By Brad Dopke
From CollegeSportsReport.com

Those in BCS circles would have you believe that the college football season kicks off in Washington, D.C., on August 28 when Southern Cal and Virginia Tech hook up. However, purists know that many Division II teams will be kicking off the Thursday prior to the big boys.

Still, the real story before the start of the season is in the happenings off the field. Not only will D-II continue its push toward regionalization by increasing the number of playoff participants from 16 to 24, but there is also interest in some regions to reduce the maximum allowed scholarship equivalencies from 36 to a number as low as 24 per year. Any change in equivalencies could come as early as the 2005 NCAA Convention.

As scholarship money is limited at the Division II level, it just may provide the impetus for more schools to step up to Division I. Gone are North and South Dakota State from the NCC to join Cal-Davis and Northern Colorado in Division I, with Winston-Salem State making public its desire to move up as well. Also missing from the D-II landscape is one time power New Haven, which decided to drop the sport for financial reasons.

At a time when financial support for football is getting more difficult to come by, a push to reduce overall costs for the sport may have the numbers to get scholarship reductions pushed past the powerbrokers that vetoed such a fate just a few years back. Now back to the field of play. Members of the four regions have been set, and each region is allotted six playoff participants. Truly surprising was that the Championships Committee decided to remove one of the Division's most powerful conferences (the GLIAC) from the Northeast Region to an already difficult Northwest Region. That means the PSAC, WVIAC and non-scholarship Northeast Ten already come out as big winners. Part I takes a look at the Northeast and Southeast regions.

NORTHEAST

With regionalization establishing the PSAC as a leader in Division II, the conference comes loaded with quality and growing teams. Things should really be hot in the West Division where Shippensburg returns a good chunk from what was a successful title contender. This year the Raiders would like to topple Lou Tepper's Edinboro Scots from their title perch. Still, Shipps will have its hands full as Indiana looks to be in the title chase. With six picks in the Northeast Region, expect two of these three teams to make it to the playoffs.

In the PSAC East things may not be as torrid on the national scene, but both Bloomsburg and West Chester will field quality teams that should be in the hunt for the divisional title. Right behind both contenders will be East Stroudsburg. Although Mansfield may lack the overall punch necessary to top them all, the Mountaineers may have the nation's best performer in running back Earnest "Poohbear" McNeal.

Dogged by a slow start, West Virginia Wesleyan blasted through a perfect season in the WVIAC. With better prospects for a playoff invitation, the Bobcats will be hoping to repeat their performance. Standing in their way are Glenville State and Shepherd, but there can be no let up as just one playoff invite is likely in the WVIAC.

At one time the playoffs seemed an impossible dream for the Northeast Ten -- my how things change. Bentley made a national splash by brandishing a vaunted offense. They should have the same affect this year, as receiver Dallas Mall is back to wreak more havoc. On Bentley's heels will be powerful C.W. Post and perennial bridesmaid Southern Connecticut. The Northeast Ten is most likely to benefit from expanded playoffs, regionalization and talk of scholarship reductions. Expect a pair of the Northeast's teams to make the playoffs.

SOUTHEAST

Just when the CIAA had crept up to the magic number of 12 members, Winston-Salem State announced plans to go D-I. You can bet that the Rams will be gearing up for their future by gunning for a conference crown. They are a good bet to be among the contenders, but talented and experienced Fayetteville State will be eying a West Division three-peat.

Virginia State surprised many with a nice run in the CIAA East Division last year and the Trojans appear to head up things again. Still, the team to watch is Shaw University. In only its second year in D-II, the Bears are loaded with the skills to set-off some CIAA fireworks. Virginia Union, a usual contender, dropped off a bit last year but enters with new coach Arrington Jones understanding the expectations for success at the program. Also with a new coach is Bowie State, where Mike Lynn has the luxury of one of the nation's best defenders in safety Atcheson Conway.

There is no denying the fact that the Gulf South will send at least three teams into the playoffs. North Alabama will look to replay its undefeated season again, but must replace the nation's top-rated passer in departed Will Hall. Still, UNA is loaded with talent both on the field and among the coaching staff. It's a good thing Valdosta State coach Chris Hatcher is used to hot situations; his Blazers will be in the thick of a red-hot conference title chase. Hatcher is one of the best coaches in all of college football and as long as he's at VSU, the Blazers will keep shining.

