David Bykowski

Week 1 Preview, Part 1 of 2

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Thanks, Isaac.

Here I was getting all excited about possibly having the first game of the 2012 season, but no, Hurricane Isaac had to spoil the schedule, so here I am, getting pumped up for the second day of the college football season, writing this as I listen to Great American Conference newcomers Northwestern Oklahoma State and Southern Nazarene get thwacked by conference favorites (and rivals) Ouachita Baptist and Henderson State, respectively.

Anyways, let's get to the four (yes, four!) WVIAC games on tap for tomorrow night:

Fairmont State Falcons (0-0) at Clarion Golden Eagles (0-0)

In recent years, Fairmont State has seemed to be the endpoint of a pipeline flowing out of Tallahassee, Florida: a Florida State offense, Florida State coaches, and Florida State players have found themselves in Fairmont in recent years. Now, after two years of building a program up, head coach Mike Lopez is looking to make a real run at a conference title, starting off with an opponent he's had recent success against.

Once again, PSAC coaches don't think much of Clarion's chances in the more competitive west division, ranking them seventh, ahead only of beyond-woeful Lock Haven. But don't discount them so quickly: 18 starters return (eight each on offense and defense, plus two on special teams), and none will have more of an impact than QB Ben Fiscus. Fiscus is a very real dual threat quarterback who tore apart the Falcons' defense in last season's game; the problem was that he was about the only one successful in the previous matchup. Don't look for Clarion to get pass happy: WR Jon Reid returns as last year's leading receiver, but he had less than 300 yards all season. That said, Clarion is young at runningback but does have three starters returning on the offensive line. On defense, LB Nate Sipes and CB Anthony Stimac are back to lead the charge for a Clarion team that did finish 2011 with a flourish.

Meanwhile, gone just up the road to Morgantown is QB Logan Moore, who looked like he got outplayed in the spring by this year's starter, Bobby Vega. Vega, a junior college transfer from the College of DuPage, one of the stronger two-year football programs in the Midwest, definitely looks like more of a dropback passer for the Falcons. RB Daniel Monroe is healed from his foot injury last season against Concord, and his absence was definitely felt late in the season, as you'd expect when you're missing a near-1,000 yard rusher on the year. Two key cogs at wide receiver return: Chris Saint Hilaire and Matt Wilmer, who also is always a threat to take it to the house in the return game. The offensive line is young but may be deeper than last year's. On the other side, look for lots of plays from last season's leading tackler LB Garett Davis as well as two key defensive backs: Scott Davidson and Daniel Strosnider. Unfortunately, star DB Dewey McDonald won't be there this year after suffering a season-ending injury in camp.

The Falcons' defense has struggled the last couple of years against Clarion: turnovers did the Golden Eagles in two years ago while just simple failures to complete drives were the problem last year. Despite the big difference in record between these teams in 2011, Fairmont State only led 17-10 after three quarters before putting the game away after that en route to a 31-17 win. I have every reason to be concerned about Fairmont State's defense again this season, but I'm not sure I see Clarion being able to generate enough offense to keep up with a rejuvenated Falcon assault. Look for this to once again be close going into the fourth quarter.

Prediction: Fairmont State 35, Clarion 27

Shaw Bears (0-0) at Charleston Golden Eagles (0-0)

Ten years ago, this football game wouldn't have happened because neither of these teams existed, both restarting football in the 2003 season. Now they meet for the first time, each possibly being looked at as a dark horse for their conference title.

Shaw will be breaking in a new head coach after a very disappointing 3-7 season in 2011 following a playoff appearance in 2010. QB Quinshon Odom is definitely the strength of this team, which did not run the football very effectively last season. Don't expect much different this year either, as the fairly young offensive line has ended up being a bit banged up in practice leading up to this game. Two players have achieved national acclaim in the preseason and are worth watching: DB Darnell Evans and return man James Langford.

Charleston had two seasons in 2011: the one where they started 0-5 and looked to have no offense and the one where they finished 5-1 and upset West Virginia Wesleyan for the Bobcats' first loss of the season. The offense clearly begins with RB Jordan Roberts, who will be the key to the team's success in 2012. QB Maurice Leak still isn't a true passer, wanting to tuck the football and run perhaps more often than his coaches would like, but under Tony Demeo in 2010 and Pat Kirkland in 2011, Leak has had some games where his arm has done the talking to the tune of nearly 300 yards. Still, with uncertainty at wide receiver, Leak could have a hard time improving in this area. On defense, there are some big names returning: DL Jeff Green, LB Matt Kelly, and three men in the all-important backfield: DBs Ahmed Shakoor, Hassan Coleman, and Isaiah Gibson. Puma Nuredini may be the best kicker in the conference, and that could make the difference in one or two games in 2012.

Shaw's strength in the passing game plays right into Charleston's defensive strength in the backfield, and most of these players are used to the more pass-oriented offenses typical in the WVIAC. After all, stopping the pass (or intercepting it may be a more accurate statement) is exactly how Charleston beat West Virginia Wesleyan in a game that really wasn't that close late last season. I don't see Shaw's defense being able to contain Roberts on the ground, let alone stopping him; even if they do, Leak should have plenty of room to be able to run. Charleston should be able to make a statement to the rest of the conference that they are not to be overlooked in 2012.

