What may be more amazing than the fact that UMD won the NCAA Division II football championship last year may be that only two of their 13 games were ever seriously in doubt. This absolutely was not an accident. The Bulldogs dominated most of their foes, winning home and road games by insane margins.
This year is likely to be a bit different, no matter the eventual path UMD walks.
It's not just about the losses, which are heavy. Star quarterback Ted Schlafke -- a four-year starter -- is gone, as are four-year starting safeties Jim Johnson and Tyler Yelk. It's also about a schedule that will prove to be somewhat tougher, and it's about the big red circles on UMD's back.
See, being the hunted is never easy.
This football team, however, should find that they are more than capable of handling the pressure.
UMD sports a ton of talent around sophomore quarterback Jon Lynch, the new starter. Lynch has a bigger arm than Schlafke, and he learned a lot working as the backup last year. It would be impossible to be on the same team as a guy like Schlafke without learning a lot. Lynch gets to hand off to junior running backs Isaac Odim and Brad Foss. He will throw to junior Noah Pauley and sophomore D.J. Winfield. He will take snaps from center Tobias Lemke and get protection from senior Sam Whitney.
There are familiar faces all over.
Kiel Fechtelkotter, the man who ended the Grand Valley State upset with a double-overtime interception, is back at inside linebacker. His partner, Robbie Aurich, also returns. Cole Strilzuk and Brandon Wood are back at cornerback.
In case you're wondering, sophomores Cody Eich and Brad Just are the listed starters at safety, replacing Johnson and Yelk. No one expects them to truly replace that tandem, and Yelk will be around to do what he can to help them be their best (he's a graduate assistant).
On the sideline is veteran coach Bob Nielson. The UMD athletic director has won everywhere he has coached, including UMD. Memories of the national championship season will last forever with UMD fans, but Nielson understands that the team can't live off that championship for one second. This is a new season, and if the Bulldogs are to do anything remotely close to repeating, they have to take every opponent seriously, no matter what the final score was last year.
A home game with Central Washington on Thursday is UMD's only non-conference game, and it's a doozy. The NSIC schedule includes a road date with old rival Winona State, and the Bulldogs also have to deal with a solid Augustana team.
They also have to deal with the target. Nielson will have them plenty ready.