The Fanatic’s Top 25: Jackrabbits lead our preseason FCS ranking
There were simply too many overall losses to graduation to pick reigning champs North Dakota State as the early favorite.
At least a half-dozen or more teams are chomping at the bit to snatch the title from NDSU in what is shaping up to be one of the most exciting seasons for FCS fans in recent memory.
With less than 3 weeks to go before the action kicks off, let’s take a look at where the top teams stand.
#1 South Dakota State
One of only two FCS schools in the country to reach the postseason in each of the past seven years, South Dakota State has the offensive and defensive depth to finally reach the elusive FCS championship game.
Look for John Stiegelmeier’s Jackrabbits to edge out reigning champion North Dakota State and the playoff-snubbed Sycamores of Indiana State (7-4) in the Missouri Valley Football Conference and enter this year’s FCS playoffs as the nation’s No. 1 seed.
#2 Jacksonville State
Looking to return to the title game for the first time since 2015, Jacksonville State (9-4) could be the most dangerous FCS team in the country.
Led by Clemson transfer Zerrick Cooper, who threw 32 touchdown passes in his inaugural season in a JSU uniform, and NFL prospect Marion Bridges, arguably the best defensive player in the FCS, the Gamecocks were the seventh-highest scoring team in the country last season, averaging a brisk 40 points per game, while boasting the tenth best pass-efficiency defense by holding opponents to a relatively meager 108.4 passing yards per outing.
Remarkably, Jacksonville State has lost only one Ohio Valley Conference game over the past five seasons — a stunning 37-14 setback to Southeast Missouri last year — and with fifteen starters returning should roll to its sixth straight OVC championship and make a deep run in the postseason.
#3 James Madison
The only team to snag the FCS championship from dominant North Dakota State during the past eight seasons, James Madison University (9-4) returns a veteran-laden squad, including a dozen All-CAA players, under new head coach Curt Cignetti, a former assistant coach at Alabama who was plucked from Colonial Athletic Association rival Elon, where he led the Phoenix to the FCS playoffs in his first season back in 2016.
Cignetti, who replaced mentor Mike Houston after he accepted the head coaching job at East Carolina, will have plenty of talent to work with, not the least of which includes senior quarterback Ben DiNucci, a former starter at Pitt, and UCF transfer Jawon Hamilton, a running back expected to assume the role of JMU’s leading rusher if he stays healthy.
The Dukes, who open the season in late August against FBS opponent West Virginia in Morgantown, also return 6-foot-5 wide receiver Riley Stapleton, a redshirt senior who grabbed 62 passes for 710 yards while scoring seven touchdowns in 2018.
#4 North Dakota State
While conventional wisdom suggests that it would be a mistake to rule out an eighth national championship in nine years, North Dakota State (15-0) could face a couple of serious tests this season, including an early season contest at nationally-ranked Delaware and a late October meeting with MVFC rival South Dakota State in Brookings, S.D.
This is an enduring program that doesn’t rebuild. It simply reloads and while new head coach Matt Entz, the team’s former defensive coordinator, faces a somewhat depleted roster with only seven starters returning, the Bison still have plenty of talent available, including the addition of Iowa State transfer Zeb Noland, who is expected to compete with redshirt freshman Trey Lane for the starting quarterback position. The defending national champions should also have a pretty solid rushing attack, led by Ty Brooks, Adam Cofield and Seth Wilson.
Unfortunately, there were simply too many overall losses to graduation to pick North Dakota State as the preseason favorite.
#5 Eastern Washington
Having lost the 2018 FCS championship game to North Dakota State by a couple of touchdowns, explosive Eastern Washington — averaging 43.1 points per game — is hoping to rekindle the magic and wants another crack at the title.
Led by quarterback Eric Barriere, a double-threat who set a school and FCS playoff record with a mind-boggling seven touchdown passes against Maine in a 50-19 rout of the Black Bears in last year’s semifinals, the Eagles (12-3) should have little difficulty putting points on the board again this season.
Following a couple of severe early season tests at Washington and at second-ranked Jacksonville State, EWU should have relatively smooth sailing in the thirteen-team Big Sky Conference, especially since they won’t have to play UC Davis, Montana State and Weber State — the other three Big Sky members who made the FCS playoffs in 2018.
#6 Weber State
With two of the best defensive ends in the country in seniors Jonah Williams and Adam Rodriguez, sixth-year coach Jay Hill might have a national contender at Weber State (10-3).
