The KCAC had four teams ranked last year and begin the 2014 season with the same teams ranked. The bottom is closing the gap and squeezing the middle teams.
A few of the middle teams are on the verge of joining Tabor, Friends, Ottawa and Sterling in vying for the KCAC title and playoff spots.
“Anything can happen in this league this year,” 11th-year Ottawa coach Kent Kessinger said Wednesday at the KCAC Media Day in Wichita.
The reason he said that was after looking at the preseason polls. Ottawa was the favorite in the media, but picked fourth by the coaches.
Defending champion Sterling topped the coaches poll, but was fourth in the media. Friends was second by the media and third in the coaches. Tabor was second by the coaches and third in the media poll.
“As a national rater, what I like is the strength of this conference,” Kessinger said. “These polls show the parity in the conference.
“Bethany will be vastly improved. Southwestern can be the team that can make that jump into it. Bethel will be a better team last year.
Last year, the KCAC and the Heart teams split their games.
“What we did against the Heart of America matchup was amazing for us,” Kessinger said. “Looking back at last year, every week you had a battle. Some of the teams that were down last year are definitely much stronger.
There will be some intrigue with new coaches at Kansas Wesleyan, McPherson and Saint Mary.
“You have a little bit of the unknown with the three new coaches,” Kessinger said. “You got a little more knowledge of what Saint Mary is going to do since Jay [Osborne] is stepping in and taking over.
“You have a brand new system at Kansas Wesleyan and a transition at McPherson.”
What Kessinger first looks at in evaluating teams in the preseason is if the quarterback returns and others by how strong their defense appears to be.
“A lot of teams have their quarterbacks that were in place last year,” Kessinger said. “That makes their transitions a lot stronger.”
The Braves (8-4) return a lot of experience with 17 starters back and number of others with significant playing time.
Kessinger expects between 90 and 100 players to report next week.
“We have had good senior leadership the last several years,” Kessinger said. “This year the biggest thing will be how that senior leadership takes from that experience last year. We were so new in so many spots.
“Last year, we were thin in some spots. At the end of last year, our defensive line was small and it made a big difference going into the Tabor game. That should be one of our strengths this year.”
Kessinger expects the defense — with seven starters back — to lead the Braves.
“This might be the best defense in the 11 years we have put together,” Kessinger said.
The defense will be led by All-American Deron Bruce, the KCAC defensive player of the year in 2013.
“Bruce is one of the better defensive linemen we have had, especially when it comes to rushing the passer,” Kessinger said.
The offense is spearheaded by senior running back Luke Lundy and quarterback Michael Behr.
“Experience at quarterback is huge for us,” Kessinger said. “The running back situation is going to be really good.”
Ottawa opens the season with ranked foes Baker and Benedictine.
“Starting off with two ranked teams, it gives you a playoff atmosphere in the first two games,” Kessinger said. “It has helped us the last few years.
“It is going to be challenge.”
Ottawa (3) 156
Friends (5) 155
Tabor (7) 151
Sterling (3) 150
Saint Mary 65
Kan Wesleyan 58
Sterling (5) 74
Tabor (2) 69
Friends (2) 67
Ottawa (1) 66
Kan. Wesleayan 27
Saint Mary 24