Last week, HERO Sports published its preseason Top 25. It was a combination of my Top 25 and Daniel Steenkamer’s Top 25.
I am honored to be a voting member of the official FCS Top 25 poll with Stats Perform. I will publish my weekly ballot during the fall season.
Below is how I voted for our preseason Top 25, which is the same ballot I will submit for the Stats Perform preseason poll.
Nicholls has some dudes coming back (QB Lindsey Scott Jr., RB Julien Gums, WR Dai’Jean Dixon, OL P.J. Burkhalter) as its offense should be one of the best in the FCS. But I don’t trust this defense that allowed 34 points a game in the spring. If they don’t make fixes there, the Colonels are a playoff bubble team at best, especially with two FBS opponents to start the season.
24. Florida A&M
FAMU heads to the SWAC from the MEAC after going 9-2 overall (6-1 MEAC) standings in 2019. The Rattlers did not play in 2020-21. The SWAC looks loaded with Celebration Bowl contenders, and FAMU will be a major part of that discussion.
The Mocs began the 2021 spring SoCon schedule 3-0, then said “it’s been real, we’re done” and rested its starters in a loss to Mercer. They opted out of the spring season days later. UTC will be a contender for the SoCon’s auto-bid, and its season-opener versus OVC favorite Austin Peay is a solid game to get a gauge on both teams.
22. Jacksonville State
JSU should get starting QB and NFL Draft prospect Zerrick Cooper back from injury. The team has talent no doubt, but it’s hard to put much trust in the program right now to rank them too high. One week the Gamecocks look like title contenders. The next week they look like they didn’t watch any film and had one walkthrough practice. The schedule beefs up as well — two FBS opponents (UAB and Florida State), at Kennesaw State, at Sam Houston, vs. Central Arkansas. There’s no guarantee JSU is a playoff team this year.
21. Missouri State
The Bears had a breakthrough season in Bobby Petrino’s first year as head coach, making the playoffs for the first time in 30 years. However, a 44-10 loss to UND in the first round of the bracket makes you wonder where this team sits in the MVFC standings.
20. Sacramento State
Sac State did not play in 2020-21 after a historic 2019 season. The Hornets went from 2-8 to 9-4, won a share of the Big Sky title, and earned the No. 4 playoff seed. However, the season ended in humbling fashion right away in the bracket with a 42-28 loss to Austin Peay that really wasn’t as close as the score indicates. Besides All-American QB Kevin Thomson gone, the Hornets have plenty of offensive weapons back. Plus, they avoid Montana State, Weber State, and Eastern Washington in the Big Sky slate. This may be a sleeper team not getting enough love on ballots (guilty).
Villanova went just 2-2 in the spring but battled eventual semifinalist Delaware in a 27-20 loss to end the season. The Wildcats have a really good-looking roster and have recruited well in recent years. QB Daniel Smith, RB Justin Covington, and LB Forrest Rhyne are top players at their positions in the CAA. After reaching the playoffs in 2019 and losing in the first round, Nova has the pieces in place to make it back.
18. Eastern Washington
Led by the top QB in the FCS Eric Barriere, the Eagles look to be a top-four team in the Big Sky again, which will get you into the playoffs. But once there, the program just doesn’t seem to have the juice it did like previous teams that made deep runs. EWU can prove me wrong, but it’s hard to see them as national title contenders, and more resembling a first-to-second round type team. However, the Eagles play great on the red turf and get Montana, Idaho, Weber State, and Montana State all at home.
17. Austin Peay
The Governors started to get rolling late in the spring, winning their last two games against the top two teams in the standings — JSU and Murray State. A couple of bad losses early in the spring slate cost them a chance at the playoffs, though. Draylen Ellis has a bright future, throwing for 1,270 yards, 14 touchdowns, and four interceptions in seven games as a freshman. With JSU gone, Austin Peay looks like the top team in the OVC.
16. Alcorn State
The 2018 and 2019 SWAC champ Alcorn State opted out of the spring season. With Alabama A&M’s rise, Jackson State loading up with talent, and Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman coming in from the MEAC, the Braves are determined to prove they are still the top team. The offense should be scary good with RB Niko Duffey, WR LeCharles Pringle, and All-American QB Felix Harper.
15. Southeastern Louisiana
QB Cole Kelley, who won the Walter Payton Award in the spring, is back to lead an explosive offense. The Lions kicked off the spring season going toe-to-toe with eventual national title winner Sam Houston in a 43-38 loss. If they make big improvements on defense, SLU can make noise nationally. They do have solid players on that side of the ball, like DB Ferlando Jordan and LB Alexis Ramos.
14. North Carolina A&T
After winning four of the five Celebration Bowls, NC A&T now wants to make an impact in the FCS playoffs by joining the Big South. If the Aggies finish top two in the standings, we’ll for sure see them in the bracket. They play tough defense, and Jah-Maine Martin is an elite player at RB.
The Keydets had a breakout season and battled James Madison tough in the first round before losing 31-24. QB Seth Morgan and WR Jakob Herres are big-time problems for defenses. LB Stone Snyder is a name to know as well. This team has some studs and will be the favorite in the SoCon.
