BISMARCK, N.D. -- The University of Mary football team, after winning at least a share of the Dakota Athletic Conference title the past two years, is ranked among the top teams in the country heading into this season. That means little to coach Myron Schulz.
"Our goal is to try to compete for the conference title and, short of that, try to sneak into those playoffs," he said. "But it's going to be a pretty tall order. It's going to be a dogfight."
The battle for the 2003 DAC-10 title could be a race among the Marauders, Dickinson State and Minot State -- the same three teams that shared the crown last season with identical 8-1 conference records.
Mary progressed farthest in the NAIA playoffs, losing 13-10 to Sioux Falls (S.D.) in the quarterfinals. All-conference quarterback Tim Garcia and receiver Jake Pfau, who had a school record 13 receptions for 167 yards in that playoff loss, return this season to anchor the offense.
Schulz said his top-rated defense a year ago could be a weak spot this season, with the loss of several all-conference performers.
"There's a lot of new faces there; only two or three starters back on D," he said. "The big question mark there is youth. Our challenge as a (coaching) staff is to make sure they're assignment-sharp early."
The Marauders, ranked No. 8 in the NAIA preseason poll, face a tough test early, with a Sept. 27 matchup in Bismarck against No. 7-ranked Dickinson State.
Neither Schulz nor Blue Hawks coach Hank Biesiot consider the game critical to their championship hopes. Biesiot said he is more worried about Dickinson State's early schedule, which has the Blue Hawks on the road for three of the first four games.
"We'll find out what kind of road warriors we are," he said.
DSU, which lost in the first round of last year's playoffs to eventual national champion Carroll College of Montana, also must replace quarterback Nick Walker, who shared league Most Valuable Player honors last year with Minot State quarterback Kenny Smith.
"It wouldn't be fair to expect somebody to come in with numbers like Nick had his last two years," Biesiot said. "We've got three kids we like vying for the position right now. Nobody has broken to the front. All three of them have their strengths."
Biesiot said a rotation at the quarterback position is a possibility, especially early in the season. Minot State coach Mike Sivertson is considering a similar move in replacing Smith, who threw a league-high 34 touchdown passes last year and led the DAC-10 in total offense with an average of 312 yards per game.
The Beavers, ranked No. 19 in the preseason poll, also lost tailback Darrik Trudell, who led the league with 1,519 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns last season. All-American wide receiver Harry Mills returns.
Before last season, when the team lost to Mary 21-18 in the first round of the playoffs, Minot State had not made a playoff appearance since 1994. Sivertson said his team hopes to improve on defense and once again compete for the conference title, and he expects more pressure to win.
"They recognize we graduated a couple of really good kids ... but at the same time people are looking at Minot State to be one of the competitive teams in the league," he said.
Coaches say Valley City State and Jamestown also could contend. Last year, the 10-team league's top five finishers were North Dakota teams, with the four South Dakota teams mired in the bottom half with sub-.500 records.
Stan Rettew, a former coach at Mayville State who is in his second season at the helm of Si Tanka-Huron, said football seems to have more tradition to the north.
"A lot more emphasis is placed on football programs in North Dakota schools. In South Dakota schools, more emphasis is being put on basketball," Rettew said. "I sure hope it's not a sign of the future."
Schulz and Biesiot said they expect Huron, which was co-DAC-10 champion in 2000 and finished third in the league in 2001, will be much improved from its sixth-place finish a year ago.
"We feel we've had a decent recruiting year, but we have to get a lot better," said Rettew, whose team returns just nine starters. "One of our goals is to compete every week. We felt last year that we competed three or four times, and the other times we got whipped."
Huron plays the first game of the season, a Sept. 4 matchup with South Dakota Tech. Other teams begin play Sept. 6. ^------=
On the Net:
End advance for weekend editions, Aug. 30-31.
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index