RUSSELLVILLE – With the start of the 2018 Great American Conference football season three weeks away, the league released its preseason poll with Harding tabbed as the favorite following a vote of the league’s 12 head coaches, the conference office announced.
A season ago, the Bisons posted an 11-4 record and featured an 11-game win streak that resulted in the program’s first appearance in the NCAA Division II National Semifinals. They return six 2017 All-GAC selections, including D2CCA All-American linebacker Sam Blankenship. He led the GAC with 130 tackles and ranked sixth with 13.0 tackles for loss. Center Bryce Bray and defensive end T.J. Winslow garnered All-Region honors. Cole Chancey will lead the potent flexbone offense after he rushed for a GAC-record 1,337 yards and tallied 15 touchdowns.
Ouachita, the 2017 GAC champions, picked up a pair of first-place votes and placed second in the poll. The Tigers return all four of its First-Team All-GAC performers and a total of nine all-conference selections. Receivers Drew Harris and Allie Freeman plus linemen Cori and Justin Gooseberry made the First Team. Justin Gooseberry added First-Team All-Region honors. Harris set the GAC record with 26 touchdowns.
Southern Arkansas took third in balloting. The Muleriders return two senior stalwarts in Davondrick Lison, the 2017 GAC Defensive Player of the Year, and Barrett Renner, the All-GAC First-Team quarterback. Lison led the league with 16.5 tackles for loss and placed second with 7.5 sacks. Renner led the conference in passing yards, touchdowns and pass efficiency. He enters 2018 as the only active quarterback in Division II to have already eclipsed the 10,000-yard milestone.
Southeastern Oklahoma State and Arkansas Tech shared fourth place. A year ago, the Savage Storm secured their fourth-straight winning season under head coach Bo Atterberry. They return seven All-GAC selections including a pair of All-Region specialists in kicker/punter Joel Carlos and returner OJ Walker. Carlos made all of his extra points and led the GAC in field goals. Walker ranked second in the nation in punt return average, 25.0 yards-per return, and return touchdowns, three.
The Wonder Boys earned their second bowl game appearance in the last three years as they participated in the Agent Barry Live United Bowl. They led the GAC in scoring offense, averaging close to 40 points per game. Bryan Allen ranked third in the GAC with 977 yards and he scored 10 touchdowns.
Henderson State finished sixth while Arkansas-Monticello edged out Northwestern Oklahoma State for seventh place. The Reddies look to return to the top of the GAC standings following a 6-5 season. UAM must replace Jalen Tolliver, the GAC Offensive Player of the Year and a Second-Team All-American. The Rangers’ Maurice Wright, Jr. led the conference in tackles per game and Aharon Barnes ranked second in passes defended per game.
Southern Nazarene took ninth, two points ahead of Southwestern Oklahoma State while East Central and Oklahoma Baptist shared 11th place. Last season, the Crimson Storm became just the second team in GAC history to defeat Harding and Henderson State in the same year. The Bulldogs and Tigers each have first-year head coaches as Chet Pobolish takes over in Weatherford and Al Johnson assumes the held in Ada. The Bison’s Isaiah Mallory ranked sixth in the league in rushing.
The 2018 season opens on Thursday, August 30 with all 12 schools in action. The Bisons visit Henderson State; Ouachita travels to Northwestern Oklahoma State; SAU hosts Arkansas Tech; Southeastern Oklahoma State faces Southern Nazarene; SWOSU welcomes in Arkansas-Monticello and Oklahoma Baptist heads to East Central.