Please Read: A lot of people like to jump right into the meat of listicles without reading the intro. That’s never a good idea. Please don’t do that here. Because you need to know this is not a ranking of how good these teams will be in 2018. It’s a ranking of how much confidence I have for each team and their outlook as far as attaining the program’s goals.
For example, San Diego is going to be ranked ahead of South Dakota State. Does that mean the Toreros are going to be better than the Jackrabbits? No, obviously. But USD’s goal every year is to make the playoffs, which they are very likely to do. I’m confident they’ll do that.
SDSU, meanwhile, wants to make the next jump as a program and compete for a national championship. With its losses on offense, I’m not as confident in that compared to USD’s goal to make the playoffs.
Yes, most of these teams’ goals are to win a national title. But we’ll look at it realistically and say some of these teams will be satisfied just making the playoffs, the quarterfinals, semifinals, etc.
So, to sum it up, this article is going to rank all 24 teams from the 2017 FCS playoffs and the confidence in their outlook heading into the 2018 season.
A lot of fans scoffed at the idea of Monmouth getting an at-large bid over teams like Eastern Washington, Montana and Delaware. The Hawks didn’t do a very good job of silencing the critics, losing 46-7 to Northern Iowa in the first round.
Monmouth’s goals are to return to the playoffs once again. But with the small Big South Conference not exactly being an FCS powerhouse, it might turn into a one-bid league. And Kennesaw State very well could dominate its way through conference play. [divider]
The Blue Devils received the automatic bid last season by winning the Northeast Conference. They competed well and showed off their tough defense in the first round, but eventually lost 14-0 to New Hampshire, a consistent playoff contender.
CCSU hopes to win the NEC again and find another favorable matchup in the playoffs. It was the program’s first postseason appearance after going undefeated in conference play. The NEC is a one-bid league, and with Bryant and Duquesne looking to challenge for that playoff spot, CCSU is going to have to grind through a tight race. [divider]
22. Central Arkansas
Buzzkill is probably the best way to describe UCA’s end of the season. 11-1 overall, 10-0 against FCS opponents and 9-0 in the Southland with a convincing win against then No. 3 Sam Houston State resulted in a No. 4 seed. All that to be beaten right away by New Hampshire, who the week before edged Central Connecticut from the mediocre NEC and a week later got shellacked 56-14 by SDSU.
Now the Bears have to replace a senior class of 23 that includes stud quarterback Hayden Hildebrand, four offensive linemen, NFL Draft pick cornerback Tremon Smith and undrafted free agent safety George Odum. UCA does have a talented stable of running backs returning to lean on. But will that be enough to stay at the top of the Southland? [divider]
21. Southern Utah
SUU’s memorable season ended quite abruptly. The Thunderbirds were Big Sky co-champs and the No. 8 seed in the playoffs. But in their first game played in the second round, the other co-champ Weber State scored all 17 second-half points to win 30-13. For going 7-1 in conference play last year, SUU isn’t mentioned too often in the conversation of 2018 Big Sky contenders.
A reason for that is the loss of quarterback Patrick Tyler and seven of the top 10 tacklers, although offensive position weapons return. The schedule isn’t appealing either with two FBS games at Oregon State and Arizona along with the addition of Idaho and Montana to this year’s conference slate. The Thunderbirds are always a strong team that’s in the mix. But there’s a handful of uncertainties to sort through to know where this team will be in November. [divider]
Lehigh has won the Patriot League auto-bid the last two years. The Mountain Hawks haven’t been all too competitive, though, losing 59-29 last season and 64-21 the year prior. They’ll aim for a third trip to the postseason with hopes of getting past the first-round woes.
With quarterback Brad Mayes and big running back Dominick Bragalone back on offense, the Mountain Hawks should be favorites to win the conference again. However, Lehigh still has much to prove to the FCS nationally after going 5-1 in league play, but was in the playoff bracket at 5-7 overall. [divider]
19. South Dakota
2017 was one for the history books for the Coyotes. They were 6-0 at one point with an FBS win and three straight wins against ranked FCS opponents. Defensive struggles began to catch up and the ‘Yotes lost their last three games of the regular season, but still made the playoffs at 7-4. They eventually lost by eight points in the second round to Sam Houston State, who made the semifinals.
It’s not meant to be disrespectful to USD when it’s said quarterback Chris Streveler carried the team to a handful of wins. He was that good, throwing for 4,134 yards and 32 touchdowns while also leading the team with 720 yards rushing and 11 scores. He’s now gone along with two of the top three pass catchers. Austin Simmons did perform well when Streveler got dinged up, throwing for 197 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions. But a grueling nonconference schedule with games at Kansas State and Weber State along with the slate of Valley games, the Coyotes have a fight on their hands to get back to where they want to be, and that’s the playoffs. [divider]
18. Western Illinois
Competing in the playoffs two times in the last three years, the Leathernecks are still trying to find its footing nationally in the FCS. Playing in the tough MVFC, WIU is typically considered a Top 25 team. But it wants to become a team considered in the Top 10 or 15 after narrowly losing to Weber State 21-19 in the first round.
Stability hasn’t been on WIU’s side. Head coach Bob Nielson left for the same job at fellow MVFC member South Dakota. Charlie Fisher then spent two seasons as the head man before taking an FBS assistant gig after this season ended. Now it’s Jared Elliott at the helm after being the team’s assistant head coach. The Leathernecks return key players like quarterback Sean Mcguire and running back Steve McShane, but do lose a talented senior class with NFL talent. Coupled with a challenging nonconference slate of Illinois, Montana and Montana State before three straight Valley games against Youngstown State, Illinois State and North Dakota State, the Leathernecks are tough to predict whether they’ll be in the mix for a playoff spot. [divider]
17. Northern Iowa
UNI is always an interesting team to keep tabs on. Brutal nonconference schedules sometimes have the Panthers at 1-2 before the gauntlet of the Valley. This can leave them in playoff mode in November, which in turn leads to them getting a rough draw in the first round despite typically being a Top 16 team in the FCS.
Take into account last year, UNI was 4-4 and had to win out to reach postseason play. It did, but got matched up against MVFC member South Dakota State in the opening round, losing 37-22. The Panthers have been up and down the last handful of years, going from probably the second best team in the FCS playoffs in 2015 to 5-6 the next year. They have plenty of returning starters. But with games at Montana and Iowa, plus a tough stretch of October games, it’s a challenge to picture how the 2018 Panthers will perform on the field. [divider]
JSU has a lot to prove in 2018. For one, the Gamecocks want to show they still belong in the national conversation. Besides a trip to the championship game in the 2015 season, they have lost right away as the No. 3 seed in 2017, 2016 and 2014. JSU has dominated a middle-of-the-pack Ohio Valley Conference and has been rewarded with a high seed. But the Gamecocks have also shown the inability compete with the top teams in the FCS in recent years.
So where does that leave the 2018 Gamecocks? To their credit, they’ve beefed up the nonconference schedule to compensate for the weak conference games, facing North Carolina A&T and Kennesaw State. But is a 10-1 or 9-2 JSU team still worthy of a high seed? Or seeded at all? Keep in mind a 9-2 McNeese State team from a tougher Southland Conference didn’t make the playoffs at all last year. The Gamecocks are going to have to dominate conference games even more to earn back some respect from the playoff committee. They lose seven seniors who are getting an NFL shot in some capacity. Workhouse back Roc Thomas is gone along with several defensive standouts. But JSU always reloads with talent, this year features Clemson transfer quarterback Zerrick Cooper, and should run through the OVC again.