There's a feeling across FCS college football that the national title picture is more wide open this season — that North Dakota State’s dynasty can be taken down.
Of course, we've heard this notion before.
But with a new Bison head coach replacing more than two-thirds of the starting lineup, there is reason for the other top programs to be optimistic.
Here are Athlon's projected top 25 teams (and beyond) with all roads pointing toward the FCS championship game on Jan. 11:
(Note: 2018 record listed in parentheses)
1. North Dakota State
(15–0, 8–0 Missouri Valley)
Having to replace 15 starters is difficult, but let’s face it, the Bison remain the team to beat following two straight and a record seven FCS titles in the last eight seasons. First-year coach Matt Entz, who was elevated from defensive coordinator after Chris Klieman left for Kansas State, already has the winning blueprint. Junior linebacker Jabril Cox oozes talent as an NFL prospect and 6'5" defensive end Derrek Tuszka creates matchup problems. The offense must replace quarterback Easton Stick, who went 49–3 as a starter, presumably with redshirt freshman Trey Lance or Iowa State transfer Zeb Noland. While four-year mainstays Bruce Anderson and Lance Dunn are gone at running back, Ty Brooks and Adam Cofield have combined for 2,180 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns in highly productive supporting roles. The Bison will face a tougher regular-season schedule, including a five-game stretch of North Dakota, at Delaware, UC Davis, at Illinois State and Northern Iowa, plus a trip to South Dakota State. Despite that tough slate — and the loss of the QB and head coach — North Dakota State remains the team to beat.
2. James Madison
(9–4, 6–2 CAA)
First-year head coach Curt Cignetti beat the Dukes while at Elon last season and then joined them, replacing Mike Houston, who departed for East Carolina. Cignetti inherits 19 returning starters and all the key specialists. They’re motivated following a second-round ouster in the playoffs. Former Pitt quarterback Ben DiNucci was good, not great, in his first season, but he’ll be protected by an offensive line that returns intact. Plus, the trio of wide receivers Riley Stapleton, Kyndel Dean and Jake Brown is strong. Cornerback Rashad Robinson, the 2018 CAA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, missed last season with a foot injury and rejoins linebacker Dmitri Holloway on an athletic defense.
3. South Dakota State
(10–3, 6–2 Missouri Valley)
The Jackrabbits know what the next step is after reaching the quarterfinals in 2016 and the semis in the last two seasons. How they replace the best quarterback in school history (Taryn Christion) is their biggest question. Either redshirt freshman J’Bore Gibbs, junior Kanin Nelson or transfer Kurt Walding will be the answer. The running back duo of 2018 Missouri Valley Freshman of the Year Pierre Strong Jr. and Mikey Daniel should take some pressure off the new signal caller. There are few FCS players better at their positions than linebacker Christian Rozeboom (SDSU’s three-time tackle leader), wide receiver Cade Johnson and placekicker Chase Vinatieri (Adam’s nephew).
4. Eastern Washington
(12–3, 7–1 Big Sky)
Despite losing a number of key players to graduation, the 2018 national runners-up, who lost 38–24 to North Dakota State in Frisco, Texas, remain in the title hunt. Dual-threat quarterback Eric Barriere, who set a playoff record with seven touchdown passes in the semifinals, and running backs Antoine Custer Jr. and Tamarick Pierce will work behind an outstanding O-line. Linebacker Chris Ojoh and safety Dehonta Hayes finished second and third on the team in tackles, respectively. Incredibly, the Big Sky’s other three 2018 playoff teams — Weber State, UC Davis and Montana State — are not on the Eagles’ schedule.
5. UC Davis
(10–3, 7–1 Big Sky)
The Aggies so enjoyed their first appearance in the FCS playoffs last season that they’re eyeing a run even further than the quarterfinals. Senior quarterback Jake Maier, the 2018 Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year who passed for 3,931 yards and 34 touchdowns, is surrounded by a wealth of offensive talent, including running backs Ulonzo Gilliam and Tehran Thomas, wide receiver Jared Harrell, tight end Wesley Preece and four returning starters on the offensive line. Eddie Robinson Award-winning coach Dan Hawkins must restock a defense that features sophomore linebacker Montell Bland.
