College football isn't just about the major conferences and the BCS. The FCS settles its national champion with a playoff, something most FBS fans have wanted for years. North Dakota State tops Athlon's Top 25 FCS teams for 2013, as the Bison look to win their third consecutive national championship.
1. North Dakota State (14-1, 7-1 MVC)
A tremendous amount of returning talent powers the Bison as they seek a third straight national title. Cornerback Marcus Williams and linebacker Grant Olson fuel the nation’s stingiest defense, and quarterback Brock Jensen will feed 1,000-yard backs Sam Ojuri and John Crockett. A word of caution for Kansas State, which hosts the Bison on Aug. 30: coach Craig Bohl’s program is 6–3 against FBS opponents since joining the FCS ranks in 2006.
2. Montana State (11-2, 7-1 Big Sky)
The three-time defending Big Sky champions welcome back linebacker Na’a Moeakiola and defensive end Brad Daly but have several holes to plug on defense. This season, the Bobcats offense has to lead the way, and it can, behind fourth-year starting quarterback DeNarius McGhee, running back Cody Kirk and receiver Tanner Bleskin.
3. Georgia Southern (10-4, 6-2 Southern)
The FBS-bound Eagles are ineligible for the Southern Conference title and a playoff berth after three straight semifinal-round appearances. With a solid offensive line and the return of quarterback Jerick McKinnon (1,817 rushing yards, 20 rushing TDs) and fullback Dominique Swope (1,246, 17 total TDs), Georgia Southern’s triple option attack could lead the FCS in rushing once again.
4. Sam Houston State (11-4, 6-1 Southland)
Two straight losses in the national final are motivating coach Willie Fritz’s squad. The offense will score in bunches with the return of quarterback Brian Bell, All-America running back Timothy Flanders and multi-dimensional running back/receiver Richard Sincere. Still, the defense is vulnerable after suffering key losses.
5. Villanova (8-4, 6-2 CAA)
With the return of 18 starters, veteran coach Andy Talley seemingly has one of his better teams, although a competitive CAA race will test the Wildcats. Quarterback John Robertson, the 2012 Jerry Rice Award winner, has fellow playmakers in running backs Kevin Monangai and Jamal Abdur-Rahman. Plus, the Wildcats are as deep in the trenches as any FCS team.
6. Appalachian State (8-4, 6-2 Southern)
Scott Satterfield faces the difficult task of replacing legendary coach Jerry Moore as the Mountaineers head toward the FBS. Ineligible for the SoCon title and a playoff berth, they feature a terrific passing game led by quarterback Jamal Jackson and receivers Sean Price, Andrew Peacock and Tony Washington.
7. Eastern Washington (11-3, 7-1 Big Sky)
The Eagles’ schedule is diabolical — road games at Oregon State, Toledo, Sam Houston State, Montana and Cal Poly, and a home date against Montana State. Can they overcome it? Last season’s national semifinalists expect to with the likes of quarterback Vernon Adams, linebacker Ronnie Hamlin and cornerback T.J. Lee III.
8. Towson (7-4, 6-2 CAA)
Junior running back Terrance West has scored 44 touchdowns in his career and is beaming over the return of all five starting offensive linemen. Wisconsin transfer Joe Brennan may take over at quarterback, while the defense will be strong at linebacker and defensive back.
9. Montana (5-6, 3-5 Big Sky)
The Grizzlies are still coming out of a tumultuous period, including last year’s first losing record since 1985. The reinstatement of 2011 starting quarterback Jordan Johnson could settle the position again. The defense is stacked in the front seven with end Zach Wagenmann and senior linebackers Jordan Tripp, Brock Coyle and John Kanongata’a.
10. South Dakota State (9-4, 6-2 MVC)
Zach Zenner led the FCS in rushing yards (2,044 yards) as a sophomore and is the focal point of the offense. But the Jackrabbits need quarterback Austin Sumner to provide his 2011 level of production instead of last year’s drop-off. Sophomore linebacker T.J. Lally is a big-game player already.
11. New Hampshire (8-4, 6-2 CAA)
Opponents will be hard-pressed to slow the Wildcats’ bid for a 10th straight FCS playoff berth. Nico Steriti, who averaged 6.6 yards per carry as a sophomore, heads a deep running attack, and quarterbacks Sean Goldrich and Andy Vailas always get the ball to junior wide receiver R.J. Harris. New Hampshire must replace linebacker Matt Evans, the school’s all-time tackles leader.
