Welcome to the HERO Sports FCS Mailbag. In partnership with FCS Football Fans Nation, we will ask for questions with a post on their Facebook page every Sunday and our FCS crew of Brian McLaughlin, Chase Kiddy and Sam Herder will give in-depth answers with these Thursday articles. They will also choose the best question and discuss it on the FCS Podcast that comes out Wednesday mornings.
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BennettRank: Where is JMU Ranked?
Matthew Fraase – Is UND for real?
Brian: I think so, and I think they could be in contention for that potential at-large spot (since they can't win the title outright) if they put more highlights on that resume. It seems like they've bounced back from the injuries of 2017 rather well. Need more data!
Chase: That all depends on your definition of "for real." Are they better than last year? Are they an above .500 team? Are they a playoff team? Are they a Final 8 team? After the Sam Houston win, a lot of fans are arguing which level UND belongs in. Personally, I think they'll be over .500 but miss the playoffs. Edging out the Bearkats is great, but I don't think that's as strong of a win as it would have been during the Briscoe era. That might not be fair to the Hawks, but I'm just not ready to buy stock yet.
Sam: My alarm of Zac Brown Band's "Colder Weather" (great intro music) went off and I am no longer sleeping on UND. Really, I was just waiting for a few better opponents on its resume because I've had questions about this team ever since the early 2016 playoff exit. But I do think the Fighting Hawks are legit in terms of a playoff potential team. My big question now is if the playoff committee considers them an unofficial Big Sky team. They play a Big Sky schedule but aren't a Big Sky team and don't factor into the standings. Let's say EWU, Weber, UC Davis and Montana all make the playoffs. With four teams already in, would the committee put a pretty-much-Big-Sky UND team in the bracket as well? Or would they say "The Big Sky already has four teams in and since UND played against eight conference opponents, there isn't room for a 5th team."
Adam Willey – How will North Alabama's fight against NDSU fair for the rest of their season?
Chase: Pretty well, I think. Some Bison fans are up in arms that the team only won by 31 points, but I think it's because UNA is actually ahead of schedule as an FCS program. I think we might look back at that game later this season, or even in future seasons, and mark this result as a harbinger of greater things to come for North Alabama.
Sam: North Alabama is going to be a big factor in the FCS sooner than later. They have the athletes already and matched up physically to NDSU better than I predicted. The No. 1 challenge is the Lions aren't eligible for the playoffs until 2022. Coach Willis said he wants to build this program into a D1 contender the same way NDSU did, and that's with high school recruits. But when you're recruiting against Kennesaw and JSU, it's going to be hard to convince a 17-18-year-old to come play for you when there is no postseason reward. As far as the rest of 2018 and looking at the schedule, this team is probably going to win the rest of its games.
Preston Adams – Was Towson’s offensive explosion more telling of how good Towson can be, or how far NOVA still has to go?
Brian: I thought it said way more about Towson than Villanova. Hey, Temple couldn't do that to 'Nova. Don't' forget that Coach Ambrose got Towson to a national title game just a few seasons ago. This game was more indicative of how tough the CAA is this year than anything, I think.
Chase: I think it's more about Towson's potential, but I'm not ready to radically shift my position on either one of these teams just based on last week's result. Villanova looks the part of a solid playoff team, and I don't know that a conference loss changes that, even if it's at home to Towson. As for the Tigers, I had them firmly in my third CAA tier coming into the season, which I've labeled as "Good Enough to Spring Upsets." That's what they did last week, and it puts them in a great position in the CAA race early on, but I still need to see more before I start considering Towson as a team that's in contention for a playoff bid.
Jamie Williams – Let's say NDSU, JMU and SDSU are the consensus top 3 teams. Who is the 4th best team and can that team beat any of the top 3?
Brian: Based on what we've seen so far, I'd say it's likely Eastern Washington or Kennesaw State … and maybe McNeese or Wofford if we can just see a bit more from these two teams. But could they beat the Top 3 based on what we've seen so far this year? I wouldn't say they'd be favored, no.
