The 2019 DII football season ended in record-setting fashion with West Florida winning its first national championship in its short four-year history. With quarterback Austin Reed expected to return under center, the Argos are without question the No. 1 team heading into the 2020 season.
Here's an early look at what I expect to be the Power 10 come August. These are my picks and mine alone. I looked at rosters to find expected returners, stats from the past few seasons, and how each team stacked up against their respective conferences. The big thing to remember is that it is January. The coaching carousel has already begun and more changes may be coming. The same goes for rosters: players can transfer and a lot of unforeseen circumstances can go down over the next eight months.
Here is the first DII football Power 10 of 2020.
No. 1 West Florida | Final record: 13-2 | National champions
This was an easy one. Austin Reed loses his two favorite targets to graduation, but head coach Pete Shinnick has created a culture and should be able to find some weapons. Reed finished his debut fourth in DII football in passing yards (4,089) and third in touchdown passes (40). His running backs are back as are some key defensive pieces. The Argos play a tough schedule in a tough conference, but there is no reason they shouldn't be the overall No. 1 team come August.
No. 2 Lenoir-Rhyne | 13-1 | DII quarterfinals
It's crazy to think the Bears are coming in at No. 2 with everything they lose on defense. Kyle Dugger, Jaquan Artis, Sherrod Williams and Clayton Horn are a lot to replace. That said, there are big playmakers coming back on the defensive side of things in Eric Jackson, Dan Louba, Quentin Hayes and Amari Houston that should help them compete. Throw in plenty of returners on offense, including All-American Jason Poe anchoring the O-line, and the Bears have a slight advantage over some other teams that lose a lot to graduation.
No. 3 Valdosta State | 10-1 | DII second round
I know what you're thinking: How is a team that couldn't win a DII tournament game ahead of teams like Ferris State and Minnesota State? The Blazers should have the key pieces from an explosive offense back in All-American quarterback Rogan Wells, his top targets Brian Saunds and Lio'undre Gallimore, and running back Jamar Thompkins in head coach Gary Goff's second year running the show. The Blazers lost in the final seconds to their stiffest Gulf South Conference competition (West Florida). You can be sure that sticks with them this offseason.
No. 4 Ferris State | 12-1 | DII semifinals
The Bulldogs get this spot for one reason: head coach Tony Annese. He's made the Bulldogs a powerhouse, and despite having a new face under center and a defense losing All-Americans and Cliff Harris Award finalists at seemingly every level, you just have to expect Annese will have whoever takes the field ready. The Bulldogs have reached at least the quarterfinals in each of the past four seasons, each with a different quarterback. That merits giving the Bulldogs a top-5 spot until proven otherwise.
No. 5 Minnesota State | 14-1 | DII runners-up
This spot is earned primarily out of respect for what this program has accomplished historically. There aren't many schools that could overcome what the Mavericks are losing. Nate Gunn, Shane Zylstra, and Evan Heim weren't simply their best players, but amongst the best in all of DII football. But the reigning national runners up own the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference with 11 straight winning seasons and having not lost a single conference game since 2016.
No. 6 Northwest Missouri State | 12-2 | DII quarterfinals
The Bearcats had an impressive season, surprisingly fueled by one of the top scoring offenses after a few years of having their dominating defense lead the way. Quarterback Braden Wright is back to to lead the offense, but it's the names returning on defense — Sam Phillips, Zach Howard, Andy Hessler, Blake Bayer, and Jackson Barnes to name a few — that make the Bearcats scary in 2020.
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No. 7 Texas A&M-Commerce | 10-3 | DII quarterfinals
New coaches, new quarterbacks, it just doesn't seem to matter in Commerce. Quarterback Miklo Smalls, leading rusher Antonio Leali'ie'e and leading receiver Chance Cooper should all be back as is Dominque Ramsey who is a special do-it-all player. With Tarleton jumping to the FCS in 2020, that leaves one less team for the Lions to compete with in a usually stacked Lone Star Conference.
No. 8 Colorado School of Mines | 12-1 | DII second round
Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference teams are primarily about one thing: offense, and a lot of it. The Orediggers are primed for a big offensive year with quarterback John Matocha coming back off an unbelievable freshman debut. Michael Zeman didn't get going until late in the season, but the running back stepped in for Cameron Mayberry in Week 8 and reeled off 1,030 yards over the next four weeks (that's 257.5 yards per game, folks). The RMAC should come down to Mines and CSU-Pueblo once again, with the Orediggers having the early upper hand.
No. 9 Harding | 10-2 | DII first round
This is where it starts to get really tough. This spot came down to Harding or Ouachita Baptist, two teams that have made a living getting to the DII tournament on big-time rushing attacks and stout defense. So, what it came down to is the simple fact that Harding is returning its top two running backs — Harlon Hill finalist Cole Chancey and Tristan Tucker who combined for 2,041 yards and 24 touchdowns — while the Tigers lose their top two backs. Both teams return a lot of fun pieces on defense, but this could be Harding's year to take the suddenly very competitive Great American Conference.
No. 10 Notre Dame (OH) | 12-2 | DII quarterfinals
Another really tough pick that came down to the Falcons and the team that ousted them from the playoffs: Slippery Rock. What made Notre Dame the choice? Both teams had the best two offensive players in DII football in 2019 in Roland Rivers III and Jaleel McLaughlin. McLaughlin returns for the Falcons, while Rivers III does not. McLaughlin also has his starting quarterback Chris Brimm back, monstrous tight end Zaire Mitchell, and All-American Jimmy Burchett leading an offensive line that has plowed holes for consecutive 2,000-yard seasons for McLaughlin. Notre Dame will have offensive-minded Mickey Mental take over at head coach, so this offense should fly once again.
The next five (in no particular order):
- Slippery Rock: There is still some nice returning pieces for The Rock like receivers Jermaine Wynn, Jr. and Henry Litwin as well as DE Chad Kuhn. They could very well be a top 10 team by August depending on the QB situation. The PSAC is just such a tough conference deep in talent, that it could be anyone's for the taking.
- Ouachita Baptist: You can't leave a team that's 23-2 over the past two years off the list. The Tigers will have a new-look backfield, so we'll see how it pans out.
- Lindenwood: What's not to like here? Cade Brister led a remarkable turnaround and returns under center. The Lions won a GLVC with tough wins over nationally-ranked UIndy and Truman.
- Central Missouri: This is a huge question mark without Brook Bolles returning at quarterback. That said, this high-scoring offense returns a bulk of the other pieces, including its top-two rushers, top-two receivers, while defensively see its five leading tacklers back.
- CSU-Pueblo: The Thunderwolves are usually atop the RMAC defense rankings, but lose three big pieces this year. That I said, I feel like I say that a lot and they just keep refueling. The bulk of the offense returns, most of them ready to play just its second full season together in 2020.