Most FCS preseason Top 25 rankings/ballots have the same top four teams: James Madison, North Dakota State, Sam Houston, and South Dakota State (in alphabetical order).
While teams like Southern Illinois or Montana are in some top fours, many rankings seem to agree the teams in Tier 1 are JMU, NDSU, SHSU, and SDSU.
All four have an argument to be No. 1. They also all have an argument to be No. 4. There are reasons to like each team’s chances to win a national title, and reasons to dislike their chances.
Let’s dive into those reasons and do so in alphabetical order.
Why the Dukes can win the national title:
The Dukes have every right to feel they let a national title slip through their fingers in the spring. JMU was playing its best football in the playoffs after a shaky start to the season. It held a 24-3 halftime lead at SHSU in the semifinals before the Bearkats rallied back to win 38-35. The Kats edged SDSU a week later in the championship game.
JMU is loaded coming back with a roster filled with talent and motivation.
Offensively, starting quarterback Cole Johnson decided to return for a sixth season. At one point in the spring, he lost the starting job with some early struggles. But after a couple of games were disrupted due to COVID and the planned new starter Gage Moloney was unavailable in Game 4 due to protocols, Johnson was QB1 again. He went on to throw for 200+ yards in each of the final five games. After a 3:4 TD-to-INT ratio in the first three games, Johnson had 8 TDs and three interceptions in the last five. Moloney decided to transfer after the season.
If Johnson plays like he did down the stretch, the Dukes should have a solid, balanced offense. They enjoyed the emergence of freshman wide receiver Antwane Wells Jr., who had 364 yards receiving and four TDs in the three playoff games. The ground game will be where it starts, though. Percy Agyei-Obese is an All-American running back, while Latrele Palmer is an All-CAA-level talent if he gets more carries. JMU loses All-American left tackle Raymond Gillespie but gets All-American right tackle Liam Fornadel back from injury.
After allowing just 16.5 points per game, the JMU defense should be even stronger this fall and will be one of the top units in the FCS. The Dukes have especially loaded up on the defensive line, getting some players back from injury plus multiple transfers. This will allow All-American Mike Greene to move back to the interior of the line.
The Dukes don’t play an FBS opponent. A non-conference game at Weber State is 50/50, plus the Dukes have to navigate through the competitive CAA. But an 11-0 record is reasonable, and even a 10-1 record likely gets JMU home-field advantage in the playoffs, depending on what happens elsewhere in the FCS.
While this Dukes team may not be as strong overall compared to the 2017 or 2019 squads, this may be their best shot at winning a national title since the 2016 team did it.
Why they can’t:
While going undefeated is a possibility, suffering two regular-season losses also wouldn’t be shocking. Here are Weber State’s home records from the spring of 2021 going back to 2015: 3-1, 8-0, 6-1, 5-1, 4-1, 4-1. Add in challenging road trips to New Hampshire, Richmond, and Delaware, and the schedule isn’t as easy as the spring’s regular-season slate, where the Dukes could afford a couple of sloppy performances and still go unbeaten. A 9-2 JMU team would likely have to go on the road in the semifinals.
We also need to see what Johnson does in a full season. With Moloney gone, Johnson is the guy for the Dukes. Their success depends on his right arm. Yes, while the rushing attack and defense are good enough to win several games, national championship aspirations get tougher if Johnson’s early-spring struggles strike again.
If Johnson’s play in the postseason carries over, this team will be hard to beat. But any below-average performance in the bracket could result in the Dukes falling short of Frisco.
North Dakota State
Why the Bison can win the national title:
The cavalry is coming for the Bison after not reaching the semifinals for the first time since 2010. Virginia Tech transfer and former four-star high school recruit Quincy Patterson looks to win the starting quarterback job after NDSU struggled at that position in the spring. No. 2 wide receiver Phoenix Sproles is back from injury to join All-American-level talent Christian Watson. The offensive line will be healthy after shuffling around the starting five.
Plus, NDSU added four more transfers to the roster that it believes will make an immediate impact, not including Patterson (who was on the team during the spring but had to sit out due to transfer rules) — SMU RB TaMerik Williams, Wisconsin TE Gabe Lloyd, Eastern Michigan CB Jerodd Vines, and San Diego OL Luke LaCilento.
NDSU will be better than the team it put on the field in the spring. And that team, despite its struggles, was still within 20 yards of scoring and beating eventual national champion SHSU in the quarterfinals. Compared to a 2020 fall season, the spring version of the Bison were playing without their NFL Draft picks at QB and LT, their All-Conference center, two of their top four WRs, their top two RBs, and lost their shutdown CB midseason to the transfer portal.
Yet NDSU remained a title contender.
Whether it is the transfers, players coming back from injury, or the depth built with so many freshmen and sophomores getting reps in the spring, the Bison will be just fine this season, and several head coaches in the Big Sky believe they are still the team to beat.
The Bison should start 3-0 in the non-conference versus Albany and Valpo with a road trip to Towson. Their two toughest games are on the road at North Dakota and South Dakota State, while avoiding Southern Illinois and hosting Northern Iowa and Missouri State. Another two-loss regular season would frankly be a surprise. NDSU isn’t going anywhere in the national title discussion. It still has loads of talent with top-notch recruiting classes and resources not many FCS teams can match.
Why they can’t:
Patterson, who is 6-foot-3 and 246 pounds, will give NDSU its QB run game a much-needed boost. But the downfield passing attack was where the Bison really struggled during the spring. It isn’t a slam dunk that’s going to improve this season. Patterson’s accuracy is still a question mark.
