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Wayne Cavadi | NCAA.com | September 2, 2021

DII football is finally back. Here’s what to watch in Week 1

2021 DII football predictions: Can anyone dethrone West Florida?

It has been over 600 days since official NCAA DII football has been played. That streak finally comes to an end with the return of the 2021 season.

Kentucky State and Central State got the official ball rolling in the first-ever Classic for Columbus this past Saturday. The Thorobreds took down the Marauders 20-6 behind a 322-yard rushing day.

FULL OPENING WEEKEND SCHEDULE: Here are the games we're watching Week 1

Now, it’s everyone else’s turn.

Here are 10 games we’ll be watching closely on the first full weekend of DII football. 

Thursday night throw downs

Shepherd at Ohio Dominican, 7 p.m. (all times Eastern)
Rams quarterback Tyson Bagent is on our 23-man list of Harlon Hill Trophy hopefuls for 2021. He, of course, was a Harlon Hill Trophy hopeful in 2019 when he led DII in passing yards per game. Ohio Dominican has been a very steady competitor the past decade, posting a 78-27 record over that span. Dauson Dales — the G-MAC record holder for tackles — will look to make Bagent and the Rams night a forgettable one. 

PRESEASON RANKINGS: The NCAA.com Preseason Power 10AFCA poll takeaways

Findlay at Ferris State, 7:30 p.m. ET
This is a great opening test for Ferris State, a program which has become synonymous with the national semifinals the past five seasons. The Bulldogs enter 2021 with another new quarterback under center, and if Mylik Mitchell reaches his potential, we are looking at the DII newcomer of the year. This team returns a slew of playoff-experienced veterans in Sy Barnett, Xavier Wade and Marvin Campbell. This is also a big test for Findlay, a team which almost always finishes above .500 but has several new faces this season.

Texas A&M-Commerce at CSU Pueblo, 8 p.m. ET
This has game of the week written all over it… and could be a preview of a late-December tournament game. We feel Texas A&M-Commerce is the team to beat in their Super Region, but the ThunderWolves are going to be very tough. Both defenses are incredibly talented and will have to contend with athletic playmakers in the Lions' Miklo Small and CSU Pueblo’s Michael Roots on offense. We should consider ourselves lucky to have this on opening night.

Northwest Missouri State at Fort Hays State, 8 p.m. ET
The Bearcats entered the season at No. 7 in our preseason Power 10 rankings but may have moved up before playing a game with the late transfer of Al McKeller. The GLVC record-holding running back takes this potent offense to a new level and will make them a handful. Speaking of transfer running backs, Fort Hays State brought in Tristan Tucker from Harding and will complement quarterback Chance Fuller very well. This is a big first challenge for both teams and a great way to kick off MIAA play. 

3 DII football teams taking on FCS foes to watch

West Florida at McNeese State, Saturday, Sept. 4, 1 p.m.
The Argos are putting themselves to the test early. First, they have an FCS opponent and then a 2017 national championship rematch against Texas A&M-Commerce two weeks later. This week, Austin Reed — our preseason frontrunner for the Harlon Hill Award — takes the field for the first time since he threw for 523 yards and six touchdowns in the championship game. This will be a good look at the Argos' new-look offense and what they can do with the football. 

Harlon Hill 2021: 23 preseason hopefuls to watch | The ultimate guide to the history of the award

Bowie State at Delaware State, Saturday, Sept. 4, 4 p.m. 
The Bulldogs are poised for a huge season and the Hornets will be a good start to see how everything gels after a year off the football field. Don’t get us wrong — Ja’Rome Johnson and Calil Wilkins are exciting pieces on offense and will be a handful to lock down for any defense. But defensive back Demetri Morsell and quarterback-rushing Joshua Pryor are going to do big things in 2021 and make Bowie State a top-10 team. 

Virginia Union at Hampton, Saturday, Sept. 4, 6 p.m.
This will be a difficult opening day for the Panthers but certainly the test they need to prove doubters wrong. This is a team with enough talent to make some noise if it all comes together. Quarterback Khalid Morris and wide receiver Charles Hall are a fun duo, but Virginia Union will have some big shoes to fill with Tabyus Taylor no longer in the backfield.

A long time coming: The first fall DII football Saturday since 2019

Ashland at Notre Dame (OH), noon
It’s a new era for Ashland football as the Eagles enter the season part of the G-MAC conference. A road test against one of the most dominant DII football teams of the past five seasons is a good way to gauge where they stand. Running back Gei’Vonni Washington is a sleeper candidate for the Harlon Hill, and this game should see plenty of great running back play. While Jaleel McLaughlin and Tabyus Taylor are gone, you must assume whoever earns the starting nod at RB1 for the Falcons is going to be great. Remember, the last time this team started a freshman running back, he shattered every DII freshman record with a 2,000-yard, 18-touchdown season.

FAQ: How the DII football championship works | Most titles in DII history

Lenoir-Rhyne at Virginia State, 6 p.m.
The Bears come into 2021 with championship aspirations after a strong spring under first-year head coach Mike Jacobs. Grayson Willingham and Dareke Young are back to pace the offense, but freshman running back Dwayne McGee may be the breakout star of the season. Rogers Stadium, the home of the Trojans, is always a difficult spot to play — they are 15-3 at home since 2016 — and with all-conference defensive lineman Javon Frazier looking to disrupt that Bears backfield, this should be a fun one to watch.

Savannah State at Valdosta State, 7 p.m.
Savannah State returned to DII football in 2019 and finished its season winners of four in a row. The Tigers now head to Valdosta, Ga. looking to continue that streak. The Blazers were six seconds away from a chance to repeat as national champions, falling in the final seconds to West Florida in a memorable 2019 playoff game. They will have a new look under center, but there are returners all over the field that Valdosta State shouldn’t miss a beat. Fun fact: Last time these two met (1996), current Blazers head coach Gary Goff was a student-athlete for Valdosta State.

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