Prediction: Charleston 31, Shaw 14

Seton Hill Griffins (0-0) at Slippery Rock (0-0)

Starting next season, this will (or at least should) be a PSAC West game as the Griffins will join 17 other schools in the Keystone State as part of a conference who apparently felt like 16 schools wasn't big enough. All I can say is it's a good thing Mansfield dropped football years ago because 17 football schools is about the most disastrous number possible for a conference to have.

There will definitely be some changes at The Rock this year following an appearance in the PSAC Championship in 2011 and just missing a shot at the playoffs. Only five offensive and six defensive starters return for the home team, who will be bringing in a new no-huddle spread offense this season, which could be tough for new starting QB Jared Buck. That could put more pressure on RB Akeem Satterfield, one of four all-conference performers on the team, along with two offensive linemen and DE Jeff Thompson.

The good news for Seton Hill is that six offensive starters return, including all five offensive linemen and QB Ryan Morris. The bad news is that zero receptions from last year's squad return, and the ground game is inexperienced as well. So, head coach Joel Dolinski has gone the transfer route to build up talent: senior RB Tavin Davis from Arkansas Tech and junior college transfer David Miller will lead the ground game while junior Mike Allen and seniors Darvin Henderson (from Monmouth) and DJ Carter (from West Chester) will take charge at wide receiver. Defensively, the story is much the same, so look for more new faces with junior Slippery Rock transfer DL Ahman Milot, sophomore Tyler Zimmer (from Duquesne), and senior defensive backs Darius Turner and former Missouri S&T player Ellis Barfield.

We've seen it time and again: loading up on transfers can either go very well (as with North Alabama) or very poorly (as with, well, a lot more places). Usually I've seen the transfer route, particularly with so many seniors, as a desperation move by a coach whose job security is in doubt. There's no middle ground here for the Griffins, who can't do much worse after a 1-10 season in 2011 and who have to be out to prove that their one playoff appearance in school history isn't a fluke surrounded by dismal seasons all around. Slippery Rock isn't where they were last year, and I think even being picked third in the PSAC West is a bit generous, but they still have plenty of talent to give Seton Hill trouble.

Prediction: Slippery Rock 30, Seton Hill 13

Glenville State Pioneers (0-0) at Carson-Newman Eagles (0-0)

I remember watching last year's opener for Glenville State with great interest. I had even greater interest as the Eagles turned the ball over four times on their first five drives in the contest, but the Pioneers could only turn those opportunities into 13 points. That was as good as it got for Glenville State that night. Now, both squads definitely want better.

Carson-Newman may still be reeling a bit from the shock of legendary head coach Ken Sparks suffering his first losing season ever at Mossy Creek in a career that goes back to 1980. To listen to him talk is to hear a coach that's worried about how young his team is and how unsure he is heading into his 33rd season, trying not to think about getting his 300th career victory. But he is right: there are plenty of positions in question on his team. Quarterback, however, is not one of them: Brandon Haywood established himself as the man last year and will start again in 2012. Tyron Douglas and Brandon Baker will hold the position of RB, but in the Eagles' split-veer offense, pretty much anyone can (and will) have a carry or two before the night is over, so the fact that the team lacks experience at wide receiver after a number of injuries last year may not be such a factor. On the other side of the ball, Carson-Newman lost seven starters but does bring back a big threat in LB Jaycob Coleman, even if two more linebackers were lost in camp, a tough blow for a team that typically runs a 4-3 defense.

Glenville State's biggest security is at quarterback: senior Darold Hughes is back and should start, though Steffen Colon played very well last year and can easily take over no matter what happens. Runningback and wide receiver are bigger questions, however, though the offensive line looks secure. Seven starters return on defense, most notably LB Nate Ingersoll, FS Terry Reese, and DE James Washington. Don't overlook CB Brandon Absher, one of the quiet defensive stars on the team. Colston Bayless and Eddie McKay both return on special teams, so one way or another, the Pioneers will get the kicking game straightened out.

You'll notice I didn't say much about the Pioneers' offense. That's because, well, there are a lot of questions there, making it hard for me to have a whole lot of confidence. Then again, the same can be said of Carson-Newman on defense. But there are two more big wildcards in this game: an offense that is very difficult to prepare for to start off the season (something you'll hear me say again later this week when I talk about Lenoir-Rhyne vs. Concord) and a tough place to play in Burke-Tarr Stadium, one of the louder crowds in Division II college football. If this game were being played in the middle of the season, I think the Pioneers could pull off a win. But to open the season with this kind of road trip against an offensive scheme they won't see again all year, I just don't like their chances. I do think it will be closer than last year's 45-20 loss was, though.

Prediction: Carson-Newman 28, Glenville State 20

Coming up later this week is Part 2 of the Week 1 Preview, where I'll answer these questions and more:

Can West Virginia State get its mojo going early this year and not look like an automatic win this season?
Why does Shippensburg have more of a chance than everyone else seems to think against Shepherd?
Why is Lenoir-Rhyne favored to win the SAC this season, and will that be enough to top Concord in Athens?
Plus, how is it that I'm going to be liveblogging two games, both in person, this coming Saturday, and how can you get in on the action?

As always, your comments are welcome, plus you can email me at david.bykowski@d2football.com and follow me on Twitter @Byko.

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