The 2017 Division II Football Championship is in the books. In a wild season of the unexpected, Texas A&M-Commerce raised its first DII football trophy in Kansas City, Kansas.
Can't wait until August for the next chapter in DII football? There is plenty that can change by the summer, of course. Student-athletes transfer, injuries occur, but why make you wait? Here’s a completely fun -- and a hundred percent hypothetical -- way too early look at the potential Top 10 for 2018.
1. West Florida
Quarterback Mike Beaudry, wide receiver Antoine Griffin and running back Chris Schwarz should all be back with a year of postseason experience to lead the offense. The GSC’s sack leader, John Williamson returns to lead an aggressive front line while Johnathan Coleman is back to lead a solid linebacking corps. Add in head coach Pete Shinnick and this team may just be on the start of something big.
2. Indiana (Pa.)
Paul Tortorella did a fine job in his debut as head coach, taking the Crimson Hawks to the national semifinals and a 13-1 record. So what’s next?
Wondering how IUP coach Paul Tortorella is doing?— Matt Burglund (@MattBurglund) December 14, 2017
He's good. pic.twitter.com/ZtIRCiCNlF
Should all the pieces that led this offense return, IUP shouldn’t miss a beat. Quarterback Lenny Williams, Jr. is back and so are the dynamic duo of Justice Evans and Samir Bullock behind him. The two both rushed for over 1,000 yards and combined for 20 touchdowns. Despite losing his top receiver in Allen Wright, there are still plenty of young ones coming back.
Deandre Easterling and Dondrea Tillman tied for the team lead in sacks as a junior and sophomore respectively. JR Stevens had seven interceptions a year ago in his sophomore campaign. This team has playoff and Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference experience littered all over the roster. There’s little reason not to expect a big run again in 2018.
3. Minnesota State
Nate Gunn and Justin Taormina combined for 2690 yards out of the backfield last season to help a young quarterback group get their feet underneath them and both should be back. Wide receiver Shane Zylstra was a Harlon Hill nominee as a sophomore. He’s just getting started.
The Mavericks lose some of the key pieces from their 2017 Top 10 defense, but the running game should be able to keep the ball long enough for the new pieces to get comfortable.
4. Texas A&M-Commerce
Some will see this a little high with all the pieces that the Lions are losing. Some will see it too low, thinking the defending champs should be granted the No. 1 slot. Whichever side of the fence you may be on, there is little reason to doubt Colby Carthel’s success continuing even with his first big recruiting class now graduated.
Carthel took over this program and turned them into winners over night. The cupboard was bare when he came to Commerce, and his first recruiting class reeled off three straight Lone Star Conference titles before culminating their careers with the 2017 national championship.
You think he stopped bringing in solid recruits along the way?
Yes, the loss of the 2017 Harlon Hill winner Luis Perez hurts a lot on the stat sheet and even more on the sidelines. But the Lions have a solid pedigree and now the returners know how to win on the biggest stage.
5. Grand Valley State
The Lakers, who were preseason No. 2 heading into 2017, finished 8-3, not earning a bid to the postseason. This team, which is already dangerous on an annual basis, may be playing with the biggest chip on their shoulder in DII football.
The offense loses some nice pieces in senior wide receiver Brandon Bean and senior tight end Nick Keizer, but running backs Marty Carter and Bryce Young-Walls, as well as quarterback Bart Williams should all return. The Lakers will take a hit on defense losing their top three tacklers, but breakthrough performances, like that off freshman Tyler Bradfield leaves enough to think that GVSU should bounce back nicely.
6. Northwest Missouri State
Sure, the Bearcats finished 9-3. Sure, they were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. So what? This team’s resumé earns them Top 10 consideration.
Both quarterbacks were seniors, so there will likely be a changing of the guard for the second year in a row. There are plenty of seniors leaving, but the mark of a great program, which Northwest Missouri State has been for the better part of the 2000s, is continuing to roll with new blood year in and year out.
