"Families are always rising and falling in America," Nathaniel Hawthorne once said. He was probably talking about his own familial journey, but he might as well have been talking about college football teams. The nature of different classes coming and going, along with pure dumb luck or misfortune, keeps us constantly guessing at which teams will rise and fall, year after year.
With that in mind, we're diving into the numbers and attempting to read the tea leaves ahead of the 2018 season. A number of teams finished with sub .500 records in 2017 for a variety of reasons; we expect these few to put together stronger campaigns in 2018. These 10 teams should win more games than they lose during the upcoming season.
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Well, somebody has to finish behind Colgate in the Patriot League, right? The Bison stand as good a chance as anyone, with no team other than the Raiders returning more than 10 starters.
Bucknell will need to overhaul most of its defense this fall, but it brings back quarterback John Chiarolanzio. The Bison will also have the most veteran offensive line in the conference. That alone could be enough to propel this team into the black, considering it only needs to pick up one more win off its 2017 campaign.
The SoCon is certainly tough at the top, but the middle of the pack is susceptible to some upheaval. Enter The Citadel, which returns 15 starters, including All-American Tyler Davis and the rest of the offensive line. For this particular offense, that's an even bigger deal than usual.
The Bulldogs will need to break in a new quarterback, but the offense should hum along just fine regardless of who's under center. On defense, a respectable unit led by Aron Spann should have plenty of time to rest — The Citadel led FCS football in time of possession in 2017.
With Wofford set to take a step back this year, the Bulldogs could contend for a top-3 finish in the Southern Conference.
East Tennessee State (4-7)
Is this the year ETSU takes the next step? The SoCon newcomers have more returning starters than any other team in the conference; they'll also have plenty of room for improvement after winning only two games against conference opponents last season.
Like The Citadel, East Tennessee State should benefit from a Southern Conference with plenty of potential for upward mobility. While Samford and Furman appear to be a step above everyone else, the rest of the group feels pretty vulnerable.
If the Buccaneers can capitalize on a veteran advantage and shore up the defensive end, it could post its first season over .500 since it rejoined the FCS in 2015.
Montana State (5-6)
Easily the most intriguing team on this list, the Bobcats are a talented team with fringe playoff hype, even though they're outside the top 25 in pretty much all of the major preseason polls. Despite the modest expectations, the Bobcats have earned darling status with some media members as a team that could explode onto the scene in 2018.
The problem with hyping State is that the schedule is brutally tough. After a couple of sleepy games with Wagner and Portland State in mid-September, the Bobcats host Eastern Washington, and the schedule never really lightens up.
Montana State could have the best defense in the Big Sky in 2018. The Bobcats certainly won't lack for talent. Those factors should propel them over .500 and into the playoff conversation this season, but the road to Thanksgiving weekend almost certainly won't be an easy one.
Norfolk State (4-7)
Norfolk State has an intriguing schedule. It opens up against Division II Virginia State, then hosts world-beating James Madison. After a game with a transitioning Liberty program, it draws South Carolina State, Delaware State, Savannah State and Florida A&M, all over a six-week period. Those four schools went 11-32 in 2017.
Considering the Spartans bring back 16 starters from last season, a strong run through the first half of the schedule seems likely. They close against Morgan State (1-10 in 2017).
Much like Bucknell, Presbyterian stands to be the beneficiary of a Big South conference with no clear No. 2. Monmouth will still be dangerous with Pete Guerriero, but the Hawks should come back toward the pack this year. Campbell and Charleston Southern are beatable. That opens the door for Presbyterian, which returns 17 starters, to make a jump into one of the conference's top three spots. A 7-4 record feels pretty reasonable.
Saint Francis (5-6)
The Red Flash are an intriguing prospect to get over the .500 mark. On the one hand, the NEC appears wide open for this upcoming season, and Saint Francis plays good defense, with the potential for a solid, ball-control offense. They could be legitimate conference contenders.
On the other hand, Saint Francis might be an east coast whipping boy again, with games against Lehigh, Richmond and Albany in the first month of the season. If it loses all three of those games — which is distinctly possible, given the offensive prowess of Lehigh and the strength in the bottom of the CAA — that doesn't leave much room for error in conference play. Saint Francis should get the job done, but it might come all the way down to a regular season finale at Sacred Heart.
Stephen F. Austin (4-7)
Because the Southland is often top-heavy, it's always possible to jump into that upper half of teams with a decent stockpile of talent. That's where Stephen F. Austin finds itself heading into 2018.
The Lumberjacks bring back a sizable portion of their offensive line, plus quarterback Jake Blumrick and receiver Tamrick Pace. In a league that values offensive football, SFA should outrun a lot of teams. If it can position itself as the "Best of the Rest" team — similar to what Southeastern Louisiana did in 2017 — the Jacks have a great chance to get over .500. They might even steal a game from Central Arkansas and get to seven wins. That wouldn't be enough for a playoff bid, but it'd certainly be enough to call the season a success.
UC Davis (5-6)
When you've got Keelan Doss on your team, a lot of things are possible. Like Montana State, the Aggies should be supremely talented in 2018, but an extremely tough schedule will make playoff contention an uphill climb. Before Davis hosts Idaho on Sept. 22, its three out-of-conference games are against Pioneer champion San Diego and two FBS schools. Even if the Aggies go 1-2 in those games, it'll still need five conference wins against a Big Sky schedule that doesn't have a whole lot of gimme wins.
The good news for Davis fans? Against a schedule this difficult, a 6-5 record could give you a legitimate shot at the playoffs.
Even with an improved CAA laid out in front of them, the Wildcats should easily contend for a playoff spot in 2018. Villanova stands a great chance to finish September with a 4-1 record, with the only potential loss coming at FBS Temple. An experienced offensive line, a returning quarterback and a top-3 CAA defense makes Villanova the most likely team on this list to earn a playoff berth.