It’s never too early for predictions … in fact, we could have taken a shot at this the day after Frisco (sounds like an FCS movie, doesn’t it? “The Day After Frisco”).
Today, we bring you the HERO Sports FCS Top 25 preseason poll for 2018. You’ll see some new faces, you’ll see some familiar faces who seem like they have a permanent seat at the rankings table. Regardless, it will stir up discussion, and we’re ready for that. So without delaying it any longer, take a look at our Top 25 for the FCS.
HERO SPORTS FCS 2018 PRESEASON POLL
(Staff vote tallies indicated in number next to FCS school – 25 points for No. 1 vote, 1 point for No. 25 vote – with No. 1 vote in paranthesis)
1. NORTH DAKOTA STATE (3) 75
The Bison reclaimed their throne last season to win their sixth national title in seven seasons. With 16 players returning who started seven games or more last season, NDSU is set to stay atop the FCS mountain.
2. JAMES MADISON 72
After back-to-back appearances in the title game, it’s not unreasonable to make the case that JMU has been the most talented team in FCS football over the last two years. Third-year coach Mike Houston might face his biggest challenge in 2018, with much of that talent lost to graduation. The Dukes’ depth will be tested by an improving CAA.
3. KENNESAW STATE 69
The Owls return more of their starting lineup than any other program in the FCS, and their first full senior class is finally here. Last year KSU made it to the quarterfinals, and its tricky offense is a handful to deal with in one week of playoff prep. KSU isn’t going to sneak up on anybody this year, but it’ll still be brutally tough to deal with.
4. EASTERN WASHINGTON 64
Despite missing the playoffs last season at 7-4, the Eagles are loaded with 16 starters coming back. And when you have Gage Gubrud as a senior quarterback, good things are bound to happen. EWU doesn’t stay out of national relevance for too long.
5. SOUTH DAKOTA STATE 58
While the likes of Jake Wieneke and Dallas Goedert are gone, Taryn Christion returns to lead the offense at quarterback. With seven starters back on defense, the Jacks look to be a more balanced team in 2018.
6. SAMFORD 57
The Bulldogs return 10 starters – including QB Devlin Hodges – to an offense that just simply makes things happen. Hodges has thrown for nearly 700 yards and 6 TDs in games against Georgia and Mississippi State, and is nearing some FCS passing records. The defense was solid last year and returns six starters – and remember, this Samford team beat three FCS playoff teams a year ago.
7. NEW HAMPSHIRE 56
The Wildcats’ offense is rarely in question, and with Trevor Knight and Neil O’Connor back in the fold this fall, finding the end zone won’t be a problem. The more interesting question will be the defensive unit, which has struggled in key games over the past couple years. With eight players returning on that side of the ball, the Wildcats could be ready for a big year.
8. SAM HOUSTON STATE 54
The big question here is what will happen at quarterback with Jeremiah Briscoe gone. Rutgers transfer Mike Dare was one option, as was big-time FCS recruit Ty Brock (from a few years ago). Dare won the battle, and we’ll see if he can follow in Briscoe’s footsteps. This team is going to be loaded once again, because it returns the best WR tandem in the nation (Davion Davis and Nathan Stewart).
9. DELAWARE 48
In Year 2 of the Danny Rocco era, Delaware’s defense is already a known commodity. A late-September showdown with North Dakota State will provide more clarity on how seriously the Blue Hens should be taken, at least on the national level.
10. JACKSONVILLE STATE 45
Known as a program that will give an athlete a second chance to shine as a Division I football player, the Gamecocks will have a bevy of P5 transfers join their homegrown talent and could shoot up the FCS charts if the chemistry is just right. Clemson QB Zerrick Cooper is one to keep an eye on, and JSU’s defense is led by one of the FCS’ top pro prospects for 2020, DB Marlon Bridges.
11. ELON 38
Fresh off only the program’s second playoff appearance, the Elon Phoenix are eager to prove that 2017 was no fluke. Sophomore quarterback Davis Cheek could guide the Phoenix to another top-tier finish in the CAA, but he’ll have to do it against a noticeably stiffer schedule. The Phoenix won’t sneak up on anyone this year.
12. ILLINOIS STATE 37
The Redbirds look to bounce back in a big way after uncharacteristically missing the playoffs last year. The top offensive weapons all return and a hard-nosed style of defense under Brock Spack spells a comeback season.
