Usually, this predictions article is reserved for January a week after the FCS national championship game. But with the 2020-21 national champion getting crowned in May, we’re just three months away from the start of a new season.
So it’s time to do a later-than-usual, but still way-too-early favorites to win the 2021 national championship.
There are really only two, maybe three teams good enough to win the title every season. In 2021, though, there’s a more wide range of legit contenders.
Let’s rank the top 10, although there are several schools sniffing right on the outside of these teams.
After a 42-17 win against No. 7 Kennesaw State, Monmouth proved how legit it was by nearly knocking off eventual national champion Sam Houston in the first round. The Hawks had the ball on SHSU’s 9-yard line with 48 seconds left and trailing 21-15, but a fourth-down Tony Muskett pass was intercepted in the end zone.
Muskett was a HERO Sports freshman All-American while running back Juwon Farri was a sophomore All-American. With some explosive wide receivers and a strong defense that allowed 18.5 points per game in the spring, the future is bright for Monmouth. The Hawks face a challenging schedule this fall — at FBS Middle Tennessee, vs. defending Patriot League champ Holy Cross, vs. Princeton, at NC A&T, and at Kennesaw. There are several opportunities for this team to build a resume worthy of a seed.
The Blue Hens had a great spring season, holding an 8-0 record and advancing to the semifinals. But they got humbled with a 33-3 defeat at South Dakota State. Even with standout quarterback Nolan Henderson getting banged up the week before and during the SDSU game, the biggest takeaway was Delaware being physically outmatched in the trenches.
It was still a huge step forward for a program we’ve been waiting to return to national relevancy. Delaware should be strong again defensively this fall with some standout players like Noah Plack and Kedrick Whitehead. And the offense became more explosive compared to past seasons. Reaching the semis again will be lofty, though, with other FCS powers returning to the mix and a tougher schedule for the Blue Hens, notably hosting James Madison for Homecoming in a huge game.
8. Montana State
The Bobcats may very well beat their rival in the Brawl of the Wild again this fall. Until I see the Griz improve on the lines, I’ll pick MSU to win this game. But while MSU is built to beat Montana, Montana is built to make a deeper playoff run with its offensive balance. We’ll see if new head coach Brent Vigen and his knack for developing quarterbacks, along with promising North Carolina State transfer Matthew McKay, can finally get the Bobcats a legit passing attack. There’s a playoff ceiling for run-heavy teams, even if MSU has one of the better offensive lines in the country.
How the schedules are set up, it will be tough for the Bobcats to get a high playoff seed. And we know positioning in brackets is key in how deep you can go. The Bobcats play FBS Wyoming (where Vigen was the OC), at Weber State, at Eastern Washington, and at Montana.
7. Weber State
Weber went from a team feeling like it deserved a top-four playoff seed to getting eliminated by Southern Illinois in the first round on its own turf. But don’t let that distract you from what this program has accomplished in recent years — trips to the quarterfinals in 2017 and 2018 and a semifinal appearance in 2019, plus four-straight Big Sky titles from 2017 to the spring of 2021.
The roster continues to get more talented with better depth. Weber should be in the discussion as a top Big Sky team and top FCS team again, but earning a high playoff seed will be a battle. The Wildcats go to Utah and host James Madison in the non-conference. They also host UC Davis and Montana State while going to Eastern Washington.
6. Southern Illinois
SIU held a 20-7 lead on eventual national runner-up SDSU in the quarterfinals before allowing a comeback and losing 31-26. This came a week after the Salukis beat a strong program in Weber State and a couple of months after dominating NDSU. Can they carry their late-season moxie into the fall? Or did they catch lightning in a bottle?
I think it’s the former. SIU has fantastic athletes on offense, and the defense is improving (although it did struggle late in the spring). The Salukis are building something to be an FCS contender. A playoff bid will be earned, no doubt. They go to a top OVC team SEMO to open the season followed by a trip to Kansas State. They also have to go to SDSU and UNI but host UND, Illinois State, and Missouri State while avoiding NDSU. Keep an eye on SIU as that dark horse team in the fall.
Gone from the 2019 quarterfinal team are All-Big Sky quarterback Dalton Sneed (senior), All-American linebacker Dante Olson (senior), All-American wide receiver Samori Toure (transfer), and All-American running back Marcus Knight (torn ACL this spring). But some of the best FCS players in their respective position groups remain, like WR Samuel Akem, LB Jace Lewis, and safety Robby Hauck.