(10–4, 7–1 CAA)
With seven road games following last year’s nine, the Black Bears’ nickname might be changed to Road Warriors in former offensive coordinator Nick Charlton’s first season as head coach. Fortunately, the first national semifinalist in program history returns significant talent, including quarterback Chris Ferguson and three All-CAA first-teamers — kick returner Earnest Edwards, defensive end Kayon Whitaker and cornerback Manny Patterson.
7. Jacksonville State
(9–4, 7–1 Ohio Valley)
Having lost only one Ohio Valley Conference game in coach John Grass’ five seasons, the Gamecocks are primed for another banner campaign, although their success in the playoffs is always the issue. Former Clemson quarterback Zerrick Cooper settled in nicely, teaming with wide receivers Josh Pearson (17 touchdowns) and Jamari Hester (11). The defense is led by fourth-year starter Marlon Bridges at safety.
8. Montana State
(8–5, 5–3 Big Sky)
Incredibly, junior Troy Andersen, the co-selection at quarterback on the 2018 All-Big Sky first team, will move back to linebacker if sophomore Tucker Rovig or redshirt freshman Casey Bauman secures the starting role. Anderson, a run-first signal caller, and freshman running back Isaiah Ifanse both surpassed 1,000 rushing yards.
9. Weber State
(10–3, 7–1 Big Sky)
Any talk of a step backward in the deep Big Sky will motivate a Wildcats program that has back-to-back seasons of double-digit wins. Running back Josh Davis (1,362 yards), the National Freshman of the Year, and wide receiver/kick returner Rashid Shaheed are superb. Defensive ends Adam Rodriguez and Jonah Williams will play tag-team in the opposing team’s backfield.
(9–4, 6–2 Southern)
Second-year coach Josh Conklin has implemented more passing, but the triple option will keep the Terriers grounded, with quarterbacks Joe Newman and Miller Mosley operating behind a stout offensive line. All-conference nose tackle Mikel Horton and defensive end Thad Mangum front the 3-4 defense. The schedule includes a Nov. 2 visit to FBS national champion Clemson.
(7–5, 5–3 CAA)
CAA Offensive Player of the Year Tom Flacco (Joe’s younger brother) took the conference by storm, supported by running back Shane Simpson, who was second nationally in all-purpose yards per game, and wideouts Shane Leatherbury and Jabari Allen. If kicker Aidan O’Neill matches last year’s 22 field goals, he’ll tie the FCS record of 75.
12. Illinois State
(6–5, 3–5 Missouri Valley)
The Redbirds disappointed last season despite an FBS win over Colorado State. Quarterback Brady Davis and running back James Robinson (1,290 yards, 12 TDs) return from a team that boasted talented underclassmen. Offensive linemen rarely come bigger than 6'10" left tackle Drew Himmelman.
(9–4, 7–2 Southland)
The Colonels shared the Southland title last season and want it all to themselves this year. Nine returnees earned a form of all-conference honors, led by Player of the Year Chase Fourcade, their fourth-year quarterback. Defensive end Sully Laiche and linebacker Evan Veron combined for 39 tackles for a loss and 15.5 sacks as juniors.
14. Kennesaw State
(11–2, 5–0 Big South)
A scaled-back schedule will help the Owls overcome the graduation of their original recruiting class. Only two starters return on offense, with senior Daniel David hoping to take the controls of the triple option. The defense is much more experienced with linebacker Bryson Armstrong, defensive end Desmond Johnson and cornerback Dorian Walker.
15. Indiana State
(7–4, 5–3 Missouri Valley)
Despite making the biggest improvement in the FCS (from 0–11 in 2017), the Sycamores were left on the playoff sideline. They’ll look to get there this time behind QB Ryan Boyle, the MVC Newcomer of the Year, and a full set of receivers, plus linebacker Jonas Griffith, who seeks a third straight 100-tackle season.
(6–4, 6–2 Southern)
A share of the SoCon title wasn’t enough to land a playoff spot, but Furman was building behind a lot of young talent, including linebacker Adrian Hope (FCS-high 15 sacks). A Bo Layton-anchored offensive line and running back Devin Wynn will take pressure off a new quarterback.
