Welcome to a new series in our summer FCS coverage. We'll take a look at each 2016 FCS Playoff quarterfinalist and discuss how their fan base should feel entering this season. Can they make another playoff run? Are they a national title contender? Should they be worried about a drop off?
We'll talk about it all each week for the following quarterfinal teams:
SHSU | NDSU | JMU | EWU | SDSU | YSU | Richmond | Wofford
A new era is set to begin at Eastern Washington. Aaron Best takes over the football team as head coach after Beau Baldwin was named the offensive coordinator at Cal. Best has been at EWU for the last 20 years, either as a player or coach.
He inherits a program that has been one of the most successful in the FCS in the 2010s. But since the Eagles won the national title during the 2010 season, they have lost three times in the semifinals, giving up 40, 35 and 45 points.
Each season when it looks like the Eagles will get over that hump and return to Frisco, things seem to slip away from them in the fourth quarter of the semifinals.
So sometimes change can be good, even for something that is already working well. Baldwin built a Big Sky Conference powerhouse. He was one of the top coaches in the subdivision and seemed to be pursued by FBS teams every year. With the program now being run by Best, maybe that change can get EWU over the hump.
It may not happen this season, but Eagles fans should expect to see some changes right away that will benefit the team in the long run.
Those changes are an improved run game and defense.
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EWU's passing attack was good enough to get the team to Frisco in 2016. The Eagles led the FCS with 401 passing yards per game. Quarterback Gage Gubrud was No. 1 in the subdivision with 5,160 total passing yards, Cooper Kupp was No. 1 with 1,700 yards receiving and will go down as one of the best receivers in FCS history, Kendrick Bourne was No. 9 with 1,201 yards receiving and Shaq Hill was No. 10 with 1,157 yards receiving.
But once again, the defense couldn't get a stop when it mattered most in the semifinals.
Youngstown State went 11 plays for 58 yards in 4:23, scoring on a miraculous touchdown catch with one second remaining. In that game, the Penguins rushed for 262 yards. EWU rushed for 93.
Simply put, if the Eagles want to play for a national title again, they need to find a run game and improve the defense (especially when temperatures are 12 degrees in mid-December).
There's no better time to start than 2017. Best most recently served as the offensive line coach and run game coordinator. Gubrud returns as a top quarterback in the FCS, but Kupp, Bourne and Hill were seniors in 2016.
The Eagles won't be able to rely on their passing game as much. With that, someone must emerge in the backfield. Gubrud led the Eagles with 606 yards rushing last season. No running back surpassed 500 yards as EWU was 89th in the FCS in rushing yards per game. That needs to change in order to have further playoff success.
A lot of question marks surround this team before calling them a national title contender. How will Best do as a head coach? Who is the new go-to receiver/receivers? Will the juggling of offensive coordinators be felt in the fall? Will the defense be good enough to win games when needed?
The Eagles will always have enough talent to be a top 15 program in the FCS. But there's just been something missing the last few years. Best's system could be that change needed to jump that last hurdle.