Welcome to the juicy part of the Division II football season. Conference play is officially underway. We are at the point where every game matters, whether you are Top 25 in DII football or simply trying to stake your postseason claim.
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It becomes more difficult to choose just five games as the season progresses, but these surely stand out. Let's breakdown this handful of must-see games on this weekend's DII football Saturday.
Central Missouri (RV) at No. 15 Emporia State
Emporia State has had a roller coaster of a start to its 2017. Starting the year at No. 4 - the highest ranking in program history - the Hornets were shutout 34-0 on opening night by Northwest Missouri State. Braxton Marstall bounced back with a 435-yard, four touchdown performance in a Week 2 blow out of Nebraska Kearney before going down to the wire with 0-3 Missouri Southern State in Week 3.
This is a big test for the Hornets. Central Missouri bounced back from a Week 2 upset at the hands of Fort Hays State, dropping 66 points last week to get back to 2-1. Still receiving votes, the Mules could likely jump right back into the Top 25 with a signature win on the road in Kansas.
Big game in E-Town this weekend!! Pack Welch!— ESU Hornet Football (@ESUFOOTBALL) September 21, 2017
The Black is Back.. pic.twitter.com/7hXcYZ1MO5
Marstall, who has thrown for 805 yards and six touchdowns without an interception, has an opportunity to expose a Mules defense allowing 34 points per game this season. The key for Emporia State will be the hopeful return of linebacker Gabe Cleveland, who missed last week with an injury. Cleveland already has 32 tackles on the year, 3.5 of which have been for a loss. Without Cleveland, the Mules two-headed running back monster of Devante Turner (283 yards rushing, 3 touchdowns) and Koby Wilkerson (224, 2 touchdowns) could have a field day.
West Alabama at No. 10 North Alabama
North. West. Lions. Tigers. This battle for Bama could be this week’s most exciting game.
It is the 71st time the two teams will square off, neither team having faced any other program more.
North Alabama has had an interesting season. The Lions lost their home opener 8-7 to Texas A&M-Commerce. They returned after a bye week with an exciting 30-24 victory on the road in Valdosta. UNA began the season with new starting quarterback Blake Hawkins under center, and due to injury, will be using its second new starting quarterback in Week 3. Rico Bruton gets his first start, and will have to be atop his game to hang with the Tigers.
West Alabama is 2-1 primarily thanks to an average of 43 points per game this season, tied for eighth-best in DII football. Despite an impressive, 20-point, fourth-quarter rally, the Tigers lone loss came at the hands of the FCS-program Samford, That’s quite the difference from their 1-3 start in 2016.
If UNA can keep wide receiver Donta Armstrong under wraps it would help its cause. Armstrong already has 317 yards receiving on the season with three touchdowns. Paired with a trio of Tigers averaging at least seven tackles a game on defense, the Lions will have their hands full as West Alabama looks to make a statement on the road in Florence, Alabama.
Albany State (GA) (RV) at West Georgia (RV)
Albany State was looking like a real Cinderella to start of 2017. The Golden Rams reeled off consecutive wins against ranked opponents, climbing all the way to No. 16. Last week, they fell to a very underrated North Greenville team, leaving them outside the Top 25.
West Georgia started off 2-0 this season as well. The Wolves ran into a surging Delta State team, losing a tough-fought battle 17-7 in a contest between two Top 25 teams. Now at 2-1, West Georgia also dropped out of the Top 25.
Both teams have a real opportunity to jump back into the Top 25 with a victory this weekend. West Georgia will have to stop running backs McKinley Habersham (296 rushing yards, 1 touchdown) and Kelan Fraise (233, 1 TD) to have a chance. Even if they do, dual-threat quarterback Chancellor Johnson can beat them in different ways, throwing for 580 yards and rushing for 152 more.
Angelo State at Eastern New Mexico (RV)
Eastern New Mexico came out of the gates red hot. Sitting at 2-0, the Greyhounds had a real chance to make some noise in the Lone Star Conference against No. 3 Texas A&M-Commerce. Instead, the Lions had their way with Eastern New Mexico, winning 51-22.
The Greyhounds will be looking to bounce back against a fellow 2-1 team in Angelo State. After dropping 48 and 42 points in their opening two games, the Rams fell just short of Tarleton State, losing 30-24.
This is a game with major Lone Star Conference implications, as neither team can afford to let ranked A&M-Commerce or Midwestern State get too far ahead in the standings. The Rams present a tough challenge with the No. 4-ranked offense in DI football. Senior running back Josh Stevens, who already has 381 yards rushing and five touchdowns this season, will give the Greyhounds fits. Even if ENMU can shut him down, wide receivers Donovan Thompson and Lawso Ayo have combined for 533 yards and three touchdowns this season.
Angelo State will have to keep the Greyhounds running game in check, led by a trio of 100-yard rushers highlighted by Kamal Cass and his 322 yards rushing and three touchdowns on the year.
No. 9 LIU Post at Bentley
LIU Post heads to Waltham, Massachusetts in a key showdown with Bentley. Both teams are 2-0 in the Northeast-10, and the Pioneers will have to stay focused on this Saturday with a showdown against No. 24 Assumption looming next weekend.
Yianni Gavalas has been remarkable this season. The Pioneers' quarterback has already thrown for 1,084 yards and a DII football-best 12 touchdowns this season. While Gavalas has made it look easy thus far, he has to be careful against the Falcons surprising defense.
Last week, the Falcons went against Merrimack's CJ Scarpa. While they allowed Scarpa -- who leads DII in yards passing -- to throw for 387 yards, they picked him off four times, sacking him four more. If Bentley can get that kind of pressure and defense again, Gavalas could be in for a long day.
Battle of the Mascots:
Week 3 of the Battle of the Mascots is in the books. Last week, the California (Pa) Vulcans were able to take down the Millersville Marauders 29-13.
WEEK 1: Arkansas Tech Wonder Boys 28, Southern Arkansas Muleriders 21
WEEK 2: South Dakota School of Mines Hardrockers 35, Dixie State Trailblazers 14
WEEK 3: Califoria (Pa) Vulcans 29, Millersville Marauders 13
Who's up next?
The Great American Conference is making its presence felt early on this season. Already the opening week battle, the GAC now pits the Arkansas-Monticello Boll Weevils against the Southeastern Oklahoma State Savage Storm. Don't think this matchup begins and ends with some fun mascots, however. The Savage Storm is 3-0, tied atop the GAC while the Boll Weevils are right behind at 2-1. This battle has major GAC implications.