The NCAA Division II Football playoffs kick off on November 19 at eight host universities across the US.
Each school has the dream of standing in Minnesota-Duluth's position at the end of the 2010 campaign— dousing the coach and storming the field as national champions.
Receiving byes in the first round are: region one Winston Salem State and New Haven, region two Delta State and Mars Hill, region three Colorado-Pueblo and Nebraska-Kearney, and region four Midwestern State and Pittsburgh State.
Rather than the obvious choices who are always at the top of the standings waiting for challengers, this year seems to be more of a king-of-the-hill battle with teams eager to knock one another off.
Teams can't seem to keep their position in the standings very long before falling.
For this article I have relied heavily on the analysis of Bob Elben of D2 Football for a breakdown of each team's strengths and weaknesses. I'll provide my own predictions based upon that analysis.
This year's playoffs are shaping up to be very exciting.
"Strengths: Matt Willis is one of the country's top running backs, and he has rushed for 100 yards or more in nine straight outings. The Tigers take care of the football and are plus 11 in turnover differential this year. UWA is solid against the run, allowing more than 200 yards in a game to just one D2 opponent (Harding)."
"Weaknesses: Quarterback Kyle Caldwell has done a good job running the offense, but he is just a true freshman. Good quarterbacks have thrown the ball well against UWA, largely because the Tigers haven't done a great job getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The return games on special teams are ordinary at best."
"Strengths: Senior quarterback Lee Chapple has thrown for 2764 yards and 21 touchdowns this season. The Lions have several D-I transfers and are as athletic as any team in the playoffs. Cornerback/return man Janoris Jenkins is lethal in the open field, especially returning punts and kickoffs. The Lions give up just 18 points per game and play great red zone defense, allowing touchdowns on less than 50 percent of opponent trips this season."
"Weaknesses: UNA's running game is below average, which puts a great deal of pressure on Chapple. The Lions have managed just 12 sacks, so the pass rush is lacking. Two different UNA kickers have combined to connect on just six of 14 field goal attempts, with seven of those misses inside of 40 yards."
My Analysis: UWA is undefeated at home this season and have defeated UNA on two straight occasions. The teams are long-standing Gulf South Conference rivals so there is no love lost between the two. While the Lions have played well lately, this one will be won by the host Tigers.
Prediction: West Alabama 31-28
"Strengths: The Crusaders have won seven straight games and have been especially dominant over the last month. NGU relies on a rushing attack that averages 250 yards per game, but senior quarterback Willie Korn has been the difference maker, throwing 15 touchdowns against just two interceptions over the last six games. The Crusader defense allows just 291 yards per game and has intercepted 16 passes."
"Weaknesses: The NGU defense has very few sacks, but part of that may be because they played a run-heavy SAC schedule. The two real passing teams the Crusaders have faced have racked up the yards through the air, so it remains to be seen how NGU would fare against a team that can really throw the football."
"Strengths: ASU does a good job stopping the run, allowing just 86 yards per game on the ground this season. The Rams aren't prolific offensively from a yardage standpoint, but they are balanced and have scored 33 points per game this year. Senior quarterback Stanley Jennings is the two-time SIAC Offensive Player of the Year and has thrown 24 touchdown passes."
"Weaknesses: Inconsistency. The Rams have played very well at times this year, but have also struggled against teams they should beat, like Miles last week in the SIAC championship game. This is probably the weakest the ASU defense has been over the last several years, and it is susceptible to good passing attacks."
My Analysis: This is going to be a strength-versus-strength game. NGU runs the ball very well, but ASU stops the run just as well. The winner will come down to who makes the least mistakes.
Prediction: NGU 14-10
"Strengths: After a 2-2 start to the season, the Griffons discovered their identity as a running team, and they have used an attack that averages 254 yards per game on the ground to grind out seven straight wins. The Griffons aren't flashy defensively, but they have recorded 37 sacks and 19 interceptions. Senior kicker Greg Zuerlein is the best in D2. He has connected on 20 of 21 field goals and has almost unlimited range."
"Weaknesses: MWSU has a weak passing game, so running the football and staying within striking distance of the opponent on the scoreboard are paramount. The Griffons are a solid overall team, but they don't have as much high end talent as many of the other teams in this region."
"Strengths: Despite injuries during the season to starting quarterback Blake Christopher and star receiver Jake Soy, the Bearcats are the top offensive team in the country. They have scored 52 points or more in eight of eleven games and have a multitude of playmakers with speed. The Bearcat return units are also outstanding, as they have scored four touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns this year."
"Weaknesses: The Northwest defense is not great and has struggled most with powerful running games and running quarterbacks. Injuries are a concern offensively, and the Bearcat offensive system is predicated on timing and speed, which could be disrupted by poor weather this late in the season."
My analysis: A rematch game from late in the season. In my opinion, rematch games are usually won by teams with the most to lose. Northwest MO can score a ton of points, but their defense isn't extremely solid either. MO Western can also score a lot of points, and their defense doesn't allow many points.
Prediction: MO Western 34-21
"Strengths: In my opinion, senior quarterback Dane Simoneau is the best this year in D2. He spreads the ball around to many different receivers, making it tough for defenses to defend. The Washburn defense has forced 28 turnovers and has generally done a good job in getting after the opposing quarterback."
"Weaknesses: In the two games Washburn has lost, they have struggled to establish the run and have had their pass defense shredded by opposing quarterbacks. The Ichabods have fumbled the ball 24 times this season, but fortunately have lost just nine."
