Heading into the 2017 FCS season, James Madison and North Dakota State were the clear top two teams in the country with South Dakota State an obvious No. 3. This year, NDSU and JMU remain in the top two, but deciding who is worthy of being No. 3 is a bit tougher than last summer.
With last year’s semifinal results, it sure does appear the Bison and Dukes are separating from the pack. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a Weber State lurking in the weeds to pull off a near upset in the playoffs.
HERO Sports unveiled its preseason Top 25 poll a couple weeks ago. The Top 10 is filled with teams who expect to compete for a national championship. 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.
As coaches say while serving vanilla quote scoops to reporters, "there's always room for improvement." Here are the biggest needs for the Top 10 FCS teams looking to celebrate on the Frisco stage in January:
Playmaking quarterback – There might not be another quarterback in JSU history who can duplicate what Eli Jenkins did. The record-setter led the Gamecocks to the title game in 2015 with an explosive offense and equally dominant defense.
That balance was lost last year in JSU’s first season without Jenkins. The defense was great, as was running back Roc Thomas. But the quarterback play just wasn’t good enough, resulting in JSU losing in the second round as the No. 3 seed. The Gamecocks are always going to have talent with getting recruits out of Alabama and neighboring states along with FBS transfers. They just need a quarterback who can make plays in big games.
The answer is going to come down to Clemson transfer quarterback Zerrick Cooper or highly-touted redshirt freshman Zion Webb. If either of these two can offer the explosive plays Jenkins did, the Gamecocks will return to that balanced team who can make a deep playoff run.
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Offensive explosion – The Blue Hens were lights out on defense last year, finishing 10th in the FCS in scoring defense (16.8 PPG) and 15th in total defense (305.5 YPG). The problem was they couldn't put up points to pull out big games, ranking 81st with 21.2 points per game. In their four losses, the Blue Hens scored zero, 10, zero and seven points.
There just was not a whole lot of big plays happening that are needed to be a championship team. No one threw for more than 1,000 yards, no one ran for more than 600 yards and no one had more than 330 receiving yards. There’s a difference between having a balanced attack and just not being explosive enough.
Kani Kane is going to need to step up now as a senior after leading Delaware in rushing last year, as will receiver Jamie Jarmon. Quarterbacks J.P. Caruso and Joe Walker are back after basically splitting stats last year. But it could be Darius Wade as the answer behind center. The senior is a transfer from Boston College, where he started six career games, including last season's bowl game. The defense is already there in Danny Rocco’s second season. The offense just needs to catch up.
Defense – Quite simply, a lack of defense and physicality has kept the Bearkats right on the bubble of being a championship-caliber team for the last several seasons. The resume is amazing with consistent trips to the quarterfinals and semifinals, even two national title games in 2011 and 2012. But recent playoff exits leaves many scratching their head as to what SHSU is even trying to do defensively.
Whether it’s scheme, lack of discipline or not being able to play soundly after falling behind, the Bearkat defense has looked lost in postseason losses. With all due respect to NDSU running back Bruce Anderson’s five-touchdown performance in the 2017 semifinals, some of those scores looked like defensive breakdowns on SHSU’s part where a defender simply wasn’t where he was supposed to be.
We all know how terrific the SHSU offense is. It’s going to remain a top unit in the FCS this year even with quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe gone. But it’s a problem when your defense allows 36 points to Northwestern State or 33 points to Houston Baptist. Sure, those were still regular season wins where the Bearkats scored in the 40s or 50s. Where the problem surfaces, though, is when they face a stronger defense in the playoffs and the offense can only score 20-some points, can the defense hold a Top 10 FCS team in the 20s? The answer so far has been not even close.
Offensive line – The UNH offense is going to be great this year. It was great last year. The defense does need some improvements. But what could be, and has been an Achilles heel for the Wildcats is the offensive line. It’s not terrible by any means, but it’s not good enough to compete for a national title.
The Wildcats ranked 116th in the FCS with 3.71 sacks allowed per game last season. They gave up the second most sacks with 52. Mississippi Valley State had 56. That's not the company you want to be in. Granted, UNH is a pass-happy team, throwing the ball 505 times. So the total sacks number is skewed a little bit. But look at a team like SHSU, who threw the ball 594 times. The Bearkats only allowed 16 sacks. SDSU, another team known for throwing the ball and plays in the tougher MVFC, attempted 455 passes and allowed 23 sacks.
UNH, overall, is going to be special this year offensively. Quarterback Trevor Knight and receiver Neil O'Connor are going to be a lethal combination. But can that offensive line hold against national powers with dominant defensive fronts like JMU and NDSU? In December, those small issues are what decides games.
Win the trenches – The Bulldogs sure are the darling of a lot of people’s preseason Top 25 polls for not winning a playoff game since 1991. They have lost in the first round in 2013, 2016 and 2017. But the hype is understandable. Quarterback Devlin Hodges and defensive lineman Ahmad Gooden are reigning Southern Conference Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year. And Kelvin McKnight provides a dominating presence on the outside.
Samford has around 14 returning starters. But if this program wants to be a serious contender on the national level, it needs to be better in the trenches on both sides of the football. Yes, when you have an NFL-level quarterback, you sling the ball around. But being ranked 114th in the country in rushing offense isn’t going to get it done in the playoffs.
