(SportsNetwork.com) - This time one year ago, new San Diego head coach Dale Lindsey knew exactly what he had in his Toreros football team.
What he had was an offensive power led by veteran quarterback Mason Mills and a handful of talented receivers, surrounded by experienced players on the line and in the backfield. The same went for his defense, which was filled with seniors ready to make the most of a golden opportunity.
That opportunity came in the form of the Pioneer Football League's first-ever automatic bid to the FCS playoffs, which awaited the league champion. San Diego, however, disqualified itself from playoff contention before the final weekend of the regular season, stating the way the Toreros athletics program awarded need-based financial aid to football players was incompatible with PFL rules.
But it's a different story this year for Lindsey, who said during the PFL's preseason coaches conference call Thursday that his team is a mixed bag of potential, and he's unsure of its contents.
Perhaps more accurately, he referred to his team as Forrest Gump's box of chocolates.
"We don't really know what we're going to get right now," he said.
Mills, who was named the league's offensive player of the year following the 2013 season, and was also a Walter Payton Award finalist, was lost to graduation, along with both San Diego running backs and tight ends. The strength of the Toreros' offense, Lindsey said, lies with the offensive line and three key returning receivers.
On the defensive side, San Diego returns just four starters from last season. But the changeover wasn't enough to discourage coaches from voting the Toreros as the PFL's preseason favorite to win the conference. San Diego received five first-place votes, with Jacksonville (three), Butler (two) and Drake (one) each getting first-place nods.
"We're very appreciative of all the first-place votes. We don't know how we got them," Lindsey said. "We'd like to thank all the coaches for their kindness, but we don't know that we're a first-place team. There's just too many questions at this time."
San Diego wasn't the only team to be hit hard in the offseason by player turnover. In fact, several top quarterbacks and league stars departed following the 2013 season. Defending Pioneer Football League champion Butler knows what it feels like to be vulnerable at several offensive positions entering summer camps and fall practices.
Quarterback Matt Lancaster was a multi-year starter for the Bulldogs, along with speedy running back Trae Heeter and reliable receiver Brendan Shannon. All three players, who led Butler statistically at their respective positions, were lost to graduation.
"To find those type of guys, I think we're going to have to do it as an 11- man unit, and that's what we pride ourselves on," Butler coach Jeff Voris said.
Butler earned the automatic PFL playoff bid after San Diego dropped itself from eligibility last season. The Bulldogs went up against the Ohio Valley Conference's Tennessee State and were dropped, 31-0, in the first round.
Marist and Davidson will each be looking to replace senior quarterbacks as well. But while they hold auditions for the starting job under center, Dayton (picked second in the PFL preseason poll, though without any first-place votes) will be bolstering an already strong roster.
Returning offensive starters in quarterback Will Bardo and running back Connor Kacsor are both on the preseason All-PFL team, along with veteran defensive lineman Pat Dowd.
Flyers head coach Rick Chamberlin said in the media call that in all his years with the league, this conference is as strong as it's ever been. And Dayton is right in the thick of the conversation for the title.
"We always have high expectations at Dayton," Chamberlin said. "It's our tradition. The type of young men we recruit and are able to get here in our program, it's always to play for that PFL championship. That's our goal every year, to be going into that last game of the season - this year for us it's Campbell - that we have an opportunity to win a championship."
Jacksonville, picked third in the preseason poll, returns a strong nucleus of offensive talent, which includes junior quarterback Kade Bell and receivers Andrew Robustelli and Dorian Guy, who received a fifth year of eligibility.
Campbell coach Mike Minter, who is entering his second year at the helm of the Fighting Camels' program, said he feels more calm this offseason than in his rookie campaign. As he should, with eight offensive starters from a year ago returning, and a whopping 10 on the defensive side of the ball. His team, picked seventh in the preseason poll, has moved up a few spots from a year ago.
"Everything was new (last year)," Minter said. "Now this year, we know what's around the corner. I think my coaching staff is very comfortable with each other. ... Really what you feel is a calm confidence right now of understanding what's next, and knowing what's around the corner as we get prepared to play that first game."
There are a lot of question marks still in the Pioneer Football League otherwise, especially for teams coming off strong seasons with hard-to-replace standouts. But once the dust from the offseason settles, the picture will come into focus and the battles will resume.
PIONEER FOOTBALL LEAGUE PRESEASON POLL
Head Coaches Poll
1. San Diego (5 first-place votes), 90 points
2. Dayton, 82
3. Jacksonville (3), 80
4. Butler (2), 77
5. Drake (1), 73
6. Marist, 61
7. Campbell, 38
8. Morehead State, 35
9. Stetson, 30
10. Davidson, 20
11. Valparaiso, 19
PRESEASON ALL-PIONEER FOOTBALL LEAGUE TEAM
WR - Reggie Bell, San Diego, Sr.
WR - Andrew Robustelli, Jacksonville, Sr.
WR - William Morris, Davidson, Jr.
TE - Eric Saubert, Drake, So.
QB - Will Bardo, Dayton, Sr.
RB - Connor Kacsor, Dayton, Sr.
RB - Atiq Lucas, Marist, Sr.
FB - Mike Yonker, Stetson, So.
OL - Pono Keni, San Diego, Jr.
OL - Daniel Murray, San Diego, Jr.
OL - David Tiwari, Butler, So.
OL - Troy Whitmer, Drake, Sr.
OL - Mike Demos, Butler, So.
DL - Pat Dowd, Dayton, Sr.
DL - Matt Acree, Drake, Sr.
DL - Maroa White, Jacksonville, So.
DL - Ugonna Awuruonye, Campbell, So.
LB - John Hugunin, Drake, Jr.
LB - Paul Sakowski, Marist, Sr.
LB - Matt Casey, Davidson, Sr.
LB - Mike Klein, Jacksonville, Jr.
DB - Donald Payne, Stetson, So.
DB - Zach Adler, Marist, Sr.
DB - Chris Atkins, Stetson, So.
DB - Brad Duwe, Drake, Jr.
DB - Troy McClelland, San Diego, Sr.
PK - William Will, Dayton, So.
P - Cam Bohnert, Drake, So.
RS - Brandon Bornhauser, Morehead State, Sr.