13. NORTHERN IOWA 34
Maybe not earning the respect they deserve because a tough nonconference and MVFC slate results in a so-so record, but the Panthers are still one of the top teams in the country each year. UNI will be experienced on offense in 2018 and always play solid on defense.
14. WOFFORD 33
Legendary head coach Mike Ayers has retired, but most of his team is intact from last year’s playoff team. QB Joe Newman, who came off the bench as a true freshman in 2016 to help the Terriers go deep into the playoffs despite numerous injuries at his position, is a gutsy player who has a bevy of backfield talent behind him. This is going to be a tough SoCon team.
15. NICHOLLS 32
Since the time when a young Nicholls team went between the hedges and nearly beat Georgia in 2016, Nicholls has been a team a wise FCS football fan is aware of. In 2016 the Colonels were just a few close games away from 8 or 9 wins, and last year they posted 8 wins. This year could be even better – and can this program unseat Sam Houston State at the head of the Southland table?
16. FURMAN 25
The Paladins are loaded and are in their second year under former Air Force assistant Clay Hendrix. This is a program that could easily shoot into the Top 10 and fight for a playoff seed if it can navigate its way through what seems to be a pretty bumpy SoCon slate this year. Could Furman be this year’s version of last year’s Weber State team? The answer: Yes.
17. VILLANOVA 24
After a disastrous first season where seemingly everyone but the equipment manager got injured, second-year Nova coach Mark Ferrante is hoping for a more fortuitous do-over in 2018. QB Zach Bednarczyk should pace the offense of one of the CAA’s better teams.
18. WEBER STATE 23
Last year, Weber State was the talk of the postseason as it disposed of a brutally tough Western Illinois team at home, avenged its loss to Big Sky champion Southern Utah, and gave James Madison fits in Virginia – nearly knocking off the defending FCS champion. The Wildcats had the best defense in the Big Sky, the best special teams unit in the nation, and just seem like a “reloading” type of program instead of a “rebuilding” one. Keep an eye on the ‘Cats.
19. YALE 22
The Bulldogs might not be eligible for the playoffs, but they’ll still field a formidable team this fall. With a top recruiting class and 16 returning starters, Yale stands a great chance to earn back-to-back outright Ivy titles for the first time since 1979-80.
20. YOUNGSTOWN STATE 16
YSU expects to bounce back from a disappointing season in 2017, a year after making the national title game. The talent is there to return to national relevance. Tevin McCaster is a top running back in the FCS and that Bo Pelini defense is always going to be tough.
21. NORTH CAROLINA A&T 13
The Aggies did lose big-time NFL Draft pick Brandon Parker from the O-line, but oh so much of last year’s 12-0 Celebration Bowl winning team is back. It all starts with uber-talented QB Lamar Raynard, a proven winner who has a stud to throw to (Elijah Bell) and a stud to hand off to (Marquell Cartwright). If a depleted O-line rebuilds, and the defense repeats its stifling ways, this would be a scary matchup for anyone on the schedule.
22. UC DAVIS 12
For coming off of a 5-6 season, there is certainly a lot of excitement surrounding the Aggies. And for good reason. Thirteen starters return, including the duo of quarterback Jake Maier and wide receiver Keelan Doss, who is a top NFL Draft prospect out of the FCS.
23. IDAHO 11
The Vandals are making the unique transition down to the FCS from the FBS. Their 4-8 record last year won’t blow anyone away, but this is still a team with FBS talent and FBS recruiting classes. They defeated Sacramento State, who went 6-2 in the Big Sky last season, 28-6 and expect to compete right away for a conference title.
24. STONY BROOK 10
Quarterback Joe Carbone is back, but a lot of 2017 standouts are not. Stony Brook finished just one game back of CAA champ James Madison in 2018; the Seawolves will need major contributions from new faces if they want to finish near the top two spots.
25. AUSTIN PEAY 9
The story of 2017 season in the FCS, the Governors are no longer going to be able to sneak up on people. After an 8-win campaign, mostly by close margins in the OVC, APSU brings an experienced, winning group back after ending a 29-game losing streak last year. The question is this: Can this program win 9 games for the first time and make the playoffs for the first time in school history? The answer is yes, but the OVC is collectively improved this year and won’t make it easy.