Who’s No. 1? Who’s No. 2? Who should get the ultimate disrespect of being ranked No. 5 behind teams 3 and 4?
A majority of FCS Top 25 ballots have the same five teams with differing orders, this one being alphabetical – James Madison, Montana, North Dakota State, Sam Houston, and South Dakota State. Each assortment of 1-5 has a fair argument, especially since we’re only three weeks into the season.
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James Madison has the best gauge of a result so far with a dominant win at then-No. 9 Weber State, finishing its non-conference slate 3-0 with additional wins against Morehead State and Maine, who are both 1-2.
Montana has looked terrific and has the best overall win against then-No. 20 FBS Washington. But beating the Huskies, who are 1-2 and lost 31-10 to Michigan, doesn’t automatically mean the Griz are the best team in the FCS. NDSU beat No. 13 Iowa in 2016 and then lost in the FCS semifinals. Eastern Washington beat No. 25 Oregon State in 2013 and then lost in the semifinals. JMU beat No. 13 Virginia Tech in 2010 and then finished 6-5.
Montana defeating Western Illinois 42-7 in Week 2 is looking like a better win than at the time of the game after WIU went toe-to-toe with No. 7 EWU in Week 3. But still, a game against a ranked FCS team will tell us more than these first two games.
NDSU is 3-0 and looking much better than the spring. Towson isn’t a strong team, but the Bison resembled what past national championship teams have done on the road to inferior opponents, winning 35-7. NDSU’s offense with new starting quarterback Quincy Patterson has been explosive, solving the downfield passing and QB run game issues the team had in the spring. But the three non-conference opponents (UAlbany, Valpo, and Towson) are a combined 1-8.
The Bearkats are the defending national champs and return every starter. SHSU has dominated its two opponents, beating Northern Arizona 42-16 and SEMO 52-14. NAU recently beat P5 Arizona but also lost big to South Dakota. So how good of a Week 1 win that was for SHSU is up in the air. And SEMO is 0-3, getting dominated by No. 7 Southern Illinois and P5 Missouri. The Bearkats have looked how we expected them to look, but haven’t been tested yet.
And finally, SDSU has answered its lone question mark this offseason with the terrific play of quarterback Chris Oladokun. But again, the best gauge nationally to see where top FCS teams are at is to play other ranked FCS opponents. The Jackrabbits have yet to play an FCS team, beating up on FBS Colorado State 42-23 in a game that wasn’t even that close, then defeating D2 Lindenwood. Colorado State is currently 1-2, losing 24-21 to Vanderbilt (who lost to FCS ETSU) and beating Toledo 22-6.
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So while we know these top five teams are probably a tier above everyone else, it’s more challenging trying to figure out the best order.
The good news is these next two weeks should help provide clarity.
SHSU goes to No. 25 Central Arkansas this week in what may be its toughest test of the season. That result is going to tell us a lot about the Bearkats.
And the following week will tell us even more about multiple Top 5 teams.
On Oct. 2, Montana goes to No. 6 EWU and NDSU goes to No. 10 North Dakota. Those two matchups against teams that play phenomenal at home will be the best indicators to date on where the Griz and the Bison are at.
That day also features JMU going to No. 22 New Hampshire and SHSU hosting Stephen F. Austin, a team that’s receiving votes.
SDSU plays Indiana State this week and Dixie State next, which probably won’t tell us much about the Jacks if they win big as expected. Hosting SIU, Northern Iowa, and NDSU in a five-week period from Oct. 9 to Nov. 6 is where SDSU can solidify itself as a high seed, although the last two games at USD and versus UND are challenges as well.
We’ll certainly know just how good SDSU is by then. JMU has already proved how good it is this last weekend. Montana, NDSU, and SHSU will get their chance to prove where they stand nationally in the next two weeks.
Through three weeks of games, the Top 5 teams have played FCS opponents with a combined record of 5-22. With conference play here, the true gauges begin.