Summer practice has begun. The AFCA preseason poll is released. DII football season is knocking on the door.

Before the slate of opening-night games kickoff on Thursday, Aug. 30, let’s break down the preseason top 25.

SEE THE FULL POLL HERE

No change at the top

The two teams that met in Kansas City for the 2017 Football Championship enter the season atop the rankings. Defending champion Texas A&M-Commerce sits at No. 1, while West Florida comes in at No. 2.

The Lions won their first-ever DII football title behind head coach Colby Carthel’s first recruiting class, who almost instantly resurrected the football program after taking over in 2013. The big loss will be behind center where Harlon Hill winner Luis Perez was lost to graduation. Perez led DII football with 4,999 yards passing, including a 323-yard, two-touchdown performance in the national championship game. To say that whoever wins the job has some big shoes to fill may be the understatement of the 2018 DII football season.

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West Florida made history of its own. The Argos, in just their second season as a football program, rode upset after exciting upset all the way to the championship game. Redshirt-sophomore quarterback Mike Beaudry returns, as does leading rusher Chris Schwarz, as well as leading receivers Antoine Griffin and Ka’Ron Ashley. With plenty of returning talent across the board, the Argos should contend in a stacked Gulf South Conference. They are put to the test early, opening against No. 22 Carson-Newman on Thursday, Aug. 30.

MIAA strong again

Northwest Missouri State finished its season 9-3 in 2018, bounced from the playoffs in a tight 21-18 first-round game against Ashland. Of course, for the Bearcats, winners of three of the last five DII national championships, that’s a down season.

Former defensive coordinator Rich Wright returns in his second season as head coach. The Bearcats, one of the premier defense powers in the land after once again leading DII in total defense (212.8 yards per game) last year, are used to surviving with turnover and should find themselves back in the hunt again.

The Bearcats are tied at No. 5 with fellow Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Conference foe Fort Hays State. The Tigers had a season to remember in 2017, one redefining the term historic proportions. Fort Hays State ended the Bearcats bid for another MIAA title and won their first-ever conference title in 2017. The Tigers made their debut in the top 25 last season all while reeling off the best start in 100 seasons of football. That’s historic proportions in every sense of the idea. Quarterback Jacob Mezera is back and despite losing some premier offensive pieces, another year of experience should allow him to have the Tigers contending once again.

The team to watch is Central Missouri. Ranked No. 10 in our NCAA.com “Way too early top 10” last January, the Mules open the season ranked No. 18. Harlan Hill finalist, quarterback Brook Bolles returns with plenty of firepower like running backs Devante Turner and Koby Wilkerson and wide receiver Kyrion Parker and are poised to make a run in the MIAA. An opening night date with Fort Hays State should be one of the best games of the year.

A GLIAC triumvirate 

The Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference is well represented in the preseason poll with three teams in the top 15.

Ferris State tops the list, coming in at No. 8. The Bulldogs football team got the Ferris State year rolling with a bang. Reaching the quarterfinals, they were the only school to find themselves amongst the final eight teams in the DII football and basketball tournaments, winning the latter. Looking to make their third-straight trip to the national quarterfinals, the Bulldogs will be led by a strong core of returners, including exciting wide receives Malik Taylor and Keyondre Craig. Despite an open competition for quarterback and the loss of defensive superstar Zach Sieler to the NFL, head coach Tony Annese has always had a knack for getting the most out of his squad.

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The always dangerous Grand Valley State comes in at No. 10. The Lakers, who play in one of the most exciting stadiums in DII football, have four national titles to their name, the last coming in 2006. Returning quarterback Bart Williams will have a lot of new faces to throw to and hand off to, but the Lakers offense is always a dangerous one. Their top-ranked passing defense returned a few key pieces that should help keep the offense in games as it adjusts. They hope to avenge last year’s opening night upset when they face off against No. 13 Indianapolis.

No. 15 Ashland also has a big opening night, facing off against No. 4 Indiana (Pa.). The Eagles will have one of the tougher roads back to the playoffs, where they made it to the second round before bowing out to Harding. After opening against a top 5 team, the Eagles will face three more ranked teams this season: No. 8 Ferris State, No. 10 Grand Valley State and No. 23 Ohio Dominican.

3 is the magic number

The GSC, MIAA, GLIAC, and Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference are the most represented conferences in the top 25 with three teams apiece. The NSIC is always an intriguing conference to watch behind a collection of some of the more powerful defenses in the nation. No. 20 Sioux Falls (244.3 ypg) and No. 3 Minnesota State (274.4 ypg) both finished in the top 10 defenses, while Minnesota-Duluth (receiving votes), St. Cloud State, Bemidji State, Augustana (SD) (receiving votes) and No. 21 Winona State were all in the top 31 defenses in all of DII football.

The GSC sent three teams to the playoffs last season and again return a conference full of some of the best football in the land. No. 12 West Alabama is a real team to watch come December, joining the Argos and No. 19 West Georgia in the top 25. It doesn’t stop there, however. Delta State received the second most votes outside the top 25, while Florida Tech and Valdosta State also received votes. This conference is loaded with tough teams making every weekend a battle.

The Lone Star Conference (No. 1 TAM-C, No. 11 Midwestern State), the Great American Conference (No. 7 Harding, No. 24 Ouachita Baptist), and the Great Midwest Athletic Conference (No. 23 Ohio Dominican and No. 25 Findlay) all have two teams in the rankings. Surprisingly, the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference have only one representative apiece, as two conferences with plenty of firepower the past few seasons. California (Pa.), West Chester, Shippensburg, Edinboro, Bloomsburg, and Slippery Rock all received votes joining No. 4 IUP in the poll, however, showing the depth of the PSAC. Poll regulars Colorado Mesa and Colorado Mines received votes to join RMAC favorites No. 14 Colorado State-Pueblo in the preseason poll.

Welcome to the party

No. 24 Ouachita Baptist is one of five teams appearing in the preseason poll that was not in the 2017 final top 25 (No. 10 GVSU, No. 18 Central Missouri, No. 22 Carson-Newman, and No. 23 Ohio Dominican are the others). The defending GAC champions have no easy task repeating in a conference full of competitive football teams. All eyes will be on senior Drew Harris who scored an absurd 27 touchdowns on 1,219 combined rushing and receiving yards last season. For good measure, he also threw for one touchdown. Harris had a seven-touchdown performance in the Battle of the Ravine, ending Henderson State’s historic road-winning streak at 31 games.

RELATED: Battle of the Ravine amongst 11 rivalries that slip under the radar

Be on the lookout

Bowie State finds themselves just outside the top 25, receiving 60 votes. With quarterback Amir Hall returning, the Bulldogs should find themselves back in the top 25 this season. Hall put up video game-like numbers last season, throwing for 3,519 yards and 41 touchdowns (with just four interceptions) and rushing for 406 more yards and adding eight touchdowns on the ground. He’s lost a few pieces, but his athleticism is off the charts.

Wayne Cavadi is in his fourth year covering all things Division II sports for NCAA.com. In the “offseason”, he covers the Atlanta Braves minor league system for SB Nation’s Minor League Ball and the PGA Tour with PGA.com.

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