As NDSU seeks the all-time record for national titles, contenders line up for a shot at the champ.
Any given Saturday... that's the hope teams cling to when they face FCS juggernaut North Dakota State.
It may seem fleeting, but it's true, Bison opponents only have to get it right once. And in the one-and-done playoffs, there's no tomorrow for the losing teams.
Like NDSU, 2016 national champ James Madison has separated itself from the rest of the FCS, but New Hampshire, South Dakota State and others believe the puncher's chance is out there for them.
Here is Athlon's projected top 25 teams (and beyond) in the FCS, with where teams might finish after the national championship game on Jan. 5:
Note: 2017 record is in parentheses
1. North Dakota State
(14-1, 7-1 Missouri Valley)
The defending FCS champion Bison, winners of six of the last seven national titles, seek to break their tie with Georgia Southern for the most FCS championships of all time. Head coach Chris Klieman, who has led the Bison to three of those titles and been a part of all six, brings back seven starters on both sides of the ball as well as All-America defensive end Greg Menard, who missed last season with an ACL tear. The nation's best defense also features sophomore linebacker Jabril Cox and strong safety Robbie Grimsley, who leads a deep and talented secondary. The offense overflows with seniors, led by quarterback Easton Stick, who's 34-3 as a starter in his career, and running backs Bruce Anderson and Lance Dunn, who both could surpass 1,000 rushing yards. The Missouri Valley title race might be a mere formality with the Bison seeking their eighth in a row. Plus, with seven of their 11 regular-season games at the Fargodome, the Bison should gain home-field advantage in the playoffs again. Dynasty, indeed.
2. James Madison
(14-1, 8-0 CAA)
The 2016 national champ and '17 runner-up lost more key players in the offseason than North Dakota State, but the Dukes are a clear notch above the next tier of contenders. Whoever takes over at quarterback -- likely two-year backup Cole Johnson or Pittsburgh transfer Ben DiNucci -- is surrounded by terrific skill players, including running backs Marcus Marshall, Trai Sharp and Cardon Johnson and wide receiver Riley Stapleton. The defense must retool, but it could have the nation's best set of cornerbacks in seniors Jimmy Moreland and Rashad Robinson.
3. New Hampshire
(9-5, 5-3 CAA)
In head coach Sean McDonnell's 20th season, the Wildcats expect to make a deep run in what would be their 15th straight playoff appearance. Last year's national quarterfinals team returns 18 starters. QB Trevor Knight (3,433 yards, 26 TDs) has go-to targets in Neil O'Connor (97 receptions, 1,396 yards, 10 TDs) and Malik Love, but the offensive line must do a better job with pass protection. An improved run game will make a difference. The 4-2-5 defense features linebackers Quinlen Dean, the team's leading tackler, and Jared Kuehl, plus cornerback Prince Smith Jr.
4. South Dakota State
(11-3, 6-2 Missouri Valley)
While the losses of tight end Dallas Goedert and wide receiver Jake Wieneke are significant, the Jackrabbits, coming off their first run to the national semifinals, remain formidable. As senior quarterback Taryn Christion seeks new targets, head coach John Stiegelmeier's team will have a physical run game behind backs Isaac Wallace and Mikey Daniel. The defense will be improved, led by linebacker Christian Rozeboom, the team leader in tackles in each of his first two seasons. The Jackrabbits also boast one of the nation's best placekickers in Chase Vinatieri, the nephew of NFL great Adam Vinatieri.
5. Kennesaw State
(12-3, 5-0 Big South)
With most of the key players returning, the fourth-year Big South program could surpass last year's surprising run to the national quarterfinals. Senior quarterback Chandler Burks is the first option (literally) on the nation's No. 1-ranked rushing attack, but running backs Jake McKenzie, Shaquil Terry and Darnell Holland also went over 725 yards. Defensive end Desmond Johnson is a one-man wrecking crew, and linebacker Bryson Armstrong won the Jerry Rice Award as the FCS National Freshman of the Year. The schedule gets much tougher and will include the Owls' two playoff victims, Samford and Jacksonville State.
