The 2017 FCS season saw perhaps it’s least surprising matchup in the national championship game. Most people predicted James Madison and North Dakota State would square off. But that didn’t mean there weren’t any surprises during the playoffs. How about Kennesaw State almost making a run to the semifinals in its first playoff appearance? Or Weber State almost knocking off the defending national champs and eventual runner-ups?
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Last year around this time, we did this exact same article. While the No. 1-3 teams made it to the semifinals and the top two teams played in Frisco, Texas, the rest of the list, well, wasn’t really all too close. But that’s what makes the FCS fun. The surprise teams that emerge come November and December.
So let’s do it again and predict the early favorites to win it all next season. Learning from our mistake last season, we’re going to go out on a limb on some of these and pick some potential surprises. [divider]
Record: 7-4 (missed the playoffs)
The Grizzlies have all the talent in the world and a fan base eager to get back into the national title picture. With Bobby Hauck returning to be the head coach, he could be the difference in getting the program back on track. Quarterback Reese Phillips is trying for a sixth year of eligibility after suffering an early injury. But even if it’s not granted, freshman Gresch Jensen performed great in his absence.
With its leading rusher Jeremy Calhoun and top two pass catchers Keenan Curran and Jerry Louie-McGee back, the offense has a chance to be explosive. Montana missed the playoffs this season for the second straight year at 7-4. One of those losses was against an FBS team and two were one-score finals. Expect that postseason drought to be over.
9. Nicholls State
Record 8-4 (lost in the 1st round)
South Dakota was a favorite for many to be the next unseeded team to make a long playoff run. But Nicholls almost had something to say to that, narrowly losing 38-31 in the first round. The Colonels are stacked in 2018, returning eight offensive starters from that USD game and seven on defense.
The defense will need improvement after allowing 25.2 points per game. But the offense should remain explosive with quarterback Chase Fourcade returning after starting as a sophomore.
8. Sam Houston State
Record: 12-2 (lost in the semifinals)
While Nicholls may look to take that next step, the Southland Conference may still run through SHSU. Losing two-time Walter Payton Award winner Jeremiah Briscoe at quarterback is a stinger. So is losing NFL Draft prospect in defensive lineman P.J. Hall on an already struggling defense.
But the Bearkats always have talent and are consistently in the quarterfinals or semifinals. If they can change their mental and physical makeup, they’ll start to compete better in the later rounds. Nathan Stewart and Davion Davis return to lead an explosive wide receiving core. And 6-foot-5 quarterback Mike Dare, who started his career at Rutgers before transferring to a junior college, will get a chance to replace Briscoe.
7. Eastern Washington
Record: 7-4 (missed the playoffs)
It took some time for things to click in longtime assistant Aaron Best’s first season as head coach. He wanted a more balanced, physical approach on offense. But he had a team built to throw the ball 40 times a game with stud quarterback Gage Gubrud. The Eagles started 0-2 before going 6-2 in the Big Sky. Yet the perennial FCS power was left out of the playoffs.
With Gubrud back, and Best in his second year of implementing his touch on the program, EWU should be back in contention. Antoine Custer Jr. returns as the leading rusher as does the second leading receiver Nsimba Webster. The top six tacklers on defense also are back.
Record: 7-4 (missed the playoffs)
The Blue Hens are ready to explode onto the national scene after Danny Rocco improved their record from 4-7 to 7-4 in his first season as head coach. And they certainly feel snubbed from the playoffs. Delaware was No. 10 in the FCS by allowing 16.8 points per game. The top three tacklers from that unit are all back.
Offensively, the Blue Hens will need to make strides after averaging a pedestrian 21.2 points per game. J.P. Caruso started the last six games at quarterback as a junior and went 4-2. He’ll need to find some explosive options on the outside to go along with returning top rusher Kani Kane.
5. Youngstown State
Record: 6-5 (missed the playoffs)
The 2016 national runner-ups had a brutally tough 3-4 start to the 2017 season, losing all four games by a touchdown or less against an FBS team or a ranked FCS team. After that, things kind of just fell apart, like a 35-0 loss to Illinois State to drop to 3-5 and essentially being eliminated from the playoffs. Afterwards, Bo Pelini said “I’ve never been so disgusted in my whole life.”
With that, expect the Penguins to have some fire entering this coming season. They started three quarterbacks throughout 2017, but return just one in Nathan Mays, who looked to be the best option as a sophomore. Tevin McCaster is a top returning running back in the FCS and YSU’s defense is always going to be a stingy unit.
4. Weber State
Record: 11-3 (lost in the quarterfinals)
The Wildcats were extremely close to knocking off JMU, the defending national champs, in the quarterfinals as an unseeded team. They’ve gone against the mold of what people think of the Big Sky as a pass-happy league with a more physical approach. And with head coach Jay Hill getting a contract extension, Weber State will remain in the national conversation.
But replacing the heart and soul of the offense in quarterback Stefan Cantwell and NFL prospects in tight end Andrew Vollert and cornerback Taron Johnson is going to be an uphill battle. The defense brings back its top three tacklers and may be relied on as a top unit in the FCS.
3. Kennesaw State
Record: 12-2 (lost in the quarterfinals)
The growth of this three-year program is staggering. From 6-5 to 8-3 to 12-2 and their first playoff appearance, the Owls showed they are emerging as a force in the FCS. They took down 3-seed Jacksonville State in the second round and almost did it again at 6-seed SHSU in the quarterfinals, losing 34-27.
The Owls essentially bring back their entire team. Quarterback Chandler Burks engineers the triple option and ran for 1,103 yards while passing for 1,307 yards in 2017. The three feature backs Shaquil Terry, Jake McKenzie and Darnell Holland all return after each ran for more than 700 yards. Seven of the top 10 tacklers are back, including FCS Freshman of the Year Bryson Armstrong at linebacker.
2. James Madison
Record: 14-1 (lost in the title game)
The Dukes lost a senior class that will go down as one of the best in program history. But expect the 2016 national champs and 2017 runner-ups to reload. A stacked backfield of Trai Sharp, Marcus Marshall and possibly Cardon Johnson if he's granted a medical redshirt should benefit the new starting quarterback from shouldering the load.
The losses on defense are significant. Jordan Brown, Kyre Hawkins, Brandon Hereford, Raven Greene, Simeyon Robinson and Andrew Ankrah were stars and are now gone. With shutdown corners Jimmy Moreland and Rashad Robinson back along with defensive end Darrious Carter, JMU still has plenty of talent to fill the holes around.
1. North Dakota State
Record: 14-1 (won the national title)
The only positions for NDSU that aren't returning starting experience are long snapper, punter and tight end. Up and down the roster, the Bison appear to be loaded for a seventh national title in eight seasons. The running backs have two all-American caliber players in Lance Dunn and Bruce Anderson and perhaps the most explosive back in the FCS in Ty Brooks. The offensive line has three returners with starting experience. Quarterback Easton Stick is within striking distance of the all-time wins record in FCS history, but will need to find some new targets outside of Darrius Shepherd.
Defensively, it's the same story. All-American defensive end Greg Menard returns from injury to lead the defensive line. Jabril Cox leads a linebacking group that has players returning who were in and out of the starting lineup in 2017. And the secondary has three of its four starters returning. On paper, it's the best roster NDSU has had since 2013.
NEXT: Is NDSU’s Dynasty a Good or Bad Thing for FCS Football?