North Dakota State is the team to beat again, but others are lining up for the chase
If a team had to beat North Dakota State in a playoff series, the NCAA might as well save the time and (the Bison opponents’) energy and ship the FCS championship trophy to Fargo in early September.
But it only takes a one-and-done day for somebody to knock off the NDSU dynasty, and though it’s only happened once in the Bison’s six national championship seasons over the last seven years, James Madison proved in the 2016 semifinals and nearly in this year’s final that it can happen.
That’s why teams keep lining up to take their best shot at toppling college football’s most successful program this decade.
With North Dakota State leading the way, here’s a look at seven programs that hold legitimate national title aspirations in 2018.
— 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.
North Dakota State Bison
Head Coach: Chris Klieman (54-6, four seasons)
2017 Season: 14-1 (7-1 Missouri Valley champion), FCS champion
Key Returnees: QB Easton Stick, RB Bruce Anderson, RB Lance Dunn, WR Darrius Shepherd, C Tanner Volson, DE Greg Menard, DT Aaron Steidl, LB Jabril Cox, SS Robbie Grimsley, CB Jalen Allison, PK Cam Pedersen
National Title Aspirations: The national champs will have a senior-laden team as they go after a seventh FCS title, which would set a new record (the Bison and Georgia Southern are tied for the most with six each). Stick returns with a 34-3 record as a starting quarterback. Three starters on the offensive line also are back to pave the way for a ridiculously good stable of running backs led by Anderson, Dunn and Ty Brooks. Not surprisingly, the defense ranked No. 1 in the FCS this past season and it gets back All-American Menard from a preseason knee injury. The schedule is advantageous because the Bison don’t leave the Fargodome until October and play seven of their 11 games at home.
(Photo courtesy of North Dakota State Athletics)
James Madison Dukes
Head Coach: Mike Houston (28-2, two seasons)
2017 Season: 14-1 (8-0 CAA Football champion), FCS runner-up
Key Returnees: QB Cole Johnson, RB Marcus Marshall, RB Trai Sharp, WR Riley Stapleton, WR David Eldridge, RT Jahee Jackson, DE Darrious Carter, CB Jimmy Moreland, CB Rashad Robinson, SS/PR D’Angelo Amios, PK Ethan Ratke, P Harry O’Kelly
National Title Aspirations: The Dukes lose more key players than new rival North Dakota State, but Houston has quickly built the program to withstand such change. The running back stable will rival NDSU as the deepest in the FCS if Cardon Johnson (Achilles tear in 2017) is granted a sixth season and rejoins Marshall and Sharp. It will be difficult to replace the leadership of quarterback Bryan Schor, but candidates Cole Johnson, Gage Maloney and Ben DiNucci, who is expected to transfer in from Pittsburgh, hope to deliver productivity. The front seven of the defense has to be retooled after big senior losses, but Moreland and Robinson form a pair of shutdown cornerbacks in the strong secondary.
(Photo courtesy of James Madison Athletics)
Kennesaw State Owls
Head Coach: Brian Bohannon (26-10, three seasons)
2017 Season: 12-2 (5-0 Big South champ), FCS quarterfinalist
Key Returnees: QB Chandler Burks, RB Jake McKenzie, WR Justin Sumpter, RT Zach Mitchler, C C.J. Collins, DE Desmond Johnson Jr., LB Bryson Armstrong, LB Anthony Gore Jr., FS Jace White, PK Justin Thompson
National Title Aspirations: In just their third season as a program, the Owls won the Big South title and two playoff games on the way to reaching the national quarterfinals. Most of their starting lineup returns, led by Burks under center. He’s the first option on the nation’s No. 1-ranked rushing attack, but McKenzie, Shaquil Terry and Darnell Holland each finished with at least 725 yards on the ground. The defense keeps getting better with the likes of Johnson and Armstrong, the 2017 Jerry Rice Award as the nation’s top freshmen, always getting into backfields. The Owls will be tested out of conference by Georgia State – their first FBS opponent – and Samford and Jacksonville State – the teams they beat in the playoffs.