Coupled with running back Josh Davis — recipient of the Jerry Rice Award as the top freshman in the FCS after rushing for 1,362 yards last season — the Wildcats will be breathing down Eastern Washington’s neck in the highly-competitive Big Sky Conference, a conference as strong as any in the FCS last year which currently touts no fewer than five playoff-caliber teams in EWU, Weber State, Montana, UC Davis and Montana State.
The Grizzlies, who once made 17 consecutive playoff appearances, are back and probably sooner than most expected. With 22 starters returning, Montana (6-5) has arguably the most experienced team in the Big Sky Conference and Coach Bobby Hauck, who returned to Missoula last season after a five-year stint at UNLV, plans to put that experience to work as the once-dominant program looks to return to the top of the conference and a spot in the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2015.
Dual-threat redshirt senior Dalton Sneed, the Big Sky Newcomer of the Year, will run the offense while linebacker Dante Olson, another redshirt senior, will shore up the defense.
#8 UC Davis
Featuring one of the best quarterbacks in the nation in senior Jake Maier, who tossed 34 touchdown passes while throwing for 3,391 yards — fourth in the FCS — in 2018, UC Davis is loaded offensively.
A fairly difficult non-conference schedule, which includes an Aug. 31 date against the Pac-12’s California Golden Bears and a trip to Fargo three weeks later to take on reigning FCS champion North Dakota State, shouldn’t stymie the Aggies’ chances of a second straight playoff appearance.
Last year’s 23-16 second-round victory over Northern Iowa and heartbreaking 34-29 loss to Eastern Washington in the quarterfinals was the school’s first FCS playoff appearance in program history.
With fourteen starters returning, including nine offensive players, Wofford (9-4) should prevail in the storied Southern Conference after sharing the title with East Tennessee State last season.
Losing 13-10 in a defensive struggle at Kennesaw State in the second round of last year’s FCS playoffs, look for the Terriers to make further improvements under second-year coach Josh Conklin, whose triple option will reportedly be augmented by additional passing.
In a game no FCS team could possibly envy, Wofford has the impossible task of playing at FBS national champion Clemson in early November.
Trouncing Towson 31-10 on the road in the first round of last year’s 24-team playoffs — its first FCS playoff victory in program history — before being shellacked by unstoppable South Dakota State in the second round, Duquesne (9-4) could be the surprise team in the FCS ranks this season.
Led by dazzling 5-11, 225-pound senior running back A. J. Hines, an FCS All-America first team selection who rushed for 1,520 yards — the third most in the country — and scored 17 touchdowns in 2018, the Dukes should again prevail in the NEC.
While Duquesne might be a couple years away from going head-to-head with the best the FCS has to offer, it would be wise to keep an eye on Jerry Schmitt’s up-and-coming Dukes.
Making its first appearance in the FCS semifinals last year has the gritty Black Bears of Maine (10-4) hungry for more.
New head coach Nick Charlton, the team’s former offensive coordinator, inherits virtually the same defensive-minded squad that held opponents to fewer than twenty points on six occasions last year. Led by senior defensive end Kayon Whitaker and junior Alejandro Oregon, a 6-2, 270-pound senior from Brooklyn who had a career-high 29 tackles in 2018, the stingy Black Bears limited opponents to a paltry 2.4 yards per carry last season.
A somewhat inconsistent offense is the only thing keeping Maine from being a serious contender for the national title.
#12 Southeast Missouri
Southeast Missouri (9-4), which snapped Jacksonville State’s 36-game Ohio Valley Conference winning streak last year by pummeling the Gamecocks 37-14 in a game not as close as the final score might indicate, brings back 15 starters, including ten on a defense anchored by linebacker Zach Hall, who led the nation with 168 tackles last season.
Though losing tailback Marquis Terry — the OVC Offensive Player of the Year — the Redhawks should have enough offensive firepower in Northern Illinois transfer Daniel Santacaterina, who threw for a blistering 2,844 yards and 28 TDs, to earn a spot in the FCS playoffs.
Defensive-minded Colgate (10-2), which allowed just 9.3 points per game last season while shutting out five opponents, should easily prevail in the Patriot League despite vast improvements by Holy Cross and Georgetown.
Impressively, Colgate’s only losses last year came against nationally-ranked FBS opponent Army 28-14 at West Point in its regular season finale and three weeks later in Fargo against eventual national champion North Dakota State in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs.
The stubborn Raiders, who make their opponents fight for every yard, could be a potential sleeper.
#14 Montana State
With as much depth at the quarterback position as any team in the country, the Big Sky’s Montana State (8-5) should continue its winning ways and earn a spot in the FCS playoffs.
