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By Tim McDonnell, FCS Assistant - Archive - Email
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Time and travel are Pioneer hurdles
San Diego quarterback Mason Mills helps fuel the defending PFL co-champion.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - For San Diego and Drake, last year's Pioneer Football League co-champions, the only thing standing in the way of a league title in 2012 is a tough schedule.

If last season proved anything for the PFL, it's that the league awaits anxiously for the NCAA's decision to expand the FCS playoff system to 24 teams, from 20, by 2013.

The Toreros and Bulldogs finished with identical 9-2 records, sitting atop the league with 7-1 marks. However, they found themselves waiting for something that no Pioneer team has ever received - a playoff invitation.

It's expected that the NCAA executive committee will approve an expanded playoff next month.

Most likely, if the field expands, the Pioneer League would receive an automatic bid because the Ivy League and the Southwestern Athletic Conference don't send their champions to the FCS playoffs. That being said, as of now nothing is concrete. It seems the only option for Pioneer teams to become more appealing to the playoff committee is through scheduling and conference dominance.

Just look at San Diego's upcoming travel-weary list of games. The Toreros are the league's preseason favorite, announced in their head coaches poll Monday, but in order to come away with another title, they're going to need to pack a large suitcase.

Five of USD's six road contests feature flying across the nation against Harvard, Jacksonville, Marist, Drake and Davidson. That's just over 12,000 miles, so they should have no trouble racking-up extra frequent flyer miles.

"Sure, traveling commercial flights with layovers (as opposed to charter flights) can be a grind," San Diego head coach Ron Caragher said. "However, our players get the opportunity to see this great nation from sea to shining sea."

For the Toreros, who have become used to traveling, the trips also have been a way to "take-in" parts of the country while on the road. This even includes having Friday walk-through practices at Ohio State, the University of Kentucky and Army, to name a few from the past. But, whether or not the team can remain focused is another task.

"As long as the team can continue to be mature and focus (be ready for the game), we will continue to enhance our travel by doing so," Caragher said. "... Our team has a great attitude - the long-distance travel factor is one challenge of many that we get to face and overcome."

San Diego junior defensive end Blake Oliaro was the 2011 PFL Defensive Player of the Year. He is one of 20 FCS players listed on the 2012 Buck Buchanan Award Watch List.

The Toreros lost 21 seniors from last year's squad, but return two underclassmen playmakers in running back Kenny James (1,151 yards, 12 touchdowns) and quarterback Mason Mills (2,370 passing yards and 22 TDs).

Last season, PFL teams were a combined 3-14 versus FCS conferences which have automatic bids for the playoffs. Their only wins coming against Robert Morris and Sacred Heart of the Northeast Conference and Charleston Southern of the Big South.

Defending co-champion Drake opens the season hosting NAIA Grand View, but quickly follows with Montana State and a road game at Indiana State. If the Bulldogs can survive the first couple of weeks and league play, the season finale at Jacksonville could have huge league title implications.

Similarly, Jacksonville, which finished with a record of 7-4 in 2011, open the season with two road games, the first at traditional Southern Conference power Georgia Southern, the second at Charleston Southern. The Dolphins look to avenge their only league losses with two noteworthy home games versus Drake and San Diego.

PIONEER FOOTBALL LEAGUE PRESEASON POLL

(Head Coaches)

1. San Diego (8 first-place votes), 79 points

2. Drake (1), 71

3. Jacksonville, 65

4. Dayton (1), 56

5. Campbell, 45

6. Marist, 42

7. Butler, 34

8. Morehead State, 27

9. Davidson, 20

10. Valparaiso, 11

Note: Coaches could not vote for their own team.


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