James Madison winning the 2016 national championship changed everything in FCS college football.
Along the way, the Dukes served notice to the rest of the FCS that North Dakota State is no longer invincible in the playoffs. They won inside the Fargodome in the semifinals before going on to beat Youngstown State, 28-14, in the title game in Frisco, Texas.
James Madison and North Dakota State are still the teams to beat in 2017, but there are enough strong teams heading into the season, and others ready to surprise and build momentum once the games begin, that a contested race to the top is highly anticipated.
Here is Athlon’s projected top 25 teams in the FCS, with where teams might finish after the national championship on Jan. 6:
Note: 2016 record is in parentheses
1. North Dakota State
(12-2, 7-1 Missouri Valley)
The Bison’s five-year run as FCS national champions ended against James Madison in the 2016 playoff semifinals, but their dynasty isn’t necessarily over because they’re strong enough (16 returning starters) to climb back to the top of the mountain. Oh yes, coach Chris Klieman’s program is probably a little more motivated this time around. With linebacker Nick DeLuca and defensive tackle Nate Tanguay returning from injuries, the veteran defense is the nation’s best and also features defensive end Greg Menard and safety Tre Dempsey among its bruisers. The loss of two starters on the offensive line is a bit of a concern, but quarterback Easton Stick will spread the ball around to running backs Lance Dunn and Bruce Anderson and wide receivers Darrius Shepherd and R.J. Urzendowski. The Bison have won at least a share of six straight Missouri Valley titles and are 83–7 in that time.
2. James Madison
(14-1, 8-0 CAA)
The Dukes captured the 2016 national championship in coach Mike Houston’s initial season in Harrisonburg. Despite some key losses, they’ve reloaded for a shot at capturing back-to-back titles. Clutch quarterback Bryan Schor, the 2016 CAA Offensive Player of the Year, is back as a senior. While 1,800-yard rusher Khalid Abdullah is gone, two-time Georgia Tech leading rusher Marcus Marshall has transferred into a deep backfield alongside running backs Cardon Johnson and Trai Sharpe. The defense features end Andrew Ankrah and safety Raven Greene. The schedule is advantageous, as last year’s other top CAA teams have to visit Bridgeforth Stadium. Plus, a season-opening win at East Carolina is possible.
3. South Dakota State
(9-4, 7-1 Missouri Valley)
Last year’s national quarterfinalists have an FBS-level offense, led by junior quarterback and Missouri Valley Offensive Player of the Year Taryn Christion. His go-to targets, NFL prospects Dallas Goedert (tight end) and Jake Wieneke (wide receiver), combined for 170 receptions, 2,609 receiving yards and 27 touchdown catches in 2016. All-conference linebacker Christian Rozeboom was nearly the National Freshman of the Year, but the defense needs to improve for coach John Stiegelmeier’s squad to meet the team’s higher expectations.
4. Sam Houston State
(12-1, 9-0 Southland)
The Bearkats’ offense could be the nation’s deepest behind senior quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe, who threw an FCS single-season record 57 touchdown passes while winning the 2016 Walter Payton Award. Coach K.C. Keeler’s offense has an embarrassment of riches with wide receivers Yedidiah Louis, Davion Davis and Nathan Stewart and running backs Corey Avery and Remus Bulmer. Senior defensive end P.J. Hall and linebacker Justin Johnson must lift a defense that lost six starters. In six straight playoff appearances, the snakebitten Bearkats have been eliminated by four eventual national champs and one national runner-up.
5. North Dakota
(9-3, 8-0 Big Sky)
A Big Sky co-title and first-ever FCS playoff appearance have whet the appetite of a UND program that will move to the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2020. Safety Cole Reyes, the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year, joins cornerbacks Deion Harris and Torrey Hunt in a shutdown secondary. Senior quarterback Keaton Studsrud has improved as a passer, but he’ll give many handoffs to junior running backs John Santiago and Brady Oliveira and Minnesota transfer James Johannesson.
6. Eastern Washington
(12-2, 8-0 Big Sky)
New coach Aaron Best has spent 20 years in the program, so the Eagles expect a smooth transition following Beau Baldwin’s departure to Cal as offensive coordinator. Unfortunately for last year’s national semifinalists, the early-season schedule is brutally tough, and all-world wide receiver Cooper Kupp graduated. Junior quarterback Gage Gubrud will make new connections after throwing for an FCS single-season record 5,160 yards as well as 48 TDs.
