The wait is nearly over: the 2021 DII football season is less than a month away. It's time to focus our attention on some rankings.
REMEMBER WHEN?: A look back at the wonderfully odd 2020-21 DII season
It's been a long time coming. There was football played in 2020, but it wasn't the way we know DII football. There was an attempt at fall ball and several conferences held mini four- or five-game spring seasons, but without the DII football championship, it simply didn't feel right.
Now, camps are opening, preseason All-American lists are being released and we are less than four weeks away from opening weekend beginning Sept. 2.
For those new to my Power 10 rankings, it is important to remember: these are my rankings, and mine alone. I prepare the Power 10 rankings for men's and women's basketball, softball and baseball, and now, football as this is the inaugural rankings. I've taken insight from coaches, SIDs and insiders and paired it with what the selection committee tends to look at come tournament time — strength of schedule, win-loss percentage and stats of that nature — to come up with a fair version of the top 10. We will revisit the Power 10 every Monday throughout the season, updating it with the results of each weekend.
Well, DII football fans — you've waited long enough. Away we go.
The DII football preseason Power 10
No. 1 West Florida
It’s been a while since the Argonauts took the football field. Here’s a quick refresher: they are the defending national champions. Austin Reed is back under center and in case you forgot, he threw for 523 yards and six touchdowns in the 2019 DII football championship game. His two main targets are gone, but he has plenty of weapons in wide receivers Ka’Ron Ashley and Rodney Coates as well as DI transfer David Durden who could challenge for newcomer of the year. Senior D’Anthony Bell leads a talented defense that should help against the Argos' brutally tough schedule.
No. 2 Lenoir-Rhyne
The Bears played a four-game spring schedule, losing in the South Atlantic Conference championship game to Tusculum. New head coach Mike Jacobs got his feet wet, and we were introduced to freshman running back Dwayne McGee who ran for 511 yards in four games. Wide receiver Dareke Young is an All-American candidate and quarterback Grayson Willingham is a proven winner. Defensive lineman Dan Louba and linebacker Jon Ross Maye are two of the best at their respective positions in the SAC, which will help navigate what has become one of the toughest conferences in DII football.
No. 3 Ferris State
You simply can’t have a top 5 without the Bulldogs. Ferris State has been to the DII semifinals in three of the past four seasons with the lone outlier being a two-point loss in the 2017 national quarterfinals. Head coach Tony Annese has done it with different quarterbacks, all of whom have been very successful, and hopes the trend continues this year with transfer Mylik Mitchell from Kent State. He’ll have plenty of returning weapons in wide receivers Sy Barnett and Xavier Wade as well as Marvin Campbell and Tyler Minor at running back, a duo that combined for 1,509 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2019.
No. 4 Slippery Rock
Roland Rivers III, the 2019 Harlon Hill winning quarterback, is a lot to replace. But The Rock has several transfers and in-house options that — whoever earns the starting job — will have plenty of returning weapons to help him out. That includes a pair of potential All-American wide receivers in Henry Litwin and Jermaine Wynn, Jr. as well as exciting speedster Cinque Sweeting. They will also have to replace a large part of their running game from 2019 — also Rivers III who ran for 700 yards and nine touchdowns — but have some interesting pieces that should not only fill the void, but possibly improve it. With All-American Chad Kuhn leading the defense, The Rock will have plenty of opportunity to rack up wins in a tough PSAC.
No. 5 Minnesota State
The Mavericks were 2019 runners up, but this is truly a testament to the program that Todd Hoffner has built. Minnesota State loses running back Nate Gunn and wide receiver Shane Zylstra — who were two of the best at their positions in all DII for two years running — and still return enough fire power for a top-5 ranking. This is a team that hasn’t lost a game in NSIC play since 2016. Quarterback JD Ekowa is back and will be protected by one of the best offensive lines in DII, which will also allow some of the new faces at running back to develop. Senior linebacker Jack Leius is back to lead one of the stingiest defenses in all DII for three years running, annually finding itself in the top 10 in both scoring and total defense.
