Last year, four teams in mine and many other's preseason Top 10 rankings didn't even make the playoffs (EWU, UC Davis, JSU and Maine). It's just another example that no one really has a clue what's going to happen before any games are played.
But hey, FCS fans would go crazy if there was an entire offseason with zero predictions/projections/rankings. So here are 10 way-too-early favorites to win the 2020 national championship:
- Top Returning Passers
- Returning Rushing Production
- Returning Receiving Production
- Most Returning Points
- Most Returning Tackles
10. Kennesaw State
The Owls earned some respect after entering the 2019 postseason with a debatable playoff resume. Some thought they should be in the bracket. Others disagreed. Well, they went to Wofford and got a first-round win and then gave No. 3 seed and eventual semifinalist Weber State a scare before losing 26-20.
Emerging late in the season due to injuries was sophomore quarterback Jonathan Murphy. He ran for 206 yards and three touchdowns versus Wofford and 116 yards and a TD against the Wildcats. Murphy is back along with an offensive line that remains intact, 60.2 percent of the rushing yards, nearly 70 percent of the points scored and 74 percent of the tackling production.
The Owls will likely finish the regular season 10-1 or 11-0, depending on how the FBS game at Kent State goes. Strength of schedule will be a fun little discussion topic once again. But KSU's strong showing in the 2019 playoffs should remove a level of doubt. The Owls will be a factor in this year’s bracket as a seeded team.
Illinois State advanced to the quarterfinals as an unseeded team despite being one-dimensional on offense with the inability to throw the ball. The good news is the Redbirds get starting QB Brady Davis back from his knee injury suffered in November. The bad news is All-American workhorse running back James Robinson is gone.
The defense should remain solid, returning 63.7 percent of its tackling production after allowing 16.0 points per game. The question is how good will the offense be? ISU loses 69 percent of its scoring from last year, which is not nice at all.
ISU has most of its receiving yards coming back and only needs to fill a couple of spots on the starting offensive line. Replacing Robinson will be no easy task, though. The offense will have to show something to be considered a legitimate national title threat.
Nova continues to have terrible luck in the injury department. A 6-0 start to the 2019 season ended with a 9-4 finish and an exit in the first round at the hands of Southeastern Louisiana. This team is now loaded and experienced coming into 2020.
Daniel Smith is back at QB after throwing for 3,274 yards. The Wildcats have 99.8 percent of its rushing yards coming back, including Justin Covington, who led the FCS in rushing until suffering a season-ending injury. All five starting offensive linemen return. Eighty percent of the receiving yards are back, 96.3 percent of the points return and 73.4 percent of the tackling production returns.
Not to mention Villanova has recruited incredibly well lately. If you’re looking for a sleeper team to make a deep playoff run, someone that not many others are putting a lot of stock in, consider the Wildcats.
“UNI is the best 2-2 football team in the FCS.”
I find myself saying that just about every season as the Panthers don’t shy away from competition. UNI’s September looks like this: @ Iowa, @ Idaho State, vs. Weber State and vs. NDSU. There's also Illinois State and South Dakota State later in the season, both at home.
The Panthers should be a better football team in 2020 coming off of a trip to the quarterfinals. The question is can this team put itself in a position to make a deeper playoff run with a seed. Or will UNI have its back against the wall early with a .500 record?
Will McElvain looks to take the next step at QB after a solid redshirt freshman season. He’ll have dynamic weapons in the passing game with Isaiah Weston emerging as one of the best receivers in the FCS and 2019 preseason All-American tight end Briley Moore coming back after missing most of the season with an injury.
Sixty percent of the rushing yards return behind an offensive line with four returning starters. The offense needs to be better, though, to complement a defense bringing back 79.5 percent of its tackling production after allowing 17.7 points per game. Defensive end Elerson Smith and company should have one of the best defenses in the country.
The Bobcats took a massive step forward as a program by reaching the semifinals. The momentum is clearly building, but there is a lot to replace in 2020.
Just 44.5 percent of MSU’s points return, 37.3 percent of its receiving yards are back along with 49.2 percent of its tackling production. We’ll see if Tucker Rovig is still the guy at quarterback after throwing for a modest 1,969 yards, 15 touchdowns and five interceptions as a sophomore. Or maybe NC State transfer Matt McKay is the missing piece for this MSU team. The former three-star recruit will be a junior in 2020.
One big thing to like about the Bobcats is they’ll once again have a top rushing attack in the FCS with four starters on the offensive line back along with a healthy Isaiah Ifanse and Troy Andersen. The passing game will remain a question mark, though, and key positions need to be filled defensively.
The Big Sky schedule isn't favorable either. MSU is tasked with road trips to Weber State, Eastern Washington and Montana.
5. Weber State
The news of QB Jake Constantine deciding to transfer is notable because in his two years of starting, Weber State made the quarterfinals and semifinals. But he didn’t exactly light it up throwing the ball, especially against the better defenses in the FCS. How much does his departure hurt the Wildcats? I suppose that depends on who steps into the starting role and how he does. But Constantine transferring by no means derails the Wildcats.
