Division II football: Three questions for upcoming season
The 2015 Division II football season is right around the corner and it should be a great one. Let's take a look at the three primary storylines for DII football in 2015 and break down the upcoming season.
1. Can Colorado State-Pueblo Repeat?
After a 22-season stretch without a football program, Colorado State-Pueblo returned to the gridiron in 2008. It didn’t take long at all for them to make their presence felt, as the ThunderWolves came away with their first football championship this past season.
Now, the school that didn’t even have a team eight years ago will look to further establish itself as one of the top programs by winning back-to-back titles.
Nobody should be too surprised to see the ThunderWolves repeat, as they will enter the 2015 season with a No. 2 ranking in the AFCA Coaches Poll. CSU-Pueblo actually received the most No. 1 votes in the preseason poll, yet they finished four voting points behind Minnesota State-Mankato (751 points) for the top spot.
If CSU-Pueblo is to repeat, they’ll be doing so without recent-graduate Chris Bonner, the signal-caller who threw for 30 touchdowns and led them to glory this past season. However, the ThunderWolves do return star running back and D2Football.com Preseason All-American Cameron McDondle.
Furthermore, even if Bonner’s absence is felt, CSU-Pueblo should be just fine. The ThunderWolves win primarily because of their defense. They ranked No. 1 in DII football last season in fewest points allowed per game (12.8), and there’s little reason to believe they won’t be similarity dominant in 2015.
The ThunderWolves should be a force to reckon with this season and a second straight title is completely within the realm of possibility.
2. Will Jason Vander Laan become a back-to-back Harlon Hill award winner?
Jason Vander Laan became just the seventh junior in DII history to win the Harlon Hill award last season, and it’s not hard to understand why the Ferris State quarterback joined such an exclusive club. Vander Laan dominated all season long and helped elevate a football program to places it had not reached in a long time.
Vander Laan rushed for 1,466 yards -- the most among quarterbacks -- and 20 touchdowns, while also throwing for 2,381 yards and 30 touchdowns with a 66.5 completion percentage. In large part because of Vander Laan’s abilities, the Bulldogs offense ranked No. 2 in the nation in both points per game (46.6) and yards per game (524.8 last season).
Most importantly, Vander Laan’s excellence translated into a historic season for Ferris State. He led them to the program’s first undefeated regular season and its first NCAA Playoff appearance in 18 seasons.
While Vander Laan accomplished plenty last season by becoming Ferris State’s first Harlon Hill winner, he very well could reach greater heights in 2015 by becoming the first back-to-back winner since Chadron State running back Danny Woodhead in 2007.
Ferris State returns a number of top targets for Vander Laan this season, such as Shakur Sanders (736 yards and eight touchdowns in 2014) and Jamel Lockett (430 yards and two touchdowns), which should help him get off to a hot start.
Also helping Vander Laan’s chances of repeating: Ferris State is expected to be a legitimate championship contender in 2015, as they will enter the season ranked No. 6.
Vander Laan has to be considered among, if not the, top favorite to take home DII football’s most prestigious individual award once more.
3. Can Northwest Missouri State reclaim its throne?
When discussing DII powerhouses, Northwest Missouri State is always one of the first names on the tip of the tongue. Among teams currently in the league, the Bearcats are tied with Grand Valley State for most championships (four) of all-time.
However, Northwest Missouri State followed up a 2013 championship season with a disappointing 2014 campaign. The Bearcats had a solid regular season, going 10-1, but were a first-round knockout in the NCAA playoffs, losing 25-21 to Minnesota-Duluth.
Still, it’s never wise to write off the Bearcats. This team has real potential to make some noise in 2015. They’ll enter the season ranked No. 5 and there are plenty of reasons for optimism.
The team returns quarterback Brady Bolles, who is fresh off a season in which he threw for 2,367 yards, 18 passing touchdowns and posted a 128.8 efficiency rating. They’ll also bring back two of its top running backs from last season in Cameron Wilcox (510 yards rushing) and Phil Jackson (475 yards rushing). However, similar to to the defending champion ThunderWolves, Northwest Missouri State is a team built on its defense. The Bearcats allowed just 14.8 points per game last season, good for the fifth best mark in DII.
Northwest Missouri State lost a number of top defensive contributors from last season, including linebackers Eric Reimer and DJ Gnader; however, the Bearcats are historically a team that reloads year-after-year. If their defense can be just as stingy as it was a year ago, Northwest Missouri State has a chance to return to football’s mountaintop once again.