It’s been nine months since the Carroll College Fighting Saints beat Sioux Falls 10-7 in the 2010 NAIA national championship game. It’s been even longer since the last Frontier Conference football game was played.
On Saturday, that’s all about to change as the Frontier season officially gets underway.
And there’s plenty of excitement surrounding the league this season. But just like it’s been almost a year since Carroll won its sixth national championship, it’s been nearly five times as long since anyone in the Frontier has beaten Carroll. The Saints ride a 42-game conference winning streak into this season and an 11-year conference championship streak. So the biggest question mark this season will be: can anyone beat the Saints?
But Carroll isn’t the only story line as the season gets going. Rocky Mountain College looks poised to continue what the Battlin’ Bears started a year ago, and will this finally be the season Eastern Oregon gets over the hump. This is also the last season before Dickinson State and Southern Oregon join the conference, while new head coaches are in place at Montana Tech and UM-Western.
One thing’s is for sure however, this Frontier season figures to be a wild ride with plenty of good football.
"Carroll's still the favorite, there's no question about that," MSU-N head coach Mark Samson said. "But I think there are a lot of teams in this league who have done a lot to improve. I think you could see a very balanced league this season."
Here’s a quick look at each Frontier Conference team in the predicted order of finish for 2011.
The Saints lost some key players from their undefeated 2010 championship team. Most notably starting quarterback, NAIA all-american and former Havre High great Gary Wagner, as well as NAIA Player of the Year Bubba Bartlett. Carroll also graduated some good players on defense. But as usual, the Saints don’t rebuild, they reload.
Senior QB Dane Broadhead takes over for Wagner, while former Malta prep Chance Demarias gained over 900 yards on the ground a year ago in a backup running back role. Carroll’s huge offensive line, which includes two all-americans, as well as savvy senior Matt Ritter help make the Saints’ offense as explosive as ever.
“Our offense is in good hands,” Carroll head coach Mike Van Diest said.
The Saints should also be stout on defense, especially in the secondary where NAIA All-American safety Brian Strobel returns. Carroll is a veteran team in the secondary, while linebackers Thomas Robison, Lynn Mallory and Rhakeem Harris all return. The question marks come on the line where the Saints have to replace three starters, but again, Carroll’s depth should provide the Saints with plenty of talent up front.
And while Carroll is coming off another national championship season, and the Saints do have some great players returning, Van Diest is always looking ahead, and when the Saints take to the field Saturday against Rocky in Billings, all that happened a year ago will be put to the past, and the Saints will begin their quest for an unprecedented 12th straight Frontier title. Whether they get it or not is up to the rest of the league.
The EOU Mountaineers have been picked for the last three years to contend for the Frontier title and an NAIA playoff berth. But with perhaps the top two offensive players in the country, this might be EOU’s best chance.
After going a disappointing 5-6 last season, the Mounties return senior QB Chris Ware and senior RB Kevin Sampson, both all-americans a year ago. The Mounties also have great receivers in Jake Burroughs and tight end Dillon Bedford. Ware led the nation in total offense and passing a year ago, while Sampson gained 1,309 yards on the ground and 487 through the air. So there’s no doubt the Mountie offense will be good again. But they return few starters on the offensive line and even fewer on defense, so there are concerns.
“We feel like we took a step back as a football program last year,” head coach Tim Camp said. “I felt like we should have been better.”
To take a step forward, the Mounties will have to be better on defense. With Ware and Sampson and a fast-paced spread option attack, the Mounties will score points. But stopping opponents will be a test. Especially after three-time all-american Seath Kimball graduated last spring. The Mounties do return linebacker Marc-Avery Airhart and the sophomore safety Max Hannah, who led the league in interceptions, but to compete for a Frontier title, EOU will have to have new players step up on defense this season.
Rocky Mountain College
Brian Armstrong has certainly had one of the top offenses in the NAIA the last few years at Rocky. But the reason the Bears might finally make a run at a Frontier title is defense.
Rocky graduated three-time all-american QB Kasey Peters last spring, but the Bears return all 11 starters on defense and that’s the main reason the Bears, who went 6-5 a year ago are picked to challenge the Saints for the conference championship.
