FCS champion Sam Houston. North Dakota State. James Madison. South Dakota State.
Put their names in a hat, shake it all up, and see what order falls out for the fall season. It may be the best way to do it considering how close everything feels heading into the highly anticipated season, when all 128 FCS programs will be filling Saturdays once again.
It's easy to make a strong case that any of the four will stand on the victory stage on Jan. 8 in Frisco, Texas, holding the national trophy up the way Sam Houston did during this year's unprecedented spring season. Give extra credit to the Bearkats for beating those other three elite programs on the way to their first FCS title.
While Sam Houston is the team to beat this fall, the Athlon Preseason FCS Top 25 predicts a familiar postseason matchup will occur on Jan. 8 — James Madison vs. North Dakota State.
Here is the Athlon Sports 2021 Preseason Top 25 with spring season record unless otherwise noted:
1. James Madison
(7-1, 3-0 CAA)
What to Know: With 14 straight wins over CAA opponents and 38 in their last 40 matchups, the Dukes are always hardened heading into the national playoffs, so their semifinal-round meltdown at Sam Houston (24-3 halftime lead) remains surprising. Few in the FCS are better at their position than fifth-year seniors such as defensive end Mike Greene, offensive tackle Liam Fornadel, running back Percy Agyei-Obese, and place-kicker Ethan Ratke (72 career field goals, three shy of the FCS record). Quarterback Cole Johnson and wide receiver Antwane Wells Jr. seek to build off breakout postseasons. Head coach Curt Cignetti added Towson grad transfer defensive end Bryce Carter, who's already established in the CAA as a playmaker.
3 Key Games: Sept. 18 at Weber State; Oct. 9 vs. Villanova; Oct. 23 at Delaware
2. North Dakota State
(7-3, 5-2 Missouri Valley)
What to Know: It says a lot about the Bison (eight FCS titles from 2011-15 and 2017-19) that a 7-3 record and exit in the national quarterfinals are disappointing. Head coach Matt Entz seeks improvement at quarterback from Cam Miller or Virginia Tech transfer Quincy Patterson (a tank at 6-3, 235), to help turn around a stunning minus-10 turnover margin. The offense again boasts wide receiver Christian Watson, who appears to be the top 2022 NFL Draft prospect in the FCS, and running backs Dominic Gonnella (495 yards, 2 TDs) and Hunter Luepke (458, 6) working behind veteran lineman Cordell Volson. A stout defense returns its leading tacklers in linebackers Jackson Hankey, James Kaczor, and Jasir Cox and strong safety Michael Tutsie.
3 Key Games: Oct. 2 at North Dakota; Oct. 9 vs. Northern Iowa; Nov. 6 at South Dakota State
3. Sam Houston
(10-0, 6-0 Southland)
What to Know: It's been common in the FCS for a national champ to repeat (seven previous times with three runs of three or more titles), and the Bearkats have that look heading into the one-year WAC-ASUN Challenge. It feels impossible to combat the defensive line of Jahari Kay, Joseph Wallace, Jevon Leon, and Trace Mascorro; cornerback Zyon McCollum has NFL size (6-3, 195) and skills (10 career interceptions); and former Memphis linebacker Tim Hart comes aboard as an impact grad transfer. Speaking of impossible, that's how it feels to defend wide receiver/punt returner Jequez Ezzard (12 touchdowns). Quarterback Eric Schmid specializes in clutch play for K.C. Keeler, the only head coach to win FCS titles at two different schools.
3 Key Games: Sept. 25 at Central Arkansas; Oct. 2 vs. Stephen F. Austin (in Houston); Oct. 23 vs. Jacksonville State
4. South Dakota State
(8-2, 5-1 Missouri Valley)
What to Know: Missouri Valley offensive player of the year Mark Gronowski (ACL injury) is not expected to play this season, meaning Samford grad transfer Chris Oladokun or sophomore Keaton Heide (who played most of the national championship game) will quarterback the FCS runner-up's offense. Still, the Jackrabbits think run first with running backs Pierre Strong Jr. (2,841 career yards and 22 TDs on a 7.3-yard average) and Isaiah Davis (305 all-purpose yards and 3 TDs in the national championship game). The defense welcomes back its three first-team All-MVFC selections — tackle Caleb Sanders, linebacker Logan Backhaus, and cornerback Don Gardner. Head coach John Stiegelmeier's squad will play at home against its strongest conference opponents (Southern Illinois, Northern Iowa, North Dakota State, and North Dakota).
