Below is how I voted for our preseason Top 25.
1. Sam Houston
The Bearkats don’t stand at No. 1 in my ballot by default or on a purely obligatory basis because they are the reigning national champions. They earned it by their returning talent, keyed by quarterback Eric Schmid and wide receiver/return specialist Jequez Ezzard. Sam Houston takes into the WAC-ASUN Challenge this fall an offense that can score in bunches coupled with a program-best defense that clamps down on the run. That’s a five-star recipe to be in contention for a return to Frisco, and it’s definitely enough for top-dog status in my vote.
2. James Madison
The Dukes’ blown lead in their semifinal at SHSU opened the door for the Kats to both complete their title run and take this preseason ranking’s peak. However, that perch is just one spot ahead of JMU because the Dukes return more than ample experience and are likely rather salty over being passed over for the CAA’s spring auto-bid to the playoffs. This season, James Madison gets its shot at a complete conference schedule that includes AQ winner and fellow spring semifinalist Delaware.
3. North Dakota State
A second straight “down” year for the Bison is downright inconceivable. NDSU will be more motivated than it’s been in a decade, perhaps looking to channel some of the infamous “We’re still here!” parade chant energy of the latter stages of Tom Brady’s New England Patriots dynasty. What’s more, Virginia Tech transfer Quincy Patterson will bring excellence back to quarterbacking in Fargo, and he’s primed to click with the skill pieces that NDSU has long boasted. We’ve seen this movie. I’d be foolish to have the Bison outside my top trio of teams.
4. South Dakota State
Losing phenomenal young quarterback Mark Gronowski to injury stings in a major way for the national runner-up; it also gave Dakota Marker rival NDSU the edge for my preseason No. 3. However, the Jackrabbits maintain line play that is among the best in the FCS while bringing Samford grad transfer QB Chris Oladokun into the fold. Put simply, this team still carries the potential to be the most dominant unit in the subdivision on any given gameday. It completes a top four that enters fall 2021 a clear cut above the rest.
5. Southern Illinois
An SHSU-JMU-NDSU-SDSU top 4… Yawn! This is where it gets juicy–and that’s just how Southern Illinois likes it. Coach Nick Hill is not just active on Twitter; in the midst of in-season Missouri Valley opponent spring opt-outs, his team took the “We Want to Play” mantra to heart. The Salukis acted on it, defeating fellow playoff contender Southeastern Louisiana 55-48 in a hastily scheduled nonconference regular-season finale and de facto playoff play-in. SIU then proceeded to knock off Weber State on the road to open the postseason before giving SDSU a healthy quarterfinal challenge. Returning quarterback Stone Labanowitz, aside from possessing one of the best names in the FCS, has Landon Lenoir and Avante Cox at his disposal at receiver.
The defending CAA champions are coming off of their most successful season in a decade, but obstacles loom in their quest to break into the upper echelon nationally. The Blue Hens were manhandled up front in their semifinal drubbing at SDSU. Pending improvements on both lines and the ability to keep oft-injured QB Nolan Henderson upright and mobile, we might have seen UD’s ceiling this past spring, but the Hens’ loaded defense and skill positions surrounding Henderson justify a top-eight ranking, at least before fall ball kicks off. No. 2 JMU travels to Newark for a Homecoming litmus test in October.
7. North Dakota
The Fighting Hawks completed their transition to Missouri Valley football membership and quickly asserted themselves as anything but a little brother to in-state foe NDSU, marching to the spring’s quarterfinals before being upended at JMU. This hunter is now the hunted in the MVFC, but it’s well-positioned for another run as terrific tailback Otis Weah (nine touchdowns on 730 yards) is back as UND’s bell cow. QB Tommy Schuster may have to raise his game another level, though, for North Dakota to put it all together against a possible playoff opponent from my top four in this vote.
8. Montana State
Welcome back to action, Bobcats — it’s been a minute. Last seen in 2019’s semifinal loss at NDSU, MSU has since added NC State transfer QB Matthew McKay to compete with incumbent starter Tucker Rovig. Everyone in the league is hungry to knock Weber State off its Big Sky pedestal of the past half-decade. If there’s a program that can weather a pandemic-era coaching change (with the departure of Jeff Choate for a Power 5 assistant job), it’s Montana State. The schedule is tricky, though: Showdowns with Weber State, Eastern Washington, and Montana are all on the road.
9. Weber State
#CloseGameWeber, the Cardiac ’Cats, however you slice it: Weber State spent the spring playing with fire, with four of its five regular-season Big Sky wins coming by one possession despite UC Davis being the lone ranked opponent in that group. Narrow wins are wins just the same, however, and Jay Hill’s Wildcats are primed to continue their winning ways this fall. It’s a top-10 team keyed by RB Josh Davis, but games hosting JMU and MSU and a contest at Eastern Washington, all played in roughly the season’s middle stretch, will be telling for playoff seeding.
10. Jacksonville State
I am fascinated to see what JSU shows in the WAC-ASUN Challenge. The Gamecocks lost QB Zion Webb to injury in their quarterfinal defeat to Delaware but hung around late. Webb was in action in the first place due to Zerrick Cooper’s fall 2020 injury sustained as JSU accumulated the most games played in the FCS last academic year. Cooper now returns to the saddle to essentially swap places with Webb compared to the roles each had in the spring. In all, the Cocks boast outstanding individual talent, particularly via Nicario Harper and DJ Coleman on defense, but they must stay disciplined come playoff time, as the pressure is on to get the job done in December. As such, a borderline-to-late-top-10 slot feels appropriate.
