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A New Frontier

A home game at Medford's Spiegelberg Stadium? Four road trips to Big Sky Country? A conference preseason poll that includes the Raiders?

Yes, when it's all said and done 2012 will likely be considered a landmark year for the Southern Oregon University football team regardless of its final win-loss tally. Long held captive by its independent status, the Raiders this season will officially join the Montana-based Frontier Conference, a powerhouse amalgamation that counts among its eight football members longtime SOU rival Eastern Oregon, ranked 16th in the NAIA preseason poll, and No. 2 Carroll College, winner of six of the past 10 NAIA national championships.

So Southern Oregon's Frontier Conference-opener Saturday against Montana-Western represents the finishing line in the program's decade-long search for a new home, and the school will try to capitalize immediately and tap into a wider fan base by opening its season at the Rogue Valley-centric Spiegelberg Stadium. They even have a catchy name for the game: The Medford Kickoff Classic.

Now for the hard part — the games themselves. When it comes to that, the Raiders have struggled to hold up their end of the bargain since former head coach Jeff Olson bolted for North Medford High School in 2005. In the six seasons since, Southern Oregon is 21-46 with five losing seasons.

The good news is, second-year head coach Craig Howard appears to have righted the ship, or at least pointed it toward calmer waters. Employing an exciting no-huddle spread offense, the Raiders averaged 382 yards and 24.4 points a game last season. And more importantly, they made those impressive numbers count in the win column, winning five of their last seven games to finish .500 (5-5) — the first non-losing season since 2007 and second since 2004.

Now, Howard is looking for the Raiders to take the next step in their progression, but he's not making any bold predictions.

"Right now, we have nothing to be (overconfident) about," Howard said. "We just have a challenge to be the best team we can possibly be this year, and I'm not sure how far that'll take us because we don't know how good these opponents are. And we don't know how good we are."

They have a decent idea how good Austin Dodge will be. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound sophomore quarterback from Vancouver, Wash., was handed the keys to the Raider offense in week 3 as a freshman and promptly guided Southern Oregon to respectability after an 0-3 start, passing for 2,195 yards and 13 touchdowns. His greatest strength may be his rocket right arm, which comes in handy on deep balls — something the Raiders tried, and completed, a lot in 2011.

Most of Dodge's receiving corps returns intact, including Patrick Donahue (5-11, 185), Mike Olson (5-8, 180), Justin Otaguro (5-10, 175) and Cole McKenzie (6-2, 190) — SOU's top four receivers from a year ago. In addition, Dodge will have another target that he did not have a year ago — freshman tight end Clay Sierra (6-5, 247), a physical specimen who has drawn rave reviews in practice.

Manny Barragan (5-9, 205) returns as the Raiders' starting "super back" after leading SOU with 528 yards rushing and five touchdowns last season, including a 198-yard explosion against Simon Fraser.

While SOU appears loaded at the skill positions, its offensive line will be dealing with massive turnover, as in first-year starters at left tackle, right tackle, left guard and center. The only returning starter is senior right guard Zach Urrutia (6-2, 320), "a dominant force," according to offensive line coach Chris Fisk. Former North Medford standout Drew Gibson (6-6, 259), a sophomore, will start at right tackle, and junior Jake Sullivan (6-3, 328) will be charged with protecting Dodge's blind side at left tackle. The starting center is junior Ronald Rylance (5-11, 303).

The pieces are in place for an offensive explosion, so long as Dodge is as good in games as he has been in practice.

"It's a night and day difference," Howard said, when asked to describe Dodge's offseason progress. "I think he is so much more knowledgeable in the offense, so much more confident. The bonding with his teammates, the knowledge of the offense, the confidence in the timing with his receivers — all those things were new last year, whereas now he's so far advanced. He's like a coach now."

Of course, all that firepower on offense won't mean much if the Raiders surrender yardage and points at the rate they did last season, when opponents averaged a mind-boggling 409 yards and 34.4 points against SOU.

There's hope, however. Southern Oregon returns seven starters, plus senior linebacker Kalii Robinson (6-0, 190), who is expected to be a force of nature after missing all of last season, and defensive end Mike Bibbee (6-4, 255), a transfer from Oregon State.

Anchoring SOU's 4-3 base will be senior tackle Juwaun Brown (5-10, 290) and junior noseguard Curtis Kauffman (6-1, 260).

Cornerbacks Dustin Fretwell (5-9, 185) and Josh Leff (5-10, 170) and free safety Heston Altenbach (6-2, 185) return to starting roles in the secondary. Leff is a play-maker — the Raiders' third-leading tackler last season (57) also had two interceptions, tied for most on the team.

Already, the Raiders are dealing with a key loss. During Tuesday's practice, Brandon Grissom, a sophomore out of Cascade Christian who was slated to start at strong safety, broke his leg in a collision with Robinson and is out for the season, which means redshirt freshman Monti Wilson (5-10, 190) will likely get the start Saturday.

The Raiders want to make a first-year splash in the Frontier Conference, but will have to survive five brutal road trips in order to make that happen. Sometimes, they'll take the bus to Montana (14 hours one way), and sometimes they'll fly in splits, with roughly half the team arriving at the destination on Thursday and the rest Friday. How well the Raiders adjust to that drudgery could end up being a major factor.

"That's part of the challenge of coaching here now, handling those bus trips," Howard said. "It's not like the Pac-12."

Southern Oregon was ranked fifth in the Frontier Conference preseason coaches' poll, which Howard said was about right since the Raiders are still unproven. If they hold serve against Montana-Western — picked to finish last in the preseason poll — they'll head to Billings, Mont., for a big early-season road test against Rocky Mountain, picked to finish fourth. After that, the Raiders don't face a team rated higher than sixth until Eastern Oregon visits Ashland on Oct. 6.

As for Carroll College, the Saints will be in Ashland on Oct. 27. If the Raiders are still playing for more than pride when the Saints arrive at Raider Stadium, Howard will be happy. But not necessarily surprised.

"You gotta stay healthy, you gotta be lucky and you gotta be good," he said. "And you gotta have that chemistry.

"But if we stay healthy and stay on track and stay focused, we believe we can make the playoffs."