"Strengths: Mitchell Gale is one of D2's top quarterbacks, throwing for 3,317 yards and 24 touchdowns this season. He leads an offense that averages 490 yards per game. ACU has a talented defensive line and has racked up 36 sacks this season."
"Weaknesses: Despite the defensive line talent, the back end of the ACU defense is just average, and they give up 425 yards per game of total offense. The Wildcat defense has forced just 15 turnovers and has been shredded at times, including a 740-yard performance by Midwestern State."
My Analysis: Washburn's Achilles heel is pass-defense, and that is exactly the strength of Abilene Christian. ACU will have to hope that their substandard defense can slow down the Ichabod's offense.
Prediction: ACU 42-21
"Strengths: With the three losses being to Delta State and twice to Winston-Salem State, this team has experience in playing top competition. ECSU is eighth in the country in total defense and is good at forcing turnovers. The Viking offense averages 224 yards per game on the ground."
"Weaknesses: The ECSU passing game is poor at best, making it difficult for the offense to score points consistently. The Viking special teams are poor and will be a major disadvantage in the playoffs."
"Strengths: The Vulcans are sixth in the country in both total defense and scoring defense and have not allowed more than 28 points in a game this season. California has also forced 32 turnovers. Offensively the Vulcans are more of a passing than running team and have tremendous talent at receiver, led by Thomas Mayo (1,141 yards, 13 TDs)."
"Weaknesses: Although the overall stats look pretty good, in five of 11 games, the Vulcans have been held to under 100 rushing yards as a team. The Cal offense has turned the ball over 28 times, including the loss of 19 fumbles. In their two losses, the Vulcan offense has completely disappeared, being limited to just a field goal in each of those games."
My Analysis: If ECU is to have a chance, they're going to have to make CUP turn the ball over and keep the game score low. CUP is also hoping to keep the game score low and will rely on their running game to win.
Prediction: CUP 14-10
"Strengths: KU averages 39 points and 483 yards per game and can run and throw the football with equal efficiency. The Golden Bear defense struggled during the first half of the season, but has turned it on of late, allowing a total of just 58 points over the last five games. This team is plus 11 in turnover differential and leads the country in yards per kickoff return."
"Weaknesses: The health of standout quarterback Kevin Morton. Morton injured his knee during the PSAC championship game last week, and his status is unknown for Saturday. KU averages under 30 yards net per punt and has made just two field goals all year, so the kicking game is weak."
"Strengths: The Mountain Lions take care of the ball offensively, and have committed just 15 turnovers all season. Defensively, Concord allows just 3.4 yards per rush and has forced 33 turnovers, including 21 interceptions."
"Weaknesses: Concord's offense struggles in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on just 51 percent of all attempts this season. The Mountain Lions average just 14 yards per game more than they give up, so this isn't a dominant team."
My Analysis: Concord will apply their stingy defense in hopes of slowing down the KU scoring attack. KU will rely on their balanced attack to outgun the CU defense.
Prediction: KU 35-14
"Strengths: The Bulldogs are extremely well-coached and don't beat themselves with penalties and turnovers. UMD runs the football (246 yards per game) and plays great defense (271 yards allowed per game) like the national championship Bulldogs teams. Junior quarterback Chase Vogler has consistently come up with big plays at crunch time over the course of his career, and the UMD offensive line is intact from last year."
"Weaknesses: In UMD's two losses, they were unable to run the football and in turn unable to do much of anything offensively. The Bulldogs are very young at wide receiver and lack much playmaking ability at that position. Even though the Bulldogs have been solid defensively, they have forced just 10 turnovers this season."
"Strengths: Sophomore quarterback Jonathon Jennings is becoming a star and is capable of doing damage both running and throwing. The Cardinals aren't great offensively, but they have scored at least 20 points in every game this season."
"Weaknesses: The Cardinals are below average defensively and have been run over by the better offenses they have faced, including 541 yards by Grand Valley State last week. The kick and punt return games are so-so, and SVSU has one of the worst net punting averages in the country."
My Analysis: UMD will lean heavily on their playoff experience and hope their running game will tire the SVU defense. SVU will hope to contain UMD's running game, a key factor in previous losses this season.
Prediction: UMD 28-17
"Strengths: The SCSU defense allows just 15 points per game and is very good against both the run and pass. The Huskies have run for 236 yards per game this year behind a physical offensive line and a deep group of running backs. Quarterback Philip Klaphake is an excellent runner and a difficult player for defenses to game plan for."
"Weaknesses: The Huskies lack a big play threat at wide receiver to stretch the field and loosen up defenses. SCSU has not played that well away from home this season and has had a handful of games where they have struggled to put points on the board."
"Strengths: Running backs Josh Rennel and Toney Davis have combined for over 1,900 yards and 24 touchdowns, and receiver Troy Burrell is a big play threat as well. The WSU special teams are solid, and the defense does a respectable job against the run."
"Weaknesses: The Warriors come into the playoffs as losers of three of their last five games, so this is not a team on the rise. The pass defense has been shredded to the tune of 245 yards per game, including 12 touchdown passes over the last four games."
My Analysis: The WSU defense seems to have trouble with stopping the pass. Luckily for them, that is not a strength of the SCSU offense. SCSU runs the ball well but has issues with scoring a lot of points. That will be important because WSU can put up points aplenty.
Prediction: WSU 35-10