And on the flipside, neither will being 101st against the run. Even though the SoCon is known for its rushing offenses, allowing 195.8 yards per game on the ground spells doom in December. The Bulldogs are going to be a high-flying team this season. Their schedule may even set them up for a playoff seed. But once in the postseason, the question is will they be physical enough to truly contend for a national title?
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Offensive playmakers – It’s almost painfully obvious to type. The Jackrabbits are in need of offensive position players to step up. Tight end Dallas Goedert was drafted and receiver Jake Wieneke signed an NFL contract. Running back Brady Mengarelli also had a solid, if not underrated, career for the Jacks.
SDSU’s defense should be good. The offensive line typically plays at a decently high level. Taryn Christion is one of the best quarterbacks in the FCS. But he can’t do it all. It’s going to be quite literally impossible for two guys to step in and do what Goedert and Wieneke did. But the Jacks do need guys who can step up and make plays when they are needed to. There is potential but unproven talent.
Isaac Wallace and Mikey Daniel can make for a nice backfield duo as the Jacks may run the ball a bit more. Cade Johnson, Marquise Lewis and Jacob Brown are some names to watch for in the passing game. But ultimately, potential is preseason talk. SDSU has taken two big steps the last two seasons, making it to the FCS quarterfinals for the first time and then the semifinals last year. If these position players don’t play at a high level and make some plays, the Jacks are going to regress.
Running game – The Eagles need to emphasize improving the running game on both sides of the ball. And that’s what Aaron Best tried to do at the start of last season in his first year as head coach. He wanted a more balanced attack offensively and a tougher defense. But when you have players fit for a spread attack and a quarterback named Gage Gubrud, the Eagles inevitably went back to the pass-first approach.
But now in the second year of Best’s system, the Eagles really do need someone to step up in the run game. Antoine Custer Jr. had a solid 2017 season, running for 820 yards and 10 scores. He’ll need to be able to handle a bigger load this season, especially if EWU is going to host December playoff games.
Speaking of the postseason, how many times have we seen the Eagles lose in the semifinals because of their inability to stop the run? Just having an average defense would have sent EWU to Frisco multiple times since 2011. That needs to be fixed, and it starts up front. Jay-Tee Tiuli returns to the interior after being injured, which is a big help. If this team can be tough against the run, which in turn helps the secondary, there’s going to be very few teams in the country who can outscore the Eagles.
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Physicality – This isn’t saying the Owls aren’t a physical team. They run the option to perfection and play sound defense. But the physicality needs to be taken to another level if KSU wants to reach JMU’s and NDSU’s level.
This is a new program who has gotten better and better. Now in its fourth year, KSU wants to build off of last season’s quarterfinal appearance, which was the first year the Owls were eligible for the playoffs. With a majority of their offense back and a decent amount returning on defense, the Owls are a favorite pick as the third best team in the FCS. Now they just have to prove it.
Last year’s playoff run was impressive, no doubt. But you can also look at it as the Owls beat Samford, a non-physical team. Then No. 3 JSU, who was overseeded. And then they lost to SHSU, who got blown out by NDSU. So it is tough to determine how close or far away KSU is from reaching that next level as a program. But if the Owls can dominate up front, not just in the Big South, but against MVFC and CAA teams, that’s the recipe needed to win a national title.
Above-average quarterback play – Either Cole Johnson or Ben Dinucci is going to have a lot of pressure to step in at quarterback for Bryan Schor. But really, neither one has to be great for JMU to have success. If either of these two guys can provide just solid, above-average play, the Dukes already have the defense, running game and outside weapons to compete for a national title.
There is an embarrassment of riches at running back. Riley Stapleton is a quarterback’s best friend as a 6-foot-5 wide receiver. And the defense is going to put the offense in good positions multiple times a game, if not just take a couple turnovers in for scores themselves. Schor was magical. His legs and ability to improvise was a big reason the Dukes took down NDSU in 2016 and went on to win the national title. And his late-game heroics helped avoid a 2017 quarterfinal upset by Weber State.
So let’s not downplay how important he was to JMU’s success. But there is so much talent on this roster that the only way the Dukes aren't competing deep into the playoffs is if there’s a downright struggle at the quarterback position.
Stay healthy – No joke, the biggest storyline for Fargo media surrounding NDSU spring football is who’s going to be the backup quarterback and the starting punter. That’s how solid this Bison roster is looking entering 2018.
Now sure, there are more question marks if you dive deeper into it. The Bison lose key pass catchers and stars up the middle of the defense. But Chris Klieman doesn’t often point out freshmen and call them “studs” unless he knows they’re going to be good, and he’s said that about a couple players looking to fill those holes. The last player he praised like this was Jabril Cox, so Klieman was pretty spot on.
As we sit in the summer, this is the most talented Bison roster since the 2013 team that some label the best in FCS history. National titles are expected every year from NDSU fans. But this is the highest “the Bison are no doubt winning it all” level of hype since that 2013 season. The only thing that appears to be standing in the Bison’s way is injuries. A sidelined Easton Stick completely changes the FCS picture. Or having the injury bug with multiple season-ending injuries evens the playing field. Every team in the FCS has one or more major question mark. The Bison really don’t. But those smaller question marks all of a sudden become bigger if injuries pile up.