It's officially preseason rankings time for the FCS. We at HERO Sports released our preseason Top 25 yesterday.
The biggest talking point on social media, at least in our mentions, was us having South Dakota State higher than Eastern Washington. The next was putting James Madison at No. 1 and North Dakota State at No. 2. Bison fans obviously didn't like that and even JMU fans were a bit apprehensive about the preseason hype.
But it's deserved.
The magazine Street & Smith released its Top 25 earlier this summer and had the Dukes at No. 1. Athlon Sports' preseason poll had them No. 2.
[divider]MORE FCS FOOTBALL:
Now, the popular saying is preseason polls don't matter. And that's true. Then again, you won't find many things that fire up a fan base more than where their team is ranked.
JMU is going to get a ton of love this preseason. Some will say it's deserved. Others will say it's not, citing the team's 2018 exit in the second round or their opinion that the defending national champs, NDSU, should remain No. 1 until the Bison are knocked off their throne.
There are differing opinions on how preseason polls should be done. Some vote based off of how last season ended. In my mind, preseason polls should be about trying to project how the 2019 season will play out.
And because of that, JMU deserves all of its preseason hype, whether that's a No. 3, 2 or 1 preseason ranking.
"But how can a team that lost to Colgate in the second round be looked at as a top team entering this season?" some will ask.
You don't have to look far to find comparisons. The simple example is EWU not making the playoffs in 2017, returning basically its entire team last year and making a run to Frisco, Texas. Now look at JMU. The Dukes return every starter outside a couple of spots, played its worst game of the season against Colgate with five costly interceptions and was still a game-winning field goal away from making the quarterfinals.
The defense alone can take the Dukes a long way, returning 10 starters, 11 if you count future pro cornerback Rashad Robinson coming back from injury. This is a unit that ranked 10th in the FCS in rushing defense (104.4 yards per game), sixth in total defense (289.5 yards per game) and sixth in scoring defense (14.6 points per game).
Saying this program, that had just 12 seniors in 2018 and has 15 seniors this year along with 26 juniors, can take that next step and win a national title isn't really a hot take.
"But how can a team with big coaching staff turnover be looked at as a top team entering this season?" some will ask.
Curt Cignetti is a helluva coach, and he brings some impressive CAA assistants with him.
Elon isn't the type of program or school that you're supposed to win at. Yet Cignetti turned a program that went 12-45 in the previous five years into back-to-back FCS playoff participants in his two seasons as the head coach. Imagine what he can do at JMU with better facilities and a bigger budget with a roster already loaded with talent.
Mike Houston proved you can win a national title in your first season with a program, and Cignetti steps into a stronger situation than what Houston did.
"But how can a team who has inconsistent quarterback play and average offensive line play be looked at as a top team entering this season?" some will ask.
Not as easy as the first two rebuttals, but…
People forget Ben DiNucci was a Third Team All-CAA QB last year. He had his highs and lows, sure, but if he wins the open quarterback competition again and plays like he did for 75 percent of last season, the offense is going to put up big points. Saying JMU can't win a national title if DiNucci plays like he did against Colgate is like saying back in 2017 that the Bison can't win a national title if Easton Stick plays like he did against SDSU.
The offense brings back nine starters, all five offensive linemen, talented running backs and a dangerous receiving group led by a top FCS target in Riley Stapleton. JMU ranked 18th in the FCS with 33.9 points per game. Granted some 73, 51 and 63-point games early in the season against struggling opponents inflate those numbers a bit. But there was also that 17-0 win against Norfolk State that got called off after one quarter due to weather.
The point is JMU was still a pretty damn good football team last year. It was definitely underwhelming at 9-4 overall and an early playoff exit compared to a 2016 national title and 2017 runner-up finish. With a small senior class and the Mike Houston rumors floating over their head, it was an abrupt and probably humbling end to the season.
That doesn't mean expectations should be lowered entering 2019, though.
Going back to the EWU example, the Eagles were coming off a 7-4 season and were ranked No. 4 by HERO Sports, No. 9 by STATS and No. 7 in the Coaches Poll heading into 2018. Expectations were high for the Eagles despite a medicore 2017 year.
Preseason rankings, in my opinion, should be predictive. JMU has its questions: QB, offensive line, new coaching staff. But there's no clear-cut argument on why any other team in the FCS needs to be ranked ahead of the Dukes.
Just because NDSU won last year's title doesn't mean the Bison have to be ranked No. 1, especially with only seven returning starters. In fact, us putting them at No. 2 means we expect the Bison to be back in Frisco, which is pretty high praise for a team facing its most question marks since this dynasty began.
Just because Colgate beat the Dukes in the playoffs, doesn't mean it has to be ahead of JMU in these polls, especially with only eight returning starters.
When someone casts their vote for the No. 1 team in the country, that should mean that's their favorite to win the national title. And JMU has as good of a chance as any team to win it all in 2019.
To hear more about our Preseason Top 25, check out the latest podcast.
SUBSCRIBE: HERO Sports FCS Podcast