11. Central Arkansas
There is something to be said for being fresh compared to the majority of the FCS. The Bears played a barnstormed fall schedule in 2020, including a classic FCS Kickoff thriller with Austin Peay, before sitting out the Southland’s spring slate and packing bags for the ASUN. With the number of returning starters approaching two dozen, headlined by QB Breylin Smith and FCS Kickoff star pass-catchers Lujuan Winningham and Tyler Hudson, UCA is a solid choice for WAC-ASUN Challenge automatic bid favorite. Trouble could come in the form of massive games vs. Sam Houston and at JSU, however.
Nos. 12 and 13 in my vote probably constitute the strongest 12/13 combo ever assembled (that is, however many such combos exist.) It’s hard not to be impressed by the wizardry of Grizzlies WR Samuel Akem, but losing RB Marcus Knight to an ACL injury is a downer, much in the way UM’s current Brawl of the Wild losing streak to MSU is a drag on the energy in Missoula. Although they start outside my top 10, the Griz are a good bet to move into that position by the end of September. For my taste, though, a win over Montana State (first since 2015) needs to happen before Bobby Hauck’s squad is anointed.
The Hawks are flying, just not under the radar. In the spring, they followed up their thrashing of rival Kennesaw State with a near-comeback at eventual champ Sam Houston. I look forward to seeing what MU does with a complete fall schedule. Particularly compelling are games against cross-state adversary Princeton and Big South newcomer North Carolina A&T. Finally, it’s time longtime Hawks head coach Kevin Callahan gets his due. He’s built a sustainable winner in West Long Branch. It’s a matter of taking the next step nationally, perhaps having some out-of-town scores go your way along the way, to crack the top 10.
14. Southeastern Louisiana
With reigning Walter Payton Award winner Cole Kelley at QB, SLU is a well-earned favorite in the diminished Southland. We might be talking about the Lions quite differently this preseason were it not for spring’s shrunken playoff format that squeezed teams like Southeastern off the bubble. It could be a resurgent fall 2021 for the group that eliminated Villanova memorably in the 2019 postseason, making this a confident top-15 selection.
15. Eastern Washington
Similar to Kelley, EWU QB Eric Barriere has all the tools to catapult Eastern up these rankings. Also advantageous: The Eagles host Montana, Weber State, and Montana State on the inferno. Aaron Best’s #EKGs usually perform well at home, where traditional winter playoff games could return to Cheney.
Eddie Robinson Award recipient Scott Wachenheim doesn’t just have a feel-good-story team. He has a SoCon threat, as QB Seth Morgan succeeded Reece Udinski quite capably, connecting with All-American wide receiver Jakob Herres. That should continue this fall, and it results in a fringe-top-15 outfit in Lexington.
The Wildcats typically get the benefit of the doubt in the preseason, and I suppose with my ranking here, that trend is extended. QB Daniel Smith is an athletic playmaker; it will take more of his star power to turn ’Nova around from a disappointing 2-2 spring. November 20’s Battle of the Blue is a must-watch, at a minimum because the probability of a pregame kerfuffle is high after Delaware’s postgame dancing on the “V” midfield logo last season incited a brief brawl.
The Mocs, successful as they were in spring competition, shut things down prematurely with an eye to this fall. It was a gamble then and is a gamble now, but a quality rushing attack and veteran offensive line make for a good place to start.
19. Murray State
Coach Dean Hood has the Racers back in the national picture. Jacksonville State’s departure for the ASUN (WAC-ASUN Challenge in 2021) offers remaining Ohio Valley teams some needed breathing room.
20. East Tennessee State
ETSU was the only SoCon team to beat VMI last season, but inconsistency at QB caps its “rankability” at sneaking into the top 20. The Keydets are soaking up all the love, but these Buccaneers, steadied by Walter Payton Award finalist RB Quay Holmes, won’t go away quietly.
21. Alabama A&M
As with many, the Bulldogs navigated a season riddled with schedule changes in the spring, but only they stood on top following the Cricket Wireless SWAC Football Championship in May, taking down upstart Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Coach Connell Maynor has Bama A&M on the upswing, but I do want to see how his squad measures up against Alcorn State. For now, though, slide the Dogs right on in this vote in its latter stages. They will have to contend with SWAC entrants Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman, but QB Aqeel Glass remains a reliable source of production.
22. Austin Peay
Their young head coach, Scotty Walden, has his feet wet as the man in charge of what is now the OVC’s premier program. APSU will likely outperform this preseason ranking, but missing the playoffs in the spring had to set them back some for me. Besides, the Govs thrive when overlooked.
23. Rhode Island
The Rams caught heads in the CAA when they snared consecutive overtime wins at Villanova and Albany, both of which were “then-ranked” victories. Buy low, people. Jim Fleming is turning this ship around, as the continuity from year to year with established talent is starting to stick. A playoff appearance out of the crowded CAA feels like a lot to ask, but URI is in the mix, warranting late-top-25 consideration. They don’t have UNH name recognition or pedigree, but they had the better spring, quite frankly.
This is a pretty projective pick, as the watered-down Southland is up for grabs. Nicholls can score with the rest of them in the SLC, but Cole Kelley might carve up this defense if it can’t recover from an ugly spring (allowed almost 40 ppg to DI opponents). Even if the Colonels make it out of the SLC, a playoff offense might open a can on them, the track record suggests.
25. Kennesaw State
Most are selling the Owls after Monmouth ended their spring highly unceremoniously, but I’ll take a flyer on them at No. 25. They need momentum in their final season in the Big South prior to bolting for the ASUN; I trust coach Brian Bohannon to deliver that, perhaps more so than I do Bobby Petrino at Missouri State, another top candidate for this final slot in the vote.
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