Offense --> Good news: All the skill-position guys return, including sophomore QB Ted Schlafke and preseason All-America WR Greg Aker. Junior Ross Schumacher, freshman Dominique Johnson and sophomore Tony Doherty will also get plenty of catches in the wide-open, no-huddle offense UMD is running this year. Keith Bizzle, Joe Russell, and Marek Seta will get the bulk of the carries. The offensive line is somewhat inexperienced, with senior guard Mark Knudsen the only returning regular from 2005. Junior tackle Russell Foster is a Washington State transfer. Sophomore center Mitch Cady is a versatile player. The line is slightly bigger than it was last year, and the coaches hope they will be more effective opening holes for a running game that was basically non-existent by the time the playoffs hit last year.
Defense --> Very strong up the middle. Inside linebackers Nate Fears and Jon Rufledt are very physical and sure tacklers. Senior outside linebacker Kevin Krenz is the rock of the defense, while junior outside linebacker Cody Ahmann emerged as a serious pass-rush threat last year. At safety, UMD has four guys who can play. Sophomores Jim Johnson and Tyler Yelk are listed as the starters, but seniors Trent Scheidecker and Bryan Dahl will push them. Senior corners Boloy Lokombo, Tim Garceau, and Corey Hughes bring plenty of experience to the outside. The line features returning starting end Matt Beck, but coordinator John Steger may have to rely on a rotation of solid guys here. It doesn't look like there's a star in the group.
Overall --> UMD has the quarterback, top offensive player, and all the runners back this year. Also returning is most of the starting defense. New offensive coordinator Phil Longo is installing a similar system to the one used by last year's coordinator, Dan Ragsdale. So even though Longo is the school's fourth coordinator in four years, it seems that the offense has a much better chance of running smoothly from the start this year. Ragsdale is a very good coach, but it appears that head coach Bubba Schweigert got someone who can make this offense even better in Longo, the former head coach at Division I-AA La Salle. Steger is a veteran coach who will make sure his linebackers and safeties have plenty of chances to make big plays, and they are not likely to disappoint him.
The conference is tough, as usual. New addition Central Washington is a huge question mark, because they're a pretty successful program that has never played this kind of schedule (tough teams and very tough travel). How will they respond? Outside of that, last year's quad-champions should all be considered threats once again this year. South Dakota loses a great QB in Wes Beschorner. Nebraska-Omaha loses their leading rusher, receiver, and starting QB. North Dakota lost the leader of their defense, Digger Anderson, and they also lost the rock of their offensive line. Also, St. Cloud State is missing a starting QB and record-setting running back. Augustana will be improved, as should Minnesota State. It's a tough league, but UMD has the goods to win it. I think South Dakota and North Dakota will be right there again, and Augustana could surprise with a very good QB (Tommy Flyger).
I think the best way to lay this league out is by tiers, because the top of the league could shake down a number of different ways. And as we saw with UMD last year, even teams that are counted out in preseason previews can be very dangerous (in other words, none of this means anything, because it's probably 100% wrong).
Tier I: UMD, North Dakota, South Dakota
Tier II: Augustana, Central Washington, Nebraska-Omaha, St. Cloud State
Tier III: Minnesota State, Western Washington
Game-by-game, here's what I expect out of UMD (MGoBlog style):
September 9 - Mary
September 30 - at Western Washington
October 7 - Augustana
October 21 - Nebraska-Omaha
November 11 - St. Cloud State
August 31 - at Bemidji StateSeptember 23 - Central Washington
October 14 - at Minnesota State
September 16 - at South Dakota
October 28 - at North Dakota
Best case: UMD overcomes a tough road game in Mankato, takes care of business at home, upsets a Dakota on the road, and finishes 9-1, 7-1.
Worst case: UMD is not that good away from home, leading to another season-opening win over an NCC team for Bemidji State, and Central Washington is tougher than expected. That leads to a not-as-attractive 5-5, 4-4.