Head coach Bobby Hauck believes he has a national championship-level team, going as far as questioning the legitimacy of the spring national champion because the Griz weren’t participating (even though Montana hasn’t appeared in a title game in more than a decade and 2019 was its first quarterfinal appearance since 2011). Questions remain on how good the quarterback play will be. And the Griz need to get better on the offensive and defensive lines, or they will get bullied by teams like SDSU, SHSU, and yes, even Montana State. But Montana has taken obvious steps to return to national prominence since Hauck returned for the 2018 season.
Montana should go 2-1 in the non-conference (at Washington, vs. WIU, vs. Dixie State), avoids Weber State, gets Sac State and MSU at home, and has tough road trips to EWU and Idaho.
4. North Dakota State
The Bison hit the transfer portal to get some help at the quarterback, running back, and offensive line positions. Most notably is former four-star high school recruit and Virginia Tech quarterback Quincy Patterson. He played in three games in the fall of 2020 at VT and was on NDSU’s spring roster (listed as a sophomore), but he was ineligible due to transfer rules. At 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, he’ll get the QB run game back into the Bison offense. The question is how accurate of a passer is he.
NDSU was young in the spring. With those players getting experience, veteran players coming back from injury, and some transfers plugging holes, expect the Bison to reload and be in the title hunt again after not making the semifinals for the first time since 2010. It won’t take long to see what the 2021 Bison look like, facing quality CAA opponents UAlbany (home) and Towson (away) in September.
A 7-3 NDSU squad creates a “what in the hell is happening to the Bison” reaction, which goes to show how high the expectations are for the program. The Bison will be fine and will be better in 2021. But the three teams NDSU lost to (SIU, SDSU, and SHSU) will be better this fall, too (except for maybe SDSU with the Mark Gronowski injury). The Dakota Marker game is in Brookings, though. The gap between NDSU and everyone else was erased this spring. Will it stay that way into the 2020s?
3. James Madison
Quarterback Cole Johnson returning for his sixth season is huge for JMU. He was terrific down the stretch, throwing for 251 yards and 271 yards in the final two playoff games with a combined five TDs to one interception. The offense should have plenty of firepower with All-American tackle Liam Fornadel returning from injury, All-American RB Percy Agyei-Obese deciding to return in the fall, and Antwane Wells Jr. being one of the best young receivers in the FCS.
The defense will continue to be strong and will get players returning from injury to bolster the two-deep. After blowing a 24-3 halftime lead to lose at SHSU, then watching the Bearkats narrowly win the title a week later, the Dukes feel they had another championship within reach. JMU will be loaded and motivated for a return trip to Frisco.
Keep an eye on the Sept. 18 trip to Weber State. That game is massive to gauge the national landscape and when determining playoff seeds.
2. South Dakota State
SDSU’s storybook spring season came to a heartbreaking end when Sam Houston scored in the final seconds to win the national title. The Jacks nearly won without star freshman QB Mark Gronowski, who went down early with a knee injury. Word is it’s an ACL tear.
So that’s the big question for an otherwise stacked roster with a majority of starters coming back — who’s the QB? Backup J’Bore Gibbs, who started in 2019 before injuring his knee, suffered another knee injury this spring. He’s doubtful for the fall. Can Keaton Heide, who replaced Gibbs as the starter in 2019 and took over in this year’s national title game, get it done? Do the Jacks look to the transfer portal?
This team will have a stout defense, the best offensive line in the FCS, and two of the best RBs (Isaiah Davis and Pierre Strong Jr.) in the subdivision. But if the passing offense is below average like it was against SHSU, does SDSU get further away from claiming its first national championship?
1. Sam Houston
All of the key pieces appear to be returning for the spring national champions. SHSU is positioned well and built to repeat as champs. The Bearkats arguably will have the best defense in the FCS, a top QB-WR combo in Eric Schmid and Jequez Ezzard, and a good running game with Ramon Jefferson.
It’ll be a fascinating fall season as SHSU is a part of the ASUN-WAC Challenge. SHSU plays non-conference games against Northern Arizona and SEMO, and then plays teams like Central Arkansas, Jacksonville State, and Eastern Kentucky as part of the hybrid conference. The UCA (away) and JSU (home) games will be important for SHSU to earn a top playoff seed.
How much playing into May with four-straight physical playoff games will impact the Bearkats this fall is to be determined, especially in the playoffs as the games pile up on players’ bodies. They are playing only 10 games when 11 are allowed after playing 10 contests this spring. But the Bearkats have the most balanced roster in the FCS, and they are undoubtedly the favorites heading into the season.
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