Division II Football Top 10 Teams

Once again Grand Valley's team to beat

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Aug. 20, 2007

By Brandon Misener

Special to CSTV.com


Brandon Misener

Brandon is the Editor of D2Football.com and writes twice-weekly for CSTV.com.
E-mail here!

On the radio recently, two Championship Subdivision national college football experts discussed the notion that the defending champion should be ranked No. 1 until they are beaten. Essentially, they were disagreeing with the AP ranking USC in the top spot. Defending champion Florida begins the season in the sixth spot, according to the AP.


But it's a belief that is difficult to share because one season's success does not guarantee success in the following season.  Each season has to be looked at individually.




Having said all of that, Grand Valley State rightfully deserves the top spot in any discussion of favorites to win it all. Closely on their heals is Northwest Missouri, the team that has lost to Grand Valley in each of the last two championship games.  But don't expect these two teams to face each other in Florence, Ala. once again. Because of the regional rotation, the latest these two teams could meet is the semifinals.


But one common thread seems to be that all of these teams will have good offensive lines in 2007. Most teams have questions of some sort, but all seem to excel on the offensive line. An old cliché says that games are won and lost on the lines. If that's true, all of these teams will have great 2007 seasons.


It's highly likely that the national champion will come out of this group of 10 teams.  While that's a fairly easy statement to make about any group of teams ranked in the top 10 of any division, it's especially true for 2007 in Division II. 


1. Grand Valley State


Obviously, anyone that has been following Division II at all the last four years knows that the biggest question mark the Lakers have is replacing Cullen Finnerty.  Not only did Finnerty lead the Lakers to three national championships in four years, he became the all-time winningest quarterback in NCAA history.  Finnerty didn't have the strongest or most accurate arm, but he simply knew how to win.


The Lakers are going to have to find a new way to win.


In 2001 and 2002, they were an offensive machine. In 2003, Finnerty's freshman year, they won with defense. In 2005, they won with smart, error-free football and waiting for Finnerty to make plays.  Grand Valley has proven it can win more than one way.


So who will be the man to replace the 51-game winner? The two main contenders appear to be sophomore Brad Iciek and junior college transfer Kasey Peters. Iciek has the knowledge of the system. Peters possibly has the most talent. Neither has yet to be named the starter.


One thing is for sure; whoever plays quarterback will have plenty of protection. Grand Valley has a veteran offensive line, led by Brandon Barnes and Joe Wohlscheid.


Blake Smolen could be the man to replace Astin Martin in the GVSU backfield, but finding a replacement for wide receiver star Eric Fowler will be harder.  Antione Trent, who was all-conference last year, will most likely to be the player to step up outside.


In looking for a new way to win, Grand Valley could look back to 2003. They certainly have the defense to mimic that type of season.


The Lakers return nine starters.  The two losses, however, were big.  Defensive linemen Michael McFadden won the Gene Upshaw Award for Division II lineman of the year in 2005 and 2006 and Derrick Jones was a free agent pickup by the NFL. Add in the fact that GVSU wasn't as strong as usual on the interior of the defensive line in 2006, and it would appear that if the Lakers have a weakness on defense in 2007, it would be on the line. However, that's a big if.


There certainly won't be a weakness amongst the linebackers or defensive backs.  Outside linebacker Anthony Adams is a pre-season All-American and Dan Skuta is a force whether lined up at linebacker or defensive end. Brandon Carr is a pro prospect at corner. Bill Brechin, who had a fabulous championship game in 2006, joins him in the secondary.


Once again, the Lakers look to be the team to beat.


2. Northwest Missouri State


In the 2005 championship game, Northwest Missouri played well enough to barely lose to a superior Grand Valley team.  In the 2006 championship game, the Bearcats played poorly enough to lose to a team they probably should have beaten. 


If the Bearcats want to return to Florence and take one more step in 2007, they will do so because of a phenomenal offense.


The Bearcats return eight offensive starters, losing their right guard, right tackle and fullback.  


Quarterback Josh Matthews returns for his senior season after an efficient 2006 where he passed for 4,676 yards, 34 touchdowns and an efficiency rating of 154.  He returns the top seven pass receivers from the 2006 season, including all-conference wide receiver Kendall Wright and All-American tight end Mike Peterson.


In spite of the fact that Mathews, Wright, and Peterson could all be legitimate choices for All-American honors, the star of the Northwest offense will be running back Xavier Omon.


After playing in the shadow of Germaine Race, Omon should take his rightful place as the best running back in Division II. The senior has 4,736 career rushing yards and should be a leading contender for the Harlon Hill award.


In spite of returning six starters, the defense is where Northwest took the biggest hit.  Gone are three first-team All-Americans - linebackers Ben Harness and Thomas Smith as well as defensive tackle Kyle Kaiser.  Ryan Waters, an honorable mention All-American, has also graduated.


