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Wayne Cavadi | | August 14, 2017

Six takeaways from the DII preseason poll

  Two-time defending champion Northwest Missouri State enters 2017 atop the AFCA poll.

The Division II football season is suddenly right around the corner. In a matter of weeks, two-time defending champion Northwest Missouri State takes on Emporia State on opening night of the DII football season.

RELATED: A2017 AFCA preseason poll

The American Football Coaches Association released its preseason poll on Aug. 14. Here are some early reactions.

A view from the top… again

There's no surprise at No. 1. Two seasons, no losses, a 30-game winning streak and back-to-back championships. Northwest Missouri State finished 2016 as No. 1 and that’s where it deservedly opens 2017.

“Three-peating" may not be so easy. While the team at the top may be the same, there will be a new man calling the shots on the sidelines. Rich Wright will be taking the reigns of the best DII football team in the nation.

MORE: For new head coach Rich Wright Northwest Missouri State football is a family affair

Wright takes over for Adam Dorrel, who built the Bearcats' current dynasty and is now getting his shot with Division I Abilene Christian. Wright, of course, is no stranger to Northwest Missouri State, having been its defensive coordinator for the past six seasons.

Yes, he's the same defensive coordinator that led the best defense in DII football last season, as the Bearcats allowed a stingy 240.9 yards per game.

To say the Bearcats are in good hands is an understatement.

Also gone is starting quarterback Kyle Zimmerman. Jonathan Baker is the top candidate for the job and already has a big star on his resume. Baker stepped in last year during the semifinals and led the Bearcats to victory with Zimmerman on the bench. It’s safe to say he has the moxie for the spotlight.

The Bearcats lost 16 starters but return 13. We’ll find out just how good the new-look Northwest Missouri State team is in its opener against a tough opponent in Emporia State.

Ain’t life grand?

Grand Valley State finished 2016 ranked the fourth-best team in DII football. They enter 2017 sitting at No. 2. That’s because its offense should be pretty exciting to watch.

The Lakers had the 13th best total offense in 2016, and a lot of those key pieces will return.

Junior running back Marty Carter will have plenty of eyes on him this season. He had a monster 2016 leading DII with 1,908 yards rushing while adding 20 touchdowns on the ground. If a team figures out how to tie Carter down, returning quarterback Bart Williams will have plenty in his arsenal to counter.

Williams looks to build off a 3,334-yard, 33-touchdown campaign with returning receivers Nick Dodson (a team-best 13 touchdowns) and Urston Smith, who averaged nearly 23 yards per catch.

GVSU's quest for a conference crown presents no easy road, despite being projected to win the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. You can be sure No. 3 Ferris State and Ashland will have their say at the end of the season.

The farewell tour begins

North Alabama is preparing for its jump to the FCS, but it still has some time to make its presence felt in Division II before going out.

The Lions made it all the way to the championship game before, like many before them, Northwest Missouri State crushed their dreams of a national title. A DII football powerhouse in the mid-1990s, UNA fell just short of restating their claim, losing 29-3 to the Bearcats in 2016. The Lions open 2017 as the No. 6 team.

Like the Bearcats, UNA has a new head coach. Defensive coordinator Chris Willis takes the helm of the four-time Gulf South Conference champions. Unsurprisingly, the Lions are projected to contend for the GSC title once again.

Also like Northwest Missouri State, the Lions will have a new quarterback after reigning GSC Offensive Player of the Year Jacob Tucker graduated. There will be plenty of new faces, with just seven returning starters — the bulk of which are on offense — so it won’t be easy for Willis and the Lions. Wide receiver Dre Hall should help lessen the load of the offense as one of the key returning receivers in DII.

Starting things off with a bang

If you want excitement, the DII football season isn’t wasting any time bringing it to you.

The defending champs open against Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association rival Emporia State, who earned a No. 4 ranking to start the season. No. 5 Texas A&M-Commerce, backed by quarterback Luis Perez, heads to No. 6 North Alabama. No. 10 Minnesota-Duluth hosts No. 17 Sioux Falls, while No. 12 Colorado State-Pueblo hosts DII football’s top offense in 2016, No. 16 Colorado School of Mines.

That’s eight top 20 teams going head-to-head in Week 1. Add in a tough Ashland team (who received 130 votes) starting off against No. 9 Indiana (Pa.) and Winston Salem State (who received 114 votes) traveling to No. 19 North Carolina-Pembroke, and the opening week is must-see TV.

Big jumpers galore

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Emporia State jumped from No. 10 to close out 2016 to No. 4 in 2017. Quarterback Braxton Marstall may be the best quarterback DII football has to offer. Azusa Pacific — on the heels of its first trip to the postseason in just three years of being a DII football program — jumped 12 spots to No. 13. With 18 returning starters and quarterback Andrew Elffers at the helm, the Cougars should show early on that they are deserving of that ranking.

Five teams unranked in last season's final poll are making their debuts in this preseason. None is higher than Rocky Mountain Athletic Association favorite Colorado State-Pueblo, debuting at No. 12. As previously mentioned, it will be put to the test early against the high-flying offense from Colorado School of Mines. Minnesota State, Southern Arkansas, Colorado Mesa and Bemidji State also all earned top 25 preseason honors after failing to crack last year's postseason list.

Conferences spread the wealth

No conference ran away as the kings of the preseason poll. The Northern Sun Intercollegate Conference tops the list with four teams, while the MIAA and RMAC come in with three a piece. Five other conferences are represented by two teams each. Essentially, there's a lot that can happen anywhere you are watching from entering the 2017 season. 

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