Chase: Right now, I'm inclined to say it's Maine, although the sample size definitely gives me some pause. I'm not sure Maine is in the JMU/NDSU category, but I do think they could give South Dakota State a pretty good game. The Black Bears have a physical, methodical offense and a great defense with playmakers at all three levels. I love their corners. That's a recipe that could definitely muck up what the Jackrabbits try to do on offense, as we saw in the playoffs last year.
Sam: I'm still sticking with Kennesaw State. It's weird to say a loss to an FBS team made me feel underwhelmed, but KSU's loss to Georgia State made me take a couple step backs and ask myself if this is a true national title contender. Because ask yourself this, if NDSU or JMU played Georgia State, that's a 2-3 touchdown win, right? But I still do like that defense and the rushing attack is lethal. And if KSU and EWU were to play on a neutral field, I do feel the Owls get that win. And for the second part of that question, NDSU and JMU are still in a tier to themselves. We'll see if SDSU is in that tier next weekend. The others are still playing catch-up.
Matt Styles – Who is a team outside the Top-25 which you think will start making its way up the rankings by season’s end?
Brian: I'll go with Mercer (from the coaches poll). We've been talking about the Bears as a darkhorse since June, and they proved they were legit last weekend. Keep an eye on this program — which reinstated football in 2013 after more than a 70-year hiatus.
Chase: Mercer, because of the schedule, I think, has a real shot here. They made a big jump up through the "receiving votes" section of the poll this week, and because of what the remainder of their slate looks like, I do think they can work their way into the middle of the poll by mid-October. I'm not sure they're the team to beat in the SoCon, but because of the win over Samford, they've got a key early win in hand, and that can be dangerous.
Sam: I noticed Delaware and Chattanooga weren't in either of the Coaches or STATS polls. Those are teams I think will be in there by the end of the season. Delaware really should be 3-0 right now and I think the NDSU game this weekend will be competitive. The Mocs are 3-0, although their three opponents aren't necessarily strong. But I do like what I've seen so far and QB Nick Tiano is playing really well.
Ben Schleiger – Which teams in the CAA are poised to be contenders, and who will have to embrace the spoiler role later this season?
Brian: JMU's a no-brainer, but I still think you're going to keep an eye on Delaware and Villanova, regardless of their early losses. I think those two programs, coupled with upstart Rhody and Maine and Elon … ah hell, you know what? All of these programs could be spoilers this year, and that's a fact. We keep ruling out UNH because of the big injury, but what if Trevor comes back and UNH gets on track in late Oct. and Nov. and ruins somebody's year? That's the kind of league the CAA is.
Chase: Oh geez, man. How much time do you have? I've had Richmond pegged as a spoiler all off-season, and I'm not ready to abandon that position just yet, so I'll start there. The Spiders do a lot of things well but don't do anything really well, so I think they trend more toward the spoiler role than the playoff race. I'm not fully sold on Rhode Island as a playoff contender just yet, either. Stony Brook is another one where I'm concerned they might not have enough balance to get to seven or eight wins, but that defense will definitely ruin someone's weekend sooner or later. JMU, Maine, Villanova and Delaware all look like playoff teams to me. Elon might be my swing team at this point.
Jake Thompson – How will MO St fair now that they are entering conference play?
Brian: Well, they're coming off a big win, no matter how many turnovers happened in that game with NAU (or how many stars were sitting for NAU). Now it gets really serious with Valley play. In looking at the Bears' league schedule, the first five games are interesting, the last three look rather daunting based on who and where they are. If Mo. State wants to make a 2018 push, it needs to happen in those first five league games. Win two or three of those, and that would be a massive step up.
Chase: I haven't seen anything to make me think they'll push into the top half of the league. I know that program is getting better, so they could potentially spring an upset somewhere, but I'm guessing Mo. State is still a bottom-3 team in the Valley.
