The season hasn't even started yet but already North Central has a target on its back.
After a 2012 season that saw a share of the CCIW title, the automatic playoff bid and a trip to the second round in the playoffs, the Cardinals have been picked as the preseason conference favorite.
The coaches voted North Central as the preseason favorite, getting five of the eight first-place votes. Much of the confidence comes from the returning players. Coach John Thorne will bring back much of his team's firepower from last year, returning two wide receivers and the starting quarterback.
Jace Werkheiser, a returning senior tackle, has been named to the preseason All-America team by D3Football.com. On the second team is safety Shane Dierking (WW South). The senior is one of four returning starters on the defense.
After being left out of the playoffs in 2012 despite winning a share of the conference title, the Thunder look to reload for another run in 2013. Wheaton was the only other team in the conference to receive first-place votes in the coaches poll and was voted second place overall.
The Thunder will be led by experience on both sides of the ball with 14 total returning starters, most importantly first-team All-America center Spencer Clark and all-conference quarterback Jordan Roberts (Aurora Christian).
Wheaton's bid to return to the playoffs will start on the road, but it won't have to go far. It will take on Benedictine in a rematch of last year's dominating 48-7 Thunder victory.
The biggest game of the year, however, doesn't come until the second to last week of the season. Coach Mike Swider is already thinking about the North Central game on Nov. 9. The loss last year in the rivalry game most likely prevented the Thunder from reaching the playoffs.
The 2013 Bluejays have big shoes to fill. Last year the team won a share of the conference title and reached the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs.
Unfortunately for this year's team, it will be trying to repeat without its All-America running back and coach. After Tim Lester left the team for the quarterback coach job at Syracuse, Elmhurst promoted assistant coach Joe Adam to lead the team.
With Gagliardi Trophy winner Scottie Williams no longer in the backfield, another Williams will be asked to pick up the slack. Josh Williams, Scottie's younger brother, is returning for his sophomore year. Adam hasn't announced a starting quarterback yet, but whoever is taking the snap will have the benefit of throwing to the most experienced position on the Bluejays' roster. Senior Vince Gabrys will return to his starting spot at tight end with All-America possibilities in his final year.
Following a 5-5 season, the Eagles will go into the new season with plenty of familiarity with their opponents. Benedictine played all but one of its 2013 opponents last year and hopes that experience will prove beneficial.
Crucial to any success for this year's Eagles team is Cyle Schultz. The junior quarterback and returning starter was key for the team throwing three touchdown passes in a victory against North Park.
Benedictine will have a good sense of where the team is early on this year. After night games at home against CCIW teams Wheaton College and North Park, the Eagles will play their first road game of the year against Kalamazoo. If the team can survive its nonconference schedule it will head into Northern Athletics Conference play with a head of steam when it plays Concordia. The Eagles hope to get back over the .500 mark in conference this year despite playing only three of the seven NAC games at home.
College of DuPage:
The Chaparrals head into the 2013 season after a tumultuous off-season. After going 9-2 and winning the Citizen's Bank Bowl, the team wasn't sure it would even return the following year. Once the decision was made to bring back the football program, athletic director Paul Zakowski had to find a new coach.
The decision was made to promote Matt Foster, and while this is his first coaching job at the college level, he is far from new to the area. Foster has been the coach of Wheaton North and an assistant coach at both COD and North Central.
The team will need Foster's defensive specialty. In their first game of the season the Chaparrals lost at home to Arkansas Baptist 34-23. They will look to rebound Saturday at home against North Dakota Science in their first conference game of the season.