Predicting the outcome of any ODAC football season is a difficult task, but doing so for the 2018 campaign may be one of the most daunting in recent memory for even the conference's head coaches. The annual preseason poll features two ties including for the top spot, two additional teams separated by just one point, and first place votes split amongst four squads.
Washington and Lee University and Randolph-Macon College, the two most recent NCAA tournament teams from the ODAC ranks (in 2017 and 2016, respectively) sit tied atop the yearly coach's survey with 44 total points. The defending champion Generals secured four first place votes, while the Yellow Jackets picked up a pair. Hampden-Sydney College stands alone in third with 37 tallies and one top nod, while ODAC newcomer Ferrum College and Shenandoah University are locked for fourth with 26 markers. The Panthers earned the remaining first place vote as they join the league table as the eighth football-playing member.
RELATED: 2018 ODAC Football Virtual Guide
One needs to only look back to last year's standings to see why the 2018 preseason rankings are so tight. The 2017 title was still in the balance come the final week of the schedule. Washington and Lee secured its seventh overall league crown and third since 2012 at 5-1 in conference play behind the second-best single-season team rushing output (4,435 yards) in ODAC history. But both Randolph-Macon and Hampden-Sydney finished just one game back with Shenandoah and Guilford College ready to make league tiebreaking scenarios interesting at 3-3 had the results on November 11 gone a little differently.
Washington and Lee continued its season at the University of Mount Union in the first round of the NCAA Division III Tournament. Playing in adverse weather conditions in Alliance, Ohio, the Generals put together a strong effort against the perennial power and eventual national champions for the 13th time over, falling 21-0. Josh Breece, the ODAC Rookie of the Year and new single-season rushing record-holder (1,825), ran for 169 yards to power W&L to a 220-196 edge on the ground.
RELATED: 2017 ODAC Standings | 2017 NCAA Tournament Results
When it comes to returning talent, fans will not be disappointed in 2018 with 43 All-ODAC award winners set for another run on the gridiron. Randolph-Macon leads the charge in total returning honorees at 10 followed by Emory & Henry and Shenandoah with eight apiece.
Talented runners highlight a list of 10 returning All-ODAC First Team athletes. W&L's Breece paired his ODAC top rookie honor with a first team selection, along with R-MC feature back Tre Frederick. Guilford College running back and kick returner De'Eric Bell leads the Quakers' backfield after earning his spot as an all-purpose back. Every running game needs good offensive lineman. R-MC's Greg Castle and W&L's Mitch Hornsby return to their squads in 2018.
Shenandoah University quarterback Hayden Bauserman rounds out the first team offensive returners. He set the ODAC single-season record for passing yards (3,818) and chimed in second in passing touchdowns (41) in 2017.
On the other side of the ball, linebackers Griffin Davis from Hampden-Sydney and Yonis Blanco from Randolph-Macon lead the list of returners along with Emory & Henry defensive tackle Josh Fleenor. Yellow Jackets punter Julian Drew also returns after a first team campaign in 2017.
In addition to ODAC honors, four players have picked up preseason All-America honors from D3football.com. W&L's Breece and GC's Bell earned first team selections at running back and kick returner, respectively, while E&H's Fleenor is a second team choice at defensive line. General's offensive lineman Hornsby garnered a third team spot.
For Ferrum, which previously competed as a member of the USA South and posted an 8-2 overall record last year, the Panthers return five overall All-USA South standouts including a trio from the first team. Rod Smith bolsters FC's defensive backfield, while offensive lineman Jordan Patti helps open holes for 2017 USA South Offensive Player of the Year, running back Brian Mann. He ran for 1,556 yards and 17 touchdowns as a sophomore last season.
RELATED: 2017 All-ODAC Awards | D3football.com Preseason All-America Team
The 2018 season kicks off Thursday, August 30 and Saturday, September 1, with non-conference play for all but two schools. Emory & Henry and Ferrum will play their annual "Crooked Road Classic" on opening weekend in the first ODAC game of the season. The final week of the regular season is Saturday, November 10, with the NCAA Tournament following thereafter. After spending the past quarter-century in Salem, the Stagg Bowl travels to Shenandoah, Texas, on the weekend of December 15-17 at Woodforest Stadium. If you can't make it to the games, be sure to check the schedules online for live video, audio, and statistics links.
For more on ODAC football and its teams entering the season, continue checking out 2018 ODAC Football Virtual Guide. The virtual guide includes specifics about each team as well as interviews with all eight head coaches from their annual preseason meeting.
Listed below is the 2018 ODAC Football Preseason Poll. For more information on ODAC Football, visit the websites of any of the participating schools, or go to the ODAC's home on the Internet at www.odaconline.com. Don't forget to become a fan of the ODAC on Facebook and follow @odacathletics on Twitter and Instagram.