But the Bearcats don't feel the cupboard is bare.


A top 50 Division II pro prospect, Dallas Flynn, provides experience on the defensive line along with interior lineman Terry Bilbro.  Jared Erspamer should lead the Bearcat defense in tackles and Iowa State transfer Matt Robertson looks to replace Smith as the next "one year wonder" on the Bearcat defense. 


Northwest will have a young but talented secondary.  All-Conference performer Brandon Clayton will start at one corner and sophomore Myles Burnsides will call the defense in the secondary.


If Northwest plays to its potential, a trip to Florence and a national championship is not out of question. The Bearcats could potentially play Grand Valley in the semifinals. Where that game is played is equally important to both teams.


3. North Dakota


The Fighting Sioux hope to finish their Division II tenure with a bang by winning their second national championship. Earlier it was mentioned that Grand Valley must find a new way to win. The same can easily be said for North Dakota. 


The Sioux have a reputation for having one of, if not the best, defenses in the entire division. They have continually produced All-American linebacker after All-American linebacker. But this year, the strength of Dale Lennon's team will shift to the other side of the football.


UND has the luxury of returning just about every key player from one of the top offensive units in school history. Sophomore running back Ryan Chappell and senior receiver Weston Dressler are among the best players in the entire division and they both create major problems for opposing defenses with their speed and elusiveness in the open field. Dressler already holds almost every career receiving record at UND and Chappell set the school's freshman rushing record last season. Both players also do double duty as return men on special teams.


The offensive line is also talent-laden, with a pair of All-North Central Conference selections among four returning starters up front. No. 2 receiver Brady Trenbeath returns to help take the pressure off Dressler and the Sioux have plenty of depth at running back and tight end.


The one position on offense where UND does not return any experience is at the all-important quarterback position. The Sioux graduated their top two signal callers from last year's team, leaving junior Danny Freund (just one career completion) as the heir apparent to lead the UND offense. Freund's job will merely be to get the ball into the hands of Dressler and Chappell and let them do the work.


Only three starters return on defense for UND.  But the Fighting Sioux defensive system relies heavily on player rotation- so much so that the backups at many positions play just as much as the starters. In fact, UND's leaders last year in both sacks (linebacker Bobby Stroup) and interceptions (safety Rory Manke) were players that weren't listed as starters.


Lennon has the luxury of plugging both Stroup and Manke into the starting lineup this year without missing a beat. Defensive end Alex Cadwell and cornerback Donovan Alexander are another pair of returnees with the potential to stand out in their senior seasons.


Although the Sioux have earned their pre-season ranking, there are several teams in the NCC, let alone the Northwest region, that could keep UND from the ultimate prize.


4. North Alabama


Recently the Northeast region has not been very successful in advancing to the national championship game. In fact, since the expansion to 24 playoff teams beginning in 2004, the Northeast hasn't even been competitive in those games.


If that trend holds true, North Alabama has a great shot at shooting for a fourth national championship in 2007.


Head coach Mark Hudspeth has done a tremendous job of molding UNA into a program that is good every year. He does so without having a lot of star players. Make no mistake, the Lions have had some fabulous players in his tenure, but UNA keeps winning in spite of having the fewest all-conference and All-American players of any national power.


The Lions are favored to win the Gulf South Conference once again and a big reason is returning quarterback A.J. Milwee. Milwee is a dual threat quarterback, which is perfect for the type of offense that Hudspeth likes to run. 


After bringing in some highly publicized transfers that didn't work out at wide receiver last year, UNA is trying the same thing this year.  A couple of junior college receivers should be among the main targets for Lion receiving corps that will have a lot of depth. 


Tim Hicks could get a lot of the carries for UNA after the Lions lost out on the bidding for LSU transfer Alley Broussard, who surprisingly chose Missouri Southern over UNA.


In spite of how explosive it could be, the UNA offense could be overshadowed by its defense. 


Tim Hunt returns to the defensive line after missing 2006 and will be part of a line that could be in the competition for the best in the country.  That includes the versatile Michael Johnson, the leading tackler for UNA in 2006.


North Alabama could very well be considered the team, outside of Grand Valley and Northwest, most likely to win it all in 2007. All they have to do is advance out of their region, which is admittedly tough, and they will likely be playing for the championship on their home field. That is a task not many opponents would want to face.


5. Chadron State


It was often said that in 2006, Grand Valley and Northwest Missouri were on a different level than every other team in Division II. If there were one team that could make the claim that it was on the same level, Chadron State would be that team.


