GATEWAY CONFERENCE OUTLOOK 2002 preview
Based on predicted order of finish. (Last year's records in parentheses):
1. Northern Iowa (11-3, 6-1 Gateway).
LAST YEAR: After being picked fifth in the preseason poll, first-year head coach Mark Farley guided the Panthers to the Gateway title and an appearance in the national semifinals before losing to Montana 38-0.
THIS YEAR: The Panthers return two quarterbacks (Tom Petrie, 1,330 yards, 7 TDs, and Griff Jurgens, 979 yards, 5 TDs) and two outstanding running backs (Adam Benge, 1,383 yards, 16 TDs and Richard Carter, 957 yards, 8 TDs), but lost some outstanding receivers. Defense is led by the front line which returns intact, but the secondary is all new and Buchanan Award candidate Adam Vogt is gone at linebacker.
PROGNOSIS: Unless the new linebackers and secondary are complete duds, the Panthers should contend again for the conference championship.
2. Youngstown State (8-3, 5-2 Gateway).
3. Western Kentucky (8-4, 5-2 Gateway).
LAST YEAR: Despite earning a second straight playoff berth, the Hilltoppers' 2001 season was something of a disappointment. They failed to win the Gateway crown that had been predicted of them and surrendered a first-round playoff game to Furman, 24-20.
THIS YEAR: The Hilltoppers lost their entire backfield on offense and their entire secondary on defense. The offensive line returns. Defensively they have three outstanding linebackers led by Erik Dandy and Sherrod Coates, who combined for over 200 tackles a year ago.
PROGNOSIS: The Hilltoppers have some key pieces, but the many question marks in the secondary and offensive backfield will test the team, especially early in the season with a rugged schedule that includes Kansas State, McNeese State and Northern Iowa on the road, and YSU and Western Illinois at home.
4. Southwest Missouri State (6-5, 3-4 Gateway).
LAST YEAR: The Bears season faded quickly as they lost four straight games to begin the Gateway season. Once that pressure was off coach Randy Ball's team, the Bears won their final four games to salvage its first winning season since 1996.
THIS YEAR: The Bears return top rusher Eddie Linscomb (984 yards, 8 TDs) and top receiver Mark Marcos (59 receptions, 904 yards, 4 TDs) on offense. The defense is led by a veteran secondary headed by safeties Daryl Warren (92 tackles) and Colin Johnson (87 tackles). They also have brought in 10 new transfers this year.
PROGNOSIS: With 26 Division I-A or JC transfers on the roster it is hard to assess the Bears. Despite the question marks, they do have some talent and they are coming off a great season finish. If Ball can find a quarterback and shore up his linebacking corps, the Bears could contend for their first playoff berth since 1990.
5. Western Illinois (5-5, 4-3 Gateway).
LAST YEAR: One year after winning the Gateway title, the Leathernecks dropped to fourth in the standings due to a second-half collapse. Following a 4-1 start Western lost its next four games including a narrow 17-14 defeat against Northern Iowa.
THIS YEAR: The Leathernecks offensive will have a radical new look since only tackle James Rennick returns to the unit. Several transfers, including R.J. Luke from Penn State at tight end are expected to start. The defense has 10 of the 11 starters returning including a linebacking corp of Jason McWilliams, Lee Russell and Cornell Middlebrook who combined for more than 300 tackles a year ago.
PROGNOSIS: The Leathernecks were a good passing team a year ago, but lost everybody. They alos were last in the conference in rushing and near the bottom in all defensive categories, so all those returning starters might not be a blessing. They probably will finish above .500, but don't have the overall talent to contend for the title.
6. Indiana State (3-8, 2-5 Gateway).
LAST YEAR: The Sycamores made strides in 2001. After starting 0-2, they shocked I-A Eastern Michigan 21-14 and also had wins over SMS and Southern Illinois and were competitive in most of their losses.
THIS YEAR: The offense returns starters at all the skill positions including quarterback Julian Reese (1,236 yards, 8 TDs) and running back Soso Dede (550 yrds, 4 TDs). Kevin Dead (31 receptions) leads the receivers and three starters return on the offensive line. The defense will be strong upfront, but will still have to work hard to avoid finishing last in pass efficiency defense for the second straight season.
PROGNOSIS: The Sycamores should be improved, but the school's first winning season since 1996 does not appear imminent. There is enough talent on both sides of the ball, and a four or five win season isn't out of the question, but their is just not enough depth to survive a season in the rugged Gateway Conference.
7. Illinois State (2-9, 2-5 Gateway).
LAST YEAR: The Redbirds went from a Top 25 team to an 0-7 start in 2001 and finished with its worst record since 1997. Humiliating losses to Southern Illinois (23-17) and Western Kentucky (58-14) were made all the more puzzling when Denver Johnson's team routed eventual Gateway champ Northern Iowa, 42-14.
THIS YEAR: Quarterback Dusty Burk (1,433 yards 10 TDs) has transferred to Division II Truman State, leaving the starting job to Kevin Zouzounis (1,028 yards, 3 TDs). The Redbirds also lost starting tailback Willie Watts and only two starters return on the offensive line. The defense has a veteran front line and Virginia Tech transfer T.J. Jackson should help the linebacking corp, but the secondary has only two returning starters.
PROGNOSIS: Former Illinois State coach Todd Berry went 8-4 and made the playoffs the year after he went 2-9 and ISU fans are hoping Johnson can do the same. There is talent on the team, but probably not enough depth or experience to make a postseason or Gateway title run.
8. Southern Illinois (1-10, 1-6 Gateway).
LAST YEAR: Jerry Kill's first season at Carbondale was as difficult as expected with the Salukis playing well at times, but still posting their worst record since 1994. A win over Illinois State was the lone highlight, but narrow losses to Murray State, Northern Iowa, Indiana State and SMS did a better job of telling the story of the season.
THIS YEAR: The Salukis are set at running back with probable Payton Award candidate Tom Koutsos (1,222 yards, 9 TDs) returning along with talanted JC transfer Muhammad Abdulqaadir. The quarterback job is still up for grabs and top receiver Justin George is back along with three offensive linemen. A strong secondary returns, but only one started is back on the defensive line.
PROGNOSIS: SIU's win total should improve this season, though the Salukis' place in the conference likely won't. The running game looks in excellent shape, but the passing game is questionable. The streak of losing seasons will probably reach 11, but the team will get closer to being a factor in the conference race.
-- Pete Mollica