And Rocky won’t just be improved on defense, the Bears will be great. They return star linebackers Trenton Thelen and Steffan Blume as well as defensive end Phil Urlacher and they’ve added South Carolina transfer end Josh Johnson. In the secondary the Bears have a pair of ball hawks in J.T. Fitzgerald and Thomas Ackerman.
“We’ve got a very solid core group of guys coming back,” Armstrong said. ‘Including 11 starters on defense. But we also lost some key guys on offense. There are a lot of yards that aren’t around anymore.”
Still, the Bears wide-open offense should be dangerous of freshman quarterback Bryce Baker can settle in. RMC has a pair of all-american receivers in A.J. Tolbert and Levi Sutton, as well as host of young pass catchers ready to step up. However, RMC must reload its running game after Michael Thomas, who gained almost a 1,000 yards a year graduated. Seniors Nate Ray and Sean Coleman will lead the rushing attack, but the Bears return just two starters on the offensive line, and that may be the biggest question mark.
It’s interesting that in many recent seasons, it wasn’t a question of whether the Bears would score points, but more so, if they could stop anybody. Now RMC enters the 2011 Frontier season with a new-look offense, but also with perhaps the best defense in the Frontier. And with a winning defense, the Bears might just be ready for their best season in over a decade.
The Lights are ready to bust out in 2009. After a 2-8 season in 2010 and a 3-7 season in 2010, the Lights are hungry to get back to their winning ways.
Offensively, Northern returns nine starters including its entire offensive line, so Northern should be poised for big things this season. Defensively, all-american Will Andrews is back as are four linebackers with starting experience, including the Frontier’s leading tackler in Landry See. Northern is young in the secondary and the Lights struggled against the pass last season, but if the Lights gel into the premier defense they are striving to be, and if they cut back on turnovers that hurt them last season, as well as avoid injuries that have seemed to plague the team the last three season, MSU-N is more than capable of making a run at the Frontier title and the playoffs.
“We have a chance to do some good things this season,” Samson said. “This is a great group to coach, they have really worked their tails off this season, and the work ethic of this team has been incredible. I believe we are much better football team than we were a year ago and now we just have to go out and do it on Saturday’s.”
There is plenty of new in Butte this fall. After 24 seasons at the helm at Montana Tech, the legendary Bob Green retired last winter, and Chuck Morrell who coached at Sioux Falls takes over.
And while Morrell inherits a prideful and successful program built by Green, he also has work to do. Tech went 5-6 last season and hasn’t made a push for a conference title in several years. The Orediggers also graduated key players all over the field including four-year starter Matt Komac at QB, several all-conference o-linemen and some stout players on defense.
Billings sophomore Brian Schwrazkoph takes over at QB for Tech’s new-look offense while the Diggers’ will go with a bevy of young running backs this season. Tech should be good in the passing game with three veteran wideouts back, led by Clay McQueary, and the offensive line returns Drew Waltee and Matt Study.
There’s plenty of question marks on offense, but Tech’s defense may be rebuilding this season. The Orediggers return just three starters led by nose guard Marcus Johnson. Linebackers Kevin Schey and former Chester standout Matt Wicks will also be counted on.
So while Tech will still be a force to be reckoned with in the Frontier Conference, there’s no doubt Morrell will have his work cut out for him. Still, it’s an exciting time in Butte as things are brand new.
“This is a special situation for me, having the opportunity to take over for a legend,” Morrell said. “We’re brand new. Everything’s new – our offense and our defense. And the most important thing is we’ve got a lot of new players coming in.”
There’s also a new face in charge in Dillon. Head coach Ryan Nourse takes over for Rich Ferris, who was not brought back last winter. Nourse is a former Bulldog great who played on the 1994 Frontier championship team.
And now, Nourse is back in Dillon to try and help revive his alma mata. The Bulldogs won just seven games under Ferris and went 1-10 a season, so Nourse certainly has an uphill climb.
But Western does have a solid foundation. The Dawgs’ are always dangerous on offense, and they return nine starters, led by junior QB Jeff Logan. Receivers Rashad Peniston and Colton Woods are burners, while senior running back Charlie Dotson is a bruiser.
Western’s defense also has key players back including Pensioni Tuifua and Lynn Mallory on the line, but the Bulldogs are young at linebacker and in the secondary. Western will also be employing a new passing attack and a 3-4 defense, but most importantly, Nourse is excited about putting a good product on the field and getting Western back to its winning ways.