Ask new Colorado School of Mines football head coach Brandon Moore about the most important game on this year’s schedule, and he doesn’t hesitate: December 17, in McKinney, Texas—the Division II national championship. “That’s the goal, from the first day this season,” says Moore, who was named the Orediggers’ head coach in January. “The expectation of everyone around me is to win and win now.”

Mines is coming off its best year in program history, a 12-2 record, its third-consecutive Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (RMAC) championship, and a season that ended one game short of the title matchup. Today, the Orediggers sit in the top five in preseason national rankings, are again favorites to win the RMAC title, and a have become a major player within the DII ranks.

That’s saying something for a school where academics—not athletics—rule. “This is a unique environment,” says Michael Zeman, Mines’ star running back and All-American, who will graduate in December with a master’s degree in engineering and technology management. Recruits are limited within the Oredigger program, in large part because of the university’s rigorous academic standards. (The team has only one transfer this season, for the same reason.) There are no big-time name, image, and likeness deals among the most notable players. And of the team’s 100-plus student-athletes, roughly two-thirds had a summer internship this year. That includes Zeman, who worked a 9-to-5 for a bridge-engineering company while maintaining a daily weight-lifting schedule before and after work. “Mines is not a program for everyone,” says Moore, who led Mines’ defense before assuming the head coach role. “The kids understand why they’re here: They want a degree, they want to be great students, and they want to be engineers. Football is a way for them to champion something else. Football is an outlet—something they’re truly passionate about. My kids are built differently.”

So is Moore, who took over for longtime head coach Gregg Brandon, who retired shortly after his team lost to Valdosta State in the DII semifinals, 34-31. Not only has Moore been responsible for putting together one of DII’s stoutest defenses, but he also brings a championship mindset to a program that’s been at the doorstep of a football breakthrough for nearly half a decade. Once a standout linebacker at the University of Oklahoma who helped lead his team to a 2002 national title, he spent six seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and has two years of NFL coaching experience. When he arrived in Golden in 2016, Moore admits he was skeptical when Brandon made winning a national championship the Colorado School of Mines football program’s primary goal. Now, he says, “Everyone has bought in. I hope to turn this into a legacy.”

Can’t-Miss Matchup

Colorado School of Mines football player
Photo courtesy of Colorado School of Mines

At Grand Valley State University (Mich.), September 1: A nonconference matchup between two of DII’s best programs to begin the season, these teams both enter the year ranked within the nation’s top five. A win would set the tone for the Colorado School of Mines football team’s likely deep playoff march.

3 Players to Watch

Michael Zeman, running back: The Wheat Ridge native and former Holy Family High School standout was a Harlon Hill Trophy finalist, awarded to the nation’s best DII player. Not only did the All-American rack up 26 touchdowns last season, Zeman is also a workhorse: He averaged nearly 25 carries per game en route to 1,608 yards from scrimmage.

John Matocha, quarterback: A senior from Magnolia, Texas, the dual-threat quarterback casually spun 38 touchdown passes—to only eight interceptions—and rushed for another seven scores last season for the Orediggers. Nationally, Matocha ranked third in DII in completion percentage (.681), eighth in passing efficiency, fifth in passing touchdowns, and 15th in passing yards (3,105).

Nolan Reeve, linebacker: This preseason All-American out of Mission Viejo, California, led Mines last season with 75 tackles and 10.5 sacks and helped anchor one of DII’s most aggressive defenses. A nominee for the Cliff Harris Award—given to the nation’s best small-college defensive player—Reeve recently earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.