Welcome to a new series in our summer FCS coverage. We'll take a look at each 2016 FCS Playoff quarterfinalist and discuss how their fan base should feel entering this season. Can they make another playoff run? Are they a national title contender? Should they be worried about a drop off?
We'll talk about it all each week for the following quarterfinal teams:
When it comes to the top programs in FCS/Division I-AA history, Youngstown State is certainly in the conversation. The Penguins won four national titles in the 1990s with two runner-up finishes. But like every sport, staying on top of the FCS is much harder than getting there.
The Penguins made the playoffs just two times in between 2000 and 2015, the last being in 2006. Excitement was down in Youngstown, a big football town. When hometown guy Bo Pelini was named head coach before the 2015 season, some of the buzz around the football program returned.
Now entering the 2017 season, YSU fans should feel more excited than ever, but also motivated to prove their team is here to stay at the top of the FCS.
That's because in two seasons, Pelini brought the Penguins from a non-playoff contender to the national runner-ups. They won six straight games last season to reach the national championship unseeded before losing 28-14 to James Madison. YSU rode a talented senior class and a strong defense in its run to Frisco, Texas.
With those seniors gone, YSU has been outside the conversation when it comes to 2017 national title contenders.
Not many know what to expect with the Penguins. YSU had 17 seniors on the 2016 roster. Some of those included the elite duos at running back (Martin Ruiz and Jody Webb), safety (LeRoy Alexander and Jameel Smith) and defensive end (NFL Draft picks Avery Moss and Derek Rivers).
The cupboard isn't bare, though. Hunter Wells developed into a solid starting quarterback and he'll have help from running back Tevin McCaster, wide receiver Darien Townsend and tight end Kevin Rader, all poised for breakout seasons. Pelini's defense is always going to be tough and will be led by linebacker Armand Dellovade.
But what should expectations actually be for the national runner-ups? Another run at Frisco might be setting the bar too high, seeing as JMU and North Dakota State appear to be on a collision course nationally and NDSU and South Dakota State look to battle for the Missouri Valley Football Conference title.
The Penguins, for how well they finished last year, seem to be sleepers in 2017. A look at their schedule, though, opens eyes.
A winnable game at FBS Pittsburgh will go a long way in the playoff committee's eyes. Then with home games against SDSU, NDSU and Illinois State, the Penguins have a chance at a playoff seed.
Right now, there's no doubt some questions marks surrounding YSU. Can the program reload and fill holes all over its 2-deep depth chart? Until we see the Penguins in action, it's hard to predict where they'll be at the end of the regular season. But as shown in 2016, all YSU needs is a spot in the playoffs and it can take care of business from there.