In the second year of the Chuck Morrell era, Montana Tech enters the 2012 football season with high hopes.
The Orediggers have more talent and depth than they did during the transitional year of 2011.
That, however, might be enough to climb the ladder in a Frontier Conference that is bigger and, perhaps tougher, than ever.
Carroll College, which fell one game short of its seventh NAIA national championship last season, is gunning for its 13th straight conference crown.
The coaches picked the Saints to do just that in the preseason poll.
Of course, that was long before the dramatic two days the Saints experienced this week when coach Mike Van Diest considered stepping down as head coach.
Van Diest decided to stay, drawing a huge sigh of relief from the Saints’ huge fan base.
Montana Tech, the coaches say, will finish sixth in the Frontier, which grew to eight teams with the addition of Dickinson State and Southern Oregon.
The Orediggers open the season at 6 p.m. Sept. 1 against Eastern Oregon.
For the first time, the Frontier will be split up into two divisions. Tech will be in the West Division along with Montana Western, Eastern Oregon and Southern Oregon. Carroll College, MSU-Northern, Rocky Mountain and Dickinson State will make up the East Division.
Following is a look at the Frontier Conference in order of predicted finish by the coaches.
The Saints, who went 13-2 overall and 9-1 in conference a year ago, were hit hard by graduation.
Carroll lost 20 seniors, including quarterback Dane Broadhead and receiver Matt Ritter.
Reloading, though, has never been a problem for Van Diest’s Saints.
Junior Dakota Stonehouse will take over behind center, giving the Saints a scary run-pass option to lead the offense.
Of course, the most dangerous thing Stonehouse will do is hand the ball off. Carroll is stacked at the running back position, where it brings back 2011 NAIA Player of the Year Chance Demarais.
Despite missing time with an injury late in the season, Demarais ran for 1,805 yards on 333 carries — both school records.
Behind Demarais is sophomore Dustin Rinker, a bruising back who ran for 1,070 yards in a reserve role.
All-Amercan lineman Connor Goudreau and veteran Mike Bruce are back to anchor an offensive should be a strength of the team once again.
The Saints are also expecting big things from Joe Dunning, safety Brian Stroble and defensive end Rhakeem Harris.
Carroll opens the season Aug. 24 against MSU-Northern in Havre. Two weeks later, the Saints will be in Butte for a Sept. 8 showdown with the Orediggers.
The Lights, who went 5-5 in 2011, enter the season with the most experience at the most important position.
Nine-year coach Mark Samson has the luxury a third-year starter at quarterback.
Derek Lear passed for 19 touchdowns and 2,521 yards as a sophomore last year.
He still has a plethora of weapons at his disposal in Kyle Johnson, Brandon O’Brien, Mick Miler, John Jansen, Brandt Montelius and Josh Wilson.
Defensively, the Lights must find a way to replace graduated defensive end Will Andrews, who opposing coaches are thrilled to learn he is trying his hand at playing professionally.
Defensive lineman Ryan Craig and Tyler Phillips and linebacker Jared Rohrback, who missed most of last season with an injury, will be counted on to lead the Lights defense.
Eastern Oregon went 8-3 overall and 8-2 in conference last year.
The Mountaineers were the only Frontier team to beat Carroll — in Helena, no less. Their eight wins tied a school record.
However, the talk in La Grande is about who the Mountaineers don’t have.
Fifth-year coach Tim Camp will have to find a way to win without Chris Ware and Kevin Sampson.
Ware was a four-year starter at quarterback for the Mountaineers, while Sampson was one of the top running backs in the nation.
Eastern also lost Jordan Spence, a defensive lineman who was drafted by the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League.
In all, Camp lost 10 key contributors to his 2011 team.
The Mountaineers, though, return 26 players who have started as they look to extend a streak of 13 straight appearances in the NAIA top-25 poll.
The Battlin’ Bears (5-6, 4-6 last year) have high hopes as they enter the fourth year under coach Brian Armstrong.
Rocky brings back starting quarterback Bryce Baker. Despite missing time with injury late last season, the redshirt freshman passed for 1,572 yards while running for 300 more.
Baker will be missing key targets J.J. Tolbert and Levi Sutton, who were lost to graduation.
