The 2022 DII football season ended much like the 2021 version. The Ferris State Bulldogs were national champions again, and like the previous victory, it came in utterly dominating fashion.
Since that last second ticked off the DII football season clock, quite a bit has gone down. For one, the age of Covid is catching up to rosters. The DII football landscape remained pretty familiar over the past three seasons with “super seniors” having extra eligibility. Many of those faces that shared the spotlight — names like Tyson Bagent, Michael Zeman and Caleb Murphy just to name a few — are moving on, some to (hopefully) per horizons. The number of teams losing their quarterbacks this coming season — very good quarterbacks at that — is big.
Added to that was the departure of several head coaches, many from playoff caliber teams. Two of the biggest changes heading into 2023 will be among perennial DII football championship contenders at Grand Valley State and West Florida. Matt Mitchell, who was an assistant and then head coach for the Lakers, leaves as the second winningest coach for one of the winningest college football programs in history. Pete Shinnick, who built West Florida from literally nothing into a national champion, leaves the Argos with a new leader at the helm.
When you consider the transfer portal is still open and incoming freshman haven’t even begun to find their roles, it is nearly impossible to project what the 2023 DII football season will look like.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try. If you are new to the “way-too early” Power 10s, these are mainly for fun. I haven’t emailed coaches yet for their thoughts, I haven’t dug too deep into rosters, many schedules aren’t finalized and for all we know, things can change by the time you’ve finished this sentence (Frantically checks Twitter before typing next sentence). last year, seven of the Power 10 teams I predicted in January — Ferris State, Colorado School of Mines, Grand Valley State, Shepherd, West Florida, Angelo State and Northwest Missouri State — actually finished 2022 in both the Power 10 and all national top 10s. If I get half that right this year, I’ll consider it a win.
The 2023 way-too-early DII football Power 10
No. 1 Ferris State. This may be the only easy pick. Tony Annese has built a dynasty, with not only the back-to-back championships on his resume, but making it to McKinney, Texas for the title game in three of the past four seasons. The Bulldogs have won with a variety of quarterbacks, but with Mylik Mitchell (who’s listed as a junior), freshman breakout Carson Gulker, and even little-used Jesse Rivera back under center, this team will have the leadership it needs, no matter what other roster changes occur.
No. 2 Pittsburgh State. The gorillas had a lot of question marks last season. The offense was on the younger side, but a still relatively fresh head coach was coming off an impressive 8-3 “debut” (Brian Wright was hired in 2020 and did coach four unofficial DII games in that Covid year). This team erupted, not only showing the ability to score, but an exciting defense that had several possible returners on it as well. With so much turnover in DII football this year, the Gorillas, right now, are in a good spot with the experience coming back.
No. 3 Angelo State. With running backs Nate Omayebu III and Alfred Grear both listed as juniors, the Rams running game should be solid next year. On top of that, outside linebacker Daron Allman and O’Shea Jackson, who led this pretty good defense in sacks, should be back as well. The Rams were very good last year, and having that kind of experience back could help them finally get to the national semifinals.
No. 4 West Fla. Now this is a huge question mark, especially with how early it is. There is no denying that when a head coach leaves, sometimes the roster has some turnover, but the Argos acted quickly with a great hire in Kaleb Nobles who worked with the offense at Clemson the past two seasons. That bodes well for guys like Peewee Jarrett, Shomari Mason and Caden Leggett. The defense had some nice pieces and if it can make strides, this team should still be very strong.
No. 5 Northwest Missouri State. Yes, the Bearcats lose some key pieces on defense, but there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years on the DII beat. Rich Wright can turn me into a sack master, so there’s no doubt he has some secret weapons waiting to breakout. Offensively, it’s a bit of a question mark, as the Bearcats felt a little more up and down last year compared to year’s past. That said, there should be some key pieces back that can take a step forward to that consistency with which we’ve become familiar.
No. 6 Grand Valley State. This speaks volumes to this program’s staying power. At the time of press, we don’t even know who the next head coach is going to be. Mitchell was a DII staple for years, so there will be some big shoes to fill, but let’s face reality: You have to go back to 2014 to find the last time this team didn’t finish at least five games above .500. The Lakers will find a way to compete and should still bring plenty of DII football’s most talented players, especially if Cade Peterson and Abe Swanson are back in Allendale, Michigan.
