By BRIAN LESTER
In one of the preseason polls I saw recently, Grand Valley State, Saginaw Valley State and Hillsdale were ranked among the top 20 teams in the nation.
It's not a surprise. All three represented the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in the playoffs last season. All three should contend for playoff berths again this year.
Yet, that doesn't mean no other team in the GLIAC has a shot at crashing the playoff party. The University of Findlay has a chance to be in the mix.
After all, the Oilers aren't that far away from finally punching a ticket to the NCAA Division II playoffs.
UF, realistically, was one big play away from going to the D-II playoffs for the first time last season. The Oilers waxed Hillsdale 42-17 at Donnell Stadium and went into the second to last week of the year with their playoff hopes still in one piece.
But the hurdle that is SVSU once again tripped up the Oilers. UF, after leading 7-3 at halftime, trailed 24-16 in the fourth quarter and was knocking on the door of the end zone with just over a minute remaining.
Andrew Beam took four shots at the end zone and all four of his attempts were good enough to be caught.
No one stepped up to make the play, but if it someone had, the Oilers would have had the inside track to a playoff berth and would have had a different mindset going into the season finale against Ashland.
Instead, with the sting of a 24-16 loss to the Cardinals on their minds, the Oilers stumbled against Ashland. They were rocked early, falling behind 31-13, and ended up on the wrong end of a 41-28 loss to the Eagles.
Yes, the Oilers finished 7-4, a nice step in the right direction after four consecutive losing seasons, but the playoffs were within reach and falling short of that goal was painful.
The good news is that the Oilers learned about what it takes to compete in the GLIAC. They have an understanding of the fact that one or two plays can make the difference between going to the postseason and staying home.
A new season is on the horizon and UF has a chance to build on the success of a year ago. It has a chance to make the dream of going to the playoffs come true if it can make the plays that count.
The road toward that goal begins Thursday when preseason practice opens up. Where the road ends remains to be seen, but at least for now, the belief that UF can make plays and compete for a playoff berth is still intact.