The Eagles were a surprise that almost no one expected to have the kind of season they did.  Much of their success was because of outstanding tailback and Harlon Hill winner Danny Woodhead, who set the all-divisions mark for rushing yards in a season.  Barring something catastrophic, Woodhead will shatter the Division II career rushing record.


But as playoff teams found out, the Eagles are not a one-man band. Quarterback Joe McLain did a good job last year managing the Eagle offense. 


The Chadron offensive line also did an outstanding job last year, but must replace three departed starters.  The Eagles are shuffling their line around and rumors out of Chadron are that the Eagles also have a couple of talented transfers to help fill the void.


Certainly Woodhead drew all the national attention, but it was the Eagle defense that was the unsung hero of their 12-1 season. In fact, look for the defense to carry an even bigger load this year with nine returning starters. The only question mark for the defense is the secondary where their two starters were lost.   However, cornerback Beau Wendling and safety Paul Schweger do provide experience there.


If the Eagles are to advance further in the national playoffs, they will do so based upon the explosiveness of Woodhead. In spite of setting multiple records, Woodhead has been held somewhat in check when facing tough competition from outside their conference. That will need to change this year.


The expectation in Chadron is to win their conference and challenge for the national championship. Based upon the amount of starters returning and the experience the team received in 2006, those are attainable goals.


6. Nebraska-Omaha


If there is a team poised for a breakout year, it could be Nebraska-Omaha. 


Year in and year out the Mavericks have the talent to win a championship. However, a trend of early exits in the playoffs has given the team the stigma of underachievers. A lot of that should be attributed to the fact that they play in a tough region. Nebraska-Omaha will also switch regions next year, which should help them go further into the playoffs.


But for 2007, the Mavs will feature a very explosive offense led by quarterback Zach Miller. Miller is not a prototypical quarterback.  He's a 6-foot-4 player who is actually more adept at running the ball than he is passing, which suits head coach Pat Behrns just fine.


Behrns likes to run the ball, but he will have to find a new tailback after Kyle Kasperbauer graduated.  If there is one thing Behrns is able to do, it's find people to run the ball effectively. When they actually decide to throw the ball, Troy Kush provides ability and experience in the receiving corps.


In spite of losing All-American tight end Zach Herold, the Mavericks should have a great offensive line to open running lanes. Pro prospect Ben Hochstein is the star of this group while Jake Krause would be the "best player on the line" at most places around the country.


There aren't a lot of recognizable names on the UNO defense after the graduation of linebacker Kenny Onatolu, but maybe more than any coach in the country Behrns can replace departing players with impact transfers. He's used to playing with an inexperienced defense, and he'll have to do so again this year.


The Mavericks would like to celebrate the final year of the North Central Conference by winning the championship. They'd also like to join future conference opponents, Northwest Missouri and Pittsburg State, as Division II champions. That move will make the Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletics Association the toughest football conference in Division II.


7. Delta State


The Statesmen return a lot of important pieces from their semifinal team of 2006. Unfortunately, they are not returning two of the most important or they could have been ranked higher.


Much like Grand Valley, the Statesmen have to replace one of the most prolific quarterbacks in Division II history. While Cullen Finnerty made news with the amount of wins he racked up, Scott Eyster made news with the amount of yards he racked up. Eyster finished as one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the Gulf South Conference, setting several GSC records including a total offense mark of 14,342 yards.  He's also has the second-most passing yards in Division II history. So whoever replaces Eyster has huge shoes to fill.


Also looking to fill some fairly large shoes is new head coach Ron Roberts. He replaces Rick Rhoades who resigned after the season. But luckily for Roberts, and whomever steps under center for the Statesmen, there is plenty of returning talent everywhere else. They both have the luxury of guiding 18 returning starters.


If there is a step backward on offense, it won't be because of the line. Four seniors and a junior should be the starters for DSU, a luxury not many teams have with the 36-scholarship limitation in Division II.


Jeremy Ricks and Eric Marshall both look to be big play receivers, provided the quarterback is able to effectively deliver the ball - something Eyster did consistently four years in a row.


Nine of the 18 returning starters are on defense, which is led by linebacker Michael Eubanks.  An outstanding player his entire career, he earned the defensive player of the year award in the GSC last year.  He's a pre-season All-American this year while junior cornerback Monterio James is one of the best corners in the country, as evidenced by his selection as a pre-season All-American.


Delta is at an interesting crossroads. They haven't been the most consistent team in the GSC and that's caused North Alabama and Valdosta State to get most of the national publicity. DSU has a chance to change that. 


Winning with a new coach and a new quarterback is something DSU had to learn to do after Josh Bright (quarterback) and Steve Campbell (coach) graduated and left, respectively.  If they do it again, it proves that DSU is one of the best programs in Division II and worthy of this lofty pre-season ranking.


