North Dakota State the team to beat (again!) as contenders prepare for their best shot
North Dakota State is coming off arguably the greatest decade in college football history.
What’s just as scary for opposing programs is little seems to be slowing the FCS dynasty as the 2020s unfold.
The Bison are the overwhelming favorite to add to their eight national titles in the last nine seasons. Ironically, though, winning the Missouri Valley Football Conference title may be as hard as celebrating again in Frisco, Texas.
Here are Athlon’s projected top 25 teams with all roads pointing toward the FCS championship game on Jan. 9:
(Note: 2019 record listed in parentheses)
1. North Dakota State
(16-0, 8-0 Missouri Valley)
Which Bison streak will continue in 2020? The nine straight Missouri Valley titles? Six wins in a row against FBS opponents (they open at Oregon)? The three-peat as national champion? If you say all of the streaks will grow, you aren’t alone. The FCS dynasty is again the odds-on favorite in the subdivision after going 137-13 and winning a record eight national titles in the 2010s. Second-year coach Matt Entz boasts 14 returning starters, twice as many as he had going into last season. Quarterback Trey Lance, who accounted for 3,886 yards of total offense and 42 touchdowns while becoming the first freshman to receive the Walter Payton Award, directs an offense that overflows with weapons, including running backs Adam Cofield and Kobe Johnson and wide receiver Christian Watson. Linebacker Jackson Hankey and strong safety Michael Tutsie (seven interceptions) ranked 1-2 in tackles, but linebacker Jabril Cox’s grad transfer to LSU has cost the defense its top player.
2. Northern Iowa
(10-5, 6-2 Missouri Valley)
Entering his 20th season, coach Mark Farley has one of his more talented rosters. The Panthers return 14 starters plus two 2018 starters, wide receiver Deion McShane and safety Korby Sander, who were injured last season. Their defense is among the stingiest in the FCS with defensive end Elerson Smith (14.5 sacks), linebacker Bryce Flater (143 tackles), and cornerbacks Omar Brown and Xavior Williams. As a freshman, quarterback Will McElvain threw half of his 20 touchdown passes to 6'4" wide receiver Isaiah Weston. Kansas transfer Dom Williams will enjoy running behind an offensive line whose starters average 6'6", 326 pounds. The rugged schedule includes Iowa, Weber State and North Dakota State in September.
3. Weber State
The Wildcats have won a share of three straight Big Sky titles and reached the national semifinals for the first time last year, so two-year quarterback Jake Constantine’s grad transfer out of the program was unexpected. Rising junior signal caller Kaden Jenks is coming off a broken leg, but the offense remains strong with two-time 1,000-yard rusher Josh Davis and wide receivers Devon Cooley and Rashid Shaheed. Still, coach Jay Hill’s program often wins with defense, and the physical unit features defensive end George Tarlas and defensive tackle Jared Schiess up front. With 61 career field goals, Trey Tuttle enters his senior season 14 shy of Dan Carpenter’s FCS-record 75 at Montana from 2004-07.
4. James Madison
(14-2, 8-0 CAA)
With three appearances in the last four FCS title games, the Dukes are built to withstand graduation losses, but coach Curt Cignetti is replacing 13 starters. The running backs unit is superb, led by seniors Percy Agyei-Obese and Jawon Hamilton, who combined for 2,135 rushing yards. Two-year backup quarterback Cole Johnson seeks to take over as a senior. Defensive tackles Adeeb Atariwa and Mike Greene form a tag-team of terror. The special teams will remain elite with the return of placekicker Ethan Ratke (58 career field goals) and punt returner D’Angelo Amos (16.6-yard average, five career TD returns).
5. Montana State
(11-4, 6-2 Big Sky)
After reaching the FCS semifinals for the first time in 35 years, the Big Sky title contender seeks another deep playoff run. Troy Andersen is so versatile that he’s made the all-conference first team on both sides of the ball, but his main duties are at linebacker, punishing ball carriers along with defensive end Amandre Williams. Quarterback Tucker Rovig has competition from NC State transfer Matt McKay, while Isaiah Ifanse is the Bobcats’ No. 1 running back again after sharing carries last season.
