College football isn't just about the FBS division and the BCS. The FCS division settles its national champion with a playoff and a familiar name tops the rankings for 2012.
1. Sam Houston State (14–1, 7–0 Southland)
After their perfect season was derailed in the national championship game, the Bearkats have one goal this year: Win it all. They return the Southland Player of the Year (running back Tim Flanders), Offensive Player of the Year (wide receiver Richard Sincere) and Defensive Player of the Year (safety Darnell Taylor). Quarterback Brian Bell is another of the 18 returning starters. Coach Willie Fritz’s squad will play Texas A&M and Baylor.
2. Georgia Southern (11–3, 7–1 SoCon)
The only team more frustrated than Sam Houston State is Georgia Southern, which has been stopped in each of the last two national semifinals. To take the next step, the Eagles need a new quarterback — perhaps Jerick McKinnon — to be precise running the triple option. He will be sure that backs Robert Brown and Dominique Swope get plenty of touches. Opposing offenses want no part of nose tackle Brent Russell.
3. North Dakota State (14–1, 7–1 Missouri Valley)
Coach Craig Bohl is confident that the loss of 11 starters won’t prevent the reigning national champs from challenging for back-to-back titles. Junior cornerback Marcus Williams was electrifying for last year’s stingiest defense in the FCS (12.7 ppg). Third-year quarterback Brock Jensen keeps improving for an offense that will be run-heavy behind 1,000-yard back Sam Ojuri.
4. Montana State (10–3, 7–1 Big Sky)
The Bobcats have some flash with junior quarterback DeNarius McGhee, but their program is more about flexing its muscles. Cody Kirk (1,351 rushing yards and 14 TDs) is the key cog offensively, and defensive linemen Brad Daly, Zach Minter and Caleb Schreibeis and linebacker Jody Owens form the nucleus of a dominant stop-unit.
5. James Madison (8–5, 5–3 CAA)
The Dukes believe they have solved recent inconsistency. Quarterback Justin Thorpe, who came back strong after a university suspension last season, will team with versatile running back Dae’Quan Scott (1,304 rushing yards, 13 total TDs) on an improved offense. The defense has a star in middle linebacker Stephon Robertson and an emerging standout in safety Dean Marlowe.
6. Old Dominion (10–3, 6–2 CAA)
Year 2 in the CAA should be as good as last year’s debut for the Monarchs. Taylor Heinicke fired 25 touchdown passes with only one interception over the final nine games of his true freshman season, and he has plenty back in the skill positions. Craig Wilkins flies around at linebacker, and the special teams are always outstanding.
7. Towson (9–3, 7–1 CAA)
Coach Rob Ambrose led the Tigers to a stunning CAA title after going a combined 3–29 in conference in the previous four seasons. There won’t be a letdown with the return of running back Terrance West, who scored an FCS-high 29 touchdowns as a freshman, and fellow All-CAA standouts Frank Beltre (defensive end) and Jordan Dangerfield (safety).
8. Appalachian State (8–4, 6–2 SoCon)
A senior-laden defense, featuring linebackers Brandon Grier and Jeremy Kimbrough and defensive backs Demetrius McCray (five interceptions) and Troy Sanders, will get to the ball in waves. Veteran coach Jerry Moore will need some new playmakers to develop for quarterback Jamal Jackson.
9. Youngstown State (6–5, 4–4 Missouri Valley)
The only team to beat FCS champion North Dakota State last season, the Penguins are primed for their first playoff appearance since 2006. All-MVC selections Kurt Hess (quarterback) and Jamaine Cook (running back), along with big-play receiver Christian Bryan, return from the most prolific offense in school history.
10. New Hampshire (8–4, 6–2 CAA)
The Wildcats seek to extend the longest active streak of playoff appearances (eight) in the FCS, behind senior linebacker Matt Evans, the 2011 Buck Buchanan Award recipient. The transition of new quarterback — Andy Vailas or James Brady — will be eased by wide receivers R.J. Harris and Joey Orlando.
11. Delaware (7–4, 5–3 CAA)
The FCS version of Quarterback U is looking for better production at the position this season. No matter what, coach K.C. Keeler will put the ball in the hands of junior running back Andrew Pierce (2,934 yards in two seasons). Linebacker Paul Worrilow leads the defense.
12. Eastern Washington (6–5, 5–3 Big Sky)
Decimated by injuries last season, the 2010 FCS champions seek significant improvement. SMU transfer quarterback Kyle Padron will replace another former SMU Mustang, Bo Levi Mitchell, the 2011 Walter Payton Award recipient. Padron will have three different 1,000-yard receivers at his disposal — Nicholas Edwards, Greg Herd and Brandon Kaufman.
