With the first FCS spring game scheduled for Feb. 13 (McNeese at Tarleton State), and with a full slate of games the following week, the season is right around the corner. So as we always do before games begin, let’s take a look at the way-too-early favorites to win the national championship.
But first, let’s address the obvious question:
Will The Spring Season Actually Happen?
When Sacramento State and Towson, two well-known programs from power conferences, opted out of the spring season in mid-October, many assumed the dominos were going to fall quickly of more teams choosing to do the same. That didn’t happen. It’s been a quiet couple of months since then.
As of right now, 100 teams plan to play, 20 have opted out and the seven-team Patriot League hasn’t announced its spring plans yet.
But now it’s time for these 100 teams and their conferences to let it be known if they aren’t actually interested in playing this spring. The season is weeks away, and teams will begin to practice soon.
Despite a good chunk of teams still on for the spring, a lot of online skepticism remains on if the season will actually happen. In this writer’s opinion, there’s one thing that could prevent the FCS from playing this spring.
It’s not the number of games played in the spring plus the fall. And it’s not necessarily because of COVID-19. But it’s money, which is an extension of the pandemic.
Many people point to the number of games being played in one calendar year as unrealistic. But if teams didn’t want to play because of the high number of games, they would have opted out by now. There’s no point in waiting until January to say “Actually, that’s too many games. We’re out.”
And here’s the thing … the number of games played is doable for 90 percent of the FCS. A majority of FCS teams don’t make the playoffs. That means they’ll play, on average, 6-7 spring games and 11 fall games. That’s 17-18 games in a nine-month span. NDSU and JMU played 16 games in five months during the 2019 season.
However, it’s the Top 8-10 teams in the FCS, the ones that make deep playoff runs, that could be playing 22-25ish games in a calendar year. That’s brutal. But again, it’s a low percentage of the FCS.
As far as COVID-19, if the FBS can play and finish its season during the November and December months, then the FCS can play in March and April if it really wants to. You’d imagine (and hope) the U.S. is in a much better spot in March than this winter, especially with millions of vaccines being distributed.
It all comes down to money. Most FCS teams don’t make money playing football. The reality is there just isn’t much money in FCS football in general. So if the pandemic is better in March, but we’re still not in a place to have at least 50 percent capacity, how many FCS teams will want to play?
Tickets make up most of the revenue pot for FCS teams. If there’s not a lot of ticket revenue coming in to help with travel costs plus the additional cost of testing players, how many teams can afford to play?
A lot of FCS programs cost their schools money to operate. That could be the case times two this spring. But as the only football being played, there could be some incentive to have the spring season to bring in more eyes on the subdivision from casual fans. It is a great opportunity to showcase the FCS nationally and regionally.
Playing a spring season is absolutely doable, both from a physical standpoint and the fact that every FBS conference was able to start and finish their fall seasons. The question is, how many FCS athletic departments believe it’s financially worth it to play?
With all that said … if the season does happen, here are the Top 10 teams to look out for as national title threats:
10. North Carolina A&T
The MEAC champion, who usually plays in the Celebration Bowl, gets an auto-bid into the spring playoff bracket. NC A&T has won four of the five Celebration Bowls and the last three. With Florida A&M (who has beaten NC A&T the last two seasons) and Bethune-Cookman opting out of the spring season, the Aggies are the clear favorites in the MEAC.
This program is legit and can prove it on a national level before joining the Big South in 2021, where it’ll routinely compete for a playoff spot. The Aggies have one of the best running backs in the FCS in Jah-Maine Martin. And they always have a tough defense and return their top players on that side of the ball, like Jermaine McDaniel, Jacob Roberts, Kyin Howard and Mac McCain III.
9. Northern Iowa
The FCS was hit hard with players leaving due to the postponed season. The team hit hardest was UNI. TE Briley Moore played at Kansas State in 2020. LB Chris Kolarevic is transferring to Nebraska for the 2021 fall season and DB Xavior Williams is doing the same at Iowa. OT Spencer Brown and DE Elerson G. Smith both opted out of the spring season and have declared for the NFL Draft.
That’s five All-Conference and All-American level guys no longer on the roster.
But there are still key pieces back off the team’s 2019 quarterfinal appearance. Will McElvain is back as the starting QB and he has a top FCS wide receiver in Isaiah Weston and three starting offensive linemen. The defense should still be physical, led by standouts like LB Bryce Flater and DL Jared Brinkman.
8. Kennesaw State
The Owls earned some respect after entering the 2019 postseason with a debatable playoff resume. Some thought they should be in the bracket. Others disagreed. Well, they went to Wofford and got a first-round win and then gave No. 3 seed and eventual semifinalist Weber State a scare before losing 26-20.
Emerging late in the season due to injuries was sophomore quarterback Jonathan Murphy. He ran for 206 yards and three touchdowns versus Wofford and 116 yards and a TD against the Wildcats. Murphy is back along with an offensive line that remains intact, 60.2 percent of the rushing yards, nearly 70 percent of the points scored and 74 percent of the tackling production.
Kennesaw should go 6-0 in the regular season.
Nova lost a couple of All-Americans as transfers for the 2020 season. OL Paul Grattan went to UCLA and WR Changa Hodge played at Virginia Tech. Other than that, a good chunk of the starting lineup is back from a 2019 season that saw a 6-0 start. Again, the Wildcats had terrible luck with injuries down the stretch that ended the season in the first round of the playoffs.
Daniel Smith is back at QB after throwing for 3,274 yards. The Wildcats have 99.8 percent of its rushing yards coming back, including Justin Covington, who led the FCS in rushing until suffering a season-ending injury.
