Current top dog James Madison and five-time champ North Dakota State will have company again near the top of the subdivision
James Madison ended North Dakota State’s five-year run as the FCS national champion during the 2016 season.
Make no mistake, however, head coach Mike Houston’s Dukes, who won at the Fargdome in the playoff semifinals, did not end the Bison dynasty.
It could continue in 2017, like many dynasties that are forged over a period of time.
But James Madison should have a big say in the matter as the new kingpin reloads for a run at back-to-back championships.
Attention on the FCS has never been hotter than in recent years. Here’s a look at seven programs with legitimate national title aspirations in 2017.
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
The Citadel Bulldogs
2016 Season: 10-2 (8-0 SoCon champion), FCS second round
Key Returnees: QB Dominique Allen, RB Cam Jackson, RB Reggie Williams, LT Isaiah Pinson, LB Myles Pierce, CB Dee Delaney, S Kailik Williams
National Title Aspirations: Even during subpar seasons, the Bulldogs were always dangerous because of their triple-option offense. But now they’re good, with former head coach Mike Houston (from FCS champion James Madison) and current head coach Brent Thompson having guided them to back-to-back Southern Conference titles and playoff appearances for the first time. Allen, who’s made 22 career starts, directs the ball-control offense that led the FCS with nearly 350 rushing yards per game. The secondary will be among the nation’s best as Williams was the media’s choice for conference defensive player of the year and Delaney is a first-team All-America cornerback who has 13 career interceptions.
(Photo courtesy of The Citadel Athletics)
2016 Season: 10-4 (5-3 CAA), FCS quarterfinalist
Key Returnees: QB Kyle Lauletta, RB Deontez Thompson, WR Tyler Wilkins, TE Garrett Hudson, DE Andrew Clyde, S Brendan Coniker, PK Griffin Trau
National Title Aspirations: Head coach Danny Rocco left after five seasons to take over at Delaware, but Richmond reacted quickly with the hiring of Russ Huesman from Chattanooga. He was the defensive coordinator of the Spiders’ 2008 FCS championship team. His new squad deserves a lot of credit for its 2016 season, which included two playoff wins, because the Spiders were one of the more injury-riddled teams in the FCS. Lauletta, a two-time 3,000-yard passer, suffered a torn ACL in the regular-season finale, which led to Kevin Johnson having a redshirt lifted for the playoffs (he played well). Thompson also stepped into a starter’s role because of injury and rushed for more than 1,000 yards. The defense lost a ton of talent, so Huesman will have to perform his magic there.
(Photo courtesy of Chattanooga Athletics)
Eastern Washington Eagles
2016 Season: 12-2 (8-0 Big Sky co-champion), FCS semifinalist
Key Returnees: QB Gage Gubrud, RB/KR Antoine Custer Jr., WR Stu Stiles, DT Jay-Tee Tiuli, LB Alek Kacmarcik, S Mitch Fettig, CB Nzuzi Webster
National Title Aspirations: Gubrud threw for an FCS single-season-record 5,160 yards as well as 48 touchdowns, but his top three wide receivers were seniors, and that included NFL-bound Cooper Kupp. Wideouts Nic Sblendorio and Stiles will take on larger roles, while Custer’s continued development will give the offense more of a running threat. The Eagles also have to overcome plenty of losses on defense, but at least that side of the ball returns a Kupp, Cooper’s younger brother Ketner at linebacker. North Dakota, the Big Sky’s other unbeaten co-champion, returns a lot of talent, but it’s hard to discount Eastern Washington considering the Eagles have had a top-four finish in five of the past seven seasons under head coach Beau Baldwin (including the 2010 FCS title).