13. Jacksonville State (7–4, 6–2 OVC)
Having underachieved in recent seasons, the talented Gamecocks hope to put it all together. Coach Jack Crowe is patching up the defense, but his offense will be outstanding with 1,000-yard back Washaun Ealey and quarterback Marques Ivory, who will share time with Coty Blanchard.
14. Indiana State (6–5, 4–4 Missouri Valley)
Catch him if you can: Junior tailback Shakir Bell averaged 7.3 yards per carry while amassing 1,670 yards. The Sycamores’ defense will be led by end Ben Obaseki and linebackers Aaron Archie and Jacolby Washington.
15. Illinois State (7–4, 5–3 Missouri Valley)
Snubbed out of a playoff berth last season, the Redbirds plan to leave no doubt this year. They have a superb passing combo in Matt Brown-to-Tyrone Walker and get after opposing quarterbacks with defensive end Nate Palmer and linebacker Evan Frierson.
16. Stony Brook (9–4, 6–0 Big South)
Two running backs are better than one. Miguel Maysonet (1,633 yards, 15 TDs) has a new tag-team partner in Iowa transfer Marcus Coker, the Big Ten’s second-leading rusher in 2011. The Seawolves may lead the FCS in scoring once again.
17. Montana (11–3, 7–1 Big Sky)
The offseason firing of coach Robin Pflugrad rocked a national semifinalist squad that had lost nine defensive starters already. The running game remains strong with the undersized duo of Peter Nguyen and Jordan Canada.
18. Eastern Kentucky (7–5, 6–2 OVC)
A dominant offensive line, featuring 6'6" tackles Aaron Adams and Patrick Ford, will pave the way for fourth-year quarterback T.J. Pryor and running back Matt Denham, who averaged 184.5 rushing yards over the final eight games of last season.
19. Wofford (8–4, 6–2 SoCon)
Fullbacks Eric Breitenstein (3,695 career rushing yards) and Donovan Johnson get into opponents’ defensive backfields, and linebacker Alvin Scioneaux (16 tackles for a loss) gets into opponents’ offensive backfields. The Terriers have led the FCS in rushing for two straight seasons.
20. Northern Iowa (10–3, 7–1 Missouri Valley)
This perennial FCS power must work in 11 new starters against a brutally tough September schedule that includes Wisconsin and Iowa. Running backs David Johnson and Carlos Anderson fuel a strong ground attack.
21. Murray State (7–4, 5–3 OVC)
The Racers believe they have the FCS’ best quarterback in Casey Brockman, who threw for 3,276 yards and 25 touchdowns last year. Linebacker and leading tackler Sam Small leads a defense that must replace several key pieces.
22. Harvard (9–1, 7–0 Ivy)
Each of the Crimson’s Ivy League wins was by double digits last season. Quarterback Colton Chapple and running back Treavor Scales work behind a veteran offensive line. Harvard’s 37.4 points per game set a school record.
23. Stephen F. Austin (6–5, 5–2 Southland)
Opponents probably can’t believe that veteran wide receivers Gralyn Crawford and Cordell Roberson haven’t graduated yet. Sack specialist Willie Jefferson leads the defense of a team that won its final five games.
24. Chattanooga (5–6, 3–5 SoCon)
The Mocs need to start winning the close games behind quarterback Terrell Robinson, the 2011 SoCon Freshman of the Year. The defense is stocked with end Josh Williams, linebacker Wes Dothard and cornerback Kadeem Wise.
25. Lehigh (11–2, 6–0 Patriot)
Senior quarterback Mike Colvin hopes to run the Mountain Hawks’ high-flying passing attack and will target All-America wide receiver Ryan Spadola (96 receptions for 1,614 yards). They haven’t lost a league game since 2009.
2012 Projected FCS Playoff Qualifiers
Appalachian State (at-large)
Bethune-Cookman (MEAC champ)
Bryant (Northeast champ)
Eastern Washington (at-large)
Georgia Southern (Southern champ)
Illinois State (at-large)
Indiana State (at-large)
Jacksonville State (Ohio Valley champ)
James Madison (CAA champ)
Lehigh (Patriot champ)
Montana State (Big Sky champ)
New Hampshire (at-large)
North Dakota State (Missouri Valley champ)
Old Dominion (at-large)
Sam Houston State (Southland champ)
Stony Brook (Big South champ)
Youngstown State (at-large)