So who’s the favorite?
The 2014 DODDS-Europe Division II football season opens Saturday with a light slate of three games. Aviano will travel north to International School of Brussels, Ansbach will visit AFNORTH and Baumholder will make the short trip to Bitburg. The season picks up momentum the following Saturday, Sept. 13, with 12 teams. The playoffs lurk just over a month later; the title game is set for Nov. 1.
On the eve of the season opener, it’s hard to identify a clear frontrunner.
The immediately obvious candidate is Hohenfels, the defending champion. The upstart Tigers pulled off a remarkable postseason run last fall fueled, appropriately, by repeated remarkable runs from All-Europe running back and Stars and Stripes football Athlete of the Year David Vidovic. The high-powered Hohenfels offense scored 38 points in all three of its playoff games, including the ousting of reigning dynasty Bitburg in the semifinals and a stunning championship-game comeback to edge SHAPE.
But that stirring finish glossed over what was an uneven season overall for the Tigers. Hohenfels entered its regular-season finale mired in a two-game losing streak and at risk of a losing season before a 38-22 win over Vicenza salvaged its title hopes.
In short, the Tigers aren’t unbeatable. And they are heavily reliant on consistent brilliance from Vidovic to succeed, an issue that leaves Hohenfels vulnerable to defenses now more focused than ever on derailing the most dangerous ball-carrier in recent DODDS-Europe memory. The steady hand of coach Larry Daffin will be needed to nurture the offensive line that protects the team’s featured back and encourage the team’s non-Vidovic skill guys to make plays.
Foremost among the rivals is Bitburg, the juggernaut that was stomping to what might have been a fifth consecutive Division II European championship when mauled by the unexpectedly fierce Tigers in a 38-28 semifinal loss.
Head coach Mike Laue and his team are predictably serene about last year’s disappointment even as they plan a furious effort to start a new championship streak. The program trusts its fundamentals and expects them to yield continued success; though last year’s results weren’t optimal, the process remains sound.
DODDS-Europe football fans won’t have to wait for the postseason to see a Bitburg-Hohenfels rematch. The two are scheduled to meet Oct. 4 on the home field of the reigning Tigers.
While the old guard and the new one fight over turf, however, the fray also includes 11 contenders determined to find their own foothold. An early favorite to emerge from that group is Ansbach.
The Cougars put together an undefeated regular season in 2013 that included a win over Hohenfels. A seemingly safe path to a title shot hit an obstacle, however, with a 23-22 upset loss to SHAPE in the semifinals.
Head coach Marcus George brings back a group of 12 returnees that includes All-Star running back Dorian Jones and quarterback Bailey Ward. If the team’s depth and defense round into form, Ansbach will be an extremely tough out.
Runner-up SHAPE, meanwhile, is starting all over again after losing all but four players from the team that came within minutes of a European title last season. Incumbent playoff teams Vicenza, Baumholder and International School of Brussels are in a similar predicament. Naples returns 18 players and eight starters, but head coach Steve Altstiel said the Wildcats’ overall turnout is down from years past and positional depth might be a major issue.
While the schools remain largely the same, DODDS-Europe has adjusted the way they’ll be organized into regions. Last year’s two-region system, with four teams each from north and south advancing to the postseason, has been replaced by a three-region arrangement of north, central and south. DODDS-Europe athletic director Karen Seadore said the organization will use a “point system” to determine which teams will reach the playoffs; details of that system have yet to be finalized.
Add that to the list of questions hovering over the start of the Division II football season. Only time will reveal the answers. And in DODDS-Europe football, time is always short.