6. South Dakota State
(8-5, 5-3 Missouri Valley)
A healthier lineup will boost the Jackrabbits, who have made eight straight playoff appearances. Quarterback J’Bore Gibbs and two-time 1,000-yard rusher Pierre Strong Jr. — among the injured players last season — will reunite with two-time 1,000-yard receiver Cade Johnson. The defense will look different without all-time leading tackler Christian Rozeboom, but returning linebackers Seven Wilson and Logan Backhaus ranked No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, in stops. The road schedule is daunting: Nebraska, North Dakota, North Dakota State, Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa.
(10-4, 6-2 Big Sky)
The 73 points in a playoff win over Southeastern Louisiana underscore the Griz’s offensive firepower, led by running back Marcus Knight (25 touchdowns) and wide receivers Samori Toure (87 receptions, 1,495 yards, 13 TDs) and Samuel Akem. Senior quarterback Cam Humphrey hopes to be at the controls of the potent attack. Buck Buchanan Award recipient Dante Olson is gone, but two other players who posted 100-plus tackles return in linebacker Jace Lewis (131) and safety Robbie Hauck (129).
(9-4, 5-3 CAA)
Dual-threat quarterback Daniel Smith accounted for an FCS-high 48 touchdowns and has his top offensive weapons back in wide receivers Changa Hodge and Jaaron Hayek and running backs DeeWil Barlee and Justin Covington, who suffered a midseason knee injury. A senior standout leads each defensive unit: defensive end Malik Fisher, linebacker Forrest Rhyne and cornerback Jaquan Amos.
9. Illinois State
(10-5, 5-3 Missouri Valley)
Only an all-for-one mindset will suffice for Illinois State after the national quarterfinalist lost All-America running back James Robinson, but, oh, do the Redbirds have senior leaders. Defensive end Romeo McKnight (12 sacks) and cornerback Devin Taylor headline a defense that totaled 52 sacks and 33 takeaways. Quarterback Brady Davis returns from injury, protected by 6'10", 315-pound left tackle Drew Himmelman.
10. Kennesaw State
(11-3, 5-1 Big South)
The sixth-year program has 34 wins in the last three seasons. This year’s goal: reclaiming the Big South title after a runner-up finish, but a lackluster regular-season schedule makes the playoffs the proving ground. Senior linebacker Bryson Armstrong is the reigning Big South Defensive Player of the Year. The triple-option offense has two capable QBs in Tommy Bryant and Jonathan Murphy.
11. Central Arkansas
(9-4, 7-2 Southland)
Quarterback Breylin Smith set the Bears’ single-season record with 3,704 passing yards and tied the standard with 32 TD passes. He will keep the Southland co-champs moving by targeting wide receivers Tyler Hudson (the conference’s 2019 Freshman of the Year) and Lujuan Winningham, who combined for 20 TDs. Senior cornerback Robert Rochell has 10 career interceptions.
12. Sacramento State
(9-4, 7-1 Big Sky)
Last year’s most improved FCS program and Eddie Robinson Award-winning coach Troy Taylor won’t sneak up on anybody this time around. His Big Sky co-champ features quarterback Kevin Thomson (3,835 yards of total offense, 39 total touchdowns) and running back Elijah Dotson. The Hornets avoid Weber State, Montana State and Eastern Washington in Big Sky play.
13. Austin Peay
(11-4, 7-1 Ohio Valley)
In his first season, head coach Mark Hudspeth led Peay to an OVC co-title and two playoff wins. Jeremiah Oatsvall, last year’s season-opening QB, returns from injury, ready to reconnect with wide receivers DeAngelo Wilson (89 receptions, 1,564 yards, 15 TDs) and Baniko Harley. Defensive tackle Josephus Smith and cornerback Kordell Jackson (seven interceptions) power the defense.
(9-5, 7-2 Southland)
The Southland race produces wide-ranging results, but the Colonels have shared two straight titles. Well-traveled QB Lindsey Scott Jr. takes over an offense that features running back Julien Gums (1,234 yards, 17 total TDs) and wide receiver Da’Jean Dixon (1,044 yards). Linebacker Evan Veron (22 tackles for a loss in 2018) and safety Kevin Moore III are All-Southland talents. The Colonels visit FBS champ LSU on Oct. 3.
15. New Hampshire
(6-5, 5-3 CAA)
Coach Sean McDonnell returns from a medical leave of absence, and he is anxious to get his one-time playoff staple back in the postseason. Safety Evan Horn is a key member of the senior class that was a part of the Wildcats’ last playoff season in 2017. The CAA’s lowest-scoring offense should improve behind quarterback Max Brosmer and running back Carlos Washington Jr.