Four starters are back on the o-line and the defense returns 73.4 percent of its tackling production.
6. Montana State
So here’s the thing with the Montana vs. Montana State debate. I think MSU will beat the Griz again this spring. It’s just not a good matchup for Montana, whose weakness up front is MSU’s strength. However, I think Montana is built for a deeper playoff run and matches up better against a team like NDSU.
A one-dimensional offense can only get you so far. The Bobcats should have an elite rushing attack again led by Isaiah Ifanse and four returning OL starters. The question, as always with MSU, is the passing game. The QB competition is open again with NC State transfer Matt McKay coming in. The Bobcats do lose their top two wide receivers from 2019.
The defense is never an issue under Jeff Choate. MSU does have to replace half of its tackling production, though. MSU has everything it needs to consistently be a top FCS program. But it does have a postseason ceiling until the offense can get more explosive through the air.
5. James Madison
JMU loses an extremely talented group of seniors from its national runner-up team, including its quarterback, top three pass-catchers and multiple All-Americans on defense. Plus, standouts DL Adeeb Atariwa and DB D’Angelo Amos transferred to Virginia for the 2020 season.
What the Dukes do have coming back looks to be a top running attack in the FCS with 84.3 percent of its rushing yards and three starting offensive linemen returning. But who replaces Ben DiNucci at QB? Who steps up as the go-to target for the new starter? Who replaces the two All-American defensive ends, the two All-American defensive backs and the two starting linebackers?
There’s talent there, no doubt. JMU has brought in the No. 2 recruiting class in 2017 and the No. 5 class in 2018. There are a few transfers to fill holes as well. But it’s all unproven talent right now.
The Griz were set to have the best 1-2 WR combo in the FCS with Samori Toure and Samuel Akem. However, Toure has recently entered the transfer portal. Other than that, the portal has stayed away from this program loaded with talent.
LB Jace Lewis, DB Robby Hauck, RB Marcus Knight and KR Malik Flowers were 2020 fall preseason All-Americans. Akem had a great argument to be on that list along with OL Conlan Beaver.
Replacing QB Dalton Sneed will be key. Redshirt senior Cam Humphrey could be that guy. He filled in for an injured Sneed in 2019 and started three games, throwing for a combined 561 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions. He’ll be pushed for the starting job by some younger talent.
It’s been said that the Griz were a year ahead of schedule in 2019. So there’s plenty of optimism for what this team can accomplish after advancing to the quarterfinals.
3. South Dakota State
Cade Johnson was arguably the best wide receiver in the FCS. He has decided to forgo the spring season and declare for the NFL Draft. His absence has a huge impact on the offense. Especially when you have a young quarterback like J’Bore Gibbs.
However, the Jacks have the best FCS running back in Pierre Strong Jr. plus four o-linemen with starting experience. In a role reversal, it was the defense that led SDSU in 2019 rather than the offense. SDSU has nine defensive starters coming back.
SDSU looks to be a complete team this spring. The Jacks have closed the gap on NDSU, but have had letdown, sometimes blowout performances in playoff exits. So how close are they really to winning a national championship? With a healthy offense plus this defense, the Jacks are legit title contenders.
2. Weber State
A lot of the top teams in the FCS have seen big-time names transfer or declare for the draft. Weber State has mostly remained untouched. Starting QB Jake Constantine did transfer out. While he won a lot of games at Weber State, you didn’t exactly believe he was the guy to threaten a defense like JMU’s or NDSU’s.
The Wildcats have since landed an FBS transfer QB. Randall Johnson redshirted at Middle Tennessee State in 2019. He played JuCo ball before that and in 2018, he was named the Golden Coast Conference Offensive Player of the Year. He’s 6-foot-5 and has two seasons of eligibility.
Is he the missing piece Weber needs after two straight quarterfinal appearance and a semifinal appearance in 2019? The Wildcats return a majority of its offensive production, four starting offensive linemen and 78.4 percent of its tackling production on a top defense. An explosive offense has prevented this team from being a true national title threat. If the Wildcats can get solid QB play, a run to Frisco is realistic.
1. North Dakota State
Despite losing players like QB Trey Lance, OT Dillon Radunz and LB Jabril Cox (all of who could be drafted in the first three rounds), the Bison have fewer question marks heading into this spring than they did going into the 2019 season. And they went 16-0 to win their eighth national championship in nine years.
Zeb Noland, an Iowa State transfer and Lance’s backup in 2019, is groomed to be the next starter. That’s unless former four-star recruit and Virginia Tech transfer Quincy Patterson gets spring eligibility from the NCAA and wins the starting job. Whoever is named the starter gets the top WR and TE targets coming back plus a loaded RB group plus an NDSU o-line that is typically the best in the FCS. NDSU’s defense returns just five starters from the 2019 championship game. It may not be a dominant unit, but it’ll still be solid by FCS standards.
If the 2020 fall roster stayed intact and played a normal season, we could’ve been talking about the best FCS team of all time. Instead, the 2021 spring team does have question marks. How good will the QB play be? Will the interior DL be a weakness? Is there a great pass-rusher on the roster? How good is the depth at CB?
Unlike the 2019 preseason when there was a clear top contender like JMU, there isn’t a clear No. 2 team in the FCS. It’s going to be a weird spring season with unbalanced playoff resumes. Maybe weird things happen like NDSU having to go on the road before Frisco. If there was a year to knock the Bison off their pedestal, an unorthodox setting like a spring season could be it. But until a team rises up and shows it’s capable of being a clear contender, there’s no sense in putting anyone but NDSU at this No. 1 spot.