17. Northern Iowa
(7–6, 5–3 Missouri Valley)
The perennial Missouri Valley power figures to have some growing pains this season, and the Panthers rarely take it easy schedule-wise. Redshirt freshman Will McElvain will be in the mix at quarterback, where the new starter will be helped by senior tight end Briley Moore and an outstanding receiving corps as well as running back Trevor Allen. A healthier Chris Kolarevic at linebacker is imperative.
(10–2, 6–0 Patriot)
Senior defensive lineman Nick Wheeler and cornerback Abu Daramy-Swaray return from last year’s record-setting defense, which tied the FCS single-season mark by posting five shutouts. Quarterback Grant Breneman and kicker Chris Puzzi were standouts in the playoff win over James Madison. A tough nonconference schedule kicks off in Week Zero against Villanova.
19. Southeast Missouri
(9–4, 6–2 Ohio Valley)
The Redhawks stopped Jacksonville State’s 36-game OVC winning streak and notched their first playoff win during a breakout season. Leading the way is inside linebacker Zach Hall, the Buck Buchanan Award winner and one of 10 returning starters on defense. A rebuilt offensive line must solidify for the Daniel Santacaterina-to-Kristian Wilkerson passing combo to succeed.
20. Sam Houston State
(6–5, 5–4 Southland)
Preseason expectations are lower, but coach K.C. Keeler expects a bounce-back with 18 returning starters. The offense seeks a fast tempo behind QB Ty Brock and wide receiver Nathan Stewart, who’s had three 1,000-yard seasons, while Texas transfer Toneil Carter will complement speedy running back Kyran Jackson. Fifth-year senior linebacker Hunter Brown led the team in tackles.
(6–5, 4–3 CAA)
With former head coach Curt Cignetti off to James Madison, defensive coordinator Tony Trisciani has taken over. Two straight playoff seasons ended with three-game losing streaks, but an injury to junior quarterback Davis Cheek was a big reason for the slide in 2018. Running back Jaylan Thomas followed Cheek as the CAA Offensive Rookie of the Year. Senior Greg Liggs Jr. is a shutdown cornerback.
(6–5, 5–4 Southland)
Charlie Strong disciple Sterlin Gilbert takes over as a first-time head coach, seeking to get the Cowboys back to the playoffs for the first time since 2015. He’ll turn the offense over to junior QB Cody Orgeron, son of LSU coach Ed Orgeron. Defensive end Chris Livings and cornerback Colby Burton are the senior defensive leaders.
(6–5, 4–4 Big Sky)
Mediocrity doesn’t look good on the Grizzlies, who’ve missed the playoffs in three straight seasons. It’s no coincidence that they have a three-game losing streak to rival Montana State. Bobby Hauck, in the second season of his second stint at UM, looks for big senior campaigns out of dual-threat quarterback Dalton Sneed and linebacker Dante Olson, whose 13.7 tackles per game led the FCS.
(7–5, 5–3 CAA)
Having ended the Blue Hens’ seven-year playoff drought last season, third-year coach Danny Rocco now must prove that his recruiting classes can replace the loss of more than two dozen seniors. Running back Dejoun Lee and linebacker/defensive end Colby Reeder will become leaders as juniors, and senior quarterback Pat Kehoe played well when healthy last year. North Dakota State pays a visit on Sept. 14.
25. North Carolina A&T
(10–2, 6–1 MEAC)
The two-time reigning MEAC and Celebration Bowl champs return only eight starters. Fifth-year quarterback Kylil Carter will team well with wide receivers Elijah Bell and Zachary Leslie, but the Aggies need a full season out of big-play cornerback Mac McCain. Duke is on alert considering the Aggies have defeated an FBS opponent in each of the last three seasons.
MORE TEAMS TO WATCH: Duquesne (9-4, 5-1 Northeast); Eastern Kentucky (7-4, 5-2 Ohio Valley); Monmouth (8-3, 4-1 Big South); New Hampshire (4-7, 3-5 CAA); Northern Arizona (4-6, 3-4 Big Sky); South Dakota (4-7, 3-5 Missouri Valley); Stony Brook (7-5, 5-3 CAA); Yale (5-5, 3-4 Ivy)
— 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 courtesy of Tim Sanger/NDSU Athletics)