More than half the DII football season is in the books. Sure, there are plenty of familiar faces populating the Top 25, but for every constant that is Northwest Missouri State, there is an equally surprising team.
The playoffs — and first regional rankings — are looming. It’s time to take a look at some of these surprises that are turning more and more into contenders each week.
No. 6 Indianapolis (7-0)
2016 finish: 6-5 | Projected conference finish: 4th | Preseason ranking: RV
The Greyhounds are building quite the impressive resumé heading into the final month. It all began on opening night, when freshman Al McKellar ran for 206 yards and a touchdown against preseason No. 2 Grand Valley State.
UIndy has the dubious honor of being part of the tough Super 3 Region, with teams funneling in from the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association, the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and Great American Conference as well. That's some hefty competition, as the Greyhounds join six other ranked teams looking for a top seed in the region.
UIndy has handled its stiffer competition in 2017, defeating Southwest Baptist, Truman and McKendree — the three teams projected to finish ahead of them in the Great Lakes Valley Conference — by a score of 107-46. The Greyhounds are balanced with the GLVC's top rushing attack to work down the clock. While they may not have numbers that are out of this world, they continue to do the one thing they need to do: Win.
No. 8 Fort Hays State (7-0)
2016 finish: 8-4 | Projected conference finish: 5th | Preseason ranking: NR
The Tigers are a solid squad on both sides of the ball, so perhaps being in the playoff hunt isn’t extremely surprising. But they are 7-0 for the first time in 100 years.
It’s safe to say that this is a surprising season in Hays, Kansas.
The Tigers have one of the better defenses in DII football. They allow 16.6 points (14th) and 312.9 yards per game (33rd). Offensively, they seem to have no problem putting up yards either, with their 464.5 yards 23rd-best in DII. Kenneth Iheme is becoming one of the more dangerous backs in the division while quarterback Jacob Mezera and Monterio Burchfield are creating nice chemistry, to say the least.
FHSU already has an upset on its resumé, defeating a ranked Central Missouri in Week 2, and it defeated a 5-1 Washburn team receiving votes this past weekend. The Tigers have a very tough schedule ahead of them — with a Nov. 4 matchup against Northwest Missouri State the highlight — but anyone who can go 7-0 in the MIAA is a team that needs to be considered dangerous.
No. 9 Central Washington (7-0)
2016 finish: 7-3 | Projected conference finish: 2nd | Preseason ranking: RV
The Wildcats went under a slight transition to start the season with new quarterback Reilly Hennessey under center. They had to eke out a few wins — including a 17-16 upset of then-ranked Azusa Pacific — but have been rolling of late.
Central Washington has dropped 68, 52, 55 and 42 over the past four weeks. High-flying offenses in the wild west aren’t always surprising, but the Wildcats defense can’t be ignored. The unit is ninth-best in DII in yards allowed (274.3) and 14th in points allowed (14.4). When you combine that with a Top 10 scoring offense, a quarterback that has thrown 15 touchdowns and no interceptions the past three weeks, and a running back in Christian Cummings that has averaged 121.5 yards during their four-game outburst, the Wildcats are one to watch.
One thing that should help them is that they’ve traveled to Texas, Utah and Alabama in non-conferences games. Seeing those different styles of football could prove beneficial in the postseason. A tough Lone Star Conference funnels in to their Super Region, but the Wildcats should earn a favorable ranking in the region.
No. 11 Winona State (7-0)
2016 finish: 8-3 | Projected conference finish: 6th | Preseason ranking: NR
The top five teams in the preseason Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference poll all received attention in the AFCA Preseason poll as well. The sixth — Winona State — is the team getting the attention now, however.
The Warriors already have two upsets on their resumé, taking down then-No. 25 Bemidji State in Week 2 and then-No. 6 Sioux Falls two weeks ago. A matchup with No. 4 Minnesota State looms on Oct. 28 and could be the deciding factor in who wins the tightly-contested NSIC South division.
Winona State’s rushing attack has come alive of late, with sophomore running back Javian Roebuck getting comfortable in this feature role. He’s reeled off three straight 100-yard games with four total touchdowns over that span. While the Warriors let up some yards defensively, opponents just don’t score on them, evidenced by their fifth-ranked scoring defense. They are also great at protecting and stealing the ball, with the fourth-best turnover margin in DII.
Minnesota State will be a big test, their biggest of the season. Should the Warriors continue their Purple Reign, combined with the wins they have already posted, we have a postseason sleeper on our hands.
No. 18 West Alabama (6-1)
2016 finish: 7-4 | Projected conference finish: 5th | Preseason ranking: NR
Sure, West Alabama is the only team on the list with a loss. That loss, however, came to an FCS program (Samford) that the Tigers took to the wire and lost 49-41.
This team is for real. In fact, they will be in contention for the top seed in the Super 2 Region.
While the Gulf South Conference race is anything close to being over, West Alabama has staked its claim the past two weekends. The Tigers have beaten two higher-ranked GSC foes (Delta State and West Georgia) in consecutive weeks and are finally getting the attention they deserve as the No. 18 team in DII football. The win over Delta State could be what ultimately decides the GSC champion.
West Alabama has the best scoring offense in the GSC, putting up 41.7 points a game, while its 445.1 yards a game are not a far second. Quarterback Harry Satterwhite is quietly becoming a more than effective field general, leading the GSC with 1,788 yards passing and 13 touchdowns. It’s easy when he has four wide receivers who have totaled more than 250 yards this season.
The Tigers' biggest disadvantage? The same as North Alabama’s before them. When the calendar turns to December and they have to travel to the chillier conditions unfamiliar to those in the southern regions, how will they hold up? If they continue at the pace they are at, we are sure to find out.
No. 17 Slippery Rock
The Rock were called sleepers right here at NCAA.com in the preseason and thus far, they have lived up to their end of the bargain. There is no questioning Slippery Rock's impressive offense, but the defense will have to learn how to stop drives in order for them to become a true contender. No. 3 Indiana (Pennsylvania) showed that this past weekend, quieting The Rock's powerful offense and handing them their first loss of the season. If Marcus Martin — one of DII football's greatest defensemen of all-time — can lead a surge, The Rock become suddenly dangerous contenders.