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North Dakota State Joins the Big 12! Also, Mid-South and KCAC previews

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Look, I can't help it if it's factually true.

Okay, so it's not for football. So what?
Okay, so it's not for football. So what?
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Lead

Occasionally, a thing happens and the headline is inescapable.

Yesterday, the Big 12 added seven new members. No, not for football. That would be much bigger news. But starting this year, Denver will join the Big 12 for gymnastics while North Dakota State, South Dakota State, Northern Colorado, Air Force, Utah Valley, and Wyoming join the league for wrestling.

Those seven schools join Alabama and Tennessee as sometimes-members of the Big 12, and the expansion brings the Big 12's wrestling contingent to ten teams. (The addition of Denver still leaves the conference with only four teams competing in gymnastics.)

That's all we have for you into today's Lead; we'll get right to the conference previews now.

Mid-South Conference

2014 Standings and Info
East Division
SCHOOL LOCATION MSC-EAST OVERALL
7 Lindsey Wilson College Blue Raiders Columbia KY 6-0 10-3
11 Georgetown College Tigers Georgetown KY 5-1 8-3
University of Pikeville Bears Pikeville KY 4-2 5-6
Kentucky Christian University Knights Grayson KY 2-4 5-6
University of the Cumberlands Pioneers Williamsburg KY 2-4 3-7
Bluefield College Rams Bluefield VA 1-5 3-8
Union College Bulldogs Barbourville KY 1-5 1-9
West Division
SCHOOL LOCATION MSC-WEST OVERALL
10 Faulkner University Eagles Montgomery AL 4-1 9-3
15 Campbellsville University Tigers Campbellsville KY 4-1 7-4
Reinhardt University Eagles Waleska GA 3-2 6-4
Cumberland University Bulldogs Cumberland TN 2-3 6-5
Bethel University Wildcats McKenzie TN 2-3 5-6
Belhaven University Blazers Jackson MS 0-5 2-9

Realignment strikes here, as Belhaven has left to join NCAA Division III and the American Southwest Conference, taking Hal Mumme with them. As a result, Lindsey Wilson will move to the West Division this year to balance things out. That will have the coincidental effect of making one the divisional favorites much more obvious. Also in the cards: although they both declined to apply this year after failing to receive approval in 2014, both Georgetown and Cumberland (TN) are still aiming for NCAA Division II membership. Of course, that has nothing to do with 2015. We're just educating here.

Four teams made the playoffs last year in a strong league. Like the Mid-States, the league's structure is actually that of two separate leagues, and cross-divisional games are technically non-conference contests. That means that Georgetown and Lindsey Wilson can no longer deliver the other a conference loss. The benefit, however, accrues entirely to Georgetown, as now Lindsey Wilson has to contend with both Campbellsville and Faulkner.

Georgetown (KY) is one of the NAIA's blue-blood powers. They suffered a lot of attrition post-season, as five all-East Division first-teamers graduated, including defensive player of the year DL Nick Seither. Three of four second-team selections also graduated. This is nothing new for Georgetown, however; they just reload.

Pikeville will likely present Georgetown's greatest challenge, although they too suffered losses. Three-time all-division OL Brandon Ball returns to anchor the line, however.

Kentucky Christian returns first-team LB Aaron Cooper, a former Eastern Kentucky signee, as well as two other first-team representatives including sophomore DB Emmett Keyes, who picked off five passes last year as a freshman. They'll head into 2015 with a new coach, as program starter Gene Peterson retired. He's been replaced by Steve Barrows, the former defensive coordinator at D-II McKendree.

Cumberlands (KY) suffered through a disastrous campaign just one year after losing in the NAIA championship game. The 3-7 debacle was a rude awakening for a program which had gone 23-3 the previous two seasons and 65-16 since 2007. Their only first-team selection graduated, although three second-teamers will return. It's always a tough question as to whether a quality program just had a hiccup or is settling in for a sustained lull, but last season was also the first for head coach Matt Rhymer (from Harlan, Kentucky!). When a coaching change coincides with a nose dive, the prospectus isn't pretty.

Bluefield is still a young program. Landing two first-team selections last year, both of whom return, is progress. All three second-team selections return as well, as does CB Carlton Toussaint, the division's defensive freshman of the year. All the pieces are in place for improvement, but they're in a tough league.

Union (KY), on the other hand, is in a spiral. The Bulldogs haven't made the playoffs since 2007, and haven't finished over .500 in five years. They had no first-team selections, and only return three second-teamers.

Lindsey Wilson reinstated football in 2010 after a 75-year absence, and have only had one bad season since. Last year, however, was the first time the Blue Raiders got over the hurdle into the playoffs. They lose five East Division all-conference selections, but they also return five including WR Allen Cooks, offensive freshman of the year. The problem, of course, is that they're no longer in the east...

Faulkner returns three West Division selections, including offensive freshman of the year RB Joe Jones. The lose QB Terrell Robinson, the West Division offensive player of the year, and DB Marte Sears, an NAIA All-American. Six second-teamers return, however, putting Faulker in position to once again win the West and earn their third straight NAIA playoff appearance.

Campbellsville returns four first-team honorees to a squad which shared the division title with Faulkner last year and barely snuck into the playoffs. They're a step behind Faulkner and Lindsey Wilson, but they're a threat.

Reinhardt finished over .500 in only their second season of football. LB Marcus Miller earned defensive freshman of the year honors, and was joined on the first team by RB L.J. Stegall, who'd won the offensive freshman award in 2013. They're joined by three other returning first-teamers, but will be without head coach Dr. Danny Cronic, who stepped down due to illness after getting the program off the ground. Not to worry; his son Drew, previously the offensive coordinator, was already scheduled to take over the reins after this season. This merely accelerated the timetable by a year. The quick ascension of the program poses a threat to the established order, and they're worth watching.