Look for another big year from bruising running back Isaiah Ifanse, who rushed for 1,025 yards while averaging 5.2 yards per carry as a true freshman last season. Incredibly, Ifanse rushed for 227 yards and scored three touchdowns in the Bobcats’ 49-42 victory over Cal Poly last November.
#15 Indiana State
Despite making the greatest turnaround of any team in the country last season after going 0-11 in 2017, Indiana State (7-4) was unceremoniously snubbed by the FCS selection committee — a fact the Sycamores are unlikely to soon forget.
Led by quarterback Tom Flacco, the younger brother of the NFL’s Joe Flacco, and versatile running back-receiver Shane Simpson, who rushed for six TDs, hauled in five more and scored yet another on a kick return, Towson (7-5) will likely be in the FCS playoff picture once again.
A grueling schedule that includes road games at Maine and James Madison and a trip to the Swamp to take on the Florida Gators in late September will sorely test the Tigers, who are looking to make a deep run in the postseason for the first time since 2013.
#17 Kennesaw State
With the loss of quarterback Chandler Burks — the 2018 Big South Offensive Player of the Year — and with only two starters returning on offense, Kennesaw State (11-2) will have to rely heavily on its experienced defense if it has any hope of winning a third consecutive Big South title.
With eight returning defensive starters, including linebacker Bryson Armstrong, defensive back Dorian Walker and linemen Andrew Butcher and Desmond Johnson, Jr., from a unit that allowed only 15.4 points per game in 2018, the Owls’ defense could conceivably keep them in the race against Monmouth (8-3) — a pretty decent team seemingly on a mission after being snubbed by last year’s selection committee.
A huge early season showdown with North Dakota State will tell us a lot about the once-mighty Blue Hens (7-5) and Danny Rocco’s recruiting skills as the third-year coach tries to replace more than two dozen seniors lost to graduation.
#19 Northern Iowa
Perennial power Northern Iowa (7-6) will need to replace its leading passer and rusher if the Panthers have any hopes of again advancing to the FCS playoffs.
Whoever emerges as the new quarterback — dual-threat Will McElvain, third-year sophomore Jacob Keller and true freshmen Nate Martens and Justin Fomby are currently competing for the role — will be severely tested in the team’s August 31 season opener against Iowa State, which is picked to finish third in the Big 12.
#20 Nicholls State
Senior quarterback Chase Fourcade, who passed for 2,447 yards while tossing seventeen touchdown passes last season, is the key for Nicholls State (9-4) if it hopes to stave off Sam Houston State and Incarnate Word in the Southland Conference.
Opening the 2019 campaign with four straight games away from home, including a season opening matchup with the Big 12’s Kansas State, could take an early toll on the road-weary Colonels.
Like Indiana State, Furman (6-4) was snubbed by the FCS selection committee last year, but the pesky Paladins should give preseason favorite Wofford everything it can handle in the Southern Conference.
#22 San Diego
The class of the Pioneer League, the University of San Diego (9-3) has won 29 straight conference games, but will probably experience another early exit in the FCS playoffs.
Drake, Dayton and Stetson will once again find themselves chasing USD while lowly Jacksonville (2-8), employing a triple option that racked up the third most rushing yardage in the FCS last season, could be the most improved team in the league if it can tighten up its extremely lax defense, but none of these teams are a match for the high-powered Toreros.
#23 Idaho State
The surprising Bengals (6-5), who were picked to finish next-to-last in the 2018 conference preseason poll, were the most improved team in the thirteen-team Big Sky last year. If they can find a suitable replacement for departed quarterback Tanner Gueller, look for similar improvement in 2019.
A pair of difficult games against FBS opponents — at Pac-12 power Utah on Sept. 14 and against BYU in Provo on Nov. 16 — highlight Idaho State’s nonconference schedule.
#24 Sam Houston State
Looking for a tenth straight winning season, Sam Houston State (6-5) will rely heavily on quarterback Ty Brock, who threw for 2,417 yards last year, and lightning-quick wide receiver Nathan Stewart if the Bearkats hope to overtake Nicholls in the Southland Conference. The two teams meet on October 19th in Huntsville.
An experienced team, SHSU has eighteen returning starters from last year’s squad.
#25 Eastern Kentucky
One-time Ohio Valley Conference power Eastern Kentucky (7-4) finished strong last season, winning its final four games, but will have to play preseason favorite Jacksonville State and Southeast Missouri on the road this year — a difficult task for anybody.
Nevertheless, if the Colonels take care of business on their remaining conference schedule, the OVC could become a three-bid conference in 2019.
Central Arkansas, Central Connecticut, Elon, Illinois State, Incarnate Word, Lamar, McNeese State, Monmouth, New Hampshire, North Carolina A&T, North Dakota.