Intriguing battles for FCS conference titles makes for an anticipated 2017 season, especially for the power conferences. The Big Sky Conference, Missouri Valley Football Conference and Colonial Athletic Association will see tight races at the top. It sets the stage for the playoffs, with both automatic qualifiers and determining who deserves to be seeded.
The FCS is always good for a few surprises. But right now, here are the favorites to win their respective conference titles.
RELATED: Every FCS vs. FBS Matchup in the 2017 College Football Season
MORE: Top 2018 FCS NFL Draft Prospects by Position
North Dakota – The Fighting Hawks benefited from a favorable conference schedule last year to win their first Big Sky title. Don't be surprised to see Cal Poly raise that championship this season for the same reason. But heading into the fall, UND looks to be the best team and gets the benefit of the doubt. The Hawks get to show last year wasn't a fluke as they avoided teams like Montana and Eastern Washington while narrowly beating teams like Montana State and Idaho State. A stacked running game and elite secondary should carry them this year. The regular season finale at home against EWU could be the deciding factor in the conference race. [divider]
Charleston Southern – The Buccaneers showed just how far their program has come in the 2016 season opener on ESPN with a 24-17 overtime loss at North Dakota State. But injuries and an odd string of suspensions resulted in an up-and-down regular season. CSU still made the playoffs, losing 15-14 in the first round to Wofford. Mark Tucker was elevated to head coach after Jamey Chadwell left for Coastal Carolina. Tucker should have enough talent, led by defensive end Anthony Ellis, to repeat as conference champs. [divider]
Colonial Athletic Association
James Madison – The Dukes didn't lose to an FCS team in 2016 en route to an FCS title. Making that feat even more impressive is that they traveled to typical CAA powers New Hampshire, Richmond and Villanova. Those games are at home this season, and JMU has all the ability to run the table again. Bryan Schor is a top quarterback in the conference and he'll have the help of a deep backfield. A strong defense under head coach Mike Houston makes the Dukes contenders to bring home two more trophies in 2017. [divider]
Penn – Both Penn and Princeton finished 6-1 in the 2016 conference season. Princeton loses plenty on defense while Penn returns its top two tacklers in Colton Moskal and Nick Miller along with its interceptions leader Mason Williams and sacks leader Louis Vecchio. Offensively, the Quakers will lean on running back Tre Solomon, who is coming off a 907-yard 2016 season, and wide receiver Justin Watson, who had 1,115 yards and eight touchdowns in 2016. [divider]
North Carolina Central – The Eagles should have no shortage of motivation during this offseason. An excessive celebration penalty in the Celebration Bowl (yes, really) was called after NCCU scored to reduce the deficit to 10-9 with less than two minutes remaining. The extra point was pushed back 15 yards and was blocked by Grambling State, sealing the win. The Eagles have to replace quarterback Malcolm Bell, but have enough weapons returning offensively and defensively for another championship campaign. [divider]
Missouri Valley Football
North Dakota State – More than likely, the Bison and South Dakota State will split the title again. Both teams have the talent to make it through the conference with one loss. But if we're picking one, NDSU gets the nod. The Jacks showed they're closing the gap on NDSU with a 19-17 win at the Fargodome. The Bison then showed there's still a ways to go with a 36-10 win in the FCS quarterfinals. NDSU brings back a team that looks more talented on paper than the 2016 squad. Add in some extra motivation, and the Bison could roll this season. [divider]
Wagner – Saint Francis and Duquesne finished the conference schedule with 5-1 records while Wagner finished 4-2. But the Seahawks showed they are ready to take that next step, defeating Saint Francis 31-24 in the season finale. They return their No. 1 quarterback (Alex Thomson), running back (Denzel Knight) and wide receiver (John Williams) along with their top two tacklers (Santoni Graham and Quintin Hampton). Wagner has the tools to ascend to the top, but has to go on the road to Saint Francis and Duquesne to do so. [divider]
Jacksonville State – The Gamecocks have gone undefeated in the OVC the last three seasons and that doesn't look to change this year. Although they'll have to replace dual-threat quarterback Eli Jenkins, the two-time conference Offensive Player of the Year, the Gamecocks return seven first-team selections, including Defensive Player of the Year Darius Jackson and Freshman of the Year Marlon Bridges. JSU should run through the conference schedule and looks to earn back some national respect after losing in the second round of the playoffs coming off a national runner-up finish. [divider]
Lehigh – While Fordham running back Chase Edmonds will be grabbing most of the headlines in his pursuit of the FCS all-time rushing record, Lehigh remains the team to beat with some offensive power itself. The Mountain Hawks went 6-0 in conference play last season, defeating Fordham 58-47 as the Rams went 5-1. Lehigh returns 1,000-yard running back Dominick Bragalone and 1,000-yard receivers Troy Pelletier and Gatlin Casey. [divider]
Pioneer Football League
San Diego – The Toreros shocked the FCS in 2016 with a win at Cal Poly in the first round of the FCS playoffs, a team they lost to 38-16 earlier in the season. San Diego lost 45-7 to NDSU the next week, but were one of the best stories during the playoffs. The Toreros cruised through the Pioneer schedule, which doesn't offer football scholarships, with an 8-0 record. Expect them to keep the momentum up in 2017. [divider]
Wofford – The Citadel won the conference title last season with an 8-0 record while Wofford was 6-2, but the Terriers got the last laugh with a 17-3 win in the second round of the playoffs versus the No. 6-seeded Bulldogs. Wofford then lost 30-23 in double-overtime in the quarterfinals to Youngstown State, who went on to reach the national championship game. The Terriers are a dark horse team in the FCS entering 2017 with Brandon Goodson running the option offense and a veteran unit on the defensive side. [divider]
Sam Houston State – Central Arkansas looked to be closing the gap in the Southland race last season. The Bears and SHSU were undefeated in conference play heading into the regular season finale, but the Bearkats showed it's still their league with a 59-23 win. They return most of their record-breaking offense in 2017, featuring Walter Payton Award winner Jeremiah Briscoe. Another conference title is expected for SHSU. It'll be in the playoffs where the Bearkats will have to prove what kind of team they are. [divider]
Grambling State – 2016 was quite the year for Grambling State. Its only loss was a 31-21 defeat at Arizona. The Tigers dominated the rest of its regular season schedule before defeating Alcorn State 27-20 in the SWAC championship and North Carolina Central 10-9 in the Celebration Bowl. While the defense will have some fresh faces this season, the offense has plenty of firepower with quarterback and reigning conference Offensive Player of the Year Devante Kincade and running back Martez Carter.