Besides him, Weber returns a huge chunk of its team and production: 67.2 percent of its rushing yards (No. 2 RB Kevin Smith Jr. is also exploring the transfer portal), 97 percent of its receiving yards, 94.2 percent of its points scored and 78.4 percent of its tackling production. Plus you have four guys with significant starting experience on the o-line.
Last year proved to be a reloading year for the Wildcats instead of a rebuilding year. And with a majority of the team coming back, expect another deep playoff run for Weber. But like some of the teams above, there is a lack of confidence in what the offense can do in big games.
How the Dukes have developed their recent standout recruiting classes (No. 2 in 2017 and No. 5 in 2018) will be put to the test in 2020. JMU loses an extremely talented group of seniors from its national runner-up team, including its quarterback, top three pass-catchers and 52 percent of its tackling production.
What the Dukes do have coming back looks to be a top running attack in the FCS with 84.3 percent of its rushing yards and three starting offensive linemen returning. But who replaces Ben DiNucci at QB? Who steps up as the go-to target for the new starter? Who replaces the two All-American defensive ends, the two All-American defensive backs and the two starting linebackers? There’s talent there, along with a few transfers. But it’s unproven talent.
Those are some major question marks to be answered. While I don’t think the Dukes are dropping back to a second-round exit by any means, there are just too many uncertainties right now to predict this team to make it back to Frisco.
It's also February, you guys.
It’s been said that the Griz were a year ahead of schedule in 2019. So there’s plenty of optimism for what this team can accomplish after advancing to the quarterfinals. Averaging 36.7 points per game, Montana returns 79.2 percent of its rushing yards, 81.8 percent of its receiving yards, 83.7 percent of its team points and three starting offensive linemen. The defense, which allowed 25.1 PPG, brings back 59.9 percent of its tackles.
The Griz have solid options for two key departures on both sides of the ball. Dalton Sneed was a dude at QB the previous two seasons. Replacing him could be redshirt senior Cam Humphrey, who started his college career at Boise State before making his way to Montana in 2018. He filled in for an injured Sneed in 2019 and started three games, throwing for a combined 561 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions. He'll be pushed for the starting job by some younger talent.
And filling the middle linebacker role for Buck Buchanan Award winner Dante Olson will be Jace Lewis, who wasn’t too shabby himself with 131 tackles in 2019.
The Griz will go 3-0 in the nonconference (Central Washington, Missouri State, Morehead State), avoids Weber State and gets Sac State and Montana State at home. Expect a high playoff seed for Montana.
I love the look of this 2020 SDSU team. When fully healthy, we saw what they can do last season against Minnesota and NDSU. While “almost wins” usually doesn’t do much for me, I think it shows the potential this team has.
With dynamic players like QB J’Bore Gibbs and RB Pierre Strong Jr. out with injuries, the Jacks stumbled late in the season and lost right away in the second round. While in past years it was the defense that disappointed, that unit kept SDSU in a lot of games in 2019, giving up just 16.7 points per game. Seventy-seven percent of the tackles are back.
If Gibbs can stay healthy (Keaton Heide showed promise as a true freshman as well), this offense has a chance to be really, really good. The Jacks have four offensive linemen (who need better consistency week to week) with significant starting experience coming back along with 59.9 percent of the rushing yards and 78.3 percent of the receiving yards. Couple that with a strong defense that showcased a lot of depth in 2019, and SDSU will get back to the semifinals like 2017 and 2018 and has a legit shot to finally get over the hump and reach Frisco, Texas.
Only to run into …
The whole offseason-question-marks-for-NDSU thing was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it? Anyone who covers FCS football knew the Bison would reload in 2019. But what they did was beyond what anyone expected, going 16-0 with just three games decided by 10 points or less. After all, the Bison were a pretty young team and there were plenty of uncertainties a year ago. Which now makes for a scary thought on how good the 2020 team will be.
Roughly 71 percent of the rushing and receiving production are back, 79.2 percent of the points scored return and 78.5 percent of the tackling production comes back. Oh, and not to mention the reigning Walter Payton Award winner at quarterback, Trey Lance, and four starting offensive linemen return.
Simply put, the Bison are absurdly loaded. The vibes I’m getting with this team entering 2020 are the same vibes I got entering 2013 and 2018.
So we’re back to the offseason storyline of NDSU vs. the field. Last year, it was a triple-threat match between NDSU vs. JMU vs. the field. Right now, it’s hard to confidently say which team can rise to NDSU’s level in 2020.
BONUS: Two teams to keep an eye on that return a ton of production after humbling playoff exits are Central Arkansas and Sacramento State. But to be considered in the Top 10, they'll have to prove it on the field after losing in the second round as a seeded team.
NEXT: FCS Recruiting Rankings
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