By Daniel Johnson, Sports Editor
At ACU’s season opener in 2006, the Wildcats were the underdogs.
They were picked to finish sixth in the Lone Star Conference South Division, hadn’t won a season opener since 1998 and hadn’t posted a winning season in three years. Nobody knew how good the ACU football team could be, not even its players.
“We didn’t know we were good last year,” said senior defensive end Travis Carpenter. “I mean, we knew we had some players who worked hard, but we didn’t know what we could really do.”
But in 2007 everything is different.
The Wildcats are coming off an 8-3 season that is one of the program’s most successful seasons in almost 30 years. ACU is picked to win the LSC South and are already nationally ranked No. 11 in the nation by the American Football Coaches Association and No. 16 by d2football.com preseason poll; the Wildcats are expected to win.
“Success is the only option,” Carpenter said. “It’s not necessarily about winning, but we have two goals: to be the most prepared team in the nation and to play together. If we do those things, wins will come.”
ACU will open its season against the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, Okla., Saturday and with a long list of returning starters from the program’s first playoff season since 1978 and impressive transfers that can make an immediate impact, 2007 could be the second-straight winning season for the Wildcats.
“Our main focus is a championship,” said senior corner Corey Jordan.
Returning starters to spare
Junior quarterback Billy Malone prefers the underdog role. But after throwing for 27 touchdowns, more than 3,000 yards, only throwing six interceptions and posting five 300-yard passing games in 2006, his underdog days may be over.
“It’s more fun when you’re the underdog,” Malone said.
2007 will be Malone’s third year as the Wildcats’ starter and with a receiving corps that is filled with other returning starters that already know the Wildcat offensive scheme, the LSC South Preseason Offensive Player of the Year said his third should be his best.
“We’re expecting a good season, nothing less,” Malone said.
Malone’s main target in 2007 may be the man five catches away from becoming ACU’s all-time leader in receptions: senior wide receiver Jerale Badon.
Badon is also 253 yards away from the all-time receiving yards record and had five 100-yard receiving games in 2006. Despite struggling with a knee injury in 2006, he posted a career season in catches (63), touchdowns (five) and yards (973). But Badon isn’t the only experienced option Malone will have.
Returning for the Wildcats are all-LSC South 2006 selections: junior fullback Chris Conklin, junior tight end Trey Simeone and returning No. 2 receiver Chris Morris. All three offered options for Malone in 2006, and all three were reasons why the Wildcats finished third in NCAA Division II for passing offense.
Conklin caught 14 catches for 218 yards and four touchdowns, Simeone snagged 14 of his own for 131 yards and one touchdown and Morris recorded 42 catches for 539 yards and three touchdowns.
“A lot of guys know what they’re doing,” third-year head coach Chris Thomsen said. “But that doesn’t guarantee anything.”
ACU was already guaranteed two solid running backs for 2007 with preseason all-American selection junior Taber Minner and senior Chancy Campbell, but Thomsen expanded his options in the backfield by adding junior college transfer Bernard Scott.
“Running backs take a big beating,” Thomsen said. “When we played in our playoff game last year, Chancy and Taber were pretty beat up, so that just shows you need more than just two backs.”
Scott, a first team National Junior College Athletic Association
all-American, led Blinn College to a NJCAA national championship and 12-0 season and Thomsen said he will most likely start in the Wildcats opener against Central Oklahoma.
Scott is joining an ACU running game that is already one of the best in the LSC. Minner ran for team-leading 818 yards, 12 touchdowns on 136 carries, and Campbell ran for 654 yards and nine touchdowns on just 110 carries.
The Wildcats’ defense has three good reasons why 2007 should be a hard year to score against ACU: Preseason all-Americans Carpenter, Jordan and senior linebacker Cody Stutts.
Thomsen said all three will be the leaders of the Wildcat defense, and all three were dominant at their positions in 2006.
“It’s an honor to be looked at in that sense,” Carpenter said of being a leader of the defense. “But it also means when the time comes to make the play you gotta step up.”
Carpenter, who played linebacker his first two seasons at ACU, did more than step up during his shift to defensive end in 2006; He led the LSC in sacks (nine), sacks per game (.82) and tackles for loss (15.5) and tackles for loss per game (1.41). Jordan, who started 30 games in his first three seasons at ACU, recorded 32 tackles, a team-high four interceptions and one touchdown in 2006. Stutts meanwhile led the team in tackles in 2006 with 94 and earned second team all-LSC honors. But the biggest advantage may not be their personal performances but the experience they bring to the different positions on the field.
“Having someone to lead in each position helps,” Carpenter said. “That way you know everyone should be doing their job.
Although ACU may be starting 2007 as a favorite to win, preseason rankings don’t matter much to Thomsen. What matters most is meeting the potential he said he knows his team has.
“Preseason rankings are just a starting point, and there is no reason to put much stock in them,” Thomsen said. “It’s about what you do in 2007 not what you did in 2006.”
ACU’s first home game will be against Southeastern Oklahoma State on Sept. 15.