North Dakota State is playing in the first FCS game of the college football season.
It might be foolish not to believe the Bison will be playing in the final game as well.
Having won an NCAA-record five straight national titles, the Missouri Valley Football Conference power doesn’t appear to be letting up.
But those giving chase come prepared this season. Sam Houston State, Northern Iowa, Richmond and last year’s national runner-up Jacksonville State – teams the Bison have come to know on the Road to Frisco (Texas) in recent playoffs – return standout quarterbacks and veteran teams. They are the No. 2 through 5 teams in the Athlon Sports FCS Preseason Top 25.
North Dakota State, which opens the season Aug. 27 by hosting Charleston Southern in the FCS Kickoff, is ready to take on all challengers.
(2015 record in parentheses)
1. North Dakota State
(13-2, 7-1 Missouri Valley)
There’s no complacency in Fargo even after the FCS dynasty made it five straight national titles — an NCAA all-division record. With 14 returning starters, the Bison are favored to continue the amazing run. Their punishing defense, led by linebacker Nick DeLuca and defensive end Greg Menard, flattens opponents. Four returning starters on the offensive line will do the same for King Frazier and a deep stable of running backs. Quarterback isn’t a question mark even after Carson Wentz’s graduation because Easton Stick was 8-0 as a redshirt freshman while Wentz was sidelined. The Bison are 71-5 since 2011.
2. Sam Houston State
(11-4, 7-2 Southland)
All that’s left for the Bearkats is a national title — they’ve reached the semifinals in four of the last five seasons. Playoff standout Jeremiah Briscoe is the starting quarterback after Jared Johnson left for UTSA as a graduate transfer, while running back Corey Avery dominates. Coach K.C. Keeler seeks stronger defense, and defensive end P.J. Hall will be happy to oblige.
3. Northern Iowa
(9-5, 5-3 Missouri Valley)
UNI is ready to stand up to North Dakota State in the Missouri Valley race and beyond. The Panthers’ two returning 1,000-yard rushers, quarterback Aaron Bailey and running back Tyvis Smith, work behind a veteran offensive line. Their defense was hit hard by graduation, but defensive end Karter Schult is back to terrorize opposing quarterbacks.
(10-4, 6-2 Colonial)
Junior Kyle Lauletta was No. 2 in the FCS in passing yards (3,598) and combines again with wide receiver Brian Brown. The 2015 national semifinalist Spiders are even more experienced on defense with linebacker Omar Howard and safety David Jones (nine interceptions) among eight returning starters.
5. Jacksonville State
(13-2, 8-0 Ohio Valley)
Coach John Grass bulked up the schedule (LSU, Coastal Carolina and Liberty) after reaching the national championship game. All-America quarterback Eli Jenkins is returning from shoulder surgery, and his go-to target, Josh Barge, is the Gamecocks’ all-time receptions leader. Defensive end Darius Jackson and linebacker Joel McCandless lead a retooled defense.
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6. Charleston Southern
(10-3, 6-0 Big South)
Coach Jamey Chadwell appears destined for a bigger job, but there’s an immediate task at hand. The Buccaneers’ record-setting defense returns defensive end Anthony Ellis and linebacker Solomon Brown, and a bruising run game features seniors Darius Hammond, Mike Holloway and Ben Robinson.
(9-4, 6-1 Southern)
The Mocs seek a fourth straight SoCon title, but three-time league Offensive Player of the Year Jacob Huesman is gone, leaving lefthander Alejandro Bennifield to take over at quarterback. The nucleus remains strong with running back Derrick Craine (1,251 yards) and defensive end Keionta Davis (13.5 sacks) coming off Mocs single-season records.
8. South Dakota State
(8-4, 5-3 Missouri Valley)
A standout Jackrabbits team will usher in the inaugural season at 19,340-seat Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium. The quarterback platoon of Zach Lujan and Taryn Christion will feed the ball to wide receiver Jake Wieneke and tight end Dallas Goedert. The defense is strong up the middle with tackle Cole Langer.
9. Coastal Carolina
(9-3, 4-2 Big South; FCS Independent in 2016)
The Chanticleers may struggle to get top-25 support from voters as the former Big South power transitions toward the FBS in 2017. Touchdown machine De’Angelo Henderson will carry the rushing load after the loss of veteran quarterback Alex Ross.
10. The Citadel
(9-4, 6-1 Southern)
Offensive coordinator-turned-head coach Brent Thompson will keep the triple option humming. In QB Dominique Allen and backs Tyler Renew and Cam Jackson, the Bulldogs return three players who gained more than 750 yards. The defense features shutdown corner Dee Delaney.
