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Wayne Cavadi | NCAA.com | August 29, 2018

There are four top 25 matchups in DII football's opening weekend. Here's what you need to know.

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The DII football season kicks off Thursday night across the nation. The opening weekend of play wastes little time in getting the excitement started. Four games pit top 25 teams against each other, while several teams take on Division I foes. 

While one game doesn’t determine a season, it certainly can change the tide early on. Here are five games to keep tabs on that could shake up the top 25 come Monday.

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No. 22 Carson-Newman at No. 2 West Florida

In one of the two games that open the 2018 DII Football Showcase, West Florida will be put right to the test against the Eagles.

West Florida is fresh off a trip to Kansas City, where it finished as national runners-up to Texas A&M-Commerce. The Argonauts story was well documented as they made a historic run to the championship in just their second season as a program. Reigning Gulf South Conference rookie of the year Mike Beaudry and his favorite target Antoine Griffin return, as do plenty of pieces from their impressive defense, so expectations are still high in Pensacola.

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The Eagles, however, enter the season as a team to watch. Nationally ranked, Carson-Newman has some intriguing returners, but none more important than running back Antonio Wimbush whose season was cut short by a torn ACL in 2017. Quarterback Derrick Evans will keep every defense busy, dangerous through the air and on the ground, rushing for 18 touchdowns last season. The Eagles had a strong finish to 2017, winning three in a row and six of their last seven, and will look to keep that momentum rolling on opening night.

No. 18 Central Missouri at No. 5 (tie) Fort Hays State

Top 25 showdowns are exciting as it is, but when both teams hail from the football powerhouse that is the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association, it just adds to the fire. 

Last season, the Tigers had a run for the ages, going 11-0 in the MIAA and making the playoffs for the first time since 1995. One of the feel-good stories of the DII football season really got going in a Week 2 upset of then-ranked No. 13 Central Missouri. Quarterback Jacob Mezera threw for three touchdowns in the 35-6 shocker and never relented. After a thrilling 13-12 victory over then-No. 8 Northwest Missouri State, the MIAA was theirs.

Central Missouri had an up-and-down 2017, losing to one top 25 team and defeating two others, including a season finale 38-28 victory over then-No. 23 Minnesota Duluth. The MIAA’s top-ranked offense (40.5 points per game) from last season returns plenty of its starters, including Harlon Hill finalist Brook Bolles under center. With most of his favorite weapons back in Warrensburg, if the defense can improve from last year’s 29.3 points allowed per game, the Mules could find themselves in contention for a national championship. Of course, that run all starts with a victory on opening night.

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No. 13 Indianapolis at No. 10 Grand Valley State

Like Fort Hays State, UIndy took an early season upset and ran all the way to the postseason, rising from the unranked to one of the best teams in DII football. 

Then-freshman running back Al McKeller took off for 206 yards, shocking the preseason No. 2 Lakers on opening night. Many of the key pieces on offense, like McKellar, quarterback Jake Purichia and wide receiver Malik Higgins, are back. This time around, they Greyhounds aren’t the underdogs and have a mighty big target on their back.

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Last year, the game was in Indianapolis. This season it returns to Lubbers Stadium in Allendale, Michigan, arguably one of the toughest stadiums to win in for roads teams, the Lakers compiling a 41-8 record there since 2010. Some big names have changed for Grand Valley State, but quarterback Bart Williams and running back Bryce Young-Walls return. With 6’7”, 300-pound Nick Fish anchoring the offensive line, the two should have plenty of time to work. The defense was one of the best in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, allowing just 13 points per game and creating a conference-best 22 turnovers. This will be a big test right off the bat. 

No. 4 Indiana (Pa.) at No. 15 Ashland

Last year, Ashland went on the road to George P. Miller Stadium in Indiana, Pennsylvania and nearly pulled off the opening night upset. The Crimson Hawks kicker Dillon Sarka kicked a 46-yard field goal as time expired to give IUP the thrilling 26-23 win. 

Neither team lost again until the playoffs.

IUP was as well-balanced as they come in 2017. The Crimson Hawks scored 35.7 points per game and allowed just 15.7. While most of the explosive offense returns, so do the big pieces on defense. Leading tacklers Damon Lloyd and Nick Amendola are both back as are leading sack artists, Dondrea Tillman and Deandre Easterling. The Hawks made it all the way to semifinals, where they were upset on their home turf by the Argos. There is no doubt that left a fire in the Hawks locker room, and with so many key pieces back, you can expect a big charge to the postseason if everyone stays healthy.

The Eagles want to keep the good times rolling. Ashland went undefeated in the GLIAC for the 2017 conference title, but there is a big changing of the guard in Ohio. GLIAC player of the year and arguably Ashland’s greatest quarterback ever Travis Tarnowski is graduated, leaving DI transfer Billy Bahl to make his first career start for Ashland. He’ll be thrown right to the fire against that IUP defense and should give a good idea of where Ashland’s chances stand in a GLIAC that boasts three top 25 teams.

No. 9 Central Washington at Eastern Washington

Reilly Hennessey transferred into Central Washington from DI and turned the Wildcats from a 7-3 team in 2016 into an 11-1 playoff team in 2017. That school he transferred from? Eastern Washington.

Hennessey returns to where his career started, and where he saw some big-time minutes against powerhouses like Oregon. He certainly has the moxie to lead his team to an upset victory over the FCS No. 7-ranked team.

The Wildcats lost some big stars, primarily linebacker Kevin Haynes, lineman Bo Banner, and tight end Kyle Self, but return quite a few big players. Two All-Americans, DB Tyler Hasty and OL James Moore join several returners, like running back Christian Cummings, but Hennessey will have a new look receiving corps to get on the same page with. The Wildcats challenge themselves annually with as tough an out of conference schedule as any team in DII football. With West Texas A&M and Southwest Baptist on the slate, CWU has a chance to send a message to the Great Northwest Athletic Conference with a competitive performance on opening day.

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What else to watch:

No. 1 Texas A&M-Commerce hosts Texas A&M-Kingsville. This is a new look team from the one that won the national championship last December, and it will be interesting to see how it starts things off. 

California (Pa.) is a perennial top 25 team. Starting on the outside looking in (with the 26th-most votes in the preseason poll), the Vulcans will have their hands full with No. 23 Ohio Dominican. The Panthers start the season without Grant Russell under center as the starting quarterback for the first time since 2015-16. The Vulcans can jump into the top 25 if they can figure out how to win on the road.

No. 11 Midwestern State is looking to get its Lone Star Conference title defense started on the right foot, the only team to defeat the national champion Lions last season. The Mustangs open their slate with two tough out of conference games. A very tough Humboldt State team travels to Memorial Stadium in Wichita Falls, Texas a week before West Florida comes to town. Humboldt State is entering its final season as a football program, so you can be sure they will come out fired up looking to send a message of their own.