RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. (GreatAmericanConference.com)
Henderson State, off consecutive undefeated regular seasons, garnered 10 first-place votes to emerge as the favorite to win a third Great American Conference football title, the conference office announced on Thursday.
The Reddies received all possible first-place votes as coaches could not include themselves in their ballot. They return the lethal combination of quarterback Kevin Rodgers and wide receiver Darius Davis. Rodgers, a two-time Harlon Hill award finalist, has claimed consecutive GAC Offensive Player of the Year and GAC Male Athlete of the Year honors. He enters 2014 as the only quarterback in Division II to have already amassed 10,000 passing yards and 90 passing touchdowns. Davis ranked third nationally with 1,597 receiving yards and fourth with 16 receiving touchdowns in 2013. In total, HSU returns seven All-GAC performers and 16 starters from 2013.
Harding, off its first-ever NCAA Division II playoff appearance in 2012 and a victory in the inaugural Live United Texarkana Bowl in 2013, took second in the poll. The Bisons have won nine games in consecutive years for the first time in program history. Their potent rushing attack returns four of their top five ground gainers, led by All-American Romo Westbrook. He paced the conference with 1,123 rushing yards and his 12 rushing touchdowns ranked third. Quarterback Keenan Kellett matched Westbrook with 12 touchdowns and wide received Donatella Luckett amassed over 1,100 all-purpose yards.
Ouachita Baptist, off an invitation to the C.H.A.M.P.S. Heart of Texas Bowl, placed third in the voting. The Tigers finished 7-3 with all three losses coming by eight points or less. While they return eight All-GAC performers, they must replace Chris Rycraw, a two-time First-Team All-GAC running back. Steven Kehner and Spencer Knight return for the Ouachita backfield along with tight end Jonathan Powell and All-American center Aaron Sprinkle. The Tigers feature a pair of All-GAC performers on special teams in kicker Matthew Ehasz and returner Etauj Allen. They welcome in former Auburn quarterback Kiehl Frazier as the signal caller for his senior season.
East Central narrowly edged out Southern Arkansas for fourth in the poll with Southwestern Oklahoma State finishing sixth. The Tigers held onto the KTEN Cup by beating rival Southeastern Oklahoma State for the fourth consecutive year and in the process finished at .500 or better for the third straight season. SAU and SWOSU turned in matching 6-4 records within GAC play but both must replace an All-GAC quarterback. The Muleriders' Tyler Sykora and the Bulldogs' Dustin Stenta each finished their careers with more than 9,000 passing yards.
Arkansas Tech claimed seventh with Southeastern Oklahoma State in eighth and Arkansas-Monticello in ninth. In the first season under Raymond Monica, the Wonder Boys defense improved from allowing 38.6 points per game in 2012 down to 27.1 in 2013. Southeastern made a coaching change as Bo Atterberry moved up from defensive coordinator to take over at his alma mater. He inherits 2013 GAC Freshman of the Year Devlon Wortham. He ran for 1,119 yards and helped the Savage Storm feature a 2,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard receiver and a 1,000 yard-rusher in the same year for the first time in program history. UAM improved on a 1-10 2012 season by posting a 5-6 mark in 2013. Freshman kicker Jamie McGee earned All-American honors as he made a GAC and UAM single-season record 17 field goals.
Northwestern Oklahoma State and Southern Nazarene rounded out the poll. The Rangers open at Arkansas Tech on Thursday, September 4 in the GAC opening game. Eight other schools open on Saturday, September 6 when East Central heads to Arkansas-Monticello, Henderson State travels to Southern Nazarene, Harding hosts Southwestern Oklahoma State and Southern Arkansas welcomes in Southeastern Oklahoma State. Meanwhile, Ouachita opens one week later.