Coming off of an 8-3 record and their first postseason appearance since 2003, the Southern Arkansas football team has been tabbed to finish second in the Great American Conference in 2013 as it was voted on by the league's head football coaches and announced by the conference office on Monday.
The high preseason ranking for SAU is justified in the fact that the Muleriders return 19 starters from last year's team, with eight players coming back to one of the country's most prolific offenses and seven players returning to a much improved defense unit from prior years.
Last season, the Muleriders' offense was ranked in the top-25 nationally in several statistical categories including: total offense (5th | 497.6 ypg), passing offense (12th | 310.7 ypg), passing efficiency (22nd | 151.28), sacks allowed (23rd | 1.09 spg), and scoring offense (24th | 37.1 ppg). Defensively, the Muleriders made tremendous strides in 2012 as they were ranked in the top-50 nationally in a couple statistical categories including: rushing defense (6th | 91.36 ypg) and scoring defense (33rd | 21.6 ppg). The previous year (2011), the Mulerider defense was ranked 126th in rushing defense and 135th in scoring defense.
Among those starters returning are preseason All-America candidates Mark Johnson and Tyler Sykora. Johnson and Sykora both enter into their senior season at SAU and both are poised to solidify their names in the SAU record books by season's end.
Johnson, the Muleriders starting running back, comes in to 2013 with 2,852 career rushing yards is just 183 yards shy of setting a new career rushing mark at SAU. Johnson is also within reach of the career touchdowns scored record as he needs seven touchdowns to surpass former SAU standout Nik Lewis's record of 37 career touchdowns scored. According to D2football.com, Johnson is a preseason Fourth-Team All-America selection at running back.
Sykora, the Muleriders starting quarterback, has already enjoyed a record-setting career at SAU as he is the owner of a total of 16 records (game, season, and career). Sykora, a 6-6 southpaw from Hot Springs Village, has received several preseason accolades from various football media outlets as he figures to be a key cog in the Muleriders' potent offensive attack once more. According to D2football.com and Tonysoftli.com, Sykora is the no. 4-ranked quarterback and no. 37-ranked player overall in Division II. Sykora is also a preseason Fourth-Team All-America selection at quarterback by D2football.com.
Other key offensive skill returners are All-GAC Second-Team wide receiver Jack Brown, wide receiver Chris Terry, and tight ends Brooks White and Paul Walker-Hall. Along the offensive line, Johnathan Greenidge and John Miller return to serve as anchors for a young offensive line.
One of the key returning starters to the defensive unit is All-GAC Second-Team linebacker Mark Spaight. Last season, Spaight led the team in tackles with 85 total tackles and tied for the team lead in tackles for loss with 8.0. Other key returners to the defense include: linebackers Sam Cowling, Alex Mills, Tate Mustin, and Hayden Rybiski. Along the defensive line, Nolan Duncan, Philip Gahr, and Brandon Moton return. In the secondary, Demario Thomas, and Quan Warren return as starters.
On special teams, the Muleriders have shored up the kicking game with the additions of Dylan Nowak and Austin Shoemake.