Aug. 21, 2009

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By Adam Caparell

The usual suspects are all lined up. Who wants the 2009 Division II national championship?

How about defending national champion Minnesota Duluth?

What about four-time champ Grand Valley State?

Or will Northwest Missouri State break through for the first time in five years and win it all after four straight runner-up finishes?

It's anybody's guess who wins it all in Division II, but it certainly seems that there are a number of legitimate candidates who have a championship pedigree this fall. Here are 10 of them.

Abilene Christian
Coming off the program's first outright LSC title since 1973, expectations are high for the Wildcats this year. Abilene Christian reached the quarterfinals of the D-II Championship last year for the first time thanks in large part to DE Aston Whiteside who led the team in sacks and tackles for loss. Not bad for a freshman. Seven starters are back on defense for the Wildcats who will be tested right off the bat when they host four-time national runner-up and 2009 title contender Northwest Missouri State at Shotwell Stadium in a nationally televised game.

California (Pa.)
The Vulcans were a semifinal team in last year's NCAA Championship and with 19 starters back its easy picturing them returning to a similar level this fall. But it won't be a breeze for the Vulcans with four games against teams that are ranked in a preseason poll, but California (Pa.) - who has won four straight Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference titles - will rely on its considerable depth and experience.

Last year's record wasn't sparkling at 7-4, but with 18 starters returning for the Eagles, Carson-Newman figures to be a contender. They're the favorites in the South Atlantic Conference where head coach Ken Sparks has won 20 titles during his tenure. Many may not realize how much of a winner Sparks is. Now entering his 30th season at the school, with his 276 wins, Sparks currently sits as the fourth-winningest active coach in college football.

Delta State
The Statesmen have some of the top talents in D-II making them a very dangerous team, one that's looking for a third straight Gulf South Conference Championship. QB Garrett DeWitt was 10th in the nation in passing last season, tossing 28 touchdowns last season while WR Trevar Deed and LB Lardester Hicks-Green are considered preseason Harlon Hill Trophy candidates. All the major publications have the Statesmen no worse than No. 4 in their preseason polls.

Grand Valley State
The Lakers are always a contender - no matter who is coaching or who is back under center. Well Chuck Martin, with a 61-5 record in five seasons, seems to have the coaching thing down as evidenced by his two national titles. And QB Brad Iciek - quite possibly the leading Harlon Hill Trophy candidate - has only lost two games as a starter. He's back, along with 14 other starters, as GVSU looks to win a fifth straight GLIAC title.

Minnesota Duluth
The defending national champions enter 2009 on a 16-game winning streak with visions of repeat dancing in their head. Junior Isaac Odim is the name to watch. The Bulldogs running back rushed for 1,638 yards and 26 touchdowns last season, averaging an astounding 7.3 yards per carry. The Bulldogs will welcome back five other starters on offense and five from a defense that finished third nationally in total defense. And with 49 letterwinners back, depth will certainly not be an issue for Bob Nelson's crew. Maybe the toughest challenge for the Bulldogs will be to top last year's 34.5 average winning margin during the regular season.

North Alabama
A new coach, but similar results? That's what the Lions are hoping for as they welcome Terry Bowden into the fold for the 2009 season. Last year's 12-2 squad went all the way to the semifinals and with a dearth of players with significant experience back, there's no reason why Bowden - the former Auburn head coach - can't return the Lions to the semifinals.

Northwest Missouri State
They know how to get there. The question is whether or not they can seal the deal. For four straight years the Bearcats have made the Division II national championship game only to come out on the losing end each time. The Buffalo Bills comparisons are inevitable, but do not rule out a fifth trip. With nine starters back on defense - including DB Myles Burnsides - and arguably the most dynamic offensive player in D-II - RB LaRon Council - the Bearcats are poised for another long run this fall. And just maybe - finally? - a national title.

Pittsburg State
The team picked to finish second behind Northwest Missouri State in the MIAA is none other than the Gorillas. While the offense will feature a number of new starters since only three return for 2009, Pitt State will have a very experienced defense this fall. Eight starters are expected to return for a unit that should really improve on last year's numbers.

West Texas A&M
Replacing a sixth-round draft choice and his 48 touchdowns will not be an easy task. But that's what's facing Buffs QB Taylor Harris.  The Buffs have taken three Lone Star Conference championships over the past four years and they figure to be in the hunt again this season after being picked to finish second behind Abilene Christian. The Buffs get a very early challenge when they take on Grand Valley State Aug. 29.