The 2018 DII football season was one of record-setting proportions. For the first time in history, four undefeated teams met in the national semifinals before Valdosta State defeated Ferris State 49-47 in a national championship game that saw seven records fall.
How will 2019 top that? Let’s not wait until August to find out. Here’s an early — and completely fun — look at who should populate the DII football preseason top 10, based on expected returners and 2018 finish.
No. 1 Valdosta State
The Blazers ran to their first undefeated season in program history on their way to their fourth national championship. They boasted the nation’s top offense — scoring 52.0 points per game — and nearly all the pieces from that high-octane scoring machine return. Harlon Hill finalist Rogan Wells will lead the ship behind center but running backs Jamar Thompkins and Seth McGill along with wideouts Brian Saunds, Kenny Benjamin and Lio’undre Gallimore should all be back as well. Even soon-to-be sophomore backup quarterback Ivory Durham is back, who threw a memorable touchdown to Wells in the championship game.
No. 2 Ferris State
The Bulldogs have been to three consecutive national quarterfinals and now have a taste of their first national championship game. With a core of key returners, like Harlon Hill Award winner Jayru Campbell and his favorite target Sy Barnett, on the offensive side and the matchup nightmare Austin Edward presented on the defensive side, the reigning runners-up should be right back in the hunt come December.
No. 3 Notre Dame (OH)
What’s not to like about the Falcons? Freshman running back Jaleel McLaughlin ran his way to more yards than any other freshman in DII history, while quarterback Chris Brimm — a freshman as well — improved game by game. His two favorite targets, wide receiver Marvelle Ross and the mountain of a tight end Zaire Mitchell are also back, but if they can get Sha’haun Williams and his 20.5 sacks back on the defensive side, this team now has the postseason experience to add to their obvious overwhelming talent.
No. 4 Minnesota State
The Mavericks haven’t lost a regular season game since October 29, 2016, so there is no reason to think that momentum will come to a surprising halt, especially with the key pieces expected back in Mankato. Nate Gunn has established himself as one of the premier running backs in DII football, and Shane Zylstra just keeps getting better at wide receiver. Consecutive 13-1 seasons in which the defense hasn’t allowed more than 17.0 points per game has the Mavericks right back near the top of the rankings.
No. 5 Northwest Missouri State
The Bearcats are the epitome of DII football. If there’s a postseason, they will be in it, reaching their 15th-straight postseason in 2018. Northwest Missouri State had another strong season and redshirt freshman quarterback Braden Wright left plenty to be excited about in 2019. Defensive beast Austen Eskew will be a big loss in the sacks and tackles for loss department, but let’s face reality. If there’s one thing head coach Rich Wright knows, it’s defense.
No. 6 Ouachita Baptist
While they lose one of the more dominant running backs in DII football the past few seasons, Shun’cee Thomas and Brockton Brown combined for 1,467 yards and 23 touchdowns on the ground and should be able to make up for the hole Kris Oliver leaves behind. Redshirt-freshman quarterback Brayden Brazeal played some of his best football in the playoffs, so expectations are pretty high in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.
No. 7 Slippery Rock
Why not The Rock? They entered this season with the losses of one of the best defensive players to play DII football and some of the most exciting offensive pieces the 2017 season had to offer. What did they do? They responded with a deep run in the tournament not many people saw coming. Sure, Slippery Rock loses Wes Hills at running back, but Roland Rivers III and his cohorts are back on offense, and Chad Kuhn and Trey Blandford, who combined for 14.5 sacks, should be back as well.
Snapshot of the #D2FB Championship second round:— NCAA Division II (@NCAADII) November 26, 2018
✔️ -2 rushing yards allowed by the Notre Dame (OH) defense.
✔️ 6 undefeated teams remain in the hunt.
✔️ 7-seeded Slippery Rock won by 39 points.
✔️ 66 points were scored by Valdosta State.
📖: https://t.co/xDQDf0SI0H pic.twitter.com/k2KK49tpxW
No. 8 Lenoir-Rhyne
The Bears turned plenty of heads in 2018, going on a 12-game winning streak right to the national quarterfinals. Junior defenders Jaquan Artis and Sherrod Williams combined for 19 sacks, seven forced fumbles, and three interceptions and should be back for another go. While the offensive weapons should be primarily intact, quarterback Grayson Willingham loses his best target in T.J. Smith. The South Atlantic Conference is becoming a little powder keg of DII football, so the Bears will be tested with a target on their back in 2019.
No. 9 Grand Valley State
This team loses quite a bit, but the Lakers have been one of the most dominant programs in DII football for some time, and the success with Matt Mitchell on the sidelines has been remarkable. The running game should be just fine, but the passing game, with the losses of Bart Williams and Nick Dodson, will certainly have a new look. Mitchell will have this team ready as he always has and back in the hunt come November.
No. 10 Tarleton State
The Texans were a dominant force in 2018, reeling off a 12-1 record until falling to Minnesota State 13-10 in a blizzard of a quarterfinals game. Tarleton State loses a ton of the pieces that got them there, like running back Xavier Turner and three of the Texans top sack artists. But there is still plenty to return, including a secondary of Prince Robinson, Jai Edwards, and Devin Hafford that combined for 13 interceptions and 35 breakups last season.
Others to watch:
Colorado State-Pueblo: The losses of Brandon Payer, Michael Wristen, Darius Williams, Deyon Sizer, and Jadon Garcia may have this defense go through some growing pains early on. In a conference built on high-octane offenses, that could see the ThunderWolves get off to a slow start.
Colorado School of Mines: Where the ThunderWolves lost some of the best defensive players the RMAC has seen, the Orediggers lose the best wide receiver in conference history and big playmakers in quarterback Isaac Harker and Riley Hoff.
Indianapolis: Still a lot of nice pieces, especially in the backfield where Al McKeller and Toriano Clinton should return, but the loss of quarterback Jake Purichia and his favorite target Malik Higgins, who have been very instrumental on this two-year run, will hurt.
Texas A&M-Commerce: Last season, the 2017 national champions had to overcome the loss of the quarterback Luis Perez and several key seniors and still reached the second round of the postseason. This year, the Lions move on from the Colby Carthel era. One thing is certain, however, and that is you can never underestimate what can happen in Commerce.