(Photo courtesy of Kennesaw State Athletics)
New Hampshire Wildcats
Head Coach: Sean McDonnell (150-88, 19 seasons)
2017 Season: 9-5 (5-3 CAA Football), FCS quarterfinalist
Key Returnees: QB Trevor Knight, RB Evan Gay, WR Neil O’Connor, WR Malik Love, LT Dayne Herron, DE Jae’wuan Horton, DE Brian Carter, LB Quinlen Dean, LB Jared Kuehl, CB Prince Smith Jr., SS Rick Ellison, FS Evan Horn
National Title Aspirations: McDonnell’s 20th season promises to be outstanding as the Wildcats build off this past year’s run to the quarterfinals in their 14th straight playoff appearance. They are expected to return nine starters on each side of the ball. As juniors, O’Connor became one of the top receivers in the FCS and Knight posted a breakout season. But the offense needs a stronger run game to keep Knight from being under a constant pass rush. The Wildcats’ defense boasts playmakers in linebackers Dean and Kuehl and with a standout secondary.
(Photo courtesy of New Hampshire Athletics)
South Dakota State Jackrabbits
Head Coach: John Stiegelmeier (148-97, 21 seasons)
2017 Season: 11-3 (6-2 Missouri Valley), FCS semifinalist
Key Returnees: QB Taryn Christion, RB Mikey Daniel, RB Isaac Wallace, WR/KR Cade Johnson, LG Sepestiano Pupungatoa, DE Ryan Earith, LB Christian Rozeboom, LB Logan Backhaus, LB Dalton Ciox, CB Jordan Brown, PK Chase Vinatieri
National Title Aspirations: Coming off their first appearance in the national semifinals, the big question for the Jackrabbits is whether they can somewhat replace the NFL-bound Dallas Goedert at tight end and Jake Wieneke at wide receiver. It’s unlikely, so the 'Rabbits might pound the run more with Daniel and Wallace. The defense returns enough, including the three starting linebackers — led by the All-American Rozeboom — to expect improvement. The home schedule is favorable and the road portion difficult. They’ll visit the Fargodome seeking to beat North Dakota State for the third straight time in the regular season.
(Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Athletics)
Weber State Wildcats
Head Coach: Jay Hill (26-23, four seasons)
2017 Season: 11-3 (7-1 Big Sky co-champ), FCS quarterfinalist
Key Returnees: RB Treshawn Garrett, RB Kevin Smith, FB Brady May, WR/KR Rashid Shaheed, OT Iousa Opeta, DE Jonah Williams, DE Adam Rodriguez, LB LeGrand Toia, LB Landon Stice, S Jordan Preator, CB Keilan Benjamin, PK Trey Tuttle
National Title Aspirations: A strong nucleus will return from arguably the best team in Weber State history, which twice led James Madison in the fourth quarter before falling in a national quarterfinal. Hill, whose contract was wisely extended by the school, will be hard-pressed to replace quarterback Stefan Cantwell, although he could look to bring in a transfer. Regardless, the Wildcats will want to run more after also losing their two go-to receivers. Toia, the leading tackler, will headline the defense. A terrific title race in the Big Sky looms.
(Photo courtesy of Weber State Athletics)
Eastern Washington Eagles
Head Coach: Aaron Best (7-4, one season)
2017 Season: 7-4 (6-2 Big Sky)
Key Returnees: QB Gage Gubrud, RB Antoine Custer Jr., RB Sam McPherson, WR Nsimba Webster, WR/KR Dre’ Sonte Dorton, C Spencer Blackburn, OG Tristen Taylor, DE Keenan Williams, DT Jay-Tee Tiuli, LB Kurt Calhoun, LB Ketner Kupp, CB Josh Lewis, S Mitch Fettig
National Title Aspirations: Looking for a contender coming from outside the 2017 playoffs? Well, the Eagles aren’t quite the definition of a dark horse having finished as a top-four team in each of head coach Beau Baldwin’s final five seasons from 2012-16. Best, in his second season, will bring back an experienced lineup, fueled by Gubrud, whose junior season was pedestrian compared to the 2016 campaign in which he set the FCS single-season record of 5,160 passing yards. While the Eagles’ defense is always looking for improvement, Tiuli will return from a medical redshirt. Missing the playoffs will motivate the Eagles all year long.
(Photo courtesy of Eastern Washington Athletics)