Thanks to the ongoing playoff successes of Northwest Missouri and Pittsburg State, coupled with strong showings year in and year out from teams like Central Missouri and Missouri Western, the MIAA has long been considered among the toughest — if not the toughest — Division II conference around for football. This year should be no exception as teams added last year continue to acclimate.
14: Lincoln Blue Tigers. The Mike Jones era hasn’t gone as promised in Jefferson City, and despite some returning experience this year doesn’t look to be any better. So expect a lot more gesticulating and strange substitution patterns. Last year’s Blue Tigers didn’t have much to hang their helmets on. There has been a concerted effort this year to bolster the offensive line and kicking aspects.
13. Southwest Baptist Bearcats. Another year, another year of change at SBU with Craig Schuler taking the reins. Schuler was the architect of Lindenwood’s offense last year, which should definitely benefit the Bearcats — as in putting some pulse in a team that was dead last in total offense, scoring offense and rushing offense. Schuler was also Lindenwood’s recruiting coordinator. Watch this team…just not this season.
12. Central Oklahoma Bronchos. Aside from the return of running back Joshua Birmingham, there’s not much in the cupboard for head coach Nick Bobeck. He’s hoping a more physical defense will help compensate for issues at quarterback and a continued young roster.
11. Northeastern State Riverhawks. NSU returns nine starters on defense, but that’s not necessarily a good thing with the RIverhawks finishing 13th in scoring defense, 11th in total defense and 10th in rushing defense. Joel Rockmore’s presence at running back could help stabilize the offense, which needs a quarterback to step up.
10. Fort Hays State Tigers. Season-ending injuries to Andre Smith and Edward Smith hampered the Tigers’ chances of a better finish. Both return, but this team is woefully thin on returning depth, and it doesn’t matter where you look on the roster.
9. Nebraska-Kearney Lopers. I don’t remember a team that had a season undid by injuries as rapidly and as completely as the Lopers’ 2012 season. If they can avoid injuries — and if they forget last year’s attitude of thinking they could just come in and own the league by showing up — this team could wreck a lot of dreams for the teams projected ahead of it.
8. Missouri Southern Lions. MSSU’s second-year coach Daryl Daye is hoping an influx of youngsters and junior college transfers will spark the Lions into the upper half of the conference, but that move backfires as often as not. Opponents are relieved lineman Brandon Williams graduated, Southern fans may not be.
7. Washburn Ichabods. How to replace QB Dane Simoneau…Defense should be stout, so that should help.
6. Emporia State Hornets. ESU brings back a lot of talent, especially at wideout and linebacker, but they have to replace record-setting QB Tyler Eckenrode. Team may not have the record this year that it did last year, but coaching staff continues to improve the recruiting classes each year. Like SBU, another team to watch for the future — just with a better talent pool already in place.
5. Pittsburg State Gorillas. Tim Beck’s Gorillas return Nate Dreiling at linebacker and John Brown as returner. That alone could put quivers in some opposing coaches throughout the season. Losses to Missouri Western, a 63-14 stompfest at that, and Lindenwood — both at home — should serve as motivators for another playoff run.
4. Central Missouri Mules. Central took a significant step back according to Mule standards last year with a 6-5 mark overall. First month of the schedule, with games against Missouri Western, Northwest Missouri and Lindenwood right off the bat, could mean a playoff run or a Nebraska-Kearney-style season.
3. Lindenwood Lions. Lindenwood didn’t shock a lot of coaches around the MIAA with their first season in the conference, but their 8-4 overall record and a Mineral Water Bowl berth sure perked up a lot of casual fans. There is yet another quarterback battle which could decide the season, and the Lions are hoping newcomers will make the defense a force to be reckoned with.
2. Northwest Missouri Bearcats. Adam Dorrel leads another Bearcat team with high expectations. No surprise there. NWMSU has had weapons at running back and wideout in years past, but this year the running game looks to be more solid going into the season. Defense looks solid, but the loss of Travis Chappelear on the line could hurt.
1. Missouri Western Griffons. Mo West returns quarterback Travis Partridge, so barring injury the Griffons will once again be in the hunt for a conference title. Main issues? Depth at offensive line and reshuffled defensive line.