To fully appreciate the scope of Carroll College's dominance of the Frontier Conference, one need only look at the number that says it all: 12. That's how many consecutive conference titles the Saints have won, but the truth is that's only part of the reason they were voted by the league's coaches to make it 13 straight this fall.
Carroll is much more than the Frontier Conference's reigning bully. With six NAIA national championships and two runner-up finishes in the past 10 years, the Saints are also a dynasty. And with reigning NAIA player of the year Chance Demarais (an 1,800-yard rusher last season) leading the way, they don't appear to be coming back down to earth anytime soon.
"The top dog in the conference is Carroll College," Southern Oregon head coach Craig Howard said, "and we know how good they are."
So does everybody else.
But while knocking off the Saints appears to be a monumental task — they ranked first in the nation last season in total sacks, second in passing efficiency and third in total rushing offense and scoring — Eastern Oregon provided the rest of the conference with a little hope last September, when the Mountaineers traveled to Helena, Mont., and stunned Carroll 41-33. How did the Mounties do it? They established their running game, gaining 151 yards on the ground, survived Carroll's early onslaught — the Saints took a 14-0 lead only six minutes into the game — and were at their best under pressure, converting 10 of 15 third downs and 2 of 2 fourth downs.
Montana-State Northern was supposed to represent the league's best shot of halting Carroll's run this year, earning the No. 2 spot in the coaches' poll, but proved to be no match for the Saints in last Saturday's early-season showdown. Carroll amassed 265 yards rushing and won easily, 31-6.
Perhaps Eastern Oregon will challenge the Saints. The 16th-ranked Mountaineers will be breaking in first-year starters at quarterback and running back, but return their entire starting offensive line, most of their defensive line, the nation's 13th-leading tackler from 2011 in linebacker Howard McDonald and a secondary loaded with experience.
Rocky Mountain, which placed fourth in the then-six-team conference last season, was picked to finish fourth in the conference and showed why in a 38-19 season-opening win over Jamestown College last Saturday. Led by quarterback Bryce Baker, the Bears gained 364 yards of offense and scored 24 straight points to open the game. Baker completed 26 of 41 passes for 255 yards and three touchdowns.
Southern Oregon may be the league's dark horse. One of two new league members (along with Dickinson State), the Raiders beat Eastern Oregon last season and finished the year with the nation's 10th-ranked passing offense (256 yards per game).
Sophomore quarterback Austin Dodge enters his second season as the starter after passing for 2,195 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. He'll have some built in chemistry with most of those around him, as all four starting receivers and the starting running back from a year ago return. While Dodge is expected to put up big numbers, Howard says the Raiders cannot afford to become one-dimensional.
"We're seeking balance," he said. "We'll attack (opponents), and if they load up to defend our pass then (running back) Manny Barragan gets the ball a bunch more. It all depends on numbers and how they defend us. One game, we might run the ball 60 plays, and the next game we may throw it 60 times, but we always want balance at the end."
The Raiders, who open their season Saturday against Montana-Western, were picked to finish fifth between Rocky Mountain and Montana Tech. That's fine, as far as Howard is concerned.
"Building a program and winning championships is a process," he said. "I always tell (the players), enjoy the trip, not the destination. They picked us in the middle of the pack or lower. They don't expect much out of us, and that's OK because we haven't done much."
The Frontier Conference
(First-place votes in parentheses)
Carroll College (7) 49
MSU-Northern (1) 36
Eastern Oregon 35
Rocky Mountain 28
Southern Oregon 26
Montana Tech 21
Dickinson State 16
Montana Western 13