(10-4, 5-3 CAA)
With coach Danny Rocco off to Delaware, Richmond hired Russ Huesman, the defensive coordinator of the Spiders’ 2008 FCS championship team, from Chattanooga. He inherits a ready-to-win team. Two-time 3,000-yard passer Kyle Lauletta is returning from an ACL tear, and he’s backed by Kevin Johnson, who helped key a run to the national quarterfinals. Injuries at running back opened the door for Deontez Thompson to surpass 1,000 yards as a redshirt freshman.
(9-4, 6-2 CAA)
The post-Andy Talley era begins under new coach Mark Ferrante, an assistant for 30 years. Dual-threat quarterback Zach Bednarczyk is one of nine returning offensive starters, and running backs Aaron Forbes and Matt Gudzak form a dynamic duo. Last year’s FCS-leading defense returns safety Rob Rolle, whose seven interceptions tied for the national lead, and linebackers Ed Shockley and Jeff Steeb.
9. Jacksonville State
(10-2, 7-0 Ohio Valley)
Quarterbacks Bryant Horn and Kendrick Doss hope to replace Eli Jenkins, the key to three straight unbeaten seasons in the OVC. Jenkins’ loss means running back Roc Thomas will become the focal point of the offense. An outstanding defense returns eight starters, including the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year (end Darius Jackson) and Freshman of the Year (safety Marlon Bridges).
(10-4, 6-2 Southern)
Having beaten SoCon champion The Citadel in last year’s playoffs, the Terriers seek to replace the Bulldogs atop the conference. They’re bolstered by a stout defense, including Miles Brown and Tyler Vaughn up front, and two strong QBs to run the triple option, Brandon Goodson and Joe Newman. Coach Mike Ayers, in his 30th season, is three wins shy of 200 at Wofford.
Related: FCS' Southern Conference to Challenge Best in FBS in 2017
11. New Hampshire
(8-5, 6-2 CAA)
A season opener against archrival Maine could jump-start the Wildcats to a 14th straight playoff appearance under coach Sean McDonnell. They need steadier play out of junior quarterback Trevor Knight, who has excellent wide receivers in Malik Love and Neil O’Connor. The future is now in the secondary with sophomores Pop Lacey and Prince Smith Jr., last year’s CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year.
(9-3, 6-0 Patriot)
Quarterback Brad Mayes is thrilled to have the keys to the offense because the defending Patriot League champ returns a two-time 1,000-yard rusher, Dom Bragalone, and last year’s two 1,000-yard receivers, Troy Pelletier and Gatlin Casey — a trio that combined to score 42 touchdowns. Still, the Mountain Hawks have to face fellow league powers Colgate and Fordham on the road.
13. Northern Iowa
(5-6, 4-4 Missouri Valley)
One of the more disappointing teams in the FCS last season (preseason No. 3) seeks to make amends. While 2016 Buck Buchanan Award winner Karter Schult graduated, the Panthers return 16 starters. A veteran offensive line will protect junior quarterback Eli Dunne. Senior linebacker Jared Farley, son of coach Mark Farley, headlines the defense.
14. Youngstown State
(12-4, 6-2 Missouri Valley)
The former FCS power in the 1990s ended a 10-year playoff drought by reaching the national championship game, where the Penguins fell to James Madison. Despite losing a lot of talent, they hope to become a consistent winner under coach Bo Pelini. Quarterback Hunter Wells and running back Tevin McCaster took big steps forward down the stretch.
(9-4, 6-2 Southern)
New coach Tom Arth has made the jump from Division III John Carroll, where he knocked off both Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater last year. His Mocs are retooling after losing six starters on each side of the ball, but the return of seniors Alejandro Bennifield (quarterback) and Richardre Bagley (running back) provide a good start. The Mocs have won 26 of their last 31 SoCon games.
16. Charleston Southern
(7-4, 4-1 Big South)
FBS-bound Liberty’s ineligibility in the Big South race makes it easier for the Buccaneers to claim a three-peat. Mark Tucker is the new coach following Jamey Chadwell’s departure to Coastal Carolina as offensive coordinator. Losses at running back mean sophomore quarterback Shane Bucenell must mature quickly. Defensive end Anthony Ellis and linebacker Solomon Brown fuel an excellent front seven.
