Every week of the 2019 FCS season, Sam Herder will give his Top 15 favorites to win the national championship. This is somewhat similar to my STATS Top 25 Poll except that it won't include any Ivy League and HBCU teams.
It's also a bit different because in most polls if a team loses, they drop some spots. In this ranking, that may not always be the case as this is a look ahead to who has the best chance to win it all in January. The beauty of the FCS is one loss doesn't derail the hope of hoisting that trophy in Frisco, Texas.
This is a big-picture look at the national scene and doesn't worry as much about the week-to-week movements in a typical Top 25 poll.
The Top 2 teams mean I expect them to play in Frisco, 3-4 means a semifinal appearance, 5-8 means a quarterfinal appearance and 9-15 means I think those teams will reach the second round.
15. New Hampshire
Last week's ranking: Unranked
The Wildcats are one of the hottest teams in the FCS right now and are on a four-game winning streak after starting 0-2. UNH has knocked off three straight teams that have the potential to make the playoffs: Duquesne, Elon and Stony Brook. With a 3-0 record in the CAA, tied for first with JMU, the Wildcats are looking like a playoff team right now. And with the right matchup, potentially against the NEC champ (Duquesne's conference), I can see a first-round win.
14. Kennesaw State
Last week's ranking: 15
As more Top 10 teams lose and the Owls keep winning, it's more and more likely the Owls could get a Top 8 seed. That automatically puts them in the 9-15 ranking with a first-round bye. I'm not sure what the playoff committee will do with KSU just yet, though. Even if the Owls were not seeded, I think they can win a first-round game. This is such a tricky team because while the record, margin of victory and the statistics are all very impressive, how much stock do we really put in those numbers because of the schedule? Yes, the team can't control who it plays. But this is the reality when analyzing teams from a national perspective. That's why a majority of people who follow the FCS closely have KSU in the 10-15 range.
13. Youngstown State
Last week's ranking: 13
The Penguins looked legit for 2.5 quarters against South Dakota State. Then the Jacks turned it on and erased a 21-9 third-quarter deficit into a 38-28 win. This comes a week after YSU narrowly lost at Northern Iowa, 21-14. So the Penguins are 0-2 in the MVFC, but 4-2 overall. I still think this is a dangerous team despite its two-game skid. The Penguins have six games left, four winnable ones and two big matchups at home versus North Dakota State and Illinois State. YSU should be in the playoffs and I think it has the defense and physical style of play to grab a first-round win.
12. Northern Iowa
Last week's ranking: 12
UNI looked good in the first half at NDSU, but things spiraled out of control from there. The Panthers are now 3-3, but this is a position they're used to at this point in the season. UNI has become known for strong finishes to the regular season and is usually good for one win in the playoffs. I'm not yet convinced this is a quarterfinal team, but another second-round appearance seems likely.
11. Central Arkansas
Last week's ranking: Unranked
I wanted to see how the Bears reacted to a blowout loss to Nicholls and they passed the "test." McNeese is a solid Southland program that defeated a ranked Southeastern Louisiana team the week before. UCA quarterback Breylin Smith had another big game in the 40-31 win. If this team can tighten up on defense to go along with some standout talent on offense, the Bears will live up to this ranking in the playoffs.
10. Montana State
Last week's ranking: 8
The Bobcats lost their first FCS game on Saturday and it wasn't pretty. Sacramento State did what it wanted to on offense and overall did a nice job on defense in the 34-21 road win. For Montana State, the playoff hopes are by no means gone. In fact, looking at the schedule, the Bobcats can still earn a seed. But a lot of things need to be fixed before that happens. The defense just isn't where it needs to be, giving up 397 yards a game. And like it's been talked about for years now, the passing game isn't there for this team to go on a deep playoff run. Right now, I see this team ending the season where it did last year in the second round. The potential is there for a trip to the quarterfinals, but the Sac State loss illuminated some warning signs.
Last week's ranking: 10
Nicholls is 4-0 against FCS opponents with the statement win coming a couple of weeks ago against UCA. Maybe it was a hangover performance, but the 42-35 win Saturday against Northwestern State (who's now 0-6) doesn't make me feel overly confident that this team can make the quarterfinals. But the Colonels are right on the edge. They have some special talent on the defensive side, especially at linebacker. But the secondary does need improvement. The offensive balance under the leadership of veteran QB Chase Fourcade is also something to like.