3 Key Games: Sept. 3 at Colorado State; Nov. 6 vs. North Dakota State; Nov. 20 vs. North Dakota
(7-1, 4-0 CAA)
What to Know: The Blue Hens defense dominated all spring until the team's only defeat against South Dakota State in the national semifinals. Most of their bruisers are back, led by a secondary that boasts All-American Kedrick Whitehead, Nijuel Hill, and Noah Plack. Running back Dejoun Lee, the CAA Offensive Player of the Year, figures to be motivated after having a subpar postseason, and quarterback Nolan Henderson's toughness fuels the offense.
3 Key Games: Oct. 9 at Rhode Island, Oct. 23 vs. James Madison, Nov. 20 vs. Villanova
6. Weber State
(5-1, 5-0 Big Sky)
What to Know: After winning a fourth straight Big Sky title, the Wildcats were the only home team to lose in the first round of the playoffs (to Southern Illinois). Quarterback Bronson Barron will spread the ball to running backs Josh Davis and Dontae McMillan and wide receiver Rashid Shaheed. The work up front by defensive tackle Jared Schiess and linebacker Connor Mortensen makes life easier for an excellent secondary, which includes cornerback Eddie Heckard.
3 Key Games: Sept. 18 vs. James Madison; Oct. 16 vs. Montana State; Oct. 23 at Eastern Washington
7. North Dakota
(5-2, 4-1 Missouri Valley)
What to Know: The Fighting Hawks won't sneak up on anybody this time around after earning a share of the MVFC title in their first season in the premier FCS conference (handing South Dakota State its only regular-season loss). Running back Otis Weah (730 yards, 9 TDs) produces against any defense, opening room for quarterback Tommy Schuster and the other offensive weapons. Also returning is an outstanding defensive core, including leading tackler Devon Krzanowski at linebacker.
3 Key Games: Oct. 2 vs. North Dakota State; Oct. 16 at Southern Illinois; Nov. 20 at South Dakota State
8. Montana State
(Fall 2019: 11-4, 6-2 Big Sky)
What to Know: In a program that didn't play during the pandemic, former North Dakota State and Wyoming offensive coordinator Brent Vigen has succeeded Jeff Choate as head coach. The Bobcats face a daunting road schedule, starting at Wyoming, but have the type of talent to build off their semifinal-round appearance in 2019 (the program's deepest playoff run in 35 years). Leading the way are linebacker Troy Andersen, defensive end Amandre Williams, and running back Isaiah Ifanse. There's also depth at quarterback with incumbent Tucker Rovig and NC State transfer Matt McVay.
3 Key Games: Oct. 16 at Weber State; Nov. 6 at Eastern Washington; Nov. 20 at Montana
9. Southern Illinois
(6-4, 3-3 Missouri Valley)
What to Know: The Salukis ending North Dakota State's FCS-record 39-game winning streak was just the start of a memorable spring season. Head coach Nick Hill signed a bunch of transfers to infuse into an already deep lineup. Quarterback Stone Labanowitz's offensive weapons run deep with wide receivers Avante Cox (66 receptions) and Landon Lenoir (45) and running backs Javon Williams Jr., Romeir Elliott, and Justin Strong. With an interception and 14 pass breakups, cornerback James Ceasar seemed to have a hand on every pass.
3 Key Games: Sept. 2 at Southeast Missouri; Oct. 9 at South Dakota State; Oct. 16 vs. North Dakota
10. Jacksonville State
(10-3, 6-1 Ohio Valley)
What to Know: The Gamecocks flip-flopped quarterback injuries while playing the most games in the FCS over the fall/spring season. In switching to the WAC-ASUN Challenge this fall, Zerrick Cooper (7,491 passing yards and 61 TDs in 29 JSU games) will be back in for Zion Webb, and the rushing of Josh Samuel and Uriah West will set up the pass. The defense boasts defensive end D.J. Coleman and safety Nicario Harper and gets back cornerback Kobi Fuqua and edge rusher Taj Stewart from injuries.
3 Key Games: Sept. 1 vs. UAB (at Montgomery, Ala.); Oct. 2 at Kennesaw State (Oct. 2); Oct. 23 at Sam Houston
(Fall 2019: 10-4, 6-2 Big Sky)
What to Know: The Griz, like Montana State, opted out of the Big Sky spring season, but unlike their archrival, they played two nonconference games. Quarterback Cam Humphrey directs their high-powered offense, which boasts wide receiver Samuel Akem, but has to overcome the loss of running back Marcus Knight to an ACL injury. Linebacker Jace Lewis and safety Robby Hauck had 131 and 129 tackles, respectively, in the 2019 season, which ended in the national quarterfinals.
