By BRIAN LESTER
Fresh off its third consecutive winning season, the University of Findlay football team will enter the 2014 campaign as one of the top teams in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
The Oilers are picked to finish second in the South Division, racking up 30 points and one first-place vote. Ohio Dominican, the defending division champion and a 2013 NCAA Division II playoff participant, tallied 36 points and six first-place votes.
UF finished behind ODU in the standings last year and lost 41-21 to the Panthers in the regular season. The two teams do not play each other this year.
Grand Valley State, which marched all the way to the national semifinals a season ago, is once again the favorite in the North Division. The Lakers racked up 49 points and seven first-place votes. Ferris State is picked second with 42. Saginaw Valley State received the other first-place vote. The Cardinals are slated third in the division.
The Oilers are coming off an 8-3 season, including a 6-3 mark in the GLIAC. They won their final four games, not turning the ball over once during that stretch, and won seven of their final eight overall after a 1-2 start.
UF is heavy on experience as it enters the fourth year under head coach Rob Keys. The roster features 18 seniors and a junior running back who was a regional finalist for the Harlon Hill Award, the D-II equivalent of the Heisman.
Daiquone Ford rushed for 1,789 yards and 24 touchdowns before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in week 10. He helped fuel an offense that cranked out 504.5 yards per game, the eighth-best average in the nation.
The Oilers struggled at times defensively and ranked last in the GLIAC, giving up 262.8 yards per game. But they finished strong, holding their last four opponents to under 30 points. Harold Jones-Quartey is one of the key players back for the Oilers on defense after racking up 92 tackles and picking off a pass in three of the last four games.
While the Oilers will enter the year hoping to contend for their first GLIAC title and D-II playoff berth in program history, Keys said on Monday that his team has a long way to go to get to where it wants to ultimately be as a team.
“We are miles and miles and miles away,” Keys said. “The first practice is something to build on. I hope we can be consistent every day in practice. We have a long way to go, but I think our guys have the mindset and focus to do what it takes to get there.”
GLIAC Preseason Poll
1. Grand Valley State (7) 49
2. Ferris State 42
3. Saginaw Valley State (1) 35
4. Michigan Tech 30
5. Hillsdale 26
6. Wayne State 21
7. Northern Michigan 12
8. Northwood 9
1. Ohio Dominican (6) 36
2. Findlay (1) 30
3. Ashland 27
4. Lake Erie 16
5. Walsh 16
6. Tiffin 14
7. Malone 8