We're halfway through the season, folks — and of course the 'national title threat' picture is blurrier than it was in the preseason. Why is that? Several programs — specifically in the Missouri Valley Conference — have truly shined. History has shown over the past decade that the FCS champion — and many times the runner-up — come from the Valley or the Colonial Athletic Association.
So we'll start there, as eight of the last nine FCS champions and five of the last 10 runners up have been from these two conferences.
So who is in the mix? Well, a lot of teams actually. Let's face it, at this point in the 2016 cycle did you expect eventual 'unseeded' Youngstown State to be in Frisco, Texas last year? Or how about fellow unseeded Wofford to be just one play away from the FCS semifinals? Obviously we don't know what team will catch fire the rest of the way, but there are some candidates emerging:
ON TO THE VALLEY
South Dakota is probably the most intriguing FCS title threat at this point. The Coyotes should win at home this weekend against Indiana State to up their record to 6-0. Wins over Western Illinois on the road and vs. Youngstown State at home — the first win ever over the Penguins, mind you — prove this program is for real.
They've leapt two of their toughest five battles of their season. That's a start, but some brutal road games lie ahead — specifically at North Dakota State on Nov. 11. Fasten your seatbelts, but don't forget — the Coyotes beat NDSU two years ago at the Fargodome with Carson Wentz going the distance. Players like current USD linebacker John Wessel played a big role in that 2015 big win.
But again, this brings us to North Dakota State (5-0). On one hand, you could make the argument that the Bison have played their easiest five games of the season, and now the six toughest remain. NDSU's Eastern Washington blowout win on the road might look more impressive by mid November as the Eags are beginning to get things rolling, but in general NDSU's work lies ahead of it. It starts this weekend with what may turn out to be the most brutal challenge of them all — at Youngstown State. The Penguins have lost to Pitt in overtime and to South Dakota on the road on a last-second field goal.
In other words, we very likely will look back at this weekend's NDSU-YSU game as one that set the seedings right before Thanksgiving. While NDSU has its tough stretch ahead of it, if YSU pulls off this weekend's win, there's a solid chance the Penguins go unscathed the rest of the way. The five games following will not pose the challenge that Pitt, South Dakota State, at South Dakota and NDSU posed. They'll be 'over the hump' as they say.
YSU has been incredible thus far, regardless of the losses. The SDSU team it beat, holding that offensive juggernaut to 7 points? That one looks more impressive by the minute because the Jackrabbits deserve to be a part of the talk, too.
Sick of the Valley yet?
Well don't be, because the Western Illinois Leathernecks can't be left out of the discussion either after hammering an FBS team (Coastal Carolina), beating a Northern Arizona team that just knocked off a previously undefeated Valley team (Illinois State) and traveling to an improving Northern Iowa team and winning. A three game stretch at NDSU, vs. SDSU and at Illinois State will settle everything for WIU over the next month.
I'll say it — six of the Valley's teams could win another conference this year. Period.
UM, YOU HAVEN'T MENTIONED THE DUKES YET!
So you may have noticed I haven't brought up the defending national champions, the James Madison Dukes. Trust me, we haven't forgotten them. This week they play the toughest team remaining on their schedule in Villanova. It will be a challenge, make no mistake. JMU can make a statement this weekend if it can hang three or four touchdowns on one of the best defenses in the land. Even with a slew of injuries, the Wildcats are still playing well and could give the Dukes fits this weekend.
Like the Valley, the Colonial Athletic Association is its own version of a gauntlet. Is the CAA on the Valley's level as a whole, up and down the order? No. But it does have parity, especially at the top. Case in point … last year James Madison was in three regular season CAA games settled by a touchdown or less. In the 2016 playoffs, Sam Houston State, North Dakota State and Youngstown State couldn't match that. Also, Villanova held JMU to 20 points last year — something even NDSU and Youngstown State didn't match in the playoffs.
So … the point? JMU will undoubtedly have some tough regular season rivalry games in the CAA but it doesn't mean this team can't make a statement in the playoffs again.
THE REST OF THE FIELD
Like we said, the rest of the FCS is chasing these two top conferences. Ohio Valley Conference leader Jacksonville State is 4-0 against the FCS and its schedule once again looks favorable for it to go 10-0 against the FCS with a lone loss only to a Power Five team (Georgia Tech).
The Gamecocks are playing suffocating defense and will only get better … but again, can it nab a top four seed and get two home games to start the playoffs? Possibly.
Southland Conference leader Central Arkansas will likely finish 10-1 and get a first-round bye and FCS top eight seeding. That will mean at least one home game, but it is hard seeing UCA cracking the top four and getting two home games.
Wofford is 5-0 and obviously has found a way to win, but could just as easily be 1-4. But remember … the Terriers were brutally tough down the stretch in 2016, so keep an eye on them in the Southern Conference
Weber State is playing the best defense in the Big Sky Conference by a mile, but why do I hear the Jaws theme song playing and Eastern Washington approaching? The Eags were thumped by Texas Tech and NDSU to start the season, but haven't lost in a month now and are scoring like they did last year. These two meet in Cheney on Nov. 4 and the matchup will be EWU's offense versus Weber State's defense that'll settle who is the best in the Big Sky. But do these two teams look like national title threats yet? Not exactly.
So there you have it — the FCS national title contender picture at the midpoint. Clear as mud.