3 Key Games: Oct. 2 at Eastern Washington; Oct. 16 vs. Sacramento State; Nov. 20 vs. Montana State
(3-1, 3-0 Big South)
What to Know: In the first round of the playoffs, the Hawks had 1st-and-goal deep in the red zone and were seemingly 58 seconds away from defeating eventual national champion Sam Houston. They're motivated to chase a third straight Big South title, their offense led by running back Juwon Farri (520 yards, 10 TDs) but also boasting quarterback Tony Muskett's connections to wide receivers Terrance Greene Jr. and Lonnie Moore IV. Linebacker Da'Quan Grimes is the defensive leader, and the secondary of Anthony Budd, Eddie Morales III, and Justin Terry makes opposing QBs miserable.
3 Key Games: Oct. 9 vs. Princeton; Oct. 30 at North Carolina A&T; Nov. 20 at Kennesaw State
13. Central Arkansas
(Fall 2020: 5-4)
What to Know: Having played last fall, but not in the spring, the Bears return 20 starters, and they also get back some former starters from injuries for one season in the WAC-ASUN Challenge. Quarterback Breylin Smith has one of the best wide receiver duos in the FCS with Tyler Hudson (50 receptions, 845 yards, 7 TDs) and Lujuan Winningham (37, 522, 12). The strength of the defense is a veteran D-line, led by defensive end Logan Jessup, and linebacker Dre Matthews devours the leftovers. The outstanding special teams can't be overlooked, either.
3 Key Games: Sept. 11 at Missouri State; Sept. 25 vs. Sam Houston; Oct. 30 at Jacksonville State
14. Northern Iowa
(3-4, 3-4 Missouri Valley)
What to Know: Head coach Mark Farley's 20th season may have been epic if 2020 hadn't been turned upside down, the roster drained by key losses to grad transfers and NFL Draft training. The obstacle this season is a daunting road schedule (Iowa State, Illinois State, and Missouri State in addition to the three games below). Defensive tackle Jared Brinkman is the reigning MVFC Defensive Player of the Year, and 2019 tackle leader Bryce Flater returns from injury. An injury to quarterback Will McElvain helped limit the offense to two passing TDs in the spring.
3 Key Games: Sept. 11 at Sacramento State; Oct. 9 at North Dakota State; Oct. 23 at South Dakota State
15. Southeastern Louisiana
(4-3, 4-2 Southland)
What to Know: In a smaller Southland, each member will play a home-and-home series with three of its five opponents. For McNeese, Nicholls, and Northwestern State, that means having to deal with Walter Payton Award winner Cole Kelley twice. The dominating quarterback accounted for 27 touchdowns in seven spring games and gets back his entire starting line and a plethora of receivers. The Lions allowed 36.4 points per game and seek improvement behind cornerback Ferlando Jordan and linebacker Alexis Ramos.
3 Key Games: Oct. 2 at McNeese; Nov. 6 at UIW; Nov. 18 vs. Nicholls
What to Know: Always talent-laden, the Wildcats haven't matched preseason expectations in recent seasons. Considering his brilliant career, quarterback Daniel Smith (109 combined TD passes, rushes, and catches) had a subpar spring, but he should rebound with the help of running back Justin Covington and wide receiver Rayshaun Pringle. Defensive end Malik Fisher, middle linebacker Forrest Rhyne, and cornerback Christian Benford give the defense a star in each unit.
3 Key Games: Sept. 25 at Penn State; Oct. 9 at James Madison; Nov. 20 at Delaware
17. UC Davis
(3-2 Big Sky)
What to Know: The Aggies really know how to spread out the production, and they have a lot back from an encouraging spring campaign, and their fall Big Sky schedule seems a bit easier without Montana and Montana State on it. Quarterback Hunter Rodrigues will want to put the ball in the hands of running backs Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. (3,301 career yards and 31 TDs from scrimmage) and Lan Larison. Defensive end Nick Eaton and defensive tackle Bryce Rodgers form a rugged duo up front.
3 Key Games: Sept. 25 at Weber State; Nov. 13 vs. Eastern Washington; Nov. 20 vs. Sacramento State
(6-2, 6-1 Southern)
What to Know: The Keydets wrote one of the better storylines of the spring season, winning their first SoCon title since 1977 and earning their first FCS national ranking and playoff bid behind Eddie Robinson Award-winning head coach Scott Wachenheim. The excellence of All-America wide receiver Jakob Herres (80 receptions, 978 yards, 8 TDs) didn't waver when freshman quarterback Seth Morgan stepped in midyear for all-time leading passer Reece Udinski, who's now at Maryland. Stone Snyder and Connor Riddle give the defense the most productive pair of linebackers in the conference.
