Defending Pioneer champ San Diego opens against MWC foe San Diego State
Defending champion and preseason favorite San Diego will be the last Pioneer League team to take the field in Week 1 when it meets Mountain West Conference opponent San Diego State at Qualcomm Stadium on Saturday night.
The Toreros (9-3, 7-1) advanced to the FCS playoffs for the first time last season, losing 52-14 in the opening round to Montana. They return 13 starters and have four players on the all-league preseason team - running back Jonah Hodges, offensive lineman Pono Keni, tight end Ross Dwelley and cornerback Jamal Agnew.
Hodges ran for 1,214 yards and six touchdowns, Dwelley is the top returning receiver after catching 24 balls for 224 yards with three scores and Agnew led the FCS with 19 passes defended to go along with a team-high four interceptions.
Third-year coach Dale Lindsey still faces some challenges, though, the biggest among them at quarterback. Incumbent starter Keith Williams decided to transfer - Trey Wheeler was the backup last season - and Lindsey will also have to figure out a way to replace the production of wideouts Brandon White and Reggie Bell after the duo combined for 97 receptions, 1,607 yards and 16 TDs in 2014.
"We have been a really good passing team every year that I've ever been here," Lindsey said. "... We had guys who could sling it and we had guys who could catch it. That is something right now that there's a question mark about."
San Diego State (7-6, 5-3) was selected as the favorite in the MWC West and is led by running back Donnel Pumphrey, who set a school record and was fourth in FBS with 1,867 yards last year while finishing ninth with 20 TDs.
The Aztecs lost 17-16 to Navy on a late field goal in the Poinsettia Bowl.
"September 5. We get to come back and try to redeem ourselves and try to win the Mountain West championship," defensive back J.J. Whittaker said.
A look at the other Week 1 games in the Pioneer League (all times EDT):
Campbell vs. Pikeville, 7 p.m.
Campbell (5-7, 4-4) brings back 15 starters from last season, including nine on defense, but the Camels lost quarterback Dakota Wolf. All-league selections Ugonna Awuruonye and Greg Milhouse return to lead the defensive line. NAIA school Pikeville began 2015 with a 32-13 win over Bluefield last week.
Valparaiso (4-8, 2-6) is led by a defensive corps that includes all-Pioneer linebacker Alex Green, and that unit will have its hands full with No. 17 Eastern Kentucky and running back Dy'Shawn Mobley, the Ohio Valley Conference preseason offensive player of the year.
Jacksonville (9-2, 7-1) had to disqualify itself from playoff contention with one game left last year due to violations against the league's need-based financial aid guidelines. The Dolphins are on probation again, banned from the postseason and ineligible to win the league crown. They have five players on the preseason all-PFL team, including quarterback Kade Bell. Delaware is led by tackle Blaine Woodson, the Colonial Athletic Association defensive rookie of the year in 2014.
Dayton (8-3, 6-2) gets underway with 2014 PFL offensive player of the year Connor Kacsor back in the fold running the ball. Kacsor rushed for 1,547 yards and 17 TDs a year ago as the Flyers posted their most wins since 2010. Kacsor, though, was held to a season-low 47 yards by Robert Morris in Dayton's 31-7 home win in Week 3 last year. The Colonials bring back their top eight tacklers from that team.
Butler (4-7, 2-6) faces a tough opener at 21st-ranked Indiana State, but the Bulldogs have Matt Shiltz back under center after he missed the final five games last season. The Sycamores had four players selected to the Missouri Valley Conference preseason team, including three on the defensive side.
Davidson (1-11, 0-8) lost its final 11 games last year despite William Morris setting a school record with 1,224 receiving yards - the most by a wide receiver in the league since 2008. The Citadel boast a pair of all-Southern Conference preseason picks in offensive lineman Sam Frye and defensive lineman Mitchell Jeter.
Marist (4-7, 4-4) failed to build off its 8-3 record in 2013 but enters this matchup against Patriot League stalwart Bucknell with four players on the league preseason team, including fifth-year seniors Matt Tralli at wide receiver and Demetrius Williams at defensive end. The Bison put a league-best six players on the preseason squad, including wide receiver Will Carter and running back C.J. Williams.
Morehead State (4-8, 3-5) and quarterback Austin Gahafer take on No. 12 James Madison after Gahafer totaled 5,270 passing yards and 36 TDs in his first two seasons. The Dukes reached the FCS playoffs last year and were picked to finish second in the CAA in 2015.
Stetson (5-7, 3-5) improved on its 2-9 mark in its first season in the Pioneer League in 2013 and will be looking for more wins behind preseason All-America and returning league defensive player of the year Donald Payne, who set a Pioneer record with 175 tackles. Webber International is ranked 24th in the NAIA and opened its season with a 48-21 victory over Arizona Christian last week as Darius Page ran for 206 yards and three TDs.
Drake (7-4, 6-2) brings back 16 starters, including eight from a defensive unit that led the league with 318.0 yards allowed per game. Defensive back Brad Duwe and linebacker John Hugunin return after earning second-team all-league honors. William Jewell is paced by running back Tre Mask, who was named to the Division II All-Freshmen team last season.