Spring practice is in the air. Players and coaches are preparing to return to the turf, readying for a new season. Now is a good time to take an early look at what the DII football preseason Power 10 could look like come August.
2021 DII FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP: How Ferris State won the 2021 title
Keep in mind, this is not a deep dive. Mainly because it can't be. The coaching carousel is spinning quickly and there are some programs still without a head coach. Colorado Mesa, a team that flirted with the top 25 last year, sees its head coach Tremaine Jackson head to Valdosta State to take over the defending national runners-up. Gregg Brandon, Colorado School of Mines' long-time head coach, retired and the 2021 semifinalists are looking for a new leader.
Making matters more difficult, the transfer portal is filling up with some big names. Shepherd’s Tyson Bagent, the reigning Harlon Hill Trophy winner, entered the portal to test the waters. However, he seems intent on returning to Shepherd, especially with his tweet sent 11 days after entering the portal.
HARLON HILL TROPHY: Bagent wins the 2021 award | Complete history of the award
What DII football teams are going to add transfers? These question marks across DII football leave much uncertainty. If you look back to last year, Al McKeller — the seemingly NFL-bound running back that boosted Northwest Missouri State’s offense in 2021 — transferred from UIndy to the Bearcats around a month before the season began.
To say things are still very fluid is an understatement.
So, this is a fun look ahead. Yes, it is based on expected returners and recent history, but as we mentioned, rosters — from coaches down to the last man on the roster — could change by the time you are done reading this.
DII HISTORY: Most played rivalries | Winningest teams | Championship history
Without further ado:
The 2022 way-too early DII football Power 10
No. 1 Ferris State
The reigning champs are set to lose some big pieces. Jared Bernhardt left an indelible mark on DII football with his 2021 season, but he was helped by arguably the best offensive line in DII. Dylan Pasquali — the 2021 Gene Upshaw Award winner — is a senior and rumors are that Zein Obeid may be testing the NFL waters, so there will be a new look up front. Still, head coach Tony Annese has gone far with different quarterbacks and defenses for five years now. That shouldn’t change in 2022.
No. 2 West Florida
Yes, I have the Argos over their conference rival and defending national runners-up, but it was close. Austin Reed remains one of the best quarterbacks in DII football and this team was really good last year. Let’s remember, West Florida went 9-2, and both losses came to top-25 teams by a touchdown… combined. Conversely, if you look at the three victories West Florida had against top-25 teams, one of which was Valdosta State, those wins came by an average of 25.6 points. Head coach Pete Shinnick has shown he’ll find the pieces he needs to replace the losses, and this team should be very good again in 2022.
No. 3 Valdosta State
Full disclosure: After head coach Gary Goff announced he was leaving, I wasn’t sure the Blazers would crack the top 5. But Tremaine Jackson is an absolute stud of a hire, and the coordinators he is bringing in are also intriguing. Ivory Durham is back under center and he was one of the best quarterbacks I got to watch over the past five years or so. No matter who his receivers are, he should be just fine. Valdosta State is 68-16 since 2014 — that's basically an average of 10-2 per season over seven years with three different head coaches at the helm. Jackson should do just fine.
No. 4 Colorado School of Mines
Here is the first of my 2021 in review apologies. I picked Bemidji State to upset Colorado Schools of Mines in the tournament, and the Orediggers responded by… well, blowing the tail off the Beavers by a score of 55-6. Whether my prediction was bulletin-board fodder, we’ll never know, but I learned my lesson. As long as John Matocha and Michael Zeman are there, this team is going to rack up points. Matocha threw for 348 yards and three touchdowns in that victory while Zeman ran for 348 yards and three touchdowns of his own. We know there is going to be a new head coach, but with the players this team has returning, the Orediggers should still be very strong in 2022.
No. 5 Grand Valley State
Here is apology No. 2. I had the Lakers way too low in my final rankings, and after looking over this roster and what is returning, this should be one of the best teams in the land come 2022. The Lakers were a top-15 scoring defense and top-20 in total defense in 2021, and linebacker Abe Swanson — one of the D2Football Elite 100 — is set to return. Quarterback Cade Peterson and several of his deep stable of running backs are also expected to be back in Allendale, Michigan, for 2022 and this team is 100% a national championship contender.