11. Illinois State
(10-3, 7-1 Missouri Valley)
All eyes are on sophomore quarterback Jake Kolbe and a running back committee as they take over for the dominating duo of Tre Roberson and Marshaun Coprich, respectively. The other nine offensive starters return, including big-play wide receiver Anthony Warrum.
12. Eastern Washington
(6-5, 5-3 Big Sky)
Wide receiver Cooper Kupp, the 2015 Walter Payton Award Winner, has 58 total TDs in his career. But for the Eagles to rebound from a subpar season, quarterback Jordan West needs more consistency and the defense must tighten for — gulp — an opening stretch of Washington State, North Dakota State and Northern Iowa.
13. William & Mary
(9-4, 6-2 Colonial)
Physical defense is a staple with the Tribe, but this season quarterback Steve Cluley, tailback Kendell Anderson and wide receiver DeVonte Dedmon will create an offensive mindset. Placekicker Nick Dorka and punter Hunter Windmuller provide a leg up on special teams.
14. James Madison
(9-3, 6-2 Colonial)
With his team desperate for playoff success, new coach Mike Houston is keeping the high-powered spread attack, which gets big production from running backs Khalid Abdullah and Cardon Johnson and wide receiver Brandon Ravenel. Linebacker Andrew Ankrah and cornerback Taylor Reynolds fuel the defense.
15. North Dakota
(7-4, 5-3 Big Sky)
After being one of the last teams left out of the postseason in 2015, the Fighting Hawks are motivated. They also have super sophomore John Santiago, the Big Sky’s leader in all-purpose yards, and a schedule that doesn’t include Eastern Washington, Montana and Portland State. Playoffs? Indeed.
(8-5, 6-2 Big Sky)
Another tough schedule awaits second-year coach Bob Stitt, whose Grizzlies roared with impressive wins in 2015 (including North Dakota State). Quarterback Brady Gustafson’s passing numbers are as big as his 6'7" frame. All-Big Sky defensive tackle Caleb Kidder is one of only three returning starters on defense.
17. McNeese State
(10-1, 9-0 Southland)
There is continuity following Matt Viator’s departure to ULM because defensive coordinator Lance Guidry gained the top job. His defense, anchored by 6-foot-2, 335-pound tackle Isaiah Golden, was among the nation’s best last season. Junior running back Ryan Ross is ready for a huge season.
(7-4, 5-3 Colonial)
The addition of former Oregon quarterback Morgan Mahalak may be just what two-time 1,000-yard rusher Darius Victor and a veteran offense need. The seniors, who barely missed last year’s playoffs, were freshmen for the 2013 FCS national runners-up.
19. Western Illinois
(7-6, 5-3 Missouri Valley)
New coach Charlie Fisher inherits another rugged schedule, but quarterback Trenton Norvell, wide receiver Lance Lenoir and linebacker Brett Taylor are among 17 returning starters. Last season, the Leathernecks became the first 6-5 team to receive an at-large playoff bid.
(6-5, 5-3 Colonial)
Coach Andy Talley, who guided Nova to the 2009 FCS title, enters his 32nd and final season. Dual-threat quarterback Zach Bednarczyk expects to build off his rookie season, and 6-foot-7, 275-pound defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon will have a finishing touch as a senior.
21. Portland State
(9-3, 6-2 Big Sky)
Beware, San Jose State and Washington, the Vikings took down two FBS programs and had a six-win improvement last year. Portland State lost a lot of key players, but 2015 FCS Coach of the Year Bruce Barnum is glad quarterback Alex Kuresa isn’t one of them.
22. Youngstown State
(5-6, 3-5 Missouri Valley)
After the Bo Pelini era opened to a disappointing record, the Penguins seek their first playoff bid since 2006. Senior defensive end Derek Rivers already holds the school record with 26 career sacks, while running backs Martin Ruiz and Jody Webb also expect big senior campaigns.
(9-5, 6-0 Patriot)
Nine starters return on each side of the ball after the Raiders won two playoff games to reach the national quarterfinals. Senior quarterback Jake Melville is a dual-threat, and wideout Alex Greenawalt is a breakout candidate.
24. Northern Arizona
(7-4, 5-3 Big Sky)
Sophomore Case Cookus might be hard-pressed to improve on last year’s 37 touchdown passes — an FCS freshman record — but the return of wide receiver Emmanuel Butler (15 TDs) provides a good start. The Lumberjacks were only 2–4 on the road last season.
25. Eastern Kentucky
(6-5, 5-2 Ohio Valley)
Quarterback Bennie Coney can dominate a game and will have support from a healthier Ethan Thomas at running back. Missing the playoffs doesn’t sit well with the Colonels, so new coach Mark Elder was brought in to get them back there.
— 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.
(Top photo by Richard Svaleson/NDSU)