As it approaches the midway point of its Division I transition, the University of South Dakota has already seen a step up in the level of teams it faces.
The Augustanas and St. Cloud States of the world are being replaced with the likes of Northern Iowa and Montana State.
And for the USD football team, the goal is simple: To be in the same conversation with those well-established D-I programs. To do that, the Coyotes are setting their sights on cracking the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) Top 25 poll.
Coincidentally, while the USD football coaches and players were discussing the upcoming 2009 season during Monday's annual media day gathering in Vermillion, the FCS Preseason Coaches Poll was being released.
Among the top 25 are four schools on USD's schedule, led by Northern Iowa (No. 4) and Cal Poly (No. 13), while Montana State and UC Davis both received votes.
The Coyotes were one of three schools to receive one vote, giving them a slight head start on that mission.
Last season as a first-year D-I transitional squad, USD — which finished 6-5 — faced a pair of top 10 opponents, losing to fifth-ranked UNI and eighth-ranked Cal Poly.
But this season, experience will play a factor for the Coyotes, according to senior linebacker Ryan Routh.
"We'd have a pretty good chance to be ranked if we beat UNI and Montana State," said Routh, one of five returning starters on defense. "Last year, we weren't sure how things would go. But now, we'll know what to expect."
For a second straight year, the Coyotes will play road games at Northern Iowa (Sept. 12), Montana State (Oct. 17) and Cal Poly (Nov. 14) this season. They will also host Great West Conference foe UC Davis on Oct. 10, giving USD a chance to accomplish the second of its two-part goal for 2009: Win the league title.
"To be ranked would be great, but you don't really get anything for that," said USD senior offensive lineman Jake Arthur, one of 10 starters back on an offense that averaged 37.5 points per game a year ago.
"Winning the conference championship would be icing on the cake."
Unlike last season, the Coyotes will face all four Great West Conference opponents in 2009, including home dates with UC Davis and Southern Utah. Defending champion Cal Poly was picked to win the league title, while USD was chosen third in the preseason coaches poll.
"We have a better chance to win the Great West then we did last year," said senior Dan Skelly, the team's top returning wide receiver (880 yds, 9 TD).
"We're just more confident and know what we're up against."
Strength At D-Line
Among the five starters returning to USD's defense this season are a trio of senior linemen who combined for 130 tackles and 11 sacks a year ago.
Anchoring the line in USD's 3-4 defensive formation will be Ko Quaye (6-1, 302), Abe Booker IV (6-3, 253) and Wayne Curry (6-3, 240). The trio — nicknamed the 'Panther Group' — will again lead a defensive unit that allowed just 18.6 points per game in 2008.
"It'll be hard running the ball on us," Routh said of the defensive front. "We've got a senior class that won't like it if a team runs the ball through us."
When junior Joey White (6-2, 280) joins the line for certain stretches, the trio becomes the 'Double-Stuffed Oreo,' Meierkort said Monday.
"The addition of our freshmen pushes these older guys," he said. "We have enough talent and speed to create some chaos."
While discussing the various aspects – offense, defense and special teams – of his team during Monday's media gathering, Meierkort continuously commended the play of his first-year players.
"I've got a man crush on my freshman class," the sixth-year coach said. "These dudes can play. We've definitely shopped a different meat counter with this switch to Division I and you can see it on the field.
"We're going to play some freshmen," he added, matter-of-factly.
On offense, Tom Flanagan (5-9, 190) and Will Powell (6-1, 205) figure to see time this season at wide receiver. And at running back, Donovan Bowens (6-1, 190) and Quintin McMartin (6-2, 220) – who Meierkort called a "difference-maker" – could both see time.
Meierkort also said freshman walk-on Cole Zwiefelhofer (6-4, 190) will handle the punting duties.