Sam: I really like head coach Dave Steckel and how he's trying to turn that program around. It's just so incredibly tough to catch the top half of the MVFC because of the postseason success those teams have had. You don't see Missouri State winning a ton of recruiting battles against Valley team. I do think the NAU win, even though that team had a lot of its stars sidelined, should be a confidence booster. I can see the Bears rising a couple spots, but to say this team could finish in the Top 4-5 may be a bit of a stretch.
Bruce Edmiston – Which OVC team has the best chance of unseating Jacksonville St as reigning conference champ?
Brian: In the preseason, I thought UT Martin might be that team, but it's been a rough 0-3 start. Austin Peay was another but we still haven't seen the Govs knock off a strong FCS team, so the jury is still out there so far. Tennessee State just hasn't played enough football yet to figure them out either. I would say that as of today? I'm just not seeing the unseating.
Chase: The events of the 2017 season would suggest Will Healy and Austin Peay, but I actually think it's Tennessee State, which gets JSU in Nashville in November. I think with a little home field magic, the Tigers could spring the upset. Whether or not they can avoid more than one loss through the rest of their OVC schedule is probably another matter entirely.
Sam: It's Austin Peay for me, but I still think there's a considerable sized gap between JSU and the rest of the field. The Gamecocks should get better and better with each week.
Adam Willey – Would the loser of SHSU vs Nicholls be eliminated from the playoffs?
Brian: I would think so, but don't forget that last year three Southland teams made it to the FCS Playoffs. I think Nicholls would have a greater chance of making it as the third team because of the P5 win over Kansas, as long as it finished 8-3 (losses to Tulane, McNeese and Sam Houston). But if Sam Houston loses to Nicholls and finishes say, 9-2 … the committee is going to have to ask which of the 9 wins was the most impressive. We'll see.
Chase: I think so. Even with no real at-large contenders from the other smaller conferences, I doubt the committee gives Sam Houston a playoff bid if the top line on their resume is a home win over Central Arkansas.
Sam: I say no. Although the playoff committee says they don't look at what's happened in previous years, there's still that human element and they've shown the habit of putting teams in my name recognition. That's why a 7-4 UNH team is more than likely to make it over an 8-4 Austin Peay team when three of those losses came against FBS opponents. So that's why I think if Nicholls loses, they still go on to have a good record with an FBS win and gets in the bracket. If SHSU loses, they still probably finish the year 9-2 and make the playoffs because of their name value. "SHSU is 9-2 this year and scores a lot of points? I don't see why they wouldn't make the playoffs." It's the same human nature element/name recognition for JSU in the national polls that rank them in the Top 10. What have the Gamecocks done since the 2015 national title appearance to prove they're a Top 10 team besides winning a lot of games against weaker OVC opponents?
Larry Lynner – It appears Mo State, Ind State and Salukis have really improved over past years?? How much by end of season?
Brian: Those three have been at the bottom of the Valley for several years now, and even improvement gets squashed by the top programs in a league that good. The thing is, the Valley may not be quite as deep as in years past, and that may open up a window for one of these three programs to inch up. Don't be completely surprised if one of these three programs hits the 5 or 6 win mark. Indiana State and Missouri State already have 2 wins from non-conference games and would need only to go 3-5 in MVFC play to hit the 5-win mark. That's possible.
Chase: I haven't watched Indiana State yet this year, so it's hard for me to forecast much for the Sycamores. Frankly, I need to see some conference wins from any of those three teams before I'm willing to go there. Playing up in a non-conference loss to a better team is something that plenty of bad teams do every year. I need to see how they play against teams that see them every year before I'm willing to acknowledge any marked improvement — particularly for Missouri State, who will be hyped as an up-and-comer in the coming weeks after a win over Northern Arizona. I need to know they won that game because they're a better team, not because the Lumberjacks were missing a whole bunch of pieces.
Sam: It's kind of a mess right now to determine the order of the MVFC after NDSU, SDSU and probably Illinois State. UNI, USD, YSU and WIU all already have two losses and are typically in contention for a playoff spot. These three teams you mentioned have all been at the bottom of the Valley standings. But even with the nonconference records, I still don't know if any of these teams rise very far. The Valley is just too competitive. If one team was to do it, I'd go with SIU.