Kansas City, Mo. How good is Heart of America Athletic Conference football?
Well, let’s see … Baker University has the league’s offensive player of the year back in tailback Richie Bryant. And the Wildcats have a four-year starter returning in quarterback Mack Brown.
On defense, practically everybody returns from a platoon that played a major role in BU leading the NAIA in turnover margin last fall.
Surely such personnel riches would prompt league coaches to tap Baker as the HAAC title favorite or, in the least, a championship challenger.
Not so. In the coaches preseason poll revealed at HAAC Media Day Monday at Kauffman Stadium, Baker was listed in fourth place, or one rung lower than the ’Cats finished in last season’s league race.
Further adding to the perplexity is the NAIA preseason coaches poll. Four HAAC teams are ranked in the Top 25 — Lindenwood third, MidAmerica Nazarene eighth, Baker 12th and Missouri Valley 16th.
Regardless of those polls, though, Baker definitely looms as a playoffs probability after ending its 15-year NAIA postseason drought during last year’s surprising 8-4 season.
So full is sixth-year coach Mike Grossner’s cupboard that he emphasized how worried he is about replacing the middle of his graduation-depleted offensive line.
That’s a legitimate concern, of course, but merely a secondary consideration if you don’t have quality skill players. And there isn’t a coach in the HAAC who wouldn’t love to have either Brown or Bryant.
A Shawnee Mission North High product who originally signed with Colorado, Brown is already the school’s career passing leader.
“Mack provides a calm over our football team,” Grossner said. “He’s also pretty durable.”
Brown is so durable, in fact, that no one else on the roster ever has taken a snap from the Baker center. Grossner says he has a couple of talented QBs who could step in, but an injury to Brown potentially could be devastating.
At the same time — and this is a factor that may have influenced the HAAC coaches — Bryant has to prove he wasn’t a one-year wonder. Until last year, Bryant was basically just another running back. But then he exploded for a league-high 1,335 rushing yards and scored more touchdowns (28) than any player in the NAIA.
Punctuating that question is the fact Bryant, who came to Baker as a walk-on sprinter, had offseason surgery to repair cartilage damage in both knees.
“There’s still a mystery there,” Grossner conceded, “but I saw a gleam in his eyes the other day that says he’s back.”
Still, the darkest cloud hanging over Baker football is the schedule. BU will have to face two-thirds of the other ranked HAAC teams during the first two weeks of the season.
If Baker wins at Missouri Valley on Sept. 5, then comes home and stops MANU in its home opener, the ’Cats will be off to a flying start. But if they lose both games …
“We’ll find out what type of team we have early on,” Grossner said.
Optimism is high in Baldwin City, and it should be. But Baker still has to prove it can be a consistent contender.