GAC Season Wrap Up

December 20th, 2023 1:00pm

GAC Season Wrap Up

Now that the Great American Conference season is finally over (thanks a lot, Harding. Playing so long delayed this column for WEEKS!), it’s time to take a final look at how each team fared this season. 

Just a reminder, here is how things were stacked up in the preseason, as well as how things turned out at the end of the year.

GAC Preseason Coaches Preseaon PollFinal Standings
1. Ouachita Baptist1. Ouachita Baptist1. Harding
2. Harding2. Henderson State2. Henderson State
3. Henderson State3. Harding2. Southern Arkansas
4. Southern Arkansas4. Southern Arkansas2. Ouachita Baptist
5. Southeastern OSU5. Southern Nazarene5. Southern Nazarene
6. East Central6. East Central6. Oklahoma Baptist
7. Arkansas Tech7. Arkansas Tech7. Arkansas Tech
8. Arkansas-Monticello8. Southeastern OSU8. Southeastern OSU
9. Southern Nazarene9. Arkansas-Monticello9. East Central
10. Southwestern OSU10. Oklahoma Baptist10. Arkansas-Monticello
11. Oklahoma Baptist11. Southwestern OSU11. Northwestern OSU
12. Northwestern OSU12. Northwestern OSU12. Southwestern OSU

Let’s take a look at each team. Grades have been assigned relative to the team’s performance vs. expectations and not based on other teams in the league.


Harding- 15-0, GAC Champions, NCAA DII National Champions

Midseason Grade: A+

Final Grade: A+

Undefeated, undisputed, national champions. The Bisons were dominant from the first game of the season and were rarely tested. The offense set a record for rushing yards in a season and the defense gave up 15.3 points per game in the playoffs with 34 coming in one game. It was an incredible year for the Bisons, who hoisted the trophy for the first time in school history last Saturday with their 38-7 win over Colorado School of Mines. This recap is short because they were just that good this year. To find faults would be to unnecessarily nitpick. I’ll leave that to Paul Simmons and the coaching staff. Bravo, Harding!

Henderson State- 9-3, NCAA DII Playoffs (lost to Central Missouri)

Midseason Grade: B

Final Grade: A

It was a great year for the Reddies. Henderson snapped the long losing streak to Ouachita Baptist in the Battle of The Ravine and made the playoffs for the first time since 2015. They played Harding closer than anyone in the regular season as well. It was unfortunate to draw Central Missouri in the playoffs, but again, it’s hard to be down on this year. The future is also bright for the Reddies, as quarterback Andrew Edwards will be back along with a lot of the skill position players. The defense should be good again as well. Plenty to look forward to and build on in 2024.

Southern Arkansas- 10-2, defeated Missouri Western in Live United Bowl

Midseason Grade: A

Final Grade: A+

The Muleriders had an interesting year, as they had some struggles out of the gate, slowed the offense down in the second half of the year and were sort of on cruise control after their loss to Harding in late October (playing the worst three teams in the league to close didn’t help). But a 10-win season is a tremendous accomplishment and much praise should be given to coach Brad Smiley and his team. The strides SAU made this year defensively were significant and the biggest reason the Muleriders won five more games than they did last year. The only downside for SAU was the two blowouts to Ouachita Baptist and Harding. If both or maybe even one of those is a tighter loss, they probably would have made the playoffs instead of Henderson State. Still, it was a great season in Magnolia this year and we’ll see what SAU is able to do next year. 

Ouachita Baptist- 9-2

Midseason Grade: A-

Final Grade: B+

2023 was a year that just never quite clicked for the Tigers. We knew the defense was going to be good and it was. We knew there would be issues up front replacing a lot of offensive linemen from 2022 and there were. Unfortunately, it appeared those issues on offense were never completely resolved. The Tigers were under five yards per carry in six of their games this year and rushed for 5.1 yards per carry this year. In my opinion, this was the biggest hindrance for the Tigers in 2023. Despite that, it was still a good year. Four teams won nine games in the league this year, a first for the GAC. Clearly Harding was head and shoulders above the rest, but the trio of Ouachita, HSU and SAU were all pretty even. No shame losing close games to any of those teams. It’ll be interesting to see how Ouachita goes about trying to return to the playoffs next year, especially with several key defensive guys departing.

Southern Nazarene- 6-6, lost Heritage Bowl to Emporia State

Midseason Grade: B-

Final Grade: B+

Southern Nazarene making a bowl game after the first winning regular season in the school’s DII history is quite an accomplishment. But we can’t oversell things and 6-6 is still 6-6. Just like the players and coach Dustin Hada weren’t satisfied with five wins a year ago, the Crimson Storm know they left meat on the bone this year. The defense was much improved and more physical this year, but still gave up big plays. The offense had a significantly higher number of turnovers and penalties from a year ago. Still, SNU was one possession and two extra points from being 8-3 this year. They’re still a step behind the big three at the top, but the program’s improvement is undeniable. They’re not second-class to any of the other eight schools in the league. Now, is that the case with Gage Porter (finally) graduated and gone? We’ll see. 