No. 6 Northwest Missouri State
This may be a hair too low (if being in the top 3% of all DII football teams is “too low”), but here’s why. Every team in the top 10 is losing some key pieces, but Northwest Missouri State is losing three of the best at their position in DII football. Al McKeller has won two — TWO — MVP awards in bowls this postseason, defensive lineman Sam Roberts — a name we should hear on draft day — had a strong showing at the Hula Bowl and offensive lineman Tanner Owen has been an All-American several times. Now, that said, this is a program that is among the best-ever in DII football and Rich Wright has proven to be both a brilliant head coach and recruiter. The Bearcats should have no problem revamping and moving forward in 2022.
No. 7 Shepherd
Tyson Bagent coming back is the ultimate factor, and as he told Rick Kozlowski of The Journal, “I’m not going anywhere. Me, my grandfather and father wanted to see if there’s anything out there. I love Shepherd too much.” When you pair Bagent with his top wide receiver Ryan Beach and top two running backs in Ronnie Brown and Ty Hebron, all underclassmen, you have one of the most potent offenses in the land reunited for one more run. This team will need to find some defense — living on the Hail Mary only goes so far — but one thing the Rams have done very well during the Bagent era is win.
No. 8 Bowie State
People said I was nuts when I had Bowie State as a top-10 team last preseason. Thankfully, 2021 was a very good year for the Bulldogs, and there are three reasons I have them this high once again: Joseph Murray, Joshua Pryor and Jonathan Ross. These three defenders made it an absolute nightmare for quarterbacks and running backs last season, and while his numbers aren’t as high as his teammates, Pryor is my early pick for 2022 defensive player of the year. It felt like Pryor got the Deion Sanders treatment and opposing offenses game-planned with him in mind, but don’t be fooled — he is that good.
Note: This is where it gets very hard. The following teams are losing a lot. Teams No. 9 and 10, as well as the “first five out” are very tight and could even be seen as interchangeable this early in the offseason.
No. 9 Notre Dame (OH)
There will likely be many new faces in Notre Dame (OH) with senior quarterback Chris Brimm, offensive lineman Brandon Nicholson and linebacker Guam Lee on their way out. All three were leaders among their respective positions. Still, this is a program that has slowly built its way into a consistent power, and with Tyris Dickerson and Idris Lawrence looking strong at running back, I expect them to be a force in a wide-open Super Region One yet again.
UPDATE, JAN. 28, 2022: Notre Dame (OH)'s Chris Brimm has confirmed that he will be back under center for the Falcons in 2022.
No. 10 Angelo State
Angelo State had an impressive run in 2021 behind the eighth-best total defense in DII football. The reason the Rams crack the top 10 is because of the large step forward they took in 2021 — and a lot of that talent returning. Quarterback Zach Bronkhorst and all his running backs are back, as should Daron Allman — the team’s leading sack artist — and Andrew Pitts, who had five interceptions last year. The Lone Star Conference is always tough, but the bevy of experience after a quarterfinal run should help the Rams compete in 2022.
First five out (in alphabetical order)
- Harding: How do you replace Cole Chancey? I don’t think you can, but Omar Sinclair, Jhalen Spicer and Blake Delacruz combined for 1,781 yards and 17 touchdowns at running back behind him and should all be back.
- Lenoir-Rhyne: The Bears went through some bumps and bruises early on, but finished strong to make the playoffs. Dwayne McGee is my way-too-early prediction to lead DII football in rushing.
- Nebraska-Kearney: As long as T.J. Davis is back, this team will be tough to beat. Another year of improvements from Davis means a tougher Lopers team overall.
- Western Colorado: The defense takes a hit, losing 19 sacks from seniors Will Lydle and Lane Farris, but this was a young team that surprised many last year. Next season may not be so surprising.
- West Georgia: Three Gulf South Conference teams is a tall order for a top 15, but the Wolves played one of the toughest schedules in DII football and performed very well. Harrison Frost should be back under center, along with a slew of players that made 2021 special in Carrollton.
The next 10 (in alphabetical order): Albany State (GA). Bemidji State, Frostburg State, Kutztown, Lindenwood, Newberry, New Haven, Ouachita Baptist, Slippery Rock, Washburn