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Wayne Cavadi | | August 31, 2017

DII football preview: Top 5 teams on opening weekend

  Emporia State's Braxton Marstall (14) leads the No. 4 team in DII in a Week 1 showdown with NWMSU.

Finally, opening night of Division II football is here. The season opens Thursday with two Top 10 matchups: No. 4 Emporia State travels to Maryville, Missouri to take on the two-time defending champion and No. 1-ranked Northwest Missouri State, while No. 5 Texas A&M-Commerce heads to No. 6 North Alabama in its last home opener as a DII program.

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Here’s a look at the Top 5 schools in DII football, and two schools that could be ready to make some noise in 2017.

No. 1: Northwest Missouri State

2016 record: 15-0

Head coach: Rich Wright

Key returners: Senior running back Cameron Wilcox led the team with 13 rushing touchdowns. Junior wide receiver/returner Shawn Bane led the team in yards (707) and touchdowns (10) and will join Shane Williams as reliable weapons for new starting quarterback Jonathan Baker or Zach Martin. Edward Richey, Marcus Jones, Jarrod Bishop, Anthony Lane, Bobby Gruenloh, Caleb Mather, and Nick Hess return to anchor the best defense in DII football, one that allowed a stingy 240.9 yards and 12 points per game in 2016.

The last loss the Bearcats suffered was in 2014, a playoff game against Minnesota Duluth. Thirty consecutive wins and two championships later, Northwest Missouri State is the best team in the land once again. A new head coach and new quarterback may seem like a challenge to some, but both have playoff-tested experience during the Bearcats recent success. This isn't a team new to the spotlight, as the Bearcats have been to 50 percent of the national title games over the past 20 years. New personnel or not, NWMSU has an eye for talent, and you can bet they will be in the hunt for another trip to Kansas City in December.

No. 2: Grand Valley State

2016 record: 12-1

Head coach: Matt Mitchell

Key returners: Junior running back Marty Carter led DII in rushing with 1,908 yards, adding 20 touchdowns on the ground. Junior quarterback Bart Williams posted his second straight 3,000-yard, 30-touchdown season. He’s joined by three of his four leading receivers from 2016, with Nick Dodson, Urston Smith and Brandon Bean all returning to Allendale, Michigan.

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GVSU became accustomed to winning the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title. The Lakers did so every year between 2005 and 2010. This isn't the same GLIAC, however, with teams like Ferris State and Ashland rising to great heights. This is the first time since 2011 that the Lakers enter the season as defending conference champs.

If the Lakers go far — which, based on their history, you can assume they will — it will behind one of the most exciting offenses in DII football. Carter is an absolute beast of a running back, so there is simply no rest for opposing defenses. Before Carter became an elite running back in DII, Williams was a 4,000-yard, 45-touchdown passer. Backed by an opportunistic defense that had 19 interceptions, 12 fumble recoveries and 40 sacks in 2016, the Lakers enter as the favorites in the GLIAC. GVSU, Ferris State and Ashland all look like playoff contenders.

No. 3: Ferris State

2016 record: 12-3

Head coach: Tony Annese

Key returners: Senior quarterback Reggie Bell is one of the most exciting players in DII football. He threw for over 2,000 yards last year, adding over 1,200 on the ground to go along with 27 touchdowns. Senior running back Jahaan Brown provides another 1,000-yard threat out of the backfield, running behind All-American senior center Jake Daugherty. Bell’s leading receiver, junior Malik Taylor, also returns to the Big Rapids, Michigan campus after posting a team-leading 1,017 yards last season. Junior defensive end Zach Sieler and his 19.5 DII-best sacks returns to a defense that features 11 players who appeared in at least 14 games last season.

As mentioned, the GLIAC has become a three-headed monster. Making it through the conference is a task in itself. Last season, the Bulldogs may have lost out on at least a share of their third straight conference title altogether, but they were the last team standing, eliminating GVSU from the NCAA postseason and advancing to the semifinals. A Week 3 bout with Ashland could show just how far Bell and company will go. 

No. 4: Emporia State

2016 record: 11-2

Head coach: Garin Higgins

Key returners: Quarterback Braxton Marstall returns after posting a 3,599-yard, 31-touchdown season, adding 521 yards on the ground with eight more touchdowns. He will have a bevy of impact returners he’s familiar with, including 2016's leading rusher (junior Landon Nault) and wide receivers Justin Brown, Morris Williams and Louis Dailey. Senior linebacker Gabe Cleveland — 66 tackles, 4.5 sacks and an interception — is back on a defensive unit featuring six returners.

Both of the Hornets' two losses last season came at the hands of Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association rival Northwest Missouri State. This season, with 13 starters returning, Emporia State looks to reverse the curse. Entering the season with the highest ranking in the program’s history, expectations are high on the Kansas campus. Can Marstall and his offense finally figure out NWMSU and its stiffling defense? We have to look no further than opening night to find out.

No. 5: Texas A&M-Commerce

2016 record: 11-2

Head coach: Colby Carthel

Key returners: Senior quarterback Luis Perez is one of the best in DII football. He set a school record with 32 passing touchdowns. Perez also has the luxury of playing behind one of the premier offensive lines in DII football, led by returning All-American Jared Machorro. Senior running back Ovie Urevbu will have to replace 2016 leading rusher Richard Cooper, but should be up for the task coming off a 632-yard season.

All Carthel has done in Commerce since taking over in 2013 is lead the Lions to three straight Lone Star Conference titles. There are plenty of reasons to think his team will get No. 4, but the biggest is Perez. The Lions waste little time testing their moxie, opening on the road at defending national runner-up North Alabama. This team will go as far as Perez takes them. The senior quarterback, an instant candidate for the Harlon Hill Award, looks to set more program records in 2017.

Two teams outside the Top 20 to watch: No. 22 Southern Arkansas and Ashland

Head coach Bill Koepple led the Southern Arkansas Muleriders to their best record since he took over in 2009. The 2016 squad finished at 9-3. Armed with three big-time returners on offensive, SAU looks to go even further in 2017. Quarterback Barrett Renner is back after a 3,371-yard, 27-touchdown season. Backfield mate Michael Nunnery had a 1,110-yard season with 12 touchdowns of his own. Tanner Hudson will be in the conversation for best tight end in DII come season's end. He and Renner will make things difficult for opposing defenses.

If Ashland didn't play in the GLIAC, the Eagles likely would earn a preseason ranking. Instead, they start on the outside looking in, receiving more votes (130) than any other unranked team. Travis Tarnowski returns, coming off of a 34-touchdown season in which he threw just six interceptions. Ashland paired the highest scoring offense in the GLIAC (43.5 points a game) with the toughest defense (297.5 yads against per game). That translated to a Top 5 offense and top 13 defense in DII. The Eagles test themselves early, with an opening night matchup on the road against No. 9 Indiana (PA). If they can pull the upset, don't be surprised to see the Eagles soar once again.

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