Two major off-season developments are affecting this division. One is the NCAA's new rule, Bylaw 5-l-(j), which mandates minimum acceptable grades. Because 5-1-(j) won't go into effect at this level until next fall, it has provided a windfall of Division I-A caliber players who couldn't cut it in the classroom. The other is the departure of quarterback Jeff Bentrim and coach Earle Solomonson from North Dakota State, the Division II champion three of the last four years. "There's blood there," South Dakota coach Dave Triplett says, "and the sharks sense it."
The swiftest sharks are in Kingsville, Texas. As a freshman last season, Texas A & I tailback Johnny Bailey, a 5-1-(j) refugee from Houston, became only the third back in NCAA history to rush for 2,000 yards. Fullback Heath Sherman added 1,515 yards of his own, and no backfield duo at any level has ever gained more in a season. If the defense can slow someone down—A & I allowed 265.4 yards passing per game—then the eyes of Texas, and maybe the entire country, will be on A & I.
South Dakota lost to North Dakota State in the semifinals in '85 and by 27-7 in last year's final, and, says Triplett, "If we can be competitive in the [North Central] conference, everything else will take care of itself." There is another "if": whether the inexperienced offensive line can open holes for James Hambrick (1,059 yards in '86).
Sixteen starters are back at Troy State, including coach Rick Rhoades, who resigned last January, then changed his mind the next day. His wishbone, third in the division in total offense, is small, yet real, comfort. Quarterback Mike Turk goes 5'6½", 157, and end Titus Dixon, who returned a kickoff 100 yards and caught a 99-yard touchdown pass last season, 5'9", 165.
There's a new look at UC-Davis following the graduation of quarterback Chris Petersen, the division's leading passer the last two seasons, and all his favorite receivers. The veteran Aggie line will shift its emphasis to opening holes for running back Jerold Ligons.
Rocky Hager, North Dakota State's third coach in nine years, replaces Bentrim with Brian Owen. Bentrim won the '86 Harlon Hill Trophy, awarded to the outstanding Division II player. Hager must also replace All-Americas at middle guard and linebacker.
Virginia Union, which had the division's stingiest defense (163.5 yards a game), is still smarting after giving up 31 points in a playoff loss to Troy State. Seven starters return to that chastened defense. The entire offensive line is back, too, but the holes had best be big: There's no experience at running back.
The defending Pennsylvania Conference Eastern and Western Division champs meet Sept. 5, when Indiana University visits West Chester. Indiana has only three starters back on offense. The Rams, with quarterback Al Niemela, who threw for 22 touchdowns, and tailback Jason Sims, who gained 1,151 yards rushing, should prevail.
Two rehabilitated stars will help Fort Valley State climb back to the top of the SIAC: quarterback Chris Hill, sidelined with groin trouble, and coach Douglas Porter, who missed 1986 because of a heart attack.
Ashland received a rude welcome when it reached the big time last season: North Dakota State blitzed the Eagles 50-0 in their first-ever playoff game. But 17 starters return, including quarterback Dave Biondo.
North Alabama is in the unfamiliar role of dark horse. The Lions finished an uncharacteristic 4-7 last year, and Coach Wayne Grubb has shucked the 4-3 defense that led the Gulf South Conference from 1980 to '85 in favor of a five-man front. Running back Marvin Marsh, who did not start until midseason and still gained 1,106 yards, will rumble again.