The Rocky defense will have to find away to replace lineman Phil Urlacher and back J.T. Fitzgerald
The Bears bring back defensive linemen Sonny AhKui and Jake Scharbrough and defensive back Thomas Ackerman. The three are looking for a big season after earning All-Frontier honors last season.
The Bears’ special teams are in order with all-conference returners Travis Bertelsen and Eric Buer coming back.
The Bears open the season Aug. 24 against Jamestown College in Miles City.
The Raiders (5-5) closed out the 2011 season by winning five out of their last seven games.
Coach Craig Howard is in his second year at the school after a long high school career that included coaching Tim Tebow.
He found a quarterback last year in Austin Dodge. The redshirt freshman passed for 2,195 yards and 13 touchdowns after taking over as the starter midway through last season.
Dodge threw for three touchdowns twice, including in Southern’s season-ending win over Menlo State.
Dodge returns big-time targets in Patrick Donahue, who caught 54 passes for 6161 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Mike Olson caught 37 passes for 547 yards and four scores.
Also back in the passing game are targets Cole McKenzie, Justin Otaguro and Manny Barragan.
The Raiders’ defense lost its top two tacklers from last year. They will be experienced in the backfield, though.
Southern Oregon returns all four starters in the secondary in safeties Heston Atterbach and Branden Grissom and cornerbacks Josh Leff and Dustin Fretwell.
Southern Oregon’s lone game against a Frontier team in 2011 was the exciting 50-47 double-overtime loss at Montana Tech in the season opener.
The Raiders open the season Sept. 1 at home against Montana Western.
The Orediggers (3-8, 2-8) won two of their final three games in 2011.
Tech lost nine players from Morrell’s inaugural squad. That list includes defensive standouts Connor O’Neill, Marcus Johnson, Logan Ledgerwood, Daniel Chandler and Kevin Schey and offensive lineman Matt Study and Drew Waltee.
Tech also loses receiver Clay McQueary, who flirted with the idea of applying for a medical redshirt year after seeing his senior campaign spoiled by a nasty wrist injury.
The Orediggers, though, will be deeper in 2012 thanks a huge redshirt class that will mix with a group of sophomores who played as true freshmen.
Tech will be experienced at quarterback, where juniors Brian Schwarzkoph and Nick Baker will once again duke it out for the starting job.
Schwarzkoph won the job in camp last August, while Baker excelled late in the season after Schwarzkoph suffered a hand injury.
Senior Trent Thomas and Craig Halko will lead a deep and talented receiving corps.
Defensively, the Orediggers are expecting another big season from lineman Ryan Jones and safety Nathan Kobold.
The Blue Hawks (4-6, 3-3) won their last two games in 2011 to close out their DAC years in style.
The last win gave longtime coach hank Biesiot his 225th career win.
Dickinson didn’t have much luck against the Frontier last season. The Blue Hawks fell 38-8 against Rocky Mountain Aug. 27 in Billings. They lost 35-6 to Carroll College at home on Oct. 8
The Blue Hawks have reason for optimism in 2012, however.
The team brings back senior quarterback Dave Velasquez. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound former Frenchtown star is a solid option quarterback. He led the Blue Hawks in rushing as a junior.
Dickinson also returns junior returns junior running back Brennan Haughian, who ran for 189 yards in the Blue Hawks’ season-ending win over the South Dakota School of Mines.
Dickinson opens the season Sept. 1 at home against Rocky.
The Bulldogs are looking for improvement after going 2-9 and 2-8 in head coach Ryan Nourse’s first season.
Western has experience where it counts. The Bulldogs return senior quarterback Jeff Logan, who started games in each of his three seasons in Dillon.
If Logan doesn’t get the call, young quarterbacks Tyler Hulse and Matt Lickfold stood out during spring drills.
Western will try to overcome the loss of receiver Colton Woods, running back Charlie Dotson and quarterback Zach McRae. The team also lost star linebacker Scott Keiter-Charles.
Receiver Rashad Peniston returns to lead a young group of receivers, while T.J. Leep is back as an explosive option at running back.
The offensive line will be young after being hit hard by graduation. Senior Matt Rundle will be the old man of that group.
The Bulldogs hit the road for the long trip to Southern Oregon for the Sept. 1 opener.
The following week, Western will play at home against Dickinson State.