The 2018 FCS season ended just how mostly everyone expected it to: North Dakota State winning another national title. This season, though, is expected to be more exciting.
That's not to say we'll for sure see a new champion. The Bison could win it again, and that shouldn't shock anyone. But there are definitely more title contenders entering 2019 than there were last year.
But what is one thing each of these teams need the most to hoist that trophy? Maybe a team is one player or position group away. Or a team needs to get better overall offensively or defensively to get over the hump.
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Here are the biggest needs for the Top 10 FCS teams looking to celebrate on the Frisco stage in January.
Note: Top 10 teams are from our Preseason Top 25 Poll
Improved Rushing Defense
Towson's offense was explosive last year, averaging 34.5 points per game, which tied for the 15th best in the FCS. A lot of the top playmakers are back, which makes for a highly-anticipated season. The defense does need work, though, allowing 28.8 points per game in 2018, which ranked 69th. More notably, the rushing defense needs to improve.
The pass defense was OK, allowing 202.3 yards a game (44th in the FCS). But stopping the run was an issue, giving up 187.4 yards a game to rank 77th. The problem reared its ugly head in a bad 31-10 first-round playoff loss to Duquesne. In a messy game with heavy rain, the Tigers couldn't stop the run. A.J. Hines ran for 175 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries as Duquesne totaled 282 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
If Towson wants to be a serious threat for a national title, it needs to be able to stop the run. Hines is an All-American caliber player, but there are better rushing offenses out there in the FCS.
Put A Full Season Together
The Redbirds haven't lived up to preseason hype in recent years. They were ranked No. 12 in our preseason poll last year after not making the playoffs in 2017. We looked to have nailed that when Illinois State started 5-1, highlighted by a big 35-19 FBS win against Colorado State. But the Redbirds lost their next four games before winning their last to finish 6-5 and miss the playoffs again.
There are several factors for the tough finish. Injuries are one. And the schedule certainly beefed up in the second half of the season. Overall, though, the Redbirds didn't show the consistency needed to return to the postseason. With a veteran group of 16 returning starters, we're buying the preseason hype of Illinois State again. Now it just needs to start and finish strong and play like the talented team it is.
Continued Progression In The Passing Game
Wofford is one of the more consistent programs in the FCS. But if we're being honest, not many outside the fan base have considered the Terriers a true national title threat for a few years … more like a team we feel we'll routinely see in the second round or quarterfinals. One reason for that is it's just hard to picture a triple-option offense leading a team to an FCS championship, especially when facing the caliber of defenses like the last two teams to win it all: NDSU and James Madison.
Now, don't get me wrong, Wofford shouldn't abandon its offensive philosophy. And it doesn't need to be a 50/50 balanced attack. But the passing game is making substantial strides in recent years, and that needs to continue this season. Wofford averaged 115.5 yards passing a game last year. That's up from 102.85 in 2017 and 63.4 in 2016. Joe Newman is back at quarterback, and so are his top targets T.J. Luther and Jason Hill at the WR position.
Don't expect the Terriers to go all Samford out of the SoCon now. But the triple option is tough enough to prepare for in a week for playoff opponents. If there's a legitimate threat to attack a defense through the air as well, that could be what takes this program to the next level.
Stronger Defensive Play
EWU made tremendous strides on the defensive side of the ball. From 2017 to 2018, the Eagles improved from 33.36 points allowed a game to 22.67 and from 464.9 yards allowed per game to 392.5.
There's still work to be done. Even when facing elite Big Sky offenses, those numbers need to go down a bit for them to take the next step and win a national title.
Granted there were several key guys on the sidelines in the championship game, but the defense still struggled to get stops when it needed to most. Especially when the offense made it a one-possession game multiple times or when NDSU went 19 plays for 88 yards that ultimately ended in a missed field goal but took 10 minutes off the clock in the fourth quarter.
Let's get one thing straight here: The EWU defense was solid last year and finished second in the FCS with 34 forced turnovers. But if the unit can go from good to great, that could be the difference in a national championship in 2019.
It was tough knowing which JSU team would show up in 2018. One week the Gamecocks looked like a Top 10 team in the FCS. The next they seemed like they either didn't want to play or weren't ready to play. And that's a direct observation told to me by JSU fans in the stands.
Whether this was because of youth, chemistry issues in the locker room, or preparation from Monday-Friday, consistency was an issue for this team.
The talent was there and is there again in 2019: a Clemson transfer at QB (Zerrick Cooper), some of the best receiving threats in the FCS (Josh Pearson, Jamari Hester, Trae Barry, etc.) and NFL Draft prospects on defense (Marlon Bridges and Traco Williams). On paper, this is the best JSU team since the run to the national title game in 2015. That team was clicking on all cylinders and dominated conference opponents week after week. There's no reason the 2019 Gamecocks can't do that again en route to a playoff seed and a long playoff run.