Delta State has the best pass-catch combo in the nation in Scott Eyster to Ellis Debrow. As a freshman, Eyster wowed fans by tossing for more than 3,400 yards and 29 touchdowns. Now he'll hook up with the talented Debrow, who hauled in more than 1,600 yards and 18 touchdown grabs last year. Also in the Gulf South mix will be Southern Arkansas and Central Arkansas. SAU was able to grab the GSC its third playoff spot last year, angering SAC fans, so a fourth playoff team from the Gulf South will probably have to be well off the fence this year.

Speaking of the SAC, that three-way logjam for the conference crown seemed to have ignited a bit of competition within the conference. Carson-Newman got the playoff nod, surprising Valdosta State to underline the case that both Catawba and Tusculum were wrongly omitted from the postseason festivities. Both get a chance to prove the nation wrong, but it may come a year late. C-N remains the team to beat, not only in the SAC, but in the nation as well. In fact, the opening season tussle against Winston-Salem is a must-see event.

Both Catawba and Tusculum have some work to do if a repeat of the three-way championship is to come, but the story in the SAC is in the improved play of Mars Hill, Wingate and Newberry. No longer doormats, it appears that the SAC could be experiencing a bit of turnover.

Albany State is the team to beat as the SIAC opens play. This was one of the nation's best conference races as both Miles and Kentucky State surprised many by making solid runs for the crown. Look for both Tuskegee and Fort Valley State to rebound from disappointing seasons to give Albany a run for its money. Still, when it comes to HBCU football, there is as much entertainment in the stands as there is on the field.

NORTHWEST

It's amazing what a difference a year makes. North Dakota slugged its way to an overtime loss to Mesa State early in the year and made its way to the D-II title game, bowing to Grand Valley State in a tough loss. Still, with the NCC watching North Dakota State and South Dakota State follow Northern Colorado to D-I, things just aren't the same. Not only have the departures zapped the NCC of its energy, talk of scholarship reductions and pushing the GLIAC into the region have clipped the wings of the once mighty national giant.

North Dakota is the team to beat, but look for Nebraska-Omaha to follow close behind. While UND needs to find a leader on defense to replace the exploits of linebacker Digger Anderson, UNO must replace the 1,866 rushing yards departed Justin Kammrad racked up for the Mavericks.

Also in the mix of the loaded NCC will be St. Cloud State, which needs to find a replacement for departed All-American quarterback Keith Heckendorf. NCC newcomer Minnesota-Duluth figures to play a role in the race, and even South Dakota could make things interesting as the Coyotes enjoy a much easier schedule.

You could say that the GLIAC has already been given a black eye. No longer in the Northeast Region, where it dominated play on a consistent basis, the league was moved by the Championship Lakes supremacy.

Mark Radlinski and his 32 passing touchdowns return to lead the Cardinal attack for Saginaw, regular season victors (and GLIAC champions) over Grand Valley State. GVSU may no longer have Brian Kelly calling the shots from the sidelines (leaving for I-A Central Michigan), but it does have a vaunted Committee to the Northwest region. It doesn't make much sense to this scribe either. Still, expect more déjà vu in the form of Grand Valley State and Saginaw Valley State to duel it out for great performer in defensive lineman, Keyonta Marshall. GVSU got its revenge over Saginaw when it counted most -- in the quarterfinals.

Northwood, Ferris State and host of others will try to battle it out to see if the GLIAC can nail down a third invite. With the NCC and a growing Northern Sun league also vying for spots, a third invite will be a reach. Still, keep an eye on Indianapolis. The Greyhounds have one fantastic offense. The trouble is that they lacked the consistency on both sides to move up in the standings.

Face it: the Northern Sun is no longer a laughingstock. Much credit for that goes to the gritty play of Winona State, which took the conference by the collar and racked up solid playoff performances. Even with Minnesota-Duluth departing for the NCC, things should still be hot at the top. Look for Northern State to feed off the momentum it generated from a mid-season turnaround last year. With James McNear directing Concordia-St. Paul's offense, the Golden Bears will also be in the mix. Despite the improvements, the Sunnies will have to be content with just one postseason invite as the region is just overloaded with quality.

