Folks … it is time.
Time to stick our necks out there and see if we know what we’re talking about. Sometime after the first week of January 2020, we’ll look back at June 4, 2019, and see what we nailed and what we really missed the boat on. Last year, we nailed predictions with programs like Colgate and UC Davis, but we also whiffed majorly with programs like Maine. Who will it be this year?
Here’s our 2019 Preseason FCS Top 25.
1. James Madison
Picture this: A team shows flashes of brilliance, but also has some notable “valleys” and is upset by Colgate in the FCS playoffs. Then its coach is lured away by an FBS program, and his successor is another accomplished FCS head coach … a guy who led a program into the postseason that doesn’t routinely make the FCS Playoffs.
Let’s face it, the comparison of Mike Houston coming to a strong JMU program in 2016 from The Citadel and Curt Cignetti coming to a strong JMU program in 2019 from Elon is hard to ignore here. It feels like we’ve seen this show before, and we here at HERO Sports feel like the end result is going to be similar. We feel like JMU looks, on paper, like the best FCS team in the land. North Dakota State is in a rebuilding mode (cough cough, does NDSU really “rebuild”?) and JMU is loaded with talent.
2. North Dakota State
NDSU returns just seven total starters on offense and defense and has a new starting quarterback, head coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator. But to think the Bison machine is coming to a screeching halt would be a mistake. Thanks to recruiting, depth and rotating players, NDSU will be right in the national title mix again. The system, which every other FCS program is trying to emulate, won’t change under HC Matt Entz. The defense will remain stout led by NFL Draft prospect Jabril Cox at linebacker. The running back room is loaded and the offensive line is what it always is, which means the Bison will find a starting five that will form a top unit in the FCS. NDSU may not run away from the field like it did in 2018, but it’s not going anywhere any time soon in the national championship hunt.
3. UC Davis
The Aggies are loaded coming off a heartbreaking loss in the quarterfinals. Offensively, UC Davis brings back almost its entire starting lineup outside of WR Keelan Doss and has a top FCS QB in Jake Maier under center. The defense has six starters back. The ascension of this program is impressive, and it should continue in 2019.
The Black Bears’ colors are blue, white and navy blue — but the real colors of this program are black and blue. Last year, Maine proved it with an impressive CAA championship run, playoff seed and run to the FCS semifinals before crisscrossing the United States finally took its toll. This is a hard-nosed program that goes after hard-nosed kids in Jersey, PA and the outer boroughs of NYC. Not everybody fits Maine and Maine doesn’t fit everybody … but the kids that stick? They can hit. Look for another strong campaign in Orono, Maine.
5. South Dakota State
Finding a starting quarterback and filling some big holes in the secondary are key question marks for the Jackrabbits, but the talent returning is eye-opening with around 14 starters back on offense and defense. The weapons on offense are as good as it gets for the new QB, and the defense is anchored by All-American linebacker Christian Rozeboom.
6. Jacksonville State
To us, this looks like the best JSU team on paper since the 2015 team that went to the natty title game. The talent is abundant, and let’s not forget that quarterback Zerrick Cooper turned the heads of Clemson’s coaching staff way before he arrived at JSU as a transfer. But you can only play one QB (ask Kelly Bryant). Cooper is an immense talent, and this team has some special players back.
7. Eastern Washington
EWU loses a huge senior class, but plenty of underclassmen saw valuable playing time in the run to the national championship game. Five starters on offense and five on defense return from the FCS title game’s starting lineup. But with electric quarterback Eric Barriere fully settled in as the starter along with the running game and defense improving under head coach Aaron Best, the Eagles should continue their momentum.
You would think that the transition of having a coaching legend (Mike Ayers) retire and a new guy coming in (Josh Conklin) could be a recipe for disaster. Well … wrong. At least in the case of Wofford. The Terriers didn’t miss a beat last year and they may be even better this time around. The entire offensive line unit is back, folks, and when you run this kind of option offense — that’s about as good a bit of news as you can get.
9. Illinois State
The Redbirds haven’t lived up to preseason hype in recent years, but something tells us this is the year they get over the hump. With roughly 16 starters returning, Illinois State has the experience and talent to improve its consistency from September to November and be a threat in the playoffs once again.
The playoff loss to Duquesne last fall was stunning (but hey, give the Dukes their due) but the truth is these Tigers are loaded this year and have a Flacco under center. That’s right, Tom Flacco is back as one of the FCS’ top signal callers, there are weapons on the roster, and hey … this may be one of the top special teams units in the nation too, and that may be worth a few wins. Keep an eye on Towson, who have been to the national title game before this decade under coach Rob Ambrose (2013).
