The FCS football season is right around the corner, and momentum continues to build that games will be played. For how often the saying “preseason polls don’t matter” is used, nothing gets fans more amped for the season than a preseason Top 25.
We did a deep dive into nearly 60 FCS teams and their resumes — percentage of offensive and defensive production coming back, number of returning starters, all-conference players, All-American players, how many starting OL are back, is the QB back, injured standouts returning, transfers, how did they do last year, were they competitive in losses, etc.
We formed our preseason Top 25 from there.
How was the Top 25 ordered?
Senior writers Brian McLaughlin and Sam Herder both did their individual Top 30 rankings. Each slot was given a point total, they added it up and ordered the rankings from there.
PRESEASON TOP 25
1. NORTH DAKOTA STATE
The Bison are incredibly loaded coming off of a 16-0 season and their eighth national title in nine years. Roughly 71 percent of the rushing and receiving production are back, 79.2 percent of the points scored return and 78.5 percent of the tackling production comes back. Oh, and not to mention the reigning Walter Payton Award winner at quarterback, Trey Lance, and four starting offensive linemen return.
2. SOUTH DAKOTA STATE
SDSU returns nine starters on a defense that elevated itself to be among the best in the FCS. The Jackrabbits have arguably the top returning running back in Pierre Strong Jr., All-American wide receiver Cade Johnson, an experienced offensive line and two sophomore quarterbacks (Keaton Heide and J’Bore Gibbs) who showed promise last year. If the offense can stay healthy, SDSU has the talent and team balance to get back to a long playoff run.
3. NORTHERN IOWA
UNI looks like it could have the best defense in the FCS this season with All-American players at all three levels. The Panthers allowed just 17.7 points per game last year and return 79.5 percent of their tackling production. The offense will need to improve, though, and UNI has to navigate a tough September month that features games at Iowa, at Idaho State, vs. Weber State and vs. NDSU.
4. SACRAMENTO STATE
The Hornets had an incredible turnaround last season and most of that team is returning. All-Americans Kevin Thomson (QB) and Elijah Dotson (RB) lead an offense that brings back 93.3 percent of the rushing yards and 97.1 percent of the receiving yards.
5. JAMES MADISON
The Dukes will be rebuilding, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be in the national discussion. While they do lose a ton of talent, they still have a stellar run game, some solid individual talent back on defense — and a brand name that is stronger than any FCS program aside from the green and gold Bison in Fargo, N.D. While we don’t have JMU in the top two, we do think they’ll be a serious factor in this year’s FCS playoffs.
6. WEBER STATE
A majority of Weber State’s starting lineup is back after a semifinal appearance. The defense will remain among the best in the FCS as the offense looks to turn the corner with a new starting quarterback.
The Griz have All-American talent all over their starting lineup. Montana returned to national relevance last season and expectations are for the program to take another big step forward in 2020.
Villanova is cursing the injury bug the past few years. How one program can be so cursed is beyond comprehension. But let’s say that bug stays away this year with ‘Nova. If it does? Watch out. This looks to be the best Wildcats team on paper since the 2009 version that won the national championship. There is so much talent on this roster. When ‘Nova meets JMU in October, expect sparks.
9. MONTANA STATE
The Bobcats will once again have a tremendous rushing attack and a strong defense coming off of a trip to the semifinals. If the growth of quarterback Tucker Rovig continues or NC State transfer Matt McKay proves to be the missing piece, this is a dangerous team.
10. CENTRAL ARKANSAS
UCA has really made a name for itself in recent years. Even when the Bears were supposed to be completely rebuilding in 2018, they still managed a winning record and set the table for the next few years of success. This season just seems like it could be a special one where UCA makes a big dent in the FCS postseason.
11. KENNESAW STATE
Last year, the Owls were rebuilding a bit and still posted double-digit wins and were a factor in the FCS playoffs. Well, that young team from a year ago has a season under its belt and it is looking to punch a hole in its own previous ceiling. KSU will be a tough out for opponents in 2020.
12. ILLINOIS STATE
The Redbirds will have one of the most feared defenses in the FCS this year. They lose All-American RB James Robinson but return a healthy passing attack and an experienced offensive line.
13. AUSTIN PEAY
The best season in school history happened last fall, but that doesn’t mean APSU is like a comet and won’t be back to relevance for another couple of decades. The Governors have what it takes to be extremely competitive again and convince fans they have deja vu, thinking they’re watching the 2019 team. This is one of the coolest stories of the past decade.
There’s just something about this Furman team that seems tough in 2020. The run game is solidly intact and this program seems primed to take the next step in the postseason. The Paladins are the team to watch in the SoCon this year.
With a large contingent of starters back on defense, coupled with some dangerous skill-position talent back on offense, the Blue Hens could be a very interesting team to watch in the CAA — and maybe beyond.
True, the Tigers lost a special quarterback in Kevin Davidson, but the defense has a solid contingent back and the skill-position talent on offense looks great. If the QB position turns out to be strong — which it historically has been at Princeton — watch out Ivy League.
17. NEW HAMPSHIRE
UNH played some tough, tough defense last year, and a good chunk of that productive unit is back and intact and ready to roar again in 2020. The offense also has some weapons back and plenty of experience returning up front.
18. EASTERN WASHINGTON
EWU has a knack for bouncing back in a big way after disappointing seasons. The Eagles were playing their best ball at the end of last year, and that should carry over to the 2020 season with plenty of experience and playmakers coming back. QB Eric Barriere and LB Chris Ojoh are dynamic players to build an offense and defense around.
19. NORTH CAROLINA A&T
The Aggies have won the past three Celebration Bowls and it doesn’t seem that this program will be slowing down any time soon as it enters its last year in the MEAC. Yes, it’ll need to reload at the signal-caller position, but there is talent back on offense — and the defense looks stout once again.
20. FLORIDA A&M
The Rattlers look like they’ll have as good a team on campus in more than a decade. Losing talented QB Ryan Stanley does hurt, but at almost every other position, this FAMU team looks solid — especially on the defensive side of the ball.
21. THE CITADEL
The Bulldogs also look like they’ll have their best team in years, and they’re ready to siphon the oxygen out of its opponents. After three .500-ish type seasons, look for The Citadel to get back to playing more like the 10-2 team in 2016.
22. SOUTHERN ILLINOIS
SIU was one of the first teams left out of the 2019 playoff bracket. That should provide plenty of fuel this offseason. The Salukis turned things around defensively last year, which was key to go along with an always-talented offense.
23. SAM HOUSTON STATE
The Bearkats made a statement last year that they were hellbent on getting tougher and more physical. SHSU improved its defense greatly last year, and several of its stars return on that side of the ball. If the offense can get back to its explosive ways, a deep playoff run could be in store.
When you return the offensive firepower the Great Danes do, led by star QB Jeff Undercuffler, you can’t help but be excited coming off a 9-win, playoff-qualifying season. There’s a lot to build on here, and Albany should be tough again this fall.
The Bulldogs have a tough defense back and have been one of the most successful Ivy League programs in the past few years. Expect more greatness in 2020.
ALSO RECEIVING VOTES:
(Alphabetical): Alcorn State, Chattanooga, Dartmouth, Elon, Nicholls, Portland State, SEMO, UT Martin, Wofford