6. Eastern Washington
(7-4, 6-2 Big Sky)
After four finishes in the national top-four rankings from 2012-16, the Eagles were left on the playoff sideline last season. The disappointment motivates second-year head coach Aaron Best's team, which is armed with senior quarterback Gage Gubrud, who ranked No. 2 nationally in total offense (357.8 ypg) even in a subpar season. Nsimba Webster is the go-to receiver, and running back Antoine Custer Jr. will keep defenses honest. The team's top five tacklers welcome back defensive tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli from injury.
7. Sam Houston State
(12-2, 8-1 Southland)
Two-time Walter Payton Award winner Jeremiah Briscoe is gone, but transfer quarterback Mike Dare steps into an offense that boasts wide receivers Nathan Stewart and Davion Davis, who combined for 150 receptions, 2,854 receiving yards and 31 TD catches last season. Defensive end Chris Stewart also puts up big numbers for a program that's been to five semifinals in the last seven seasons.
8. Jacksonville State
(10-2, 8-0 Ohio Valley)
The Gamecocks aren't resting on a 32-game winning streak in the Ohio Valley Conference; they're seeking a sixth consecutive season with at least 10 wins. Head coach John Grass has brought in Clemson transfer Zerrick Cooper to battle all-conference quarterback Bryant Horn and keep the offense moving. Plenty was lost defensively, but junior safety Marlon Bridges returns as an anchor.
9. Weber State
(11-3, 7-1 Big Sky)
It will be hard for the Wildcats to improve on their best-ever season, including a near upset of James Madison in the national quarterfinals. With a new quarterback stepping into the huddle, running backs Treshawn Garrett and Kevin Smith and wide receiver Rashid Shaheed will be counted on for big seasons. Linebacker LeGrand Toia and defensive end Adam Rodriguez provide excellent production in the front seven.
(8-4, 6-2 CAA)
After whetting their appetite with a playoff appearance in head coach Curt Cignetti's first season, the young Phoenix are all grown up with 18 returning starters. Still, losses in their final three games indicate there's a need for a finishing touch. Quarterback Davis Cheek, the CAA Offensive Freshman of the Year, will spread the ball between running backs Malcolm Summers and De'Sean McNair and wide receiver Kortez Weeks. Linebacker Warren Messer fills the stat sheet.
(5-6, 3-5 CAA)
Improved health will lead to a much-improved record for the Wildcats. Quarterback Zach Bednarczyk, running back Matt Gudzak, wide receiver Changa Hodge and All-America safety Rob Rolle were among the key players whose seasons were cut short last year. Add in the development of linebacker Jeff Steeb, and head coach Mark Ferrante's second season will go more smoothly.
(8-4, 6-2 Southern)
Two of the nation's better players, quarterback Devlin Hodges and defensive end Ahmad Gooden, will fuel the Bulldogs. Hodges has racked up 11,005 yards of total offense in his career, while Gooden totaled 15.5 tackles for a loss as a junior. All 11 starters return on offense, and one of them, senior wide receiver Kelvin McKnight, will challenge for 100 receptions.
(7-4, 5-3 CAA)
Mired in a playoff drought since 2010, the Blue Hens' tradition-rich program is anxious for a return following its three-game improvement in head coach Danny Rocco's first season. The defense can get it done as it features linebackers Troy Reeder and Charles Bell and safety Nasir Adderley. But the offense remains under the microscope, although returning quarterback J.P. Caruso was 4-2 as a starter.
14. Illinois State
(6-5, 4-4 Missouri Valley)
A bounce-back season seems likely for a Redbirds team that fell short of a fourth straight playoff appearance. In the rugged Missouri Valley, senior quarterback Jake Kolbe must play with more consistency, but running backs James Robinson and Markel Smith provide a 1-2 punch. On defense, linebacker Tyree Horton is back as the team's leading tackler.
(8-4, 7-2 Southland)
Opponents will have a hard time slowing a Colonels offense that features quarterback Chase Fourcade, running back Kyran Irvin and wide receiver Damion Jeanpiere. When they don't reach the end zone, All-America placekicker Lorran Fonseca will pick up the pieces. Defensive linemen Kenny Dotson and Sully Laiche are at the front of what should be a much-improved defense.
(10-3, 7-1 Southern)
Following long-time head coach Mike Ayers' retirement, former assistant Josh Conklin, who spent the last three seasons as Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator, has taken the reins. He knows to keep running the triple-option offense, which features quarterback Joe Newman and veteran backs Andre Stoddard, Lennox McAfee and Blake Morgan. Burly defensive lineman Miles Brown (6'2", 320) is a force.