(Photo courtesy of Eastern Washington Athletics)
Sam Houston State Bearkats
2016 Season: 12-1 (9-0 Southland champion), FCS quarterfinalist
Key Returnees: QB Jeremiah Briscoe, RB Corey Avery, RB Remus Bulmer, WR/PR Yedidiah Louis, WR Nathan Stewart, DE P.J. Hall, LB Justin Johnson
National Title Aspirations: The Bearkats were the only unbeaten FCS team in the 2016 regular season. All of the leading skill position players are back from the nation’s top-ranked offense, led by Briscoe, who as a junior set the subdivision’s single-season record with 57 touchdown passes and won the STATS FCS Walter Payton Award. The question is, can head coach K.C. Keeler strengthen a defense that hasn’t been at a national championship-level in the playoffs (while bowing out, they surrendered 62 points to Jacksonville State in 2015 and 65 to James Madison in ‘16)? The building blocks are there in Hall, a pass-rushing beast, and Johnson, the team’s leading tackler. Keeler always brings in talented transfers, so that figures to make a difference.
(Photo courtesy of Sam Houston State Athletics)
South Dakota State Jackrabbits
2016 Season: 9-4 (7-1 Missouri Valley co-champion), FCS quarterfinalist
Key Returnees: QB Taryn Christion, WR Jake Wieneke, TE Dallas Goedert, RB Brady Mengarelli, C Jacob Ohnesorge, DT Kellen Soulek, LB Christian Rozeboom
National Title Aspirations: If the Jackrabbits stop running into North Dakota State in the regionalized playoffs, there’s no telling how far they could go. They’ve bowed out against the Bison in three of the last five playoffs, but they also won at the Fargodome in the regular season this past October. Head coach John Stiegelmeier’s team expects to be even better in 2017 behind Christion, the Missouri Valley offensive player of the year, and the Goedert-Wieneke tandem that combined for 170 receptions, 2,609 receiving yards and 27 touchdown catches. The defense features one of the best young players in the nation in Rozeboom, who led the team in tackles as a freshman. Like NDSU, the Jackrabbits don’t have an FBS opponent on their schedule.
(Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Athletics)
James Madison Dukes
2016 Season: 14-1 (8-0 CAA champion), FCS champion
Key Returnees: QB Bryan Schor, RB Cardon Johnson, TE Jonathan Kloosterman, LT Aaron Stinnie, DE Andrew Ankrah, S Raven Greene, S Jordan Brown
National Title Aspirations: Head coach Mike Houston admits the Dukes were ahead of schedule by winning their program’s second national title in his first season in Harrisonburg, Va. They beat nationally ranked teams in six of their final seven games, concluding with a 28-14 win over Youngstown State in the FCS final. They will return 12 starters from the championship game, led by Schor, the CAA Offensive Player of the Year. While they lose star running back Khalid Abdullah, Johnson and Trai Sharpe both had more than 600 rushing yards and two-time Georgia Tech leading rusher Marcus Marshall has transferred into the program. The defense will be particularly strong in the secondary. The Dukes even have a winnable FBS game (East Carolina).
(Photo courtesy of James Madison Athletics)
North Dakota State Bison
2016 Season: 12-2 (7-1 Missouri Valley co-champion), FCS semifinalist
Key Returnees: QB Easton Stick, RB Lance Dunn, WR Darrius Sheppard, DE Greg Menard, LB Nick DeLuca, S Tre Dempsey, S Robbie Grimsley
National Title Aspirations: The Bison have extra motivation – they want to get the FCS title back. Their defense should be the nation’s best after DeLuca received a medical redshirt for this past season to rejoin the likes of Menard and defensive tackle Nate Tanguay up front and all the starters in the secondary. Stick is 20-2 as a starter and has a terrific set of running backs in Dunn and Bruce Anderson. The concern is on the offensive line because the Bison must replace three starters. The road portion of the schedule is loaded with Eastern Washington, Youngstown State, South Dakota State and Illinois State, but the Bison seek another big regular season so they can earn another high playoff seed and host games at the Fargodome.
(Photo courtesy of North Dakota State Athletics)