Interestingly, the teams that are ranked No. 1 (North Dakota State) and No. 2 (James Madison) in the Athlon Sports FCS Preseason Top 25 have new head coaches this season.
The pressure to do so is immense for NDSU's Matt Entz and JMU's Curt Cignetti to push the right buttons and keep the success coming.
Whoever has the top coaching performance in FCS college football will be recognized by the Eddie Robinson Award, which last season went to Dan Hawkins of UC Davis.
The Robinson, now in its 33rd year in the FCS, has been won by a who's who of FCS coaches, including Mark Duffner, Erk Russell, Chris Ault, Jim Tressel, Houston Nutt, Andy Talley, Paul Johnson, Mickey Matthews, Joe Glenn, Mike Ayers, Sean McDonnell, Jerry Moore, and K.C. Keeler.
Following are Athlon’s top five candidates to win the 2019 Robinson Award (listed alphabetically):
Aaron Best, Eastern Washington
2018: 12-3, Big Sky co-champ, FCS runner-up
Career Record: 19-7, two seasons
The Eagles return plenty of talent to advance deep into the FCS playoffs again. They will be favored to repeat as Big Sky champion and won't face last year’s three other playoff teams from the conference. Best has increased the running game to give the offense more balance.
Jay Hill, Weber State
2018: 10-3, Big Sky co-champ, FCS quarterfinalist
Career Record: 36-26, five seasons
A difficult non-conference schedule could sabotage Hill's Robinson candidacy, but it also could build it if the Wildcats perform well. Hill has led them to three straight FCS playoff appearances, including an 11-3 season in 2017 that is considered their best ever.
Dale Lindsey, San Diego
2018: 9-3, Pioneer Football League champ, FCS first round
Career Record: 55-16, six seasons
The Toreros enter the 2019 season with a 29-game conference winning streak — the longest in Division I. They've won at least a share of five straight PFL titles. The 76-year-old Lindsey has led USD to the only FCS playoff wins in PFL history (2016 and '17).
John Stiegelmeier, South Dakota State
2018: 10-3, FCS semifinalist
Career Record: 158-100, 22 seasons
SDSU has put together its three deepest playoff runs over the last three seasons, including back-to-back appearances in the semifinals. During that time, the Jackrabbits have beaten rival and FCS dynasty North Dakota State twice. They'll have a new starting quarterback this season, but the 'Rabbits will surround him with a veteran squad.
Bob Surace, Princeton
2018: 10-0, Ivy League
Career Record: 48-42, nine seasons; 66-45 overall
Surace celebrates his 10th season coaching his alma mater, where despite key graduation losses the Tigers should get off to another big start considering their manageable schedule. They face a difficult run in November, but if Surace can lead another perfect season, Robinson voters will take notice.
Other Leading Candidates: Brian Bohannon, Kennesaw State; Mark Elder, Eastern Kentucky; John Grass, Jacksonville State; Buddy Teevens, Dartmouth
— 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.
(Photo courtesy of Eastern Washington Athletics)