12. North Dakota
Expectations are high for UND after winning a share of the MVFC title in its first season in the conference and reaching the quarterfinals. Positioning themselves for another quarterfinal appearance will be tough this fall with road games at Idaho State, FBS Utah State, SIU, and SDSU, plus facing NDSU in Grand Forks. The Fighting Hawks lose a couple of key offensive linemen, but Otis Weah is as good as it gets at RB.
11. Central Arkansas
UCA played a full fall season after being the No. 8 seed in the 2019 playoffs. Expect the Bears to be a big part of the playoff discussion again. Tyler Hudson and Lujuan Winningham are dynamic WRs that will give defenses trouble. A Sept. 25 home game versus SHSU is one to circle. UCA beat the Kats the last time they played in 2019.
Monmouth nearly knocked 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, Monmouth will be a factor this fall.
Delaware got hammered 33-3 by SDSU in the semifinals. You can view the Blue Hens two different ways this offseason — They had an easier path to the semifinals by playing Sacred Heart and Jacksonville State, or they splashed onto the national scene after only reaching the playoffs one time since 2010 (a 2018 first-round appearance). I lean the latter, as Delaware has been building a stronger team in recent years and looks like it will be a factor moving forward with all of its standouts back.
8. Montana State
We’ll see if new head coach Brent Vigen and his knack for developing quarterbacks, along with promising North Carolina State transfer Matt McKay, can finally get the Bobcats a legit passing attack. The pieces are otherwise in place. Isaiah Ifanse is one of the more underrated running backs in the FCS running behind an experienced offensive line. The defense will be strong, although it is adjusting to a new 4-3 scheme. A new coaching staff, another starting QB battle, and replacing the top two WRs from 2019 results in the Bobcats getting slotted No. 8 after reaching the semifinals in 2019.
7. Weber State
After trips to the quarterfinals in 2017 and 2018 and a semifinal appearance in 2019, the Wildcats lost in the first round to SIU in the spring. This program is still on the rise, though, and the roster continues to build depth. The talent is there, the defense will be legit, and the offense has weapons. The early playoff exit may have tempered expectations, but a September home game against JMU is a chance to get those high expectations back.
6. Southern Illinois
People forget SIU held a 20-7 lead right before halftime against SDSU in the quarterfinals. The Jacks battled back and won 31-26. This was a week after the Salukis beat Weber State, one of the better FCS programs in the last few seasons. SIU has some dudes on offense. If the defense gets back to its 2019 level, SIU can live up to these high preseason expectations.
The Griz have had two offseasons to develop and get stronger on the offensive and defensive lines. That’s going to be the difference between them being good and being elite. They already have the standouts at LB and DB and at the skilled positions on offense. Finding a starting QB is quite important as well, but the QB play doesn’t matter if you can’t match up with Montana State and the four teams below in the trenches. Montana feels the spring national championship wasn’t legitimate because it wasn’t a part of it. The signs of the Griz moving closer to national relevancy are clear in the last couple of seasons. Now they can prove they are legit contenders this fall.
4. North Dakota State
QB wasn’t the only issue the Bison had in the spring when they fell short of the semifinals for the first time since 2010. The o-line was pretty good, but not up to the standard. And the young CBs had moments of struggles. But getting good QB play turns some of their losses into wins, including in the quarterfinals against SHSU. Former four-star high school recruit and Virginia Tech transfer quarterback Quincy Patterson is the favorite to win the QB1 job. At 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, he’ll get the QB run game back into the Bison offense. Whether the downfield passing attack improves is to-be-determined.
3. James Madison
If the Dukes don’t blow a 24-3 lead at SHSU in the semifinals, the narrative heading into the fall is completely different. Maybe SDSU beats JMU in Frisco for a program-changing national title. Or maybe the Dukes beat the Jacks and are back atop the FCS mountain. Instead, JMU is slotted No. 3, but arguably has as equally talented of a roster as SDSU and SHSU. If QB Cole Johnson plays like he did late in the spring season, this team is dangerous.
2. South Dakota State
The Jackrabbits return just about every starter from the spring’s runner-up finish. While there is a question mark around the QB position after freshman All-American Mark Gronowski tore his ACL right away in the national title game, SDSU still nearly beat SHSU with backup Keaton Heide in. Transfer Chris Oladokun comes in to compete for the starting job and give the Jacks play-making abilities at quarterback as the roster is otherwise stacked. The defense is strong, the o-line is the best in the FCS, and Isaiah Davis and Pierre Strong Jr. are two of the best RBs in the subdivision.
1. Sam Houston
I’m very much against the mindset that the defending champs have to be No. 1 in the preseason. But in this case, it’s hard to pick against SHSU when the Bearkats have every key piece returning this fall. The Bearkats will have an elite defense (especially against the run), a deadly QB-WR combo in Eric Schmid and Jequez Ezzard, and a good running game with Ramon Jefferson. They have a great shot to go 10-0 and get the No. 1 playoff seed for another run to Frisco.
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