3 Key Games: Sept. 25 vs. Wofford; Oct. 9 vs. Chattanooga; Nov. 6 at ETSU
19. Eastern Washington
(5-2, 5-1 Big Sky)
What to Know: The Eagles have committed to the run more during the Aaron Best era, but they're still most dangerous when Walter Payton Award runner-up Eric Barriere (10,102 career yards of total offense, 93 total TDs) is locating wide receivers Taolo Limu-Jones, Freddie Roberson, and Andrew Boston. Defensive end Mitchell Johnson and safety Anthany Smith headline the defense.
3 Key Games: Sept. 2 at UNLV; Oct. 2 vs. Montana; Nov. 6 vs. Montana State
(3-2, 3-1 Southern)
What to Know: The Mocs were in the thick of the SoCon title race when the school ended their spring season at the end of March. They return to an outstanding conference race, which makes their strong run game and experienced defense especially important. Running backs Ailym Ford, Tyrell Price, and Gino Appleberry work behind a veteran offensive line, and tight end Chris James is back from a missed season. On defense, Devonnsha Maxwell is the headliner up front, but a Jay Person and Ty Boeck-led linebackers unit and a secondary that boasts fifth-time starters in Brandon Dowdell and Jerrell Lawson are impressive.
3 Key Games: Sept. 2 vs. Austin Peay; Oct. 9 at VMI; Oct. 30 vs. Furman
21. Kennesaw State
(4-1, 2-1 Big South)
What to Know: It won't be surprising if the Owls' triple-option offense leads the FCS in rushing, considering they return an experienced offensive line, quarterbacks Jonathan Murphy and Xavier Sheperd, and running backs Isaac Foster and Kyle Glover. However, it will seem odd for the defense to line up without longtime standout linebacker Bryson Armstrong, who made a grad transfer to UCF.
3 Key Games: Oct. 2 vs. Jacksonville State; Oct. 16 vs. North Carolina A&T; Nov. 20 vs. Monmouth
22. New Hampshire
What to Know: UNH, seeking its first FCS playoff appearance since posting 14 in a row from 2004-17, boasts plenty of experience in the offensive and defensive backfields and at the line of scrimmage. Getting a big step from quarterback Max Brosmer is important after the Wildcats ranked last in the CAA in scoring in 2019, but running backs Carlos Washington Jr. and Dylan Laube provide a strong 1-2 punch. The defense features safety Evan Horn and defensive lineman Niko Kvietkus.
3 Key Games: Sept. 11 vs. Towson; Oct. 2 vs. James Madison; Nov. 6 at Albany
23. Austin Peay
(4-5, 4-2 Ohio Valley)
What to Know: The Governors kept getting better in the spring under new head coach Scotty Walden, who turned the offense over to freshman quarterback Draylen Ellis. While the offense is starting over at wide receiver, it can rely on running backs Brian Snead and C.J. Evans Jr. Nickel back Kordell Jackson (11 interceptions and 31 passes defended in career) is a two-time first-team All-American, and linebacker Jack McDonald is always around the ball.
3 Key Games: Sept. 2 at Chattanooga; Oct. 9 vs. Southeast Missouri; Oct. 23 at Murray State
What to Know: Southland co-champs in 2018 and '19, the Colonels should be much-improved health-wise and on defense. The key players are all so familiar, including wide receiver Da'Jean Dixon, running back Julien Gums, offensive lineman P.J. Burkhalter, and safety Kevin Moore. Also, dual-threat quarterback Lindsey Scott is underrated in a conference that had so many headliners behind center in 2020-21.
3 Key Games: Oct. 9 vs. Southeastern Louisiana; Oct. 16 at UIW; Nov. 6 at McNeese
25. Missouri State
(5-5, 5-1 Missouri Valley)
What to Know: The surprising Bears earned a share of the MVFC title as well as the program's first playoff appearance since 1990 in head coach Bobby Petrino's first season. Defensive end Kevin Ellis and linebacker Tylar Wiltz get into backfields, and cornerback Montrae Braswell was first-team all-conference. Running back Kevon Latulas' return from injury boosts an offense that had two different quarterbacks, Jaden Johnson and Matt Struck, throwing to wide receiver Damoriea Vick (42 receptions).
3 Key Games: Sept. 11 vs. Central Arkansas; Oct. 30 vs. North Dakota; Nov. 13 vs. Northern Iowa
ON THE CUSP: UAlbany (1-3 CAA); Florida A&M (2019: 9-2, 7-1 MEAC); Furman (3-4 Southern); Illinois State (1-3 Missouri Valley); Murray State (5-2 Ohio Valley); North Carolina A&T (Fall 2019: 9-3, 6-2 MEAC); Rhode Island (2-1 CAA); Richmond (3-1 CAA); Sacramento State (Fall 2019: 9-4, 7-1 Big Sky); UIW (3-3 Southland)
— 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.TheAnalyst.com. He appears frequently on radio, TV and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Top photo courtesy of James Madison Athletics)