RUSSELLVILLE, Ark.-—Following a 9-3 season that resulted in an appearance in the Agent Barry Live United Bowl, Southern Arkansas will enter 2017 as the Great American Conference’s preseason favorite following a vote of the league’s 12 head coaches, the conference office announced.

The Muleriders, who earned five first-place votes, bring back 12 2016 All-GAC performers. Quarterback Barrett Renner, running back Michael Nunnery and tight end Tanner Hudson all earned All-GAC Second Team honors. Renner registered his second consecutive 3,000-yard season and threw for 27 touchdowns. Nunnery rushed for 1,110 yards and 12 touchdowns while Hudson caught 48 passes for 763 yards and nine TDs. He also ranked third in the GAC with a 41.9 average as punter. With Jonathan Weisheit and Karonce Higgins joining Hudson, SAU returns its top three receivers. The Mulerider defense features First-Team tackle Travis William and Second Team linebackers Corey Jenkins, Malik Preston and Stacy Lawrence.

Harding, last year’s champions, also garnered five first-place votes to place second in the poll. The Bisons rolled through the 2016 regular season with an unblemished record then became the first GAC program to advance to the quarterfinals of the Division II playoffs to finish 13-1 and with the most wins ever by a collegiate team in Arkansas. They return 11 starters, including eight on offense. They must replace GAC Player of the Year Park Parish and Defensive Player of the Year Trevon Biglow. The Bisons also have new leadership as Paul Simmons replaces the retired Ronnie Huckeba.

Henderson State picked up the final two first-place votes and took third in the voting. The Reddies bring back their two quarterbacks, Andrew Black and Evan Lassiter, who combined for 3,249 yards and 21 touchdowns. Jeremy Wilson tallied 10 rushing touchdowns as a freshman. On defense, Henderson State features Sam Johnson, who ranked second in the conference with 6.0 sacks and Cameron Sonnier, whose 15.0 tackles-for-loss also placed second in the league.

Ouachita took forth. The Tigers feature GAC Freshman of the Year Allie Freeman who amassed 1,416 all-purpose yards, third amongst all Division II freshmen. Ouachita also returns the running back tandem of Kris Oliver and Shun'cee Thomas who combined for 1,372 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns.

Southeastern Oklahoma State edged out Arkansas Tech for fifth. The Savage Storm went 7-4 but must replace Ronnie Green, who in 2016 set the league’s single-season rushing record and Devlon Wortham, who finished as the GAC’s all-time leading rusher. Southeastern must also replace Raheem Wilson, a First-Team All-American defensive back. The Wonder Boys finished with a 6-5 record to post consecutive winning seasons for the first time since three straight from 2004 to 2006.

Southwestern Oklahoma State placed seventh, followed by Arkansas-Monticello and Northwestern Oklahoma State. The Bulldogs return Karltrell Henderson who has rushed for 28 touchdowns in his first two seasons with SWOSU, including 17 last year. UAM returns All-American wide receiver Jalen Tolliver who surpassed the 1,000-yard mark last year and scored a touchdown in 10 straight games. The Rangers’ Horatio Smith hauled in nine touchdown receptions and totaled a GAC-leading 1,495 all-purpose yards.

East Central, Oklahoma Baptist and Southern Nazarene rounded out the poll. The Bison bring back Isaiah Mallory, a First-Team All-GAC running back, who gained 1,083 yards and scored nine touchdowns.

The 2017 season opens on Thursday, Aug. 31 with a quartet of games, headlined by Harding hosting Henderson State and SAU visiting Arkansas Tech. The opening night also features Northwestern Oklahoma State traveling to Ouachita and Southeastern Oklahoma State facing Southern Nazarene. The opening Saturday, Sept. 2, includes East Central taking on Oklahoma Baptist as part of the ESPN3/Division II Football Showcase and Arkansas-Monticello welcoming in Southwestern Oklahoma State in the nightcap.