No. 7 Minnesota State. It was a nice bounce-back year for the Mavericks, who are just a couple seasons removed from being national runners-up. The good news for Minnesota State is it was able to score nearly 34 points per game with a young quarterback and breakout from running back Shen Butler-Lawson, who should also be back. The defense had some exciting players, like Jacob Daulton, that will be back and should take yet another step forward this year. The NSIC has become a tough conference, but the Mavs have big pieces in place to contend.
No. 8 Ouachita Baptist. TJ Cole had another monster season, his second-straight rushing for more than 1,500 yards and 17 touchdowns, and even if he doesn’t return, the Tigers should be in good shape with Kendel Givens running the ball. Riley Harms looked good under center and tossed 17 touchdowns, which was one less than the past two quarterbacks threw combined. That’s a bonus, because Ouachita is built on running the ball and tough defense, and they should have enough back in those departments to keep that rolling in 2023.
No. 9 Bemidji State. This may seem wild, but when you look at some of the other teams left out, they are all missing one thing: a quarterback. Not only do the Beavers have one, but Brandon Alt has been one of the best the past two seasons, throwing for more than 8,000 yards and 84 touchdowns. With so much uncertainty everywhere else, if he’s back, Bemidji has a big upper hand.
No. 10. Benedict. The Tigers went from 5-5 to 11-1 and made their debut as the No. 1 seed in heralded Super Region Two. And they did all that with a relatively young roster. You’ll probably notice a theme: I’m weighing expected returning experience VERY heavily at this point. If they get all that fire power back on both sides of the ball, the Tigers have a good chance of running the table in the SIAC once again.
I know what you’re saying. How are the national runners up not on this list? Where are the Rams, who have been top 10 stalwarts for an eternity? One, or maybe even all, of the teams below will likely find their way to the preseason top 10, but right now, in mid-January, there are way too many question marks to determine that. Don’t be fooled. These are all still top-25 programs; trying to figure out where they fit in is too tough right now.
- Colorado School of Mines. The Orediggers lit up scoreboards before 2022 Harlon Hill Award winner John Matocha, Zeman and star receiver Josh Johnston arrived. You have to assume they have the pieces to continue that trend. If Matocha, who just completed his senior year, is back, this team is top-5, but with so many weapons not back for 2023, this team could be just outside the top 10 just as easily as it could be in the top 5 .
- Delta State: The Statesmen went from 5-6 in 2021 to 11-2 in 2022, but quarterback Patrick Shegog, who led the team in both rushing and passing, was a graduate student last year. There’s a hole at quarterback, but how big?
- Shepherd: The last time someone other than Tyson Bagent played significant minutes at quarterback, the Rams were in the MEC. Running back Ronnie Brown and All-American offensive lineman Joey Fisher declared for the NFL draft, so the Rams aren’t just losing players, but legit DII football superstars.
Also considered (in alphabetical order):
- Ashland: The running backs looked strong, but what’s happening at quarterback? There could be a lot of turnover on defense as well, which was one of the best in DII.
- Emporia State: In a year of playing “guess the quarterback” having a guy like Braden Gleason return could make the Hornets one of the surprise teams of 2023… of course, they do have the MIAA to contend with.
- Indiana (PA): There will be a new quarterback and All-American Duane Brown is also departing, so there are a lot of question marks, but the Crimson Hawks are always a power.
- Slippery Skirt: I have now watched different quarterbacks, different sets of explosive wide receivers, and different running backs on annual basis reload and get The Rock to the playoffs. That kind of consistency with uncertainty deserves recognition.
- Virginia Union: Jada Byers. That’s it. That’s the whole reason this team is considered for the top 10. He’s that good.
- West Texas A&M: Okay, okay, this is a bit aggressive, but I wanted to be on record: Josh Lynn can turn around this program quickly to contend. The Buffs aren’t top-10 worthy just yet, but watch out.
- Wingate: What a run the Bulldogs made, but quarterback Shaw Crocker is now gone. He’s been the leader for that program forever, there are big shoes to fill.