03 Aug GAC Coaches select Harding as preseason favorite
RUSSELLVILLE — On Tuesday, the Great American Conference announced the results of its 2022 football preseason coaches’ poll. Harding edged out Ouachita for the top spot by a single point.
Last season, the Bisons posted an 11-2 record, won the GAC regular-season title and reached the second round of the NCAA Division II Playoffs. They received six first-place votes. The Bisons potent flexbone offense averaged 390.1 rushing yards per game – the highest single-season average in Division II since 2014. They must replace the conference’s all-time leading rusher, Cole Chancey, who became the first player in league history to run for more than 5,000 yards in a career. Omar Sinclair ran for 878 yards on just 101 carries and Jhalen Spicer averaged 9.9 yards per attempt on 53 carries. The Harding defense ranked fourth in the country in scoring defense and second in rush yards allowed.
The Tigers collected five first-place votes. They went 9-2 in 2021 for their fourth-straight nine-win season. TJ Cole ran for 1,528 yards and scored 17 touchdowns while Kendel Givens added 775 yards and 23 touchdowns as the Tigers boasted the fourth-best running offense in the country. Xaylan Falls earned First-Team All-GAC honors as the return specialist after he averaged 34.1 yards per return and scored two touchdowns.
Southeastern Oklahoma State claimed the final first-place vote and finished third in the voting. After being picked 11th in the 2021 poll, the Savage Storm went 9-3 and won a dramatic Live United Bowl, 37-34, against Emporia State. Maalik Hall won GAC Defensive Player of the Year and Tyler Fenwick claimed Coach of the Year. Hall recorded 12.0 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks. Quarterback Daulton Hatley threw for 3,185 yards with 27 touchdowns against only five interceptions.
Henderson State fended off Oklahoma Baptist for fourth place. The Reddies won nine games for the second-straight season. While they must replace the dynamic tandem of Adam Morse and L’Liott Curry, Xavier Malone – who caught 68 passes for 970 yards – returns. The Bison won eight games, including a 24-21 win against UT Permian Basin in the Heritage Bowl. While they lose two-time GAC Offensive Player of the Year Preston Haire, 1,000-yard running back Tyler Stuever and 1,000-yard receiver Josh Cornell, fellow 1,000-yard receiver Keilahn Harris returns. He caught 92 passes with 16 touchdown receptions.
East Central placed sixth following a 7-4 campaign. Kris McCullough takes over for Al Johnson as head coach. Kenny Hrncir threw for 18 touchdowns and ran for seven. Jalen Baldwin led the GAC with five interceptions and Michael Onwuzurike amassed 8.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks as a freshman.
Arkansas-Monticello finished seventh followed by Southern Arkansas and Arkansas Tech. UAM dual-threat quarterback Demilon Brown threw for 2,383 yards and ran for 640. He accounted for 26 touchdowns. SAU sees Brad Smiley begin his first season as head coach. He inherits Jariq Scales, the 2021 GAC Freshman of the Year. He ran for 1,475 yards and nine touchdowns.
Northwestern Oklahoma State, Southwestern Oklahoma State and Southern Nazarene rounded out the poll. The Rangers’ Brian Holiday ranked fourth in the league with 14.0 tackles for loss and added 5.5 sacks. SWOSU features the league’s third first-year coach as Josh Kirkland takes over after two years at New Mexico Highlands.
The regular season opens on Thursday, September 1 with six contests. The favored Bisons begin on the road against East Central. Ouachita travels to Oklahoma Baptist; Southeastern Oklahoma State hosts Arkansas Tech; Henderson State welcomes in SWOSU; UAM visits Southern Nazarene and Southern Arkansas faces Northwestern Oklahoma State.