16. Sam Houston State
(7-5, 6-3 Southland)
The second-winningest FCS program in the 2010s (99 wins) has missed the playoffs two straight years. A healthy season out of quarterback Eric Schmid could get the Bearkats back in. In a surprise, the defense has begun to outshine the offense. Defensive tackle Joseph Wallace and cornerback Zyon McCollum are key returnees, and defensive end Jevon Leon has star potential.
17. Southeastern Louisiana
(8-5, 6-3 Southland)
Shutdown cornerback Ferlando Jordan returned three interceptions for touchdowns last season, but the excitement on offense is even greater. Quarterback Cole Kelley, at 6'7", finds it easy to spot highly productive wide receivers C.J. Turner, Austin Mitchell and Javon Conner, who combined for 192 receptions, 2,538 receiving yards and 22 TD catches.
(8-5, 6-2 Southern)
The Paladins have terrific punch in the offensive backfield with running backs Devin Wynn (1,182 yards, 14 touchdowns) and Devin Abrams (615 and six), but they need more consistency from sophomore quarterbacks Darren Grainger and Hamp Sisson. The defense boasts linebacker Elijah McKoy and defensive end Adrian Hope, who has 21.5 sacks through his first two seasons.
19. Southern Illinois
(7-5, 5-3 Missouri Valley)
After falling short of their first playoff appearance since 2009, the Salukis will try again behind 16 returning starters. The offense is geared around sophomore running back Javon Williams Jr., junior quarterback Kare Lyles, and junior wideouts Avante Cox and Landon Lenoir. The defense returns its leading tacklers, safety Qua Brown and outside linebacker Cody Crider.
20. Eastern Washington
(7-5, 6-2 Big Sky)
A season-ending four-game winning streak boosted an otherwise disappointing campaign for the 2018 national runner-up, which has posted 13 straight winning seasons. Senior quarterback Eric Barriere (3,712 yards, 31 TDs) is back to work with a strong receiving corps, led by Andrew Boston. The Eagles have to improve defensively, and they probably will behind linebackers Chris Ojoh and Jack Sendelbach.
21. The Citadel
(6-6, 4-4 Southern)
The only FCS program in 2019 to beat a school from a Power 5 conference (Georgia Tech), The Citadel is primed for Southern Conference title contention, returning 18 starters and adding VMI grad transfer Alex Ramsey, the 2019 SoCon rushing leader. Quarterback Brandon Rainey captains the all-grit team after delivering 30 total touchdowns amid injuries. Linebacker Willie Eubanks III will chase ball carriers as well as another SoCon Defensive Player of the Year award.
(8-4, 7-1 Southern)
In an oddity, the three-time defending SoCon champ opens with four conference games. The Terriers are synonymous with the triple-option offense, and running backs Jacquez Allen, Nathan Walker and Ryan Lovelace are key returnees. Strong defense also is a staple, and sophomore defensive end Michael Mason is a building block.
(9-5, 6-2 CAA)
A second-place finish in the CAA was surprising, but few foresaw Jeff Undercuffler throwing 41 touchdown passes, an FCS single-season record for freshmen. After key losses at wide receiver, senior running back Karl Mofor (1,609 scrimmage yards) will be counted on even more. All three starting linebackers surpassed 100 tackles: Levi Matheny (120), Danny Damico (109), and A.J. Mistler (109).
24. Jacksonville State
(6-6, 3-5 Ohio Valley)
The Gamecocks’ decline was stunning because they lost only one OVC game over the previous five seasons. To spur a rebound, coach John Grass will lean on senior quarterback Zerrick Cooper, who has passed for 6,820 yards and 60 touchdowns the last two seasons. Defensive end D.J. Coleman and linebacker Zack Woodard are coming off breakout campaigns.
(7-5, 4-4 CAA)
The Tigers have to replace quarterback Tom Flacco, perhaps with dual-threat Ryan Stover, who was the starter in 2017, or Jake Constantine, who has announced a grad transfer from Weber State. They’re bolstered by the return of sixth-year running back Shane Simpson (4,751 career all-purpose yards) and linebacker Ricky DeBerry from season-ending injuries. Safety Cody Tippett picked off five passes last season as a junior.
— Rankings 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 NDSU Athletics)