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Wayne Cavadi | NCAA.com | August 29, 2022

DII football is back. Here's what to watch in Week 1 of the 2022 season

Ferris State wins the 2021 DII football championship in dominant fashion

The wait is over: the 2022 DII football season is finally upon us. Edward Waters got the ball rolling last week, but the rest of the DII world kicks off with a slew of games beginning Thursday, Sept. 1.

The defending champion Ferris State Bulldogs look to be the first repeat champions since the 2015-16 Northwest Missouri State Bearcats. Shepherd's Tyson Bagent will try to become the first back-to-back Harlon Hill Trophy winner since Ferris State’s Jason Vander Laan.

RANKINGS: Way-too early Power 10 | D2Football preseason | AFCA preseason

These are just two of the storylines I’m watching as Week 1 opens.

5 games to watch in Week 1 of the 2022 DII football season

Colorado School of Mines at Grand Valley State, 7 p.m. ET on Thursday, Sept. 1

What a way to get the season started. Lubbers Stadium is already one of the most-rocking venues in DII football, and it opens the 2022 season by welcoming a 2021 national semifinalist. Both the Mines (No. 4) and Lakers (No. 5) were top 5 in the “way-too early” DII Power 10, so we are looking at a top-five battle on opening night. Mines’ quarterback John Matocha and running back Michael Zeman are two of the best at their respective positions in all of DII and power a high-scoring offense. Senior Bowl-watchlist offensive lineman Quinton Barrow will lead the way in the trenches for a balanced offense while linebacker Abe Swanson charges what could be one of the best front sevens in the land. Grab the popcorn, this should be the game of the weekend.

Central Washington at Ferris State, 7:30 p.m. ET on Thursday, Sept. 1

The Bulldogs are putting themselves to the test early, but more on that later. The focus here is Ferris State hosting Central Washington, a 2021 playoff team and new member of the powerful Lone Star Conference. While the Wildcats, led by quarterback Quincy Glasper, are looking to make quite the impression on their new conference, all eyes will be on Tony Annese’s Bulldogs. Mylik Mitchell takes over for Jared Bernhardt under center, but has plenty of in-game experience, setting the program record with 508 yards passing (and a ridiculous six touchdowns) in a spot start last year.

2021 CHAMPIONSHIP RECAP: Finally Ferris... Bulldogs take home first title

Notre Dame (OH) at Ashland, 6 p.m. ET on Thursday, Sept. 1

There’s yet another new head coach for the Falcons, but there will be some stability with Chris Brimm returning at quarterback. This offense is always explosive, and with Brimm and that nasty two-headed running back monster in the backfield, it should put up big numbers right from the start. The G-MAC is going to be a tough conference this season, so Ashland will need to get off on the right foot. An upset against No. 10 Notre Dame will do just that.

Minnesota State at Bemidji State, 7 p.m. ET on Thursday, Sept. 1

There was a changing of the guard in the NSIC last year. Minnesota State, which had a stranglehold on the conference, lost its first NSIC game in 37 tries, dating all the way back to November 2016. Conversely, Bemidji State and its high-octane offense made its first postseason appearance and even won a tournament game. With Brandon Alt back under center, Brendan Beaulieu reeling in his targets, and a healthy Jalen Frye coming out of the backfield, the Beavers should be an explosive offense yet again. This is a good first test to see if the Mavs have a rebound in them.

Fort Hays State at Northwest Missouri State, 8 p.m. ET on Thursday, Sept. 1

Northwest Missouri State lost quite a few big pieces, but here we are, yet again, with the Bearcats a top-five team. Watching how quickly everything comes together will be interesting, but why did I pick this game? Why a Fort Hays State team that is picked fifth in its own conference? Adrian Soto had a nice, little breakout season at running back, but people may have forgotten about Chance Fuller after a 2021 that didn’t live up to his huge 2019 breakout. This is a good offense for the Bearcats to open against, especially when its best pass rusher from last year is currently on the New England Patriots (as of Monday, Aug. 29).

5 storylines I’ll be watching as the season unfolds

1. What’s next for Ferris State?

One major storyline the past five or six seasons in DII football was: What does Ferris State need to do to win the big one? This is a program that if you filled out a bracket prediction in August and had the Bulldogs penciled in for the national semifinals, you wound up being right… in August…for half a decade.