17. Central Arkansas
(10-3, 8-1 Southland)
The defense was formidable in the Bears’ playoff season a year ago, and All-Southland picks George Odum and Tremon Smith return to the secondary. But the offense is primed to reach a higher level because it returns underrated quarterback Hayden Hildebrand, a stable of quality running backs and all five starters on the offensive line. The Bears will face most of the Southland powers at home.
(7-5, 5-3 Southern)
SoCon Offensive Player of the Year Devlin Hodges passed for 4,088 yards and 36 touchdowns as a sophomore last season, and he pairs again with wide receiver Kelvin McKnight. While the Bulldogs need to improve their rushing attack, they should stop the run with a solid defensive line, backed by linebacker Shaheed Salmon and cornerback Omari Williams.
19. Western Illinois
(6-5, 3-5 Missouri Valley)
A 5–1 start last season, including an upset of Northern Illinois, fell apart on the Leathernecks. They return 18 starters, including the 1-2 offensive punch of quarterback Sean McGuire and running back Steve McShane, but the team’s best player is All-America linebacker Brett Taylor. As a junior, he ranked No. 3 in the FCS in tackles.
(7-4, 4-4 CAA)
A return to form by junior running back Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks (1,401 rushing yards, 16 TDs), who suffered a torn ACL in the season’s final game, is vital for the Great Danes as they come off their best season since joining the CAA in 2013. They need improved play at quarterback to avoid being one of the last two teams left out of the playoff field again.
(8-3, 5-1 Patriot)
Denied an at-large playoff bid in 2016, the Rams want to go back in as the Patriot League champs in 2017. Senior running back Chase Edmonds (5,285 rushing yards, 69 TDs) is ready to cap a scintillating career. Opposing defenses can’t just concentrate on him, though, because fifth-year senior Kevin Anderson was the league’s passing leader a year ago.
22. Cal Poly
(7-5, 5-3 Big Sky)
The Mustangs’ triple option will rank among the nation’s best rushing offenses with the return of All-America fullback Joe Protheroe, slot back Kyle Lewis and an experienced offensive line. Coach Tim Walsh’s squad seeks a return to the FCS playoffs, but it needs improvement against the pass. It should come with the return of senior safety B.J. Nard.
(6-5, 4-1 Big South)
Coach Turner Gill’s squad is ineligible for the Big South title and FCS playoffs while they transition toward FBS independence in 2018, but they’ll have a strong team nonetheless. Last year’s youthful offense will come of age behind sophomore quarterback Stephen Calvert, while the defense has a senior standout in defensive end Juwan Wells. The special teams are outstanding.
(6-5, 5-4 Southland)
The Cowboys have posted 12 straight winning seasons, but they’re seeking significant improvement in coach Lance Guidry’s second season in Lake Charles, La. The offense is diverse, led by quarterback James Tabary, who is coming off a 3,000-yard season, and senior running back Ryan Ross. The defense returns its top seven tacklers, including Jammerio Gross and Chris Livings, who anchor the defensive line.
25. The Citadel
(10-2, 8-0 Southern)
A handful of potential returning starters departed in the offseason, including two-time All-America cornerback Dee Delaney, who left via a graduate transfer to Miami (Fla.) and is a projected starter for the Canes. The losses severely dampen the Bulldogs’ bid to win a third straight SoCon title. Triple-option quarterback Dominique Allen is back to guide last year’s FCS-leading rushing attack, and safety Kailik Williams is the unquestioned leader in the secondary.
OTHERS TO WATCH: Harvard (7-3, 5-2 Ivy), Illinois State (6-6, 4-4 Missouri Valley), Kennesaw State (8-3, 3-2 Big South), Montana (6-5, 3-5 Big Sky), Nicholls (5-6, 5-4 Southland), North Carolina A&T (9-3, 7-1 MEAC), Northern Arizona (5-6, 4-4 Big Sky), Southern Utah (6-5, 5-3 Big Sky), UT Martin (7-5, 6-2 Ohio Valley), Weber State (7-5, 6-2 Big Sky)
This is just one of the features found in Athlon Sports' 2017 National College Football Annual, which previews the entire upcoming college football season. Get your copy online or at newsstands everywhere today!
— 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 James Madison Athletics)