11. Weber State
Weber State has a majority of its offense back, but loses a lot from its tremendous 2018 defensive unit, including six First Team All-Big Sky players. The Wildcats have crushed the recruiting game and have shown they can overcome losing talented senior classes with back-to-back trips to the quarterfinals.
The Phoenix lost their head coach to James Madison, but former assistant Tony Trisciani is a great fit and Davis Cheek is an outstanding quarterback … and this program has turned out to be one of the best ones in the CAA, if not the nation.
Coach Tim Rebowe and his staff have mixed up a magic formula of finding great local talent and molding it into one of the most physical programs in the Southland Conference. Thus the reason the Colonels have become accustomed to the FCS postseason. Expect another berth this fall.
14. Montana State
A year after making it to the second round of the playoffs, the Bobcats have a stacked team in 2019. Eighteen starters are back on offense and defense. The question is who will be QB1 and can Montana State threaten a defense through the air? If that question is answered in a positive way, the Bobcats are a team to fear in December.
The Clay Hendrix era is in its third season and the Paladins seem primed to leave their competitive purple (sorry for the pun, but it’s true). Keep an eye on linebacker Adrian Hope — who made the HERO Sports All American team as a freshman last fall after leading the country in sacks (15 in only 10 games played).
16. Central Arkansas
The Bears had a quick rebuilding year in 2018 and they are back to being the beasts they were when they won the Southland Conference in 2017. Young, hungry and athletic, one can bet Coach Nathan Brown is grinning right about now … but will a Southland full of parity be a problem? Fasten your seatbelts, folks.
The Bulldogs went just 5-5 last year, but suffered a number of injuries to key players. Most of those guys played a big part as underclassmen in Yale’s 9-1 Ivy League championship season two years. This is a team that has a starter back at just about every offensive and defensive position. The Bulldogs look to be a force once again in the Ivy League.
18. Indiana State
The Sycamores were one of the last teams left out of last year’s playoff bracket at 7-4. With almost its entire offense back and six starters back on defense, Indiana State looks to be a playoff team. Ryan Boyle is a gamer at the quarterback position and linebacker Jonas Griffith is a top defensive player in the FCS. Not too shabby for a program that was 0-11 not too long ago.
The Mocs have seemed a tad “lost in the woods” the last two seasons, but that ends in 2019. This program — even with a coaching transition — should be one of the SoCon’s best and quarterback Nick Tiano is going to show why Mississippi State’s coaching staff had him in the same bullpen as Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald a few years back (hint hint, Tiano’s good). The view from Lookout Mountain will be a good one this fall.
20. Sam Houston State
Last year was a tad bit of a struggle, but the Bearkats will rebound this year with a ton of starters coming back. They’ll be a part of the massive scrum that is the Southland Conference title race.
21. Alcorn State
Ahead of two-time HBCU national champion North Carolina A&T? Yes sir, Alcorn State is this year. That’s not a knock on NCA&T, that just tells you where the Braves stand this year. They’re loaded under head coach Fred McNair.
22. Kennesaw State
The Owls should be the heavy favorite to win the Big South and make the playoffs once again, but there will be a lot of new names pushing this team to that perch after the school’s first full senior class graduated. We’re just curious about who those guys are … but we know this program will be strong.
Princeton went 10-0 last season, but does lose its starting quarterback, top running back, top two receivers and three of its top five tacklers. The defending Ivy League champs could be a contender again, but needs to answer questions on the field first.
24. Eastern Kentucky
We feel like this is going to be a breakthrough year for the Colonels. They were 7-4 last year with two FBS losses, one of which was very nearly a win (Bowling Green) — and nearly everybody is back. If EKU can find that chemistry, watch out. The talent is here.
25. The Citadel
The Bulldogs were a 5-6 squad last year. They did lose three SoCon games by seven points or less, though, including against co-champs ETSU and Wofford. With 17 starters back, 10 of which are on offense, The Citadel is a sleeper team this year in a conference that could be a tossup.
THE NEXT BEST: (alphabetical order) Colgate, Dartmouth, Duquesne, ETSU, Incarnate Word, Lamar, New Hampshire, North Alabama, Northern Iowa, SEMO
ALSO KEEPING OUR EYE ON: FAMU, Mercer, Montana, North Dakota, San Diego, South Dakota, Villanova