Northwood made it clear who was No. 1 in the Toledo Area Athletic Conference a year ago when the Rangers ran through the league competition unbeaten.
Coach Ken James, entering his 18th season, likes his team's prospects for contending for a second straight title. He believes the Rangers possess the talent and desire to repeat.
"If we get off to a good start with our difficult non-league schedule we have a chance to have a solid year," James said.
The Northwood coach isn't alone in his assessment. The Rangers are considered by a majority of the coaches as the team to beat.
However, Toledo Christian, which has a roster of nearly 40 players, ranks as the team most likely to challenge Northwood. The Eagles return 17 of 22 starters.
Led by senior quarterback Dan Newman, who has been timed at 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash, Toledo Christian is a team built to thrive offensively. Nine starters are back on offense from a team that averaged more than 27 points per game in 2003. Three backs return who averaged better than 4.0 yards a carry.
"We should have a good year if we can stay healthy," Toledo Christian coach Mike Snyder said. "Last year we lost three key players with broken legs in the first game."
Danbury, coming off a 4-1 TAAC season, is expected to contend even though the Lakers lost several key players to graduation. Quarterback Ryan Schenkl, a 5-11, 165-pounder who will be responsible for pulling the trigger on the Lakers' run-and-shoot passing game, is one of seven seniors on the roster.
Here's a look at the teams in predicted order of finish:
Coach: Ken James, 18th year
Last season: 9-3, 5-0
Returning letter winners: 14
Returning starters: 7 offense, 4 defense
Key players: Seniors Zack Manol, 5-9, 184, FB-LB; Sean Anderson, 6-1, 238, C-DE; Scott Posey, 5-8, 186, QB; Tommy Nehring, 5-8, 149, WR-DB.
Outlook: Northwood appears to be fit and ready to defend its championship. Its overall depth and experience places the Rangers among the favorites. Northwood will lean on Posey (596 passing yards, 6 TDs in 2003) and the rest of the offense in the early stages of the season to carry the load.
"Our offense must play well and control the tempo of games until our defense gains experience," James said. Manol (102 tackles in 2003) and Anderson will lead the defense.
Coach: Mike Snyder, 5th year
Last season: 5-5, 2-3
Returning letter winners: 21
Returning starters: 9 offense, 8 defense
Schemes: Spread offense/5-2
Key players: Seniors Dan Newman, 6-0, 185, QB-FS; Ryan Schank, 5-9, 190, RB-LB; Ben Holt, 5-9, 170, RB-DB; Jacob Vugriwae, 6-1, 215, OG-LB; Joe Moors, 5-9, 160, K-P. Sophomore Mark Rossol, 5-9, 175, RB-LB.
Outlook: The Eagles are as experienced as they come in the TAAC. Can that experience lead to the Eagles winning the championship? "The team's attitude is outstanding," Snyder said. "We have good size up front and a very good kicking game." Most of the starters are still in place from 2003 when TC averaged better than 27 points per game.
Coach: Adam Steinbrick, 2nd season
Last season: 5-5, 4-1
Returning letter winners: 12
Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense
Key players: Jake Fanning, 5-10, 170, WR-FS; Ryan Schenkl, 5-11, 165, QB-DB; Jarred Ensign, 6-4, 185, WR-LB; Russ Boesch, 5-10, 205, RB-LB. Juniors David Clemons, 5-11, 164, WR-DB; Bryan Darnbrugge, 6-1, 190, OL-LB.
Outlook: For the returning players, Steinbrick believes the second-place finish to Northwood can serve as a positive example this season. "We have good leadership on this team," he said. "Last year we were learning our offense and we can build from that." Fanning, Schenkl and Ensign, three-year starters, rate among the league's top players.
Coach: Chris Hardman, 7th year
Last season: 3-7, 3-2
Returning letter winners: 16
Returning starters: 7 offense, 5 defense
Key players: Seniors Jacob Bond, 6-1, 200, OT-DT; Grant Kozy, 5-10, 175, RB-CB. Juniors Aaron Crooks, 5-8, 150, WR-DB; Sam Miller, 6-2, 185, QB; Matt Nexter, 5-9, 155, FB-LB. Sophomore Chip Cochrane, 5-10, 205, OG-OT.
Outlook: The Green Bears are eyeing a turnaround from a trying season. The Bears struggled defensively and that remains a concern. Ottawa Hills must show improvement on defense in order to become a contender. Bond, Kozy and Crooks must provide the needed leadership for a defensive group that will include seven first-year starters.
Coach: Chris Fahim, 2nd year
Last season: 0-10, 0-5
Returning letter winners: 18
Returning starters: 8 offense, 8 defense
Schemes: Spread offense, 4-4 defense
Key players: Seniors Craig Huntermark, 6-0, 160, QB-FS; Brad Manders, 5-7, 150, WR-LB; Mark Bihn, 6-1, 160, WR-DB. Junior Josh Hierholzer, 5-9, 180, RB-LB.
Outlook: Fahim expects the Cardinals to perform better than what they did in his first season in charge. A more experienced team is reason for hope and optimism. The Cardinals are among the most experienced teams in the TAAC with eight returning starters on both sides. "We're looking for a winning season and much improvement with the experienced roster and seven home games," Fahim said.