6. Texas A&M-Commerce
The Lions have simply been a model of consistency since reaching the DII football championship tournament every year since 2015, one of the longest active streaks in the nation. This year they return three potential All-Americans and should be in the hunt for the LSC title once again. Amon Simon anchors an experienced offensive line to protect quarterback Miklo Smalls who had a tremendous 2019 totaling over 3,400 yards and 26 touchdowns. Dominique Ramsey is an athletic do-it-all type player that can hurt opponents on defense, in the return game and sometimes even on offense.
NFL DRAFT: Check out the DII players selected in 2021
7. Northwest Missouri State
What’s a top 10 list without Northwest Missouri State? The Bearcats won three titles during the Mel Tjeerdsma era and three more under Adam Dorrel and now head coach Rich Wright is looking for his turn. With the dynamic Braden Wright under center — and the exciting Imoni Donadelle at receiver — and All-American candidate Sam Roberts leading the always tough Bearcats defense — he may have his chance. As always, navigating through the MIAA is no easy task, but Northwest Missouri is geared up for a big run.
8. Colorado School of Mines
This may be a little high but there are three reasons why: quarterback John Matocha, running back Michael Zeman and wide receiver Josh Johnston. We know that RMAC football is going to be full of shootouts, and with three potential All-American at the key positions, the Orediggers are set up nicely to win many ways, even if it is a 56-55 thriller. The Nov. 6 showdown with CSU Pueblo will not only have conference and playoff implications, but it could also be one of the best games of the entire season.
9. Valdosta State
The Blazers will have a new look in 2021. Gone is Rogan Wells, but Ivory Durham is more than ready to take over at quarterback. Durham is very athletic and super quick and has taken plenty of snaps over the past two seasons, including hooking up with Wells on a memorable touchdown in the Blazers' 2018 national championship victory. He’ll have plenty of weapons returning in receivers Lio’undre Gallimore and Kenny Benjamin and a pair of touchdown machines at running back in Jamar Thompkins and Seth McGill. The GSC is tough, but Valdosta is always ready.
10. Notre Dame (OH)
Brandon Nicholson and Jimmy Burchett return to hold down one of the toughest offensive lines in DII. That’s a huge advantage because Chris Brimm and Devanaire Conliffe have proven to be an exciting quarterback-to-receiver combo. There will be a new running back to carry the rock, but as we’ve seen in the past, the Falcons are a running back factory. Notre Dame swept through its five-game spring schedule in dominating fashion, outscoring opponents 289-77 — a whopping 57.8 points per game. Keep an eye on transfer Tyris Dickerson from Eastern Kentucky. He could be the next big rusher out of South Euclid, Ohio.
Just missed, in alphabetical order:
Bowie State: This roster is loaded with elite talent. Quarterback Ja’rome Johnson should lead the usual high-scoring offense, but the defense has potential All Americans in Joshua Pryor and Demetri Morsell to lead the way.
CSU Pueblo: The ThunderWolves always have one of the best defenses in the RMAC, a big weapon against the high-octane offenses out west. The addition of running Michael Roots, a player of the year candidate, is tremendous.
UIndy: Ten starters return on offense, including the two-headed monster of Tori Clinton and Al McKellar in the backfield. The duo has rushed for 4,054 yards and 44 touchdowns over the past two full seasons.
Lindenwood: Don’t be surprised to hear quarterback Cade Brister’s name among the Harlon Hill finalists leading the potent Lions offense. Linebacker Drew Seers is a preseason favorite for defensive player of the year.
Ouachita Baptist: The Tigers are perennially one of the premier defenses in DII and should continue that trend with senior returners at all three levels. Defensive end Dameyun McDonald is an absolute beast.
Keep an eye on these two teams. They are not top 10 right now, but we wouldn’t be surprised if they find their way into the conversation later in the season.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: A complete guide to the Harlon Hill Trophy
Grand Valley State: Weird hearing one of the winningest teams in DII history be called a sleeper, isn’t it? But the Lakers have just one tournament appearance in the past three years. There is a ton of returning talent here and the Lakers should be in the hunt for the GLIAC title once again.
Virginia Union: Khalid Morris and Charles Hall, an exciting QB-to-WR combo, should make this team plenty of fun to watch, and rack up some significant wins along the way.