By Chuck Burton
& David Coulson
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — Unlike the late Rodney Dangerfield, the Pioneer Football League didn't have to wait until death to finally earn some respect.
The PFL finally received the news it had been awaiting for years when it was announced this month that the NCAA Division I Football Championships are expanding to 24 teams in 2013 and that the league will be given an automatic bid into the playoffs.
The only frustration for the 10 teams in the conference is that its 2012 champion will have to receive an at-large berth to reach the postseason this year — something the PFL has never accomplished.
Several of the teams in this non-athletic-scholarship configuration have made big strides to improve their schedules this season, replacing those troublesome non-Division I contests with tougher opponents.
Dayton begins with Illinois State, Robert Morris and Duquesne, while Jacksonville — which has taken on teams like Appalachian State, The Citadel and Western Illinois in recent years — is traveling to Georgia Southern for its opener.
San Diego meets Cal Poly in its season kickoff and has a trip to Harvard later in the month. Drake takes on Montana State and Indiana State in its first two games, with Butler taking on Western Illinois and Dartmouth.
Marist has scheduled Bryant, Bucknell and Columbia, while Morehead State is meeting Eastern Kentucky and St. Francis.
Davidson's log includes games against Georgetown and Presbyterian, with Campbell taking the plunge against Old Dominion.
Evenly lowly Valparaiso has signed on for games against Youngstown State and Duquesne.
Many of these games would have been unimaginative just a few years ago, but the PFL has listened closely to the suggestions of the NCAA.
A lot of circumstances would probably have to fall in place for the PFL to get a team into the playoffs this season, particularly some big wins in those major out-of-conference games.
But teams like defending champions San Diego and Drake, Jacksonville and Dayton can always hope. And at least now, they know that that auto bid is waiting around the corner.
Five Players to Watch in 2012
1. QB Mason Mills, San Diego. The talented junior has the arm, and the targets — but he's also had a propensity to connect with the guys in the opposite jerseys. If he takes care of the ball better, he could be the best QB in the PFL and deliver a championship to the Toreros. Will he?
2. RB Taylor Harris, Dayton. Returning one more year, any run by the Flyers will depend on Harris building on his 899 yard rushing, eight-TD performance in the 2011 season.
3. DE Blake Olario, San Diego. He's on the national pre-season all-American teams. He has the stats – 15 sacks. Will he live up to expectations?
4. LB Tyler Moorhead, Drake. What makes Drake a top contender is their balance between offense and defense, and Moorhead, the top tackler in the PFL, anchors that Bulldog unit. Can he and the Drake defense slow down these massive passing attacks?
5. QB Zach Lewis, Morehead State. It's hard to believe there's an FCS player with 28 TDs and 3,585 yards passing that flies under the radar, but Lewis is that player. Can he expand on the stats to get more wins for the Eagles?
Our Sleeper Player to Watch: QB Kade Bell, Jacksonville. Is he the son of head coach Kerwin Bell? Yes. But the real question is: does the 6-1, 185-pound redshirt freshman have more than just the bloodline? His dad, the former Florida passing star, has been instrumental in building the Dolphins from perennial doormat to perennial contender in the Pioneer Football League. If Son Bell is like Pa Bell, Jacksonville could be looking at a championship team. Will he fill his father's shoes?
Predicted Order of Finish
2. San Diego
5. Morehead State
Drake (9-2 overall, 7-1 in league): With QB Mike Piatkowski at the helm and a brutal schedule featuring two Top 25 teams (Montana State and Indiana State), the Bulldogs should be well prepared when San Diego invades Drake Stadium in October.
San Diego (9-2, 7-1): With QB Mason Mills trying to channel his inner Josh Johnson and All-American DE Blake Oliaro leading the defense, the Toreros will put points up on the board and shut down opponents. But will they be able to do so on that critical day in November?
Jacksonville: The Dolphins say good-bye to prolific passer Josh McGregor, which seems to put them a step behind the Bulldogs and Toreros.
Dayton (6-5, 4-4): The Flyers fourth? Really? This perennial Pioneer power is in a rare rebuilding year, behind sophomore QB Will Bardo and senior RB Taylor Harris.
Morehead State: QB Zach Lewis hosts an offense that piles on the points — good for second in the nation last year. Unfortunately, it was paired with one of the worst defenses in FCS.
Marist (4-7, 3-3): The Red Foxes have a solid defense, led by DE Terence Fede and S Nick Mainiero. But they need to develop an offense to match them, which only mustered 17.6 points per game in 2011.
Campbell (6-5. 5-3): Behind QB Braden Smith, the Camels know how to put up points. Unfortunately, they also had the worst pass defense in all of FCS last year.
Butler (5-6, 3-5): The Bulldogs lose the services of QB Andrew Huck to graduation, which might make it a rebuilding year for Butler despite the presence of LB Jordan Ridley.
Davidson (4-7, 2-6): It will be fun for Wildcat fans to watch WR Larry Funsten pile up the yards, but Davidson won't be piling up the wins to go with it.
Valparaiso (1-10, 1-7): The good news was that the Crusaders broke their epic 29-game losing streak last year with a 34-31 win over Campbell. The bad news is that it's not at all clear if sophomore QB Eric Hoffman and Valpo will be able to equal their win total of 2011.