Solid Quarterback Play
The Jackrabbits may have its most talented roster ever from the top-down. The big question is who's going to lead the offense behind center with First Team All-American playmakers at critical spots. With about seven starters returning on each side of the ball, the two-deep remains mostly intact coming off SDSU's second straight semifinal appearance. How the Jacks build off of their current momentum as a program comes down to how well they can replace record-breaking signal caller Taryn Christion.
It appeared the QB battle would come down to Arizona State transfer Kurt Walding and redshirt freshman J'Bore Gibbs. Walding recently decided to leave the team and retire from the game of football. While the open competition isn't necessarily over now, Gibbs is a guy many around the program believe can be the heir apparent to Christion and his time looks like it's now.
SDSU averaged 42.5 points per game last year, the fifth best in the FCS. While there are a few holes to fill on the offensive line, all of the top running backs (except Isaac Wallace who was sidelined halfway through the year due to injury) and the wide receivers are back. If the defense can find a couple of solid new starters in the secondary, that side of the ball will be strong again. Christion was as good as it gets at the FCS level. His replacement will have a tough time replicating his play. But with this roster, the Jacks don't need an All-American at QB to take them where they want to go. They just need someone who is solid week after week.
More Explosive Offense
Maine shocked everyone outside its locker room with a CAA title and a run to the semifinals last year. The Black Bears did it with a wicked good defense and a physical offense. To take that next step, though, the offense must be more explosive. Maine ranked 70th in the FCS with 26.5 points per game. The offense had its moments, like a 55-point explosion in the second round versus Jacksonville State.
It also had its struggles, especially in an ugly 23-18 quarterfinal win against Weber State and a 50-19 loss to EWU in the semis. Granted, not many offenses found success against Weber last year and Maine was out of gas at EWU. The point is if the Black Bears can get that offense into being a Top 25 unit in the FCS, which is doable with eight returning starters including QB Chris Ferguson, to go along with that stellar defense, extraordinary things could be in store.
3. UC DAVIS
UC Davis finished eighth in the FCS last year with 39.7 points per game and seventh with 488.9 yards a game. As proven year after year in the playoffs, though, you need an excellent defense to have a long playoff run. The Aggies were OK on that side of the ball in 2018, finishing 55th with 27.4 points allowed a game. They ranked 90th with 431.8 yards allowed a game.
Even if those numbers come against tremendous Big Sky offenses, getting into shootouts in the postseason spells trouble.
At some point, the defense needs to be able to get a stop. Case in point was the heartbreaking quarterfinal loss to EWU. Up 29-28 with 1:13 to play, UC Davis allowed a 75-yard drive in four plays and 47 seconds and lost 34-29. The Aggies will have a top offense again in 2019. If the defense tightens up, that's what will get this program to take the next step.
Develop Passing Attack
The Bison's first open quarterback competition since this run of national titles began is the No. 1 storyline in Fargo. But not far behind is the question of who exactly is the new starter going to throw to?
NDSU had three seniors last year as its top pass catchers. Of the Bison's 180 team catches, 2,783 yards and 28 touchdowns, those three seniors combined for 102 receptions for 1,741 yards and 12 TDs. NDSU's number four pass catcher is returning tight end Ben Ellefson, who had eight touchdowns off of 14 catches. The number five and six pass catchers were senior running backs.
The Bison's top two returning wide receivers are sophomores Christian Watson (nine catches for 165 yards) and Phoenix Sproles (five catches for 34 yards and one TD). The two are extremely talented but unproven. Whoever wins the starting quarterback job will have the luxury of a strong running game, offensive line and defense. But it doesn't matter who the QB is if no one can get open. Even Easton Stick struggled late in 2016 when teams felt comfortable loading the box and trusting the cornerbacks to play 1-on-1. Those passing game struggles came back to bite the Bison in the fourth quarter of the semifinal loss to James Madison. NDSU has a stacked roster in 2019 even if some of the new names are currently unknown to FCS fans. But how the passing game develops is key in how far the Bison can go in the playoffs.
Consistent Quarterback Play
The Dukes have returning starters at just about every position on the field and face sky-high expectations. One of those returners is Third Team All-CAA quarterback Ben DiNucci, yet JMU has an open QB competition heading into the season. The reason for that is while DiNucci played like an All-Conference quarterback for a good chunk of 2018, there were also some major down games. Most notable is the five-interception performance in the playoff loss to Colgate.
Whether it's DiNucci, Cole Johnson or Gage Moloney, whoever wins the job has an incredibly talented roster around him. So gifted that he doesn't have to be Superman or Bryan Schor and put the team on his back. But it will be hard to live up to preseason expectations when turnovers or an inefficient passing attack costs you games you're favored to win. You need good quarterback play to win a national title at the FCS level. Inconsistencies will haunt you in a 24-team bracket where a team needs to win four or sometimes five games for a national title.
The Dukes have a scary good defense. All five offensive linemen are back. The running back room remains explosive despite some key seniors on last year's squad now gone. And the receiving group has All-American and All-Conference talent. But none of that matters if the quarterback can't be trusted to make good decisions or to make plays against solid defenses when asked to. If whoever wins the job can play like an All-CAA QB week after week, another national title could be coming to Harrisonburg.
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