Jared Bernhardt and company changed all that, but he is now fighting for a roster spot with the Atlanta Falcons. Mylik Mitchell is taking over and as I already mentioned, looks very much the part as the next great QB for head coach Tony Annese’s Quarterback U. The Anchor-Bone Classic will be a huge one this year, but Ferris State is testing itself right out of the gates. The Bulldogs open against Central Washington, then hit the road against No. 19 Lenoir-Rhyne, then head to G-MAC favorites Findlay on Oct. 1, and THEN open GLIAC play on the road against a Saginaw Valley State team receiving votes in the first AFCA poll of the season. All that to turn around and host Grand Valley State in the 2022 Anchor-Bone Classic on Oct. 15. Ferris State hasn’t lost a regular season game since September 2016. This is without a doubt the toughest stretch it has faced to keep that streak alive… all while trying to repeat as national champions.

2. What’s next for Tyson Bagent?

Shepherd sat briefly with bated breath this offseason as its heralded quarterback entered the transfer portal. It never seemed to be in serious doubt he would return, and sure enough, he’s back for another year.

Back-to-back last-second TDs have Shepherd, miraculously, in DII football semis

Last year, Bagent threw for 5,000 yards and 53 touchdowns in winning the 2021 Harlon Hill Award. Only Johnny Bailey, Dusty Bonner, Danny Woodhead, and Jason Vander Laan have won consecutive trophies since its 1986 inception. With a slew of big returners, Bagent is in a position to do it himself. But that’s not what I’m watching. The record for yards gained in a season by a quarterback is 5,401 and for touchdowns, it’s 54. You want my first bold prediction of 2022? We have a new record-holder for both come December.

EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW: The essential guide to the Harlon Hill Trophy

3. Bold prediction No. 2: Watch T.J. Davis… if you can keep up

Harlon Hill-winner Vander Laan had a ridiculous run (pun intended) at quarterback, reeling off the DII single-season record 1,607 yards rushing in 2013. His fellow Ferris State alum Bernhardt set the single-season record last year with 26 rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. Both will be incredibly tough numbers to top.

If anyone can do it, it's T.J. Davis. 

Last year, Davis rushed for 1,151 yards and 18 touchdowns. Unlike Bernhardt and Vander Laan before him, he threw for 2,320 yards and 21 touchdowns, numbers neither came particularly close to at QB. Athletic-ability wise, Davis can easily best both single-season records but is clearly a much more effective passer, which takes away from his rushing plays. I still think one of those records goes down by season’s end.

4. Wait… is that the GSC?

Valdosta State is back in the mix for a national championship. The 2018 winners and 2021 national runners-up still have quite a few faces from both squads looking for one more deep run. Except... the man calling the plays is different.

Tremaine Jackson enters after taking Colorado Mesa from a 6-5 squad in 2019 to an 8-2 RMAC contender in 2021 (I’m not counting whatever that was that was played in fall of 2020). He has some big-time tools handed to him in quarterback Ivory Durham and running backs Seth McGill and Jamar Thompkins — all three of which eclipsed 1,000 yards on the ground in 2021. But let’s not forget, this is the GSC and arguably the toughest conference in DII football. Opposing defenses will try their hardest to make sure it isn't a warm welcome for Jackson.

Another major change is under center at West Florida. Austin Reed is now starting quarterback for FCS Western Kentucky and a new era of Argo football is underway. Wide receiver David Durden is an NFL prospect, but will he be able to put up big numbers without the surefire Reed throwing the ball? Running back Shomari Mason broke out in 2021, so the new QB will have help, but it will be interesting to see how quickly this team gels. If head coach Pete Shinnick has proven anything, it's that he can be a title contender with me at quarterback. 

Watch all 6 touchdown passes from West Florida's Austin Reed in DII football championship

West Georgia had a big 2021, but despite returning star quarterback Harrison Frost, a lot of his weapons are gone. Shorter may not put up a lot of wins, but the Hawks may have one of, if not the best, tight end in DII football, in Kyle Morlock making their games fun to watch. Simply put, it’s going to be another grind in the GSC, but with a different look.

5. DII vs. FCS matchups

These are always fun. There was a crazy weekend in September 2019 when six DII football teams took down FCS opponents. It doesn’t happen in bunches like that often, but opening weekend gives us a few opportunities to watch.

  • Lincoln (PA) vs. Delaware State
  • Miles vs. Alabama State
  • North Greenville vs. Furman
  • Limestone vs. Gardner-Webb
  • Mars Hill vs. ETSU
  • Western Oregon vs. Weber State

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