Defense has long been the name of the game in Maryville, Mo. Austen Eskew, who led the team in sacks, and Ben Althoff, who led team in tackles, were also both juniors. The 2017 Bearcats fought through injuries and still made the postseason. It’s safe to assume head coach Rich Wright will have this team back in the mix in his second season in charge.
7. Central Washington
Junior quarterback Reilly Hennessey turned the Wildcats into a No. 1 seed in the loaded Super Region 4. Their postseason fate was the same as everyone else’s in the Lions path, and they were bounced earlier than anticipated.
Central Washington lose two huge pieces in All-American linebacker Kevin Haynes and All-American tight end Kyle Self, both of whom should see their names in NFL camps next summer. But they still return two All-Americans (Tyler Hasty and James Moore) as well as Hennessey and some of his favorite weapons.
There are certainly question marks when the heart and soul of DII’s No. 3 total defense graduates, but head coach Ian Shoemaker seems to have a winning attitude rolling in Ellensburg, Wa.
8. Midwestern State
Remember how Texas A&M-Commerce won three straight LSC titles? You know why they didn’t win a fourth this year?
Not many teams faced the adversity that the Mustangs did in 2017. But through it all, they rose to new heights, including an undefeated regular season run and a thrilling 47-42 Week 5 win over the national champions.
Layton Rabb is slinging Midwestern State to the top of DII football https://t.co/bbtZ8jkLKC— Joe Bouffard (@FBUNortheast) October 10, 2017
Layton Rabb became a threat at quarterback in his first full season under center, throwing 31 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Both of his top running backs — Adrian Seales and Vincent Johnson — should be back, as well as his top target in Tyrique Edwards. If the defense can improve, the Mustangs will be back in the mix.
9. Fort Hays State
The Tigers had the best start to a season in 100 years. That’s historic in every sense of the word.
Fort Hays State dropped a heart breaker to Ferris State in the playoffs, but that was the first postseason appearance for this current team. Now, battle tested, and having a win against Northwest Missouri State under its belts, Fort Hays State could be primed for a successful follow up.
The Tigers lose Kenneth Iheme, who was a beast on the ground and through the air, but return some of the best from their offense, like quarterback Jacob Mezera and his favorite target Monterio Burchfield. Defensively, Doyin Jibowu — who led the team in interceptions — and Jose Delgado — who lead the team in tackles and tied for sacks — were juniors and could be on the verge of big senior years.
10. Central Missouri
Yes indeed, this is a big reach. It may surprise some people, especially since Central Missouri finished outside the Top 25, receiving 27 votes, to end 2017. But West Florida surprised just about everyone, so why not take a look at the Mules?
Central Missouri finished 8-3 in the MIAA (9-3 overall), which is no easy feat. It also returns Harlon Hill finalist Brook Bolles under center. With many of his weapons returning, this team has a good chance of having a special season.
Bolles has plenty of firepower on offense with running backs Devante Turner and Koby Wilkerson, as well as wide receiver Kyrion Parker, all now with another year of experience running the offense together. The Mules spent some of 2017 in the Top 25. There’s little reason to not expect them back there in 2018. Top 10? Maybe it is a bit aggressive to start the season, but by season's end the Mules could be there.
Others who could find their way in the Top 10:
Ferris State: Despite quarterback Travis Russell getting some early experience and Harlon Hill candidate Zach Sieler returning, this team losses a lot of defensive experience.
Shepherd: Always in the mix, but the loss of Connor Jessop who threw for 3,532 yards and totaled 46 touchdowns, leaves a big question mark.
West Alabama: Junior quarterback Harry Satterwhite definitely gives this team enough to be considered Top 10 material.
Indianapolis: A lot of younger pieces led to one of the biggest turnarounds in last season’s Top 25 from Week 1 to the playoffs.
Ashland: The Eagles do return some very nice pieces, but Travis Tarnowski, arguably the best quarterback in program's history, is gone, leaving a major hole in Ashland, Oh.
Assumption: Deonte Harris should be returning. Just watch how he can single handedly turn the the tide of a game from so many different place on the field.