12. Central Arkansas (9-3, 6-1 Southland)
Dual-threat quarterback Wynrick Smothers (3,103 yards passing, 449 yards rushing in 2012) and defensive end Jonathan Woodard are poised for big seasons for the Bears, who have yet to lose in two seasons on their purple-and-gray turf. Linebacker Justin Heard and cornerback Jestin Love also star for the emerging defense.
13. Richmond (8-3, 6-2 CAA)
The Spiders enjoyed a five-win improvement in coach Danny Rocco’s first season as the head coach, and they may be poised for another leap forward with the return of 18 starters. In a run-heavy CAA, senior wideout Ben Edwards (80 receptions) stands out for quarterback Michael Strauss. Defensive linemen Evan Kelly and Kerry Wynn track down the opposing quarterbacks.
14. Northern Iowa (5-6, 4-4 MVC)
The Panthers have softened the schedule after overindulging last season — at Wisconsin and at Iowa in the first three weeks of the season — and they expect to get back on track behind junior running back David Johnson and sophomore quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen. Placekicker Tyler Sievertsen, who’s made 28-of-33 career field goal attempts, likes the comforts of the UNI Dome.
15. Cal Poly (9-3, 7-1 Big Sky)
After making a splash in their Big Sky debut, the Mustangs return a veteran squad, but their losses include quarterback Andre Broadous and 1,500-yard back Deonte Williams. Slotback Kristaan Ivory is the new offensive star, and defensive tackle Sullivan Grosz gets into opponents’ backfields.
16. Northern Arizona (8-3, 6-2 Big Sky)
Two season-ending losses — at home vs. Southern Utah and Cal Poly — sabotaged the Lumberjacks, who return 18 starters. Running back Zach Bauman seeks a fourth straight 1,000-yard season, and fellow seniors Anders Battle and Lucky Dozier headline one of the better secondaries in the FCS.
17. James Madison (7-4, 5-3 CAA)
Sophomore quarterback Michael Birdsong is a star in the making, and running back Dae’Quan Scott does a little bit of everything for the Dukes. All-America middle linebacker Stephon Robertson works sideline to sideline, backed by emerging safety Dean Marlowe.
18. Chattanooga (6-5, 5-3 Southern)
The Mocs are primed for SoCon title contention with the conference’s best defense, featuring 2012 Defensive Player of the Year Davis Tull at end, linebacker Wes Dothard and cornerback Kadeem Wise. Jacob Huesman, son of coach Russ Huesman, has supplanted Terrell Robinson at quarterback.
19. Wofford (9-4, 6-2 Southern)
With FBS-bound Appalachian State and Georgia Southern ineligible for the SoCon title, the Terriers are the league favorites. They lose standout Eric Breitenstein but now feature fullback Donovan Johnson, who has 1,793 career rushing yards. Linebacker Mike McCrimon and Alvin Scioneaux are rocks on defense.
20. Eastern Illinois (7-5, 6-1 OVC)
Behind his lethal passing attack, first-year coach Dino Babers took the Panthers from worst to first in the Ohio Valley Conference. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and wide receiver Erik Lora, whose 136 receptions set the FCS single-season record, lead the passing game.
21. Tennessee State (8-3, 4-3 OVC)
After beginning last season with seven straight wins, the Tigers need talented junior quarterback Michael German to be their closer. Much of the defense returns, including shutdown cornerback Steven Godbolt III and aptly named linebacker Nick Thrasher, their leading tackler.
22. Delaware (5-6, 2-6 CAA)
New coach Dave Brock inherits a talented team that features senior tailback Andrew Pierce (3,637 career rushing yards) and, the Blue Hens hope, a healthier Trent Hurley at quarterback. Linebacker Jeff Williams broke in as a premier pass-rusher last season.
23. Youngstown State (7-4, 4-4 MVC)
A tough schedule in November means the Penguins need a fast start as they chase their first playoff appearance since 2006. Quarterback Kurt Hess will air it out to make amends for last season’s disappointment.
24. Illinois State (9-4, 5-3 MVC)
The Redbirds have filled major holes on offense with transfers — quarterback Jared Barnett, from Iowa State, and power running back Collin Keoshian, from Glendale (Calif.) Community College. Premier defensive end Colton Underwood has to lead a defense that also sustained heavy losses.
25. The Citadel (7-4, 5-3 Southern)
A rare sweep of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern last season could be a prelude for an even better 2013. The Bulldogs’ triple option returns quarterbacks Ben Dupree and Aaron Miller, 1,000-yard fullback Darien Robinson and a veteran offensive line.
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