8. Sacramento State
Last week's ranking: 14
The Hornets proved their worth in the 34-21 win at Montana State. They are now 3-0 against FCS opponents and have back-to-back wins against ranked teams: EWU and the Bobcats. Right now, it's hard not to put Sac State in the Top 8 seeds. The defense has improved from 35.4 points allowed per game last season to 20.0 this season. And the offense can get it done passing and running the ball. Now we get to find out even more about this team as the Hornets host Montana for their homecoming game.
Last week's ranking: 9
Furman needs to come out sharp off of its bye week because the potential of this team getting a playoff seed is getting more and more real. The Paladins will be favored in each of their remaining games. But this is the SoCon, where a bottom-half team in the standings is always ruining a top team's day every week. With a 4-0 record against FCS opponents, Furman is slowly showing up on more people's radars. Is this team a national title threat? That's probably reaching a bit. But the Paladins sure as hell can get a seed, win a game and advance to the quarterfinals.
6. Weber State
Last week's ranking: 7
Weber just keeps on winning, even if parts of its games aren't the prettiest. Teams like Idaho and Southern Utah stuck with the Wildcats longer than the No. 6 team in the country would have liked. But this team continues to grind to wins and is 4-0 against the FCS. If Weber can continue this, grab a high seed and host some games, the playoff wins will come as well.
Last week's ranking: 6
The Griz sat at home comfortably and watched as ranked teams dropped like flies on Saturday. Now it's back to the grind as Montana still has some tests coming up to finish this season with a resume worthy of a seed. The Big Sky is as wacky as ever, but this team controls its own destiny at 5-0 against the FCS. Having a quarterback is key in making a deep playoff run. The Grizzlies might have the best one in the FCS in Dalton Sneed.
Last week's ranking: 4
I chose to keep Nova where it was last week despite the 38-24 loss to James Madison. The Wildcats were on the road, without their star running back Justin Covington and still held the lead heading into the final quarter. But some missed defensive assignments, a pick-six and JMU's defensive line going crazy led to an avalanche of points for the Dukes. I still like what I saw from Nova and those in attendance, including B-Mac, tell me this team is the real deal when you watch them in person.
3. South Dakota State
Last week's ranking: 3
The Jackrabbits showed what kind of team it can be when everything is clicking to close out a huge road win at YSU. Trailing 21-9 midway through the third quarter, SDSU went on to win 38-28. This could be J'Bore Gibbs' breakthrough game as the redshirt freshman threw for 210 yards and a touchdown and ran for 75 yards and two scores. That's not easy to do against a strong YSU defense. What has hampered SDSU in recent playoff runs, especially against the Bison, is being overwhelmed in the second half. So far this season, the Jacks have owned the second half. Credit this program for building depth and taking a step forward in the strength and conditioning department, an underrated part of a football team's success.
2. James Madison
Last week's ranking: 2
JMU games aren't the easiest to watch. While I think FloSports is worth the $15 or whatever it is a month to watch CAA games because I'm an FCS diehard/nerd, others around the country aren't forking over that money. But it's becoming apparent to me that said others around the country are forming their opinion on the Dukes without even seeing them in action this year. What I saw Saturday was a team take its opponents' best shot and then just go on an absolute tear and say "screw this, let's win this thing." Anyone thinking this team isn't good enough to make Frisco clearly is box-score watching and lazily pointing to last year's Colgate loss. Now, to me, NDSU is the No. 1 team in the FCS. Both from what I've seen in person and lining up the resumes. The gap isn't huge, though. If I were to project the odds for an NDSU vs. JMU game on a neutral field like, oh I don't know, Frisco? I'd take the Bison by 4 points.
1. North Dakota State
Last week's ranking: 1
Where one thinks teams like Illinois State and Northern Iowa really should've been ranked at the time of their games against NDSU is what it is. But there's no denying this … Going to Normal, Illinois, and getting a 37-3 win is no easy feat. And beating UNI, who seems to always play at its best against the Bison, 46-14 is something special. I'm no film guru, but I'm guessing if someone who breaks down tape could find the Top 5 all-around best quarterbacks in the FCS, Trey Lance is one of them. He's going to be pro-ready much earlier in his career than Easton Stick was. The running backs are getting it done behind an elite offensive line (even by NDSU standards) and the group of wide receivers is as athletic and skilled as NDSU has ever had. The defense is on par with past defenses, which is a simple way of singing their praises. There's not much to poke at with this team. Are the Bison invincible? Of course not. Only two teams were during this run and those squads are considered by some the best teams in this subdivision's history. The 2019 Bison aren't at that level. But they're not as far off as a majority of folks anticipated in the preseason, myself included.
NEXT: FCS Playoff Predictions
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