Oklahoma Baptist- 6-5

Midseason Grade: B+

Final Grade: A-

The Bison improved mightily from last year’s 1-10 debacle, and there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the future. The defense in particular was much better in 2023 and that helped offset an inconsistent offense.The offensive line is really young, so growth there will only improve 2023’s measly production in the ground game. The Bison didn’t pull any upsets or anything this year and getting bludgeoned in their last two games definitely leaves a sour taste going into the offseason. But again, it appears the downturn in 2022 was more of a blip than a trend.

Arkansas Tech- 5-6

Midseason Grade: D

Final Grade: C+

The Wonder Boys started off very poorly, dropping their first four games before going 5-2 in the second half of the year. It was a good turnaround for Tech and gives them a lot of momentum heading into the offseason. The run game wasn’t great this year, but the defense stepped up down the stretch and played well. Quarterback Taye Gatewood was good all year long. Coach Kyle Shipp completely redid his staff coming into 2023, so it will be interesting to see how a full offseason of continuity helps improve a Tech team that’s been stuck in this middle of the GAC for several years. Perhaps the 5-2 close to the year will continue in 2024.

Southeastern OSU- 5-6

Midseason Grade: C-

Final Grade: C-

The Savage Storm struggled all year with consistency on offense. Southeastern averaged less than 20 points per game this year, and the break out season of 2021 seems like a long time ago. The defense was a pleasant surprise, as a talented, but inexperienced bunch played to the level of the former, not the latter. However, the Savage Storm were a lot closer to being 3-8 than above .500. SEOSU lost five of six games by at least 10 points and had two one-point wins—a last-second touchdown to beat Monticello and two missed extra points by SNU. The quarterback position needs to be settled in 2024, as well as improvements along the offensive line. Without those steps forward, the Savage Storm could be looking at another bottom half finish next year. 

East Central- 3-8

Midseason Grade: C

Final Grade: D

We knew the Tigers would take a step back this year, but going from 9-3 to 3-8 is on the extreme edge of what that step back looked like. Injuries and new personnel prevented the offense from ever coming together and the defense, while retaining some of the talent from the great 2022 unit, just wasn’t able to hold up without the support of the offense. The Tigers are locked in with coach John Litrenta, removing the interim tag after the regular season concluded. We’ll see how things improve in 2024 with the uncertainty of his return removed.

Arkansas-Monticello- 2-9

Midseason Grade: C

Final Grade: D-

The Weevils won the first two games of the season and then proceeded to lose the last nine. Losing quarterback Demilon Brown for the second consecutive year to injury wasn’t helpful, but there were plenty of problems even the presence of Brown couldn’t solve. This has been a theme for UAM the past few years—start fast and fade significantly later in the year. Something to wonder, simply because it’s there, is if the dual-role of coach Hud Jackson—who also serves as the athletic director for UAM—is too much to handle. Just this past year we saw longtime Harding men’s basketball coach Jeff Morgan step down to focus solely on being athletic director. East Central women’s basketball coach Matt Cole stepped down immediately upon receiving the interim athletic director role there as well and eventually was named full-time athletic director. Something to think about in Monticello. 

Northwestern OSU- 1-10

Midseason Grade: F

Final Grade: F

It was a rough debut season for coach Ronnie Jones. Injuries and a lack of personnel made for a lot of lopsided losses. But the Rangers did end the season on a positive note, drubbing rival Southwestern OSU in the season finale. We knew this would be a long rebuild in Alva, so we’ll give lots of grace to Jones and see what the former Ranger standout is able to build at his alma mater. The first season didn’t offer a lot of promise, but let’s check back in 2024.

Southwestern OSU- 0-11

Midseason Grade: F

Final Grade: F

The Bulldogs were pretty terrible in 2023, particularly on offense, but eventually on defense as well. It’s disappointing for the defense, which was a strong unit to start the year, but just got worn down by the offense’s in ability to do literally anything. New coach Andrew Rice will be tasked with rebuilding the SWOSU program. Rice, who was the offensive coordinator at Southern Arkansas the last two seasons, has a lot of ties to Oklahoma, so that should be a positive thing in building the roster after a couple of years where the transfer portal was the main source of players. That methodology has probably set the Bulldogs back more than we can realize and it will be an uphill battle for Rice to coax some improvement in Weatherford in 2024. Then again, it’s hard to be worse than 0-11.