(9-2, 7-2 Southland)
No other eligible team left out of the playoffs had as many wins as the Cowboys. They plan to rectify that behind senior quarterback James Tabary, who's thrown 44 TDs over the last two seasons, and a deep running back unit. While the defense led the FCS against the run, it lost some key players. Safety BJ Blunt is the leader.
(7-4, 5-3 Big Sky)
Griz fans hope that the return of head coach Bobby Hauck, who went 80-17 and led three FCS runner-up finishes from 2003-09, will return the longtime Big Sky power to national prominence. Quarterback Gresch Jensen, who threw for 20 touchdowns as a freshman, transferred out, but UNLV transfer Dalton Snead will connect with wide receivers Keenan Curran and Jerry Louie-McGhee. Linebacker Josh Buss is primed for a banner senior season, and safety Josh Sandry returns after intercepting three passes.
19. Northern Iowa
(8-5, 6-2 Missouri Valley)
On a playoff team that lost a lot of standouts, getting senior quarterback Eli Dunne (2,704 yards, 26 TDs) and running back Marcus Weymiller back is a good start to having another strong season. Senior linebacker Rickey Neal (9.5 sacks) is one of the fiercest pass rushers in the Missouri Valley.
20. North Carolina A&T
(12-0, 8-0 MEAC)
First-time head coach Sam Washington, the Aggies' former defensive coordinator, has taken over last year's only unbeaten FCS team, which won MEAC and Celebration Bowl titles. No team in the conference can match the offensive firepower of MEAC Offensive Player of the Year Lamar Raynard (2,932 passing yards, 31 total TDs) and running back Marquell Cartwright (1,190 yards, 14 TDs).
21. Youngstown State
(6-5, 4-4 Missouri Valley)
Head coach Bo Pelini's 2016 national runners-up seek to get back on track. Senior running back Tevin McCaster (1,066 yards, 13 TDs) has a nose for the end zone, and quarterback Nathan Mays should be improved in his second season as the starter. The Penguins are always physical with defensive end Justus Reed and linebacker Armand Dellovade setting the tone on defense.
22. Austin Peay
(8-4, 7-1 Ohio Valley)
Last year's biggest surprise -- the Governors overcame a 29-game losing streak and losses in 47 of 48 games -- will threaten Jacksonville State's dominance in the OVC. Eddie Robinson Award-winning head coach Will Healy has two quality quarterbacks (Jeremiah Oatsvall and JaVaughn Craig) and running backs (Kentel Williams and Ahmaad Tanner). Defensive end Jaison Williams is a premier pass rusher.
23. Sacramento State
(7-4, 6-2 Big Sky)
Expectations are sky high after the Hornets improved by five wins under head coach Jody Sears, who was rewarded with a contract extension. Dynamic quarterback Kevin Thomson, who accounted for 26 touchdowns in eight games, has to remain healthy for the full season. Defensive end George Obinna and safety Mister Harriel are difference makers on an experienced defense.
24. Central Arkansas
(10-2, 9-0 Southland)
New head coach Nathan Brown, a former Bears quarterback who has been elevated from offensive coordinator, knows to pound the rock with running backs Carlos Blackman and Kierre Crossley. Graduation has made the secondary vulnerable, but the pass rush of defensive tackle Chris Terrell (20 tackles for a loss, 11 sacks) will help temper the losses.
25. Stony Brook
(10-3, 7-1 CAA)
While quarterback Joe Carbone was one of the more improved players in the FCS last season, the Seawolves will have to overcome key losses offensively. Senior Jordan Gowins will step into the role of featured running back. The Seawolves will be led by their defense, which this season features defensive end John Haggart and linebackers Shayne Lawless and Noah McGinty.
OTHERS TO WATCH: Idaho (4-8 FBS); Monmouth (9-3, 4-1 Big South); Montana State (5-6, 5-3 Big Sky); Northern Arizona (7-5, 6-2 Big Sky); South Dakota (8-5, 4-4 Missouri Valley); Western Illinois (8-4, 5-3 Missouri Valley); Yale (9-1, 6-1 Ivy)
This is just one of the features found in Athlon Sports' 2018 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.
(Photo courtesy of North Dakota State Athletics)