(STATS) - The season hasn't even started yet, and the Jacksonville Dolphins are simply playing for pride.
At least this time, they know what they're in for well before a title chase heats up.
A year ago, the Dolphins finished with a 9-2 overall record and 7-1 Pioneer Football League mark, but had to disqualify themselves from playoff contention with one game to go due to violations against the conference's need-based financial aid guidelines.
The school is on probation once again, banned from the 2015 postseason and ineligible to win the league crown.
Jacksonville head coach Kerwin Bell said during Thursday's PFL preseason teleconference that he's heartbroken for his players, for whom there's essentially no light at the end of the tunnel.
"We want to try and go 11-0 and we want to try and be a top 20 football team," Bell said of his expectations for the upcoming season. "These kids, all they did was sign up for a grant provided by our university, and we asked them to apply for it. We asked them to sign for it because our president said our grant was good.
"Some of them got accepted to the grant, some of them didn't. And yet they've got to pay the price. It's just tough on these kids to have to go through that, but boy they've been champions so far. I think they're going to come out and they'll really prove and show everybody that we are a good football team this year."
This could be the third straight year the conference's regular-season winner will be ineligible for postseason play. San Diego ran into similar problems in 2013.
The Dolphins return significant talent this year, landing five players on the league's preseason all-conference squad. That includes four-year starting quarterback Kade Bell, the coach's son, who finished his 2014 campaign with 3,181 passing yards and 31 touchdown passes against 12 interceptions.
Not only does Bell have a strong offensive line to play behind, but he has a handful of weapons, including running backs Ulysses Bryant and Frantz Caudio, and wide receiver Andy Jones. With linebacker Grady Redding and defensive back Terrance Bryant landing on the all-conference preseason team, the defense could be solid as well.
Yet for all the storylines surrounding Jacksonville, it was San Diego which was voted the PFL's team to beat for the fourth consecutive year. Coach Dale Lindsey is known for his skepticism when it comes to early polls, but his team's top overall selection this time last year concluded with a trip to the FCS postseason - albeit after Jacksonville was disqualified.
The Toreros earned seven first-place votes in the preseason coaches' poll, but still only managed to beat out second-place pick Dayton by just two points, highlighting what is believed to be immense parity in this non-scholarship league. San Diego takes on crosstown rival San Diego State to open the 2015 campaign - the program's first game ever against an FBS opponent. The contest will take place at Qualcomm Stadium, home of the San Diego Chargers.
"We're very honored that San Diego State would want to play us," Lindsey said. "There's possibly upwards of 50,000 people who will be there. It's the only place that I know of where you can play a road game at home. But we're looking forward to it. We made the playoffs last year and we ran into a beast in Montana and we expect no less from San Diego State."
San Diego landed four players on the preseason all-conference list, including returning running back Jonah Hodges, who galloped for 1,277 yards and six touchdowns in 2014.
Lindsey and the Toreros know they won't have it easy if they are to earn a rightful spot in the FCS postseason, rather than by concession. Coach Rick Chamberlain fully expects his Dayton team to be in the thick of the competition, fueled by the legs of running back and 2014 PFL Offensive Player of the Year Connor Kacsor.
Kacsor, a STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year candidate and STATS second-team preseason All-American, had seven games last season with at least 100 rushing yards - and three in which he rushed for more than 200. He finished fifth in the FCS in rushing (140.1 ypg) and set a school record with 301 yards against Georgetown in the 2014 opener.
Kacsor finished his junior season with 1,547 yards on the ground and 17 touchdowns.
But Chamberlain knows he can't throw the load squarely on the shoulders of his workhorse back. Instead, it will have to be a complete team effort - one that must go forth without perennial starter Will Bardo at quarterback.
"My expectations of Connor are to be who he is," Chamberlain said. "The same player that you saw last year; not to do any more, not to do any less. Connor is talented, as we all know. It's very nice to have him coming back for a fifth year. ... But Connor knows he can't do it alone.
"Offensively our biggest question mark is at quarterback. We had Will Bardo there for four years and he ended up being second in career yardage here at Dayton, so he had an outstanding career."
Chamberlain has two players battling it out at the quarterback position - both backups who decided to return for a shot at being the man under center.
Dayton fell behind San Diego in the coaches poll by just two points. And coming in just one point behind Dayton was Drake.
Drake and coach Rick Fox have three all-conference players on the preseason list, led by linebacker John Hugunin, who received a medical waiver last year.
Both Fox and Chamberlain know all about the parity in the Pioneer League, made even more obvious by the three points separating the top three teams in the coaches' poll.
"It's more about last year for us than really the preseason poll," Fox said. "For us, last year we felt like we underachieved. It's such a balanced conference and we come in every year expecting to win a conference championship. We didn't get that done last year, and so our guys have been very, very hungry this offseason. They're very focused."
PIONEER LEAGUE PRESEASON POLL=
1. San Diego (7 first-place votes), 89 points.
2. Dayton (3), 87.
3. Drake (1), 86.
4. Campbell, 71.
5. Butler, 59.
6. Stetson, 54.
7. Marist, 50.
8. Morehead State, 40.
9. Valparaiso, 37.
10. Davidson, 22.
PIONEER LEAGUE PRESEASON TEAM=
WR - William Morris, Davidson, Sr.
WR - Kegan Moore, Stetson, Jr.
WR - Matt Tralli, Marist, R-Sr.
TE - Ross Dwelley, San Diego, R-Jr.
QB - Kade Bell, Jacksonville, Jr.
RB - Jonah Hodges, San Diego, R-Jr.
RB - Connor Kacsor, Dayton, R-Sr.
FB - Dalton Dillon, Campbell, Sr.
OL - Kevin Battle, Jacksonville, R-Sr.
OL - Michael Demos, Butler, Sr.
OL - Pono Keni, San Diego, Sr.
OL - Mike Mangino, Marist, R-Sr.
OL - Aaron Melton, Drake, Sr.
DL - Ugonna Awuruonye, Campbell, Sr.
DL - Greg Milhouse, Campbell, Sr.
DL - Nate Sudnick, Dayton, R-Jr.
DL - Demetrius Williams, Marist, R-Sr.
LB - Christopher Beaschler, Dayton, R-Jr.
LB - Alex Green, Valparaiso, Sr.
LB - John Hugunin, Drake, R-Sr.
LB - Grady Redding, Jacksonville, Jr.
DB - Zach Adler, Marist, R-Sr.
DB - Jamal Agnew, San Diego, Jr.
DB - Terrance Bryant, Jacksonville, Sr.
DB - Brad Duwe, Drake, R-Sr.
DB - Donald Payne, Stetson, R-Jr.
PK - Brandon Behr, Jacksonville, R-Jr.
P - Brian Akialis, Butler, R-Sr.
RS - Justin Cornwall, Morehead State, R-Sr.
FIVE KEY PIONEER LEAGUE GAMES=
San Diego at Dayton (Oct. 10) - The defending champion Toreros have to slow down Dayton RB Connor Kacsor.
Jacksonville at Drake (Oct. 24) - Dolphins QB Kade Bell will have to be on his game in one of their toughest road contests.
Valparaiso at Butler (Nov. 7). The Hoosier Helmet Trophy brings extra motivation even though a league title won't be on the line.
Jacksonville at Campbell (Nov. 14) - Campbell took a big step under coach Mike Minter last season. Are the Camels ready for an even bigger one?
Dayton at Drake (Nov. 21) - These two rivals finished only one game behind San Diego last season.