Cumberland (TN), who we all know as the team Georgia Tech once beat 222-0, returns three first-teamers to a squad which was wildly inconsistent. The Bulldogs have floated in the 6-8 win zone for several years now, and just haven't been able to get that one step they needed into the playoffs.

Bethel (TN) went 5-6, and finished in last place. Hard break. The Wildcats lose all three of their first-team selections, including All-American all-purpose selection Stoney Burns. With a stacked West, they'll have a rough time in 2015.

Game of the year: October 27, Faulkner visits Lindsey Wilson. The West title will probably be in the balance.

Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference Preview

2014 Standings and Info
SCHOOL LOCATION KCAC OVERALL
14 Ottawa University Braves Ottawa KS 8-1 9-3
21 Friends University Falcons Wichita KS 7-2 8-3
Sterling College Warriors Sterling KS 7-2 7-4
Bethany College Swedes Lindsborg KS 5-4 7-4
24 Tabor College Bluejays Hillsboro KS 5-4 7-4
McPherson College Bulldogs McPherson KS 4-5 4-7
University of Saint Mary Spires Leavenworth KS 4-5 4-7
Bethel College Threshers North Newton KS 2-7 3-8
Kansas Wesleyan Coyotes Salina KS 2-7 2-9
Southwestern College Moundbuilders Winfield KS 1-8 1-10

Yesterday, I closed the article by saying I had no idea who was going to win this conference. After going through this, I still don't. It's a wide-open race, complicated by some shifts in power the last two years.

Ottawa is still, as always, the putative front-runner. No matter what else is going on, the Braves still always seem to come out on top... or close to it. Ottawa littered the KCAC honors list with eight first-team selections. But they lose six of them, including RB Luke Lundy, who rambled for almost 1,500 yards and earned KCAC Player of the Year honors, and WR Joshua Stangby, who was signed by the Atlanta Falcons. Still: it's Ottawa, and they should be in the thick of things.

Friends was also hit hard by graduation, losing four of six first-team honorees including DB Carlos Cox, an NAIA All-American and the KCAC Defensive Player of the Year. As with Ottawa, however, Friends tends to reload and fire.

Sterling has bulled their way into the established order over the last two seasons. They came seemingly out of nowhere to post a 9-win season and a playoff appearance in 2013, but last year couldn't seem to get the wins over top-notch opponents with losses to Ottawa, Tabor, Baker, and Concordia (NE). RB Antonio Bray, the KCAC Offensive Player of the Year and second-team All-American, and OL Zach Beims were the only Warriors to be named first-team all-KCAC, and they've both graduated. Expect regression here.

Bethany (KS) had only posted one winning season since 2007 before sneaking into the top half of the standings last year. They'll return four first-team selections, and are likely to make progress in 2015.

Tabor had long been struggling before rising up in 2012 to post an 8-win season, followed by a 10-win campaign and an NAIA playoff appearance in 2013. They started 2014 4-0, and then the wheels fell off. They did manage to end the season ranked, but potential talent gaps became apparent. Still, it's unclear whether their rise has halted or whether last year's mid-season slump was just a temporary setback. Two first-teamers return, as do three second-team selections.

McPherson is going the other direction. After several years of being a regular playoff participant, the program is running aground. The Bulldogs went 10-1 in 2010, but haven't seen .500 since. Steve Fox, the former defensive coordinator, took over as head coach in December 2013... and left in December 2014. Paul Mierkewicz, former head man at Loras and Hastings, takes over. He inherits a team with no returning first-teamers, but the core of a very solid offensive line.

Saint Mary (KS) returns a lone first-team selection in junior DB Kenny Nez. The Spires have been maddeningly average for years, and always regress back toward the center. The good news for them: that means they should improve in 2015.

Bethel (KS) has been wallowing in misery for years. Head Coach Martin Mathis took over the program to start the 2013 season and broke the school's 14-game losing streak. Over the next two years, he won four more games and resigned after the season. Morris Lolar, a former Friends defensive back who hit training camp with the Kansas City Chiefs before a four-year career with the Edmonton Eskimos, takes over. He inherits exactly one 2014 all-conference selection, second-team senior WR Gregory Parham.

Kansas Wesleyan returns junior TE Mitch Kufahl to a squad which reached its loweest point in years after a string of essentially .500 seasons. They lose all-purpose back Taylor Sachs, who was second in the NAIA in all-purpose yards last year, and even with Sachs the team was obliterated weekly by everyone other than Bethel and Southwestern. That's not a recipe for hope, and it will be a long year in Salina.

Southwestern (KS) has been flailing helplessly for a decade, and Ken Crandall had enough. The eight-year coach resigned after the season, replaced by former William Penn defensive coordinator Brad Griffin. Griffin helped oversee the transformation of the Penn program from a doormat to a school which, for several seasons in a row, kept missing the NAIA playoffs by one spot in the polls. He'll have at his disposal senior LB Eric Walker, the squad's only first-team selection last year.

Game of the year: There's little doubt about this one. The conference even scheduled it: November 14, the last week of the regular season, when Ottawa travels to Wichita to take on Friends.

Mailbag

We're still after your questions, although we've got the topics covered for the weekend. Tomorrow we'll pick on Dan Mullen and preview the other Kansas league, the Heart of America Athletic Association, as well as checking in on our friends from Nebraska as we preview the Great Plains Athletic Conference.