearance a year ago, St. Thomas is ranked No. 2 by D3football.com in its preseason poll and for the first time, the Tommies received first-place votes -- seven, to be exact.

The Tommies return starters at 15 of 22 positions. Two rising seniors at St. Thomas, OLB Tremayne Williams and punter Garrett Maloney were named preseason All-Americans.

In 2012, Williams finished with 70 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, four sacks, three forced fumbles, two interceptions, five break-ups and one fumble recovery. Maloney punted 44 times in 15 games last season with a 42.3 average and 15 of 44 punts inside the 20-yard line. He's averaging 40.5 yards in 113 career punts and he broke a Stagg Bowl record last December, averaging 48.2 yards on five punts.

St. Thomas, 57-7 in Glenn Caruso’s five-year era, brings three long winning streaks into this fall: 17 in a row at Palmer Field in O’Shaughnessy Stadium; 33 in a row in the regular season; and 27 consecutive MIAC games. Out of 625 NCAA football programs, just three have won 11 or more games in each of the last four seasons: Boise State, Mount Union and UST.

Mary Hardin-Baylor

The Cru returns five offensive starters and eight defensive starters from a team that went 13-1 overall, including a 7-0 mark in ASC play. UMHB advanced to the Division III playoffs before falling to eventual national champion Mount Union in the semifinals. The Cru has now won at least one postseason game in nine consecutive seasons.

Defensive tackle Silvio Diaz was named to D3football.com Preseason All-America Team. Diaz recorded 17 tackles for loss and nine sacks. He posted 58 total tackles, forced one fumble and recovered another. Diaz led UMHB in sacks and tackles for loss and led all Cru defensive linemen in tackles last year.

Senior Chad Peevey returns. Peevey averaged 41.6 yards per punt last season with 15 kicks of 50 or more yards. He also hit 10 field goals and 76 extra points to lead UMHB in scoring with 106 total points. Peevey also handled kickoff duties for the Cru, earning Second Team All-Conference honors as a punter and Honorable Mention All-Conference honors at kicker last season.

Linfield

Linfield has won four consecutive NWC titles and 2012 NWC Coach of the Year Joseph Smith has his team's eyes on a fifth.

The Wildcats are the fourth-ranked team in Division III according to D3football.com's Preseason Top 25 Poll, earning five first-place votes.

In 2012, Linfield fell in the quarterfinals of the Division III playoffs to University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, 31-24 in overtime. It was Linfield's only loss of 2012.

Headed into 2013, Linfield loses 2012 NWC Offensive Player of the Year Mickey Inns. Inns threw for 3,288 yards and 30 touchdowns in his senior season. However, the Wildcats do bring back 2012 NWC Defensive Player of the Year in Dominique Forrest. Forrest, a junior linebacker had 79 total tackles, nine for a loss, along with three sacks and four interceptions.

Wesley

Sosthene Kapepula and Jarrod Morris, 2012 All-Americans from last season, anchor a defense that returns a total of nine starters from last season.

Kapepula had one of the best seasons in Wolverines history as a sophomore and earned Second Team All-America and ECAC Defensive Player of the Year honors. Finishing the season with 13.0 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and a nation-leading four fumble recoveries, this team captain from Olney, Md., made 120 tackles, the most by a Wolverine since Rocky Myers recorded 124 stops in 2004.

Morris led the Wolverines with six interceptions last season. Transitioning from the offensive to defensive side of the ball, Morris finished the season ranked third on the team in tackles (76) and tackles for loss (8.0) while also returning a kickoff for a touchdown against Mount Ida in the NCAA tournament. In the season opener at East Texas Baptist, Morris' first game as a defensive player, he picked off a Wesley single-game record four passes in a 34-14 victory.

Wesley's early-season schedule suggests that they'll be needed quickly.

Wesley's first three games of the season are all against teams ranked in the top 25. Widener, who Wesley opens the year with at home on Friday, is ranked 20th. The Wolverines then host No. 16 Salisbury on Sept. 14 before heading to third-ranked Mary Hardin-Baylor on Sept. 21.

Other contenders

• Wisconsin-Whitewater returns several all-conference performers including kicker Eric Kindler, defensive lineman Loussaint Minett, linebackers Kyle Wismer, Cole Klotz, Ryan Cortez, Josh Williams and defensive back Marcus McLin.

• North Central (Ill.) returns 16 starters, including four who were D3football.com All-North Region selections in 2012: offensive lineman Jace Werkheiser, defensive back Shane Dierking, and defensive linemen Alex Tripp and Josh Fick.

• Hobart welcomes back 35 letterwinners from last season, including six offensive starters and seven defensive starters. The defense, which was fifth in the nation last season (241.0 yards per game), will be led by preseason All-Americans Devin Worthington and Tyre Coleman.

• Bethel returns 14 starters, including eight offensive and six defensive players. Key returners on offense include quarterback Erik Peterson and running back Jesse Phenow.

• Wittenberg returns 20 seniors including 2,819 passing yards and 485 rushing yards and 35 touchdowns.