But the QB wasn’t the only issue for the Bison last season. Their offensive line, even when healthy, was pretty good but not up to standard. The same can be said for the defensive line (NDSU was just outside the top 25 with 2.6 sacks per game and ranked No. 55 with 6.2 tackles for loss per game). The linebackers are solid and fast, but the outside backers are about the size of safeties, which is fine if facing a spread offense but a problem when running into a rushing attack like SDSU’s. And while the safeties are good, NDSU is young at cornerback.
NDSU needs more depth at LB, a shutdown CB to emerge, and an elite pass-rusher.
The Bison lacked star power and playmakers in the spring. WR Christian Watson, safety Michael Tutsie, and DL Spencer Waege are All-American caliber players, but they didn’t play like it. The plays NDSU got in past title runs weren’t made in the spring. Along with improved QB play, NDSU needs its best players to be stars if they want to be back on top of the FCS mountain.
Why the Bearkats can win the national title:
SHSU’s starting lineup stayed intact after winning the spring national championship. The Bearkats will once again have the perfect recipe to win a title with the best rushing defense in the FCS and one of the most explosive offenses.
Eric Schmid is as clutch of a quarterback the FCS has seen in years, wide receiver Jequez Ezzard is the top playmaker in the country, and running back Ramon Jefferson averaged six yards a carry in the spring. The offense should be lights out after averaging 37.5 points per game.
SHSU’s defensive line is going to be a nightmare. Jevon Leon, Jahari Kay, and Joseph Wallace are three of the best d-linemen in the FCS. And you can make an argument that Trace Mascorro, a 2020-21 preseason All-American, is among the best as well. The Bearkats also have a pro prospect, Zyon McCollum, at cornerback.
The Bearkats are playing 10 regular-season games this fall (in an 11-game season) after going 10-0 in the spring. An undefeated regular season seems very likely, although a game at Central Arkansas could be the one loss if there is one.
SHSU is poised for a top-two playoff seed. The team balance is as good as it gets in the FCS. If the Bearkats can stay healthy, they are built to repeat.
Why they can’t:
The Bearkats won four hard-fought, physical battles in the playoffs. The concern is twofold. One — Will that catch up with the team down the stretch this fall where the team is a step slower due to the number of reps piling up? And two — At what point do those magical, last-minute plays that went SHSU’s way go the opposite direction?
They intercepted a pass on fourth-and-goal with 48 seconds left to beat Monmouth 21-15 in the first round. Against NDSU in the quarterfinals, they overcame two special teams touchdowns allowed and scored with four minutes left, then got a fourth-down stop in their own territory to seal the game and win 24-20.
In the semifinals, the Bearkats were down 24-3 at halftime to James Madison, only to come roaring back and win 38-35. And versus SDSU in the title game, the Kats allowed two long TD runs in the fourth quarter by an offense without its starting quarterback and fell behind 21-17. But a Schmid 10-yard TD pass to Ife Adeyi with 16 seconds left gave SHSU the lead and its first FCS national title.
SHSU nearly lost to Monmouth, nearly lost to NDSU’s worst team in years, should have lost to JMU, and nearly lost to an SDSU team without its star QB. That’s not saying the Bearkats’ run was all luck. No, typically you need things to go your way or get a certain bounce to make it through a full football playoff bracket. But four-straight nail-biters make you wonder if SHSU can do it again.
South Dakota State
Why the Jackrabbits can win the national title:
The what-ifs for SDSU have to be excruciating. What if star freshman quarterback Mark Gronowski doesn’t suffer a serious knee injury right away in the national title game, an injury that will keep him sidelined this season? The Jacks still nearly beat SHSU without him and with no threat passing the ball. With Gronowski, SDSU’s chances at beating the Kats go up significantly.
Let’s take it a step further. What if SDSU doesn’t come back from a 20-7 quarterfinal deficit and loses to Southern Illinois? Then it’s SIU or Delaware in the title game, the FCS preseason narratives change, Gronowski goes into the offseason healthy, and SDSU perhaps wins its first FCS title this fall.
Because if Gronowski was healthy this year, the Jacks have the best roster in the FCS. Without him, the potential is there for a title run. But it all depends on what SDSU gets out of its new starting QB.
SDSU returns every starter on the best offensive line in the FCS. Isaiah Davis and Pierre Strong Jr. are two of the best RBs in the subdivision. The Janke twins are two solid WRs. The Jacks were tremendous on defense and return most of those starters, led by All-American LB Logan Backhaus and All-American CB Don Gardner.
If former three-star recruit and Samford transfer Chris Oladokun can win the starting QB job and provide some playmaking abilities, this team has everything else in place to win it all. Not to mention, SDSU gets its four toughest MVFC opponents all in Brookings — SIU, UNI, NDSU, and UND.
Why they can’t:
SDSU is down its top two QBs. Along with Gronowski, 2019 starter and 2020-21 backup J’Bore Gibbs is out. He suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2019, then severely injured his other knee in garbage time during the spring. Keaton Heide stepped in as the starter in 2019, and he replaced Gronowski in the title game. The reality is SDSU lost a lot of explosiveness when losing their starting QBs the last two seasons.
So Oladokun needs to be the answer, or Heide needs to show big improvements. Otherwise, the Jacks will be a one-dimensional offense.
Can they go 9-2 with a one-dimensional offense and earn a seed? Sure. SDSU can lean on a great defense and rushing offense. But if the Jacks want to win what has been an elusive national title, they will probably have to beat two teams in this article in the bracket. A non-threatening passing attack won’t get it done.