But the downside for Northwood's TAAC foes is that the Rangers should still have enough left to repeat their title, especially in a conference that had leadership changes in half of its membership.
Cardinal Stritch, Danbury and Lorian Catholic each have new head coaches this season.
Northwood was a narrow favorite to repeat as TAAC champion, receiving four of six first-place votes and 33 voting points in a poll of the conference's six coaches. Ottawa Hills, which was second with 29 points, split the remaining two first-place votes with Toledo Christian. The Eagles were tabbed for third at 22 points.
“I figured we'd be picked because we weren't decimated by graduation and we had a solid team last year,” said 18th-year Ranger head coach Ken James. “The bottom line is, we have some tough, blue-collar kids who like football. They like contact and they don't mind the work.”
The most glaring data that favors Northwood's title aspirations are that 23 letter-winners return from a team that outscored its five TAAC foes 238-27 (47.6 to 5.4 per game) last year.
Here is a look at all six TAAC teams listed in their predicted order of finish:
Coach: Ken James, 18th year
Last season: 10-1 overall, 5-0 TAAC
Top players: Seniors Jeremy Cousino, 5-8, 187, FB; Shawn Cousino, 5-7, 165, RB/CB; James Blankenship, 6-1, 227, G; Andy Herren, 6-0, 211, TE/DE; Andrew White, 6-1, 187, SE; Chad Domanski, 5-11, 168, SS.
Outlook: The Rangers should be well prepared for conference play after facing teams like Evergreen, Lake, an improved Woodward squad and Delta through the first five weeks.
James points to team speed, experience and depth at the skill positions as strengths. His concerns include a lack of depth on the offensive line and a smallish secondary. The six players mentioned above were all first-team All-TAAC.
“Our kids are going to have to avoid getting caught up in being the favorite because we've already battled some complacency,” James said. “But the seniors last year prepared themselves really well, especially mentally, and these seniors seem to be doing the same thing.”
Coach: Chris Hardman, sixth year
Last season: 4-6, 4-1
Top players: Seniors Nic Casabianca, 6-2, 170, WB/FS; Andrew Phillips, 5-8, 190, G/LB; Casey Reams, 6-0, 190, G/LB; Sam Steinberg, 5-11, 171, QB/DE; Steve Baehren, 6-4, 280, OT/DT. Junior Grant Kozy, 5-9, 170, RB/DB. Sophomore Matt Netter, 5-10, 160, RB/LB.
Outlook: The Green Bears have 34 players on the roster, but eight of those are freshmen. Ten letter-winners return with three offensive and four defensive starters back. The numbers could have been better but seven potential starters elected not to come out for one reason or another.
Still, Hardman is optimistic about his team's prospects because of the players' overall athleticism. The downside is that, as a whole, the Bears are young, inexperienced and lack depth. With many players starting on both sides, fatigue may take a toll.
Kozy (601 yards, 5 TDs) and Netter (446 yards, 7 TDs) are threats in the backfield combined with Steinberg, who passed for 431 yards.
Coach: Mike Snyder, fifth year
Last season: 5-5, 3-2
Top players: Senior Steve Whitlow, 5-7, 155, WR/FS. Juniors Dan Newman, 6-0, 180, QB; Ryan Schunk, 5-9, 180, TB/LB; Jacob Vugrinac, 6-0, 220, G/LB.
Outlook: The Eagles may be a year away from true title contention, as only six seniors dot the 40-player roster. But, 19 letter-winners return, and that includes nine starters back on both offense and defense.
Snyder considers his team's overall blend of balance and speed and strength, and looks to take things up a notch this year with the spread offense. Newman passed for 1,280 yards and ran for another 505 last year, Schunk added 663 rushing yards, Whitlow contributed 552 receiving yards and the hard-hitting Vugrinac had 78 tackles, including 13 sacks.
“We will find out if we are pretenders or contenders,” Snyder said. “We are looking forward to our fifth varsity season.”
Coach: Adam Steinbrick, first year
Last season: 2-8, 1-4
Top players: Seniors Kevin Lucas, 5-10, 205, RB/LB; Eric Ludrowsky, 6-4, 210, WR/LB; Ben Bell, 6-0, 215, G/DE; Justin Monak, 5-9, 170. Juniors Jake Fanning, 5-10, 175, RB/SS; Brian Schenko, 5-11, 165, QB/DB.
Outlook: Steinbrick takes over after several seasons as an assistant, including three at Huron. His first major battles are overcoming a losing tradition (the Lakers haven't had a winning season since 1982) and orchestrating a major scheme change offensively from a power-I to a shotgun spread run-and-shoot. Having Schenko (972 passing yards) should ease the transition.
The rookie head coach likes his senior leadership, an overall upgrade in team strength and speed, and the dedication his players have shown to conditioning. But the Lakers lack depth, Fanning (593 rushing yards, 13 TDs) will miss the start of the season with a broken ankle and, with seven or eight players starting both ways, fatigue may hinder progress.
“It's going to be a learning process,” Steinbrick said of the offensive switch, “and it's not going to happen overnight. But we're excited with the group of guys we've got.”
Coach: Chris Fahim, first year
Last season: 0-10, 0-5
Top players: Seniors Josh Hartle, 6-1, 185, RB/LB; Steve Amsdell, 5-9, 170, RB/LB; Brandon Morris, 5-6, 140, WR/CB. Junior Craig Huntermark, 6-0, 150, QB/FS.
Outlook: The Cardinals may be hard-pressed to improve much with just 20 total players and only three seniors. But 15 letter-winners return, and starters are back at eight offensive and seven defensive positions.
Fahim likes his team's overall speed, but is obviously concerned with youth, inexperience and a lack of depth.
“We are looking to improve on last season's 0-10 record with a stronger and more disciplined approach,” Fahim said.
Coach: Rick Schuler, first year
Last season: 3-7, 2-3
Top players: Seniors Adam Sockel, 6-0, 185, HB/LB; Anthony Miller, 6-0, 240, OT/DT; Chris Khoma, 6-3, 170, SE/S. Juniors Matt Kretovics, 6-1, 185, G/DE; Cory Cline, 5-8, 185, FB/LB.
Outlook: The Spartans' biggest adjustment will be from a wide-open spread offense to a no-frills wing-T, so Schuler feels the ability of his offensive linemen to learn new blocking schemes will be critical.
The new coach, who was previously a head coach at Marion Catholic, likes the leadership he's seeing from the nine seniors on his roster of 26 players, and says his team is physically strong. The most obvious concerns are a lack of depth and team speed.