6 FCS Teams That Could End North Dakota State's National Title Run in 2016
So if North Dakota State is not the FCS champion in 2016...
Apologies to Alabama and Ohio State, but North Dakota State has been the standard in Division I football this decade.
It’s the FCS level of Division I, of course, and the Bison have won five straight national titles – an NCAA record.
Chris Klieman, who served as an assistant coach before he led the last two championships as head coach, has started looking toward filling his second hand with title rings.
NDSU, which has a 71-5 record over the last five seasons, is favored again. The Bison return 14 starters and terrific depth (see QB Easton Stick, who went 8-0 as the starter last season in place of an injured Carson Wentz, the No. 2 overall pick in this year's NFL Draft) in addition to having an incomparable winning mindset.
If the Bison are going to be denied a sixth straight FCS title, who will pull it off?
Here are six teams that are strong enough to dethrone them. They all have good game film on the reigning champs, having been dispatched by the Bison in the playoffs in at least one of the last two seasons.
— 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 by Richard Svaleson/NDSU)
Jacksonville State Gamecocks
Last Season: 13-2 (8-0 Ohio Valley champion), FCS finalist
Six to Watch: QB Eli Jenkins, RB Roc Thomas (Auburn transfer), WR Josh Barge, OC Casey Dunn, DE Darius Jackson, LB Joel McCandless
National Title Aspirations: The Gamecocks spent most of the 2015 season ranked No. 1 before being steamrolled by North Dakota State in the national title game. They must prove they can overcome significant senior losses, but third-year head coach John Grass still has plenty of talent. That includes Jenkins, the first-team All-America quarterback, although he had offseason surgery for a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. Barge is the Gamecocks’ all-time receptions leader and the run game will remain potent even with the loss of Troymaine Pope (1,788 yards, 19 touchdowns). The defense is weaker, but it gained transfers, including cornerbacks Al Harris Jr. (South Carolina) and Tramel Terry (Georgia), whose knee injury suffered in the spring will sideline him until midseason. Having gone unbeaten in the OVC for two straight seasons, the Gamecocks will play a strong non-conference schedule (at LSU, vs. Coastal Carolina, at Liberty).
(Photo courtesy of Jacksonville State Athletics)
Northern Iowa Panthers
Last Season: 9-5 (5-3 Missouri Valley), FCS quarterfinalist
Six to Watch: QB Aaron Bailey, RB Tyvis Smith, WR Daurice Fountain, OC Robert Rathje, DE Karter Schult, LB Jared Farley
National Title Aspirations: An Oct. 29 home game against North Dakota State is one of the biggest of the FCS regular season. The Panthers have probably been thinking about the rematch since they fell to NDSU in last year’s national quarterfinals. While this team is a top national title threat, there is concern on defense – especially in the secondary – because last year’s unit was senior-led and top linebacker Brett McMakin turned pro a year early. It leaves only four returning starters with Schult, Farley, defensive tackle Adam Reth, and linebacker D’Shawn Dexter. Northern Iowa’s dynamic offense will pound opponents with its run game – Smith and Bailey each had more than 1,000 yards rushing last season – and an improved pass game. In the Missouri Valley, the one team the Panthers miss in the unbalanced scheduling is Illinois State (two-time defending conference co-champ with NDSU), so that helps.
(Photo courtesy of Northern Iowa Athletics)
Last Season: 10-4 (6-2 CAA Football tri-champion), FCS semifinalist
Six to Watch: QB Kyle Lauletta, WR Brian Brown, RG Thomas Evans, DT Winston Craig, LB Omar Howard, S David Jones
National Title Aspirations: Richmond separated itself from the other two CAA champions, James Madison and William & Mary, by reaching the playoff semifinals for the first time since its 2008 national title season. The CAA is deep like the Missouri Valley, so the Spiders will be prepared again come the postseason. They return eight starters to a defense that often troubles the opposition with different looks. Leading tackler Howard and ball-hawk Jones (nine interceptions) are the top returnees. Offensively, the Spiders are led by a quarterback (Lauletta) who finished second in the FCS in passing yards and a wide receiver (Brown) who was third in receiving yards. The tough task is replacing All-CAA running back Jacobi Green, and the first shot goes to Gordon Collins, who had a good spring.
(Photo courtesy of Richmond Athletics)
Sam Houston State Bearkats
Last Season: 11-4 (7-2 Southland), FCS semifinalist
Six to Watch: QB Jeremiah Briscoe, RB Corey Avery, WR Yedidiah Louis, DE P.J. Hall, DE Mouf Adebo, LB Myke Chatman
National Title Aspirations: If it wasn’t for North Dakota State, Sam Houston would be the most successful FCS program over the last five seasons, making two appearances in the national final and two others in the semifinals. Of course, the Bison stopped the Bearkats in three of those games. All that’s left for the Bearkats is to win a national title. They led the FCS in total offense last season. Briscoe will be at the controls of the explosive attack with leading rusher Avery and leading receiver Louis also returning. The defense must improve, but it has a dominant pass rusher in Hall, and opponents have to game plan at the other defensive end with the return of Adebo from a season-long injury. Head coach K.C. Keeler won the 2003 FCS title at Delaware and had the Bearkats peaking late the last two seasons, so he knows the way to postseason success. Their schedule isn’t particularly strong, so they will want to impress the playoff selection committee on a weekly basis.
(Photo courtesy of Sam Houston State Athletics)
South Dakota State Jackrabbits
Last Season: 8-4 (5-3 Missouri Valley), FCS playoff qualifier
Six to Watch: QB Zach Lujan, RB Brady Mengarelli, WR Jake Wieneke, TE Dallas Goedert, DT Cole Langer, LB Jesse Bobbit
National Title Aspirations: The Jackrabbits have played seven playoff games in the last four seasons, but only one has been at home. With a new stadium (19,340-seat Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium) debuting this year, they need to have a huge regular season and get more of a home-field advantage in the postseason. Veteran head coach John Stiegelmeier has a talented team, particularly on offense. Lujan and fellow signal-caller Taryn Christion will likely share the play calling, and both will feed the ball to the many running backs and receivers, especially the All-American Wieneke. The defense lost a lot on the back end, but it’s strong up the middle with the tackle rotation, including starters Langer and Kellen Soulek. An inability to beat North Dakota State (eight losses since 2010) looms over the Jackrabbits, and they go to the Fargodome on Oct. 15.
(Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Athletics)
Wild Card: Montana Grizzlies
Last Season: 8-5 (6-2 Big Sky), FCS playoff qualifier
Six to Watch: QB Brady Gustafson, RB John Nguyen, OL Devon Dietrich, OL Ben Weyer, DE Caleb Kidder, S Yamen Sanders
National Title Aspirations: This is the wild card – a pretty good one considering Montana’s rich tradition of success – because second-year head coach Bob Stitt’s team has kept adding transfers in the offseason. The Grizzlies especially needed to fill holes on defense. They were supposed to return three starters on defense, and that’s now two after the offseason suspension of cornerback JR Nelson for the first half of the season. Still, they have retooled under new defensive coordinator Jason Semore, and the transfer market yielded the likes of linebacker James Banks (UAB) and defensive tackle Brandt Davidson (Scottsdale [Ariz.] Community College). The offense has veterans. Gustafson beat North Dakota State in his first career start to open last season and after missing seven games with a leg injury he was back to gain playoff experience. The road schedule in the regular season is quite tough, but the Grizzlies beat plenty of strong teams last season.
(Photo courtesy of Montana Athletics)