Folks, the 2018 FCS season is right around the corner. At HERO Sports, we like to break the offseason into three parts: recruiting, the NFL Draft and season previews. And it’s officially season previews time.
Last year, we did this same article on predicting every FCS conference champion. We had some easy ones. North Dakota State winning the MVFC and James Madison winning the CAA? Automatic. And we had some whiffs. North Dakota winning the Big Sky and Wagner winning the NEC? Sheesh. Overall, we went a modest 7-6.
Knowing the FCS, there’s bound to be many surprises throughout this season. But we’ll give it another go with 13 more predictions.
Eastern Washington – Despite a 7-4 overall record and 6-2 mark in conference play, the Eagles finished fourth in the standings and missed the playoffs. With close to 20 starters returning and in Aaron Best’s second season as head coach, EWU wants to leave no doubt in 2018.
Improving defensively and being more balanced on offense is going to be key, although Gage Gubrud’s arm will be relied on as a top returning FCS quarterback. Road games at Montana State and Weber State make for a tough schedule, but EWU’s experience should take the team a long way. [divider]
Kennesaw State – KSU rolled through its conference schedule in 2017, going 5-0 with an average win margin of 25 points. Bad news for the Big South: the Owls return most of its team. That’ll happen when the program has been in existence for only a few years.
The Owls have built from 6-5 to 8-3 to 12-2 and being eight points away from making the FCS semifinals last season. Option quarterback Chandler Burks returns with three feature running backs. And linebacker Bryson Armstrong is back along with seven of KSU’s top 10 tacklers. [divider]
James Madison – The Dukes have plenty of holes to fill, most notably in the defensive front seven and at quarterback. The most decorated senior class in JMU history is gone. But there’s no doubt head coach Mike Houston and his staff have cashed in on recruiting for the 2016 national champs and 2017 runner-ups, whether it be high school products or FBS transfers filling those gaps.
A steady dose of running backs Cardon Johnson, Marcus Marshall and Trai Sharp should ease in the new QB along with big-time receiving target Riley Stapleton. The defense may not be as dominant as years past, but JMU is still going to have a solid unit good enough to slow CAA offenses down. [divider]
Yale – The Ivy League is a tough one to predict with a lot of the top teams losing important senior classes. We’ll stick with the defending champs on this one, helped by the fact that quarterback Kurt Rawlings returns after passing for 2,320 yards and 19 touchdowns along with leading rusher Zane Dudek, who had a standout freshman campaign with 1,133 yards.
If the Bulldogs can get their defense, which loses its top five tacklers, playing at a high level, they will remain the team to beat. [divider]
North Carolina A&T – The 12-0 and defending Celebration Bowl champs are going to have quite the explosive offense in 2018. Reigning MEAC offensive player of the year Lamar Raynard is back creating headaches at quarterback. He's joined by the conference's leading rusher Marquell Cartwright. The two combined for 3,955 yards of total offense and 42 touchdowns.
Add in six other first-team all conference players returning and the Aggies look to be locked and loaded to be ranked in the FCS Top 25 once again. [divider]
North Dakota State – The Valley has a lot of question marks besides who’s the favorite to win the title. NDSU, on paper at least, appears to be a tier above the other teams. South Dakota State and South Dakota lose key offensive pieces. Illinois State and Youngstown State didn’t live up to expectations last year. And Northern Iowa and Western Illinois are always solid, but have been a step or two behind the Bison.
Until some of these teams answer question marks surrounding them, the Bison are clear-cut favorites not only to win the MVFC, but the national title. A more detailed explanation on why can be found under No. 1 here. [divider]
Bryant – 2018 could be the year Bryant takes that next step as a program. 6-5 overall and 4-2 in NEC play might not be a spectacular resume to build off of. But the Bulldogs have every reason to believe they are in the hunt for a conference title.
Offensively, it all starts with quarterback Price Wilson, who threw for 3,311 yards last year. And on the defensive side, last year’s conference defensive player of the year Thomas Costigan leads nine returning starters. Bryant hosts defending champs Central Connecticut State in what could be a pivotal matchup Oct. 13. [divider]
Jacksonville State – This could be the most competitive season the OVC has seen in years. Well, it won't take much to get more competitive. The Gamecocks literally haven’t lost to a conference opponent since 2013. But Austin Peay is on the rise after going 7-1 last year.
Right now, though, the Gamecocks should still remain a heavy favorite even after losing a lot of NFL talent. The defense should continue its stingy ways. And the offense will get a much-needed quarterback boost with Clemson transfer Zerrick Cooper. Perhaps the biggest question for the Gamecocks is how will they be rewarded by the playoff committee with a zero or one-loss season after losing right away as the No. 3 seed the last two seasons.
JSU may need to dominate its league to earn back some national respect. [divider]
Lehigh – Colgate and Lehigh should be neck and neck again for the conference title, but the preseason edge will go to the squad with two first-team all conference offensive players and the reigning offensive player of the year.
Lehigh quarterback Brad Mayes impressed last season and will need to step his game up even more without receivers Gatlin Casey and Troy Pelletier. He’ll be helped by the conference’s best player in running back Dominick Bragalone. The Mountain Hawks need to improve on defense, though, and return three of their top tacklers. [divider]
San Diego – The Toreros shocked FCS football again last year with a first-round playoff win against a Big Sky opponent as a non-scholarship team. USD is always loaded with talent, winning at least a share of the conference title every year since 2014 and going 16-0 in league play the last two seasons. Anthony Lawrence, who was a part of those two playoff wins, is finally a senior at quarterback to lead the offense for one last season. [divider]
Samford – After finishing one game back from Wofford last year, Samford is ready to capture that elusive conference championship in the always competitive SoCon. With Devlin Hodges back at quarterback and Ahmad Gooden returning on the defensive line, the Bulldogs have both of the reigning conference offensive and defensive players of the year on their 2018 roster.
In a conference known for its option offenses, Samford brings a different spice. With Hodges having his top three receivers back, highlighted by 1,100-yarder Kelvin McKnight, the Bulldogs’ passing attack may lead to big things. [divider]
Nicholls State – With Sam Houston State and defending champs Central Arkansas losing their leaders at quarterback along with NFL talent, it’s time for the Colonels to make some noise. They went a respectable 8-4 overall with a playoff appearance and a 7-2 record against Southland opponents in 2017.
A 66-17 Sept. 23 loss to SHSU makes one scratch their head. But Nicholls won its next six games and lost by a touchdown to South Dakota in the first round, who almost knocked off SHSU the next week. The Colonels are now a year older, returning eight offensive starters from that USD game and seven on defense. Watch out for this team. [divider]
Grambling State – Grambling State has plenty of question marks, the top one being who’s going to replace quarterback Devante Kincade and running back Martez Carter. But the Tigers have been rich in talent the last few years, making it to the SWAC title game the last three seasons, winning the last two and also winning the 2016 Celebration Bowl.
Despite the two big losses, Grambling State is still looked at as a top dog in its conference. Receiver Darrell Clark is going to have to make plays on the outside and a defense that returns three of its five top tacklers is going to have to play big. [divider]