8. Shepherd


The Shepherd Rams were only three points away from the national semifinals last year and should be even better this year. 


Head coach Monte Cater has the luxury of having a quarterback with some experience, even if he is replacing Dan Chlebowski, a successful and efficient Ram quarterback. Junior Tyler Lazear looks to lead an offense that Cater expects to score more points and control the clock.


Lazear will have a lot of tools to use to please his head coach. Senior running back Dervon Wallace has been the best running back at Shepherd since Damien Beane, a 1999 Harlon Hill Finalist.  Last year he rushed for over 1,300 yards and scored 17 touchdowns.


Shepherd should feature one of the best lines in the Northeast Region. Anchoring this line is pre-season All-American Ryan Pope, who moves to center.  He is one of four returning starters.


If Cater wants to control the clock more, it's most likely out of necessity. 


The Rams defense will no longer have the ball hawking skills of All-American safety Dan Peters, who had a Division II record 14 interceptions in 2006. So they certainly can't rely on a defense that regularly gave the ball back to the offense.


Hit hardest by graduation, the defense also lost standout linebacker Todd Edmondson. But that doesn't mean the Rams are ready to give up trying to be a defensive oriented team. They return two good linebackers - Jerome Quinata and Joey Hooks - and most of the defensive line.


Again, the secondary is where the team was hit hardest by graduation. With only one returning starter returning, West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference teams might look to pass the ball more on Shepherd, especially without the threat of Peters picking it out of the air.


Shepherd might have been the best team in the Northeast Region in 2006.  However, Bloomsburg beat them when it mattered. The Rams, in spite of their losses, will try to advance at least one round further in the 2007 playoffs. 


9. South Dakota


Like conference rival North Dakota, this will be South Dakota's last year in Division II. 


Unlike North Dakota, the Coyotes know who their quarterback will be.


Noah Shepard returns after an all-conference season in which he had over 2,500 yards of total offense.  Likely to be the first-team all-conference quarterback in 2007, Shepard could be considered a dark horse contender for the Harlon Hill award.


He will lead a South Dakota offense that will rely heavily on his playmaking ability after the loss of superstar running back Stefan Logan. Logan was a threat to take it the distance on every play and forced defenses to put a lot of men in the box, opening the passing lanes. Shepard won't have that luxury this year, but what he will have is a D-I transfer in Dion Foster, a former Wisconsin Badger. 


While no one expects Foster to be Logan, expect him to have a good year running behind a stellar offensive line.  Pro prospect Christian Morton won the Rimington Award for best center in Division II. He will be surrounded by one of the best offensive lines this division has to offer.


If USD has an Achilles heal it is pass defense. The Yotes are switching to a 3-4 defense this year in order to try to help that weakness, but must also overcome inexperience there.


If USD has a star on the defensive side of the ball, it's linebacker Blake Hojer. He was named second-team all-conference last year after leading the team in tackles.


South Dakota is one of the most interesting teams to keep an eye on in 2007. In reality, the Yotes are new at winning.  People questions if they could win without Wes Beschorner. They passed that test.  Now, people will question whether or not they can win without Stefan Logan.


Everyone will have found out what USD is made of right out of the gate as they face West Texas A&M in the best non-conference matchup in Division II in 2007.


10. Valdosta State


If not for the Earned-Access rule coming into play for the first time since its inception in 2004, Valdosta State might have been in the playoffs last year. As it turned out, the Blazers were the only top 10 team that did not participate in 2006. That should change in 2006.


There are a ton of returning players for the Blazers, but the biggest loss was not on the field but on the sideline. Valdosta legend Chris Hatcher left his alma mater to become the head coach at Georgia Southern.  Former offensive coordinator David Dean is now in charge and should do an adequate job, but the loss of Hatcher will certainly be felt. Hatcher had that "something" that gave his team an edge that resulted in turning defeats into wins. Whether Dean has that same magic remains to be seen.


Dean will have the luxury of having players familiar with his system, most notably Willie Copeland. The senior quarterback transferred last year from Fort Valley and will be in the system for a second season.  That should be a scary thought for other Division II teams.  Add in the fact that standout sophomore wide receiver Cedric Jones returns, and the scary thought becomes a nightmare.


Impact defender Sherard Williams should lead what is always a stingy VSU defense - one that is almost always unfairly overshadowed by its defense. The one area on the entire team the Blazers are thin is defensive line. Although they return all-conference pick Travis Harrison and two other starters, the backups are relatively inexperienced.


Copeland, Jones, Harrison and Williams are four of 22 returning starters for the Blazers.  With that many returning starters in addition to the resentment of being left out of the playoffs in 2006, the Blazers are the biggest threat to North Alabama winning the Gulf South Conference as well as playing in the national championship.