BIG RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Last season was a huge stepping stone for head coach Tony Annese and the Ferris State football program.

After years of making runs in the NCAA Division II playoffs, the Bulldogs finally earned the national championship in 2021. It was such a big deal for Big Rapids that it listed the title along with the men’s basketball 2018 national championship on the city limits sign.

Within the football program, it’s time to turn the page to a new season. The focus is now on the 2022 group and how it can get better every day.

The Ferris State Bulldogs. (Andrew McDonald/WOOD TV8, file)
The Ferris State Bulldogs. (Andrew McDonald/WOOD TV8, file)

“We’re tuned into a system and even from day one we can execute the system,” Annese said. “We have some mistakes (at practice) but it helps to have a lot of guys back that know what they are doing. We have guys coaching guys that are behind them and some of those guys could come and potentially beat them out.

“That’s the best part about our culture right now: Everyone is helping each other.”

With the Bulldogs returning so many key players this season — which starts at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at home at Top Taggart Field against Central Washington — it’s no surprise that they were ranked No. 1 in the preseason poll. Teams around the country know Ferris State is going to be a tough teams to knock off the throne. If the Bulldodgs are able to achieve back-to-back national championships, they would be the first to do so since the Northwest Missouri State Bearcats in 2015 and 2016.

For Annese, it doesn’t feel any different than past seasons.

“I feel like there has been a target on my back my entire career,” Annese said. “You just go through it that way and there’s a target on every good team’s back. There’s a lot of good teams with targets on their backs. What I want my team to be focused on is I’m the target on their back. I want my guys to be focused on what we are doing here right now.”

While Annese didn’t name a starter at quarterback, one of the top players from a production standpoint a season ago returns in Mylik Mitchell. He threw for 12 touchdowns to just two interceptions in 2021-22. He added 1,321 yards through the air.

Ferris State Bulldogs quarterback Mylik Mitchell. (File)
Ferris State Bulldogs quarterback Mylik Mitchell. (Andrew McDonald/WOOD TV8, file)

The junior believes his team hasn’t dropped off from where it was during spring camp and is only growing as a unit.

“I feel like we have a tight-knit group here full of people that wanted to come back and be on this team,” Mitchell said. “People make the sacrifice to come back and be a part of this. I’m thankful we have guys willing to do that.”

The Bulldogs went a perfect 14-0 a season ago. They defeated Valdosta State 58-17 in the national championship game. Valdosta State will start the season at No. 2 right behind the Bulldogs.

Grand Valley State, a local rival to the Bulldogs, is also ranked as a top 5 team in Division II. The two teams meet in Big Rapids on Oct. 15 at 1 p.m. for the Anchor-Bone Classic.