Also in the region are the often forgotten Great Northwest clubs. Dropping a tough opener to eventual NAIA champion (Carroll College), Central Washington was unable to build on the success it enjoyed in 2002. Now the Wildcats have more holes to fill and less momentum to turn heads on the national stage. In fact, expect parity among all four members, with Western Oregon making a run. WOU looks to have the players in place for a title claim. However, the parity put forth by members Western Washington and improved Humboldt State may prove to be the undoing as playoff invites will be hard to come by. On a positive note, regionalization was factored to aid any success that the GNAC clubs might enjoy.

SOUTHWEST

Texas A&M-Kingsville is again expected to dominate the Lone Star South Division, but Midwestern State and Abilene Christian have both proven to be worthy adversaries for the Javelinas. Eastern New Mexico shot off to a hot start, but faded once the schedule bit in. Both Angelo State and West Texas should much improved over what we have been used to in recent years, so things could get very interesting very quickly in the LSC South.

Meanwhile, expect another showdown between Central Oklahoma and Tarleton State to decide who reigns over the Lone Star North Division. If either slips up in the chase, Southeastern Oklahoma's Savages will be right there to pick up the slack. Sharing the region with the MIAA and RMAC won't play nice with plenty of invites, so no more than three is expected, and even that may be one too many once the final ballots are cast.

Was there any title chase closer than what the MIAA experienced in 2003? With five teams all tied together at the top, you could say that the conference was a bit top heavy. Despite the fact that the playoffs have increased to 6 teams per region, the MIAA must share the spoils with the Lone Star and RMAC. Which means three teams will likely get to play in the postseason.

Expect Pittsburg State to head the group, as the Gorillas will continue to field an explosive offense and highly capable defense. Central Missouri will be in the mix, as multi-talented running back Kegan Coleman will lead the way for the Mules.

Northwest Missouri State head coach Mel Tjeerdsma must utilize the most of All-American receiver Jamaica Rector if the Bearcats are to nab that precious third invite. Still, Tjeerdsma has proven himself to be one of the most competent and successful coaches in the history of D-II football. Emporia State, D-II's version of the Cradle of Coaches, also has a terrific coach in Dave Weimers. If transfers pan out for the Hornets, they too will be in another pile up at the top of the MIAA. Missouri Western enjoyed a terrific 2003 season, but the Griffons need to plug some precious holes if they are to repeat their success of a year ago.

Who says the RMAC can't play quality ball? Mesa State has steadily entrenched itself in the conference as its leader by brandishing a dangerous option offense. In fact, the only team to beat the Mavericks last year was the Lone Star's super talented Central Oklahoma. Included among Mesa's wins was an overtime thriller over North Dakota.

On the heels of the Mavericks will be usual suspect Chadron State. Brad Smith and the Eagles got off to a slow start, but finished the season with expectations for more success in 2004. Still, it was the play of the other RMAC clubs that showed much promise. Fort Hays State and Colorado Mines will look to keep improving while Nebraska-Kearney will again take to the air to try and climb to the conference summit. As competition within the region is fierce, it looks like the RMAC will have to content itself with just one invite. Still, non-conference games have been set up by many of the clubs to bring a potential for a bright future. Keep an eye when Fort Hays State pays a visit to MIAA Emporia State on opening week.

PREDICTIONS

As with NCAA basketball, D-II fans like to see a Final Four prediction set both before the season and playoffs begin. For this scribe, it presents a difficult, if not impossible challenge. Regions have been set up bringing a unique balance of membership abilities within each of them.

Indeed, expect the unexpected as Division II football continues evolving to entice growth in areas and conferences not usually known for success. Still, when in doubt, call in the usual suspects.

In the Northeast, Edinboro will overcome a Bentley team on a mission.

In the Southeast, North Alabama will squeeze past Carson Newman.

In the Northwest, Saginaw Valley State will turn the tables and top Grand Valley State.

In the Southwest, Texas A&M-Kingsville will top Pittsburg State.