There it is — right smack in the middle of the FCS regular season — the Dakota Marker rivalry game on Oct. 15.
South Dakota State at North Dakota State may be a sneak preview of the national championship game, which will cap the annual 24-team playoffs on Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas.
Both teams have reloaded with outstanding lineups heading into a 2022 season that looks and feels different, with an easier path to a potential Texas two-step. Perennial national power James Madison has moved up to the FBS, and Sam Houston, the FCS champion in the 2020 season that was mostly played last spring, won't be eligible for the playoffs in its final season in the subdivision before making a 2023 move to the FBS.
Here is Athlon Sports' Preseason FCS Top 25 with last year's record listed after the team name:
1. North Dakota State
(14-1, 7-1 Missouri Valley)
Surprise, surprise — yeah, hardly — the FCS champion Bison are favored to build on their nine national titles in an 11-season span, which is a first in college football history (NCAA, NAIA, or NJCAA). Head coach Matt Entz's Bison return 13 starters when including defensive end Spencer Waege. The 6-foot-5, 275-pound pass rusher missed much of last season with an ACL injury, yet the defense surrendered only 11.1 points per game — the fewest in the program's Division I era (since 2004). Besides Waege, the defense has All-America candidates in defensive tackle Eli Mostaert, linebacker James Kaczor, and safety Michael Tutsie. The depth in the offensive backfield is particularly impressive, starting with returning quarterback Cam Miller. Fullback Hunter Luepke was the outstanding player of the national championship game after scoring three touchdowns, and Tamerik Williams, Dom Gonnella, and Kobe Johnson would be 1,000-yard rushers in any other program. The Bison will take a six-game winning streak against FBS competition to Arizona on Sept. 17.
2. South Dakota State
(11-4, 5-3 Missouri Valley)
The Jackrabbits have advanced to at least the FCS semifinals in four of the last five seasons, but perhaps more impressive is a two-game winning streak against North Dakota State. Quarterback Mark Gronowski, the MVFC Offensive Player of the Year during the 2021 spring season, missed the fall with a knee injury and returns to an explosive offense that boasts running back Isaiah Davis (1,519 yards, eight-yard average in 17 career games), tight end Tucker Kraft, and wide receiver twins Jadon and Jaxon Janke. Linebacker Adam Bock (125 tackles as a sophomore) and defensive linemen Caleb Sanders and Reece Winkelman will keep the hits coming. Head coach John Stiegelemeier's squad has a difficult road schedule, beginning with Iowa.
(10-3, 6-2 Big Sky)
Following back-to-back 10-win campaigns, the Grizzlies appear primed to claim their first Big Sky title since 2009, which occurred in the final season of Bobby Hauck's first stint as head coach (he's 108-29 overall in Missoula). Linebacker Patrick O'Connell and cornerback Justin Ford (FCS-high nine interceptions) finished third and fourth, respectively, in the Buck Buchanan Award voting, and safety Robby Hauck, the coach's son, has a chance to reach 500 career tackles with 364 entering his senior campaign. Transfer quarterback Lucas Johnson went 8-1 as a starter at San Diego State last fall, while touchdown machine Marcus Knight (FCS-high 25 in 2019) returns from injury to team up with fellow running backs Xavier Harris and Junior Bergen.
4. Montana State
(12-3, 7-1 Big Sky)
The Bobcats and second-year head coach Brent Vigen have to replace key senior losses from their national runner-up squad, but equally important is quarterback Tommy Mellott's production following an ankle injury suffered in the defeat to North Dakota State. Mellott, the breakout star of the playoffs, can combine with tailback Isaiah Ifanse (1,623 yards as a junior, 3,461 in career) for a devastating ground duo. The defense has veterans in linebacker Callahan O'Reilly and defensive backs Ty Okada and Jeffrey Manning Jr., plus emerging standouts with defensive end Brody Grebe and cornerback Simeon Woodard.
5. Missouri State
(8-4, 6-2 Missouri Valley)
Nobody foresaw the Bears' turnaround in head coach Bobby Petrino's first two seasons — a share of the MVFC's spring title and a second-place finish in the fall — but they were 0-2 in the playoffs. The return of 16 starters makes the next step realistic. Quarterback Jason Shelley accounted for 3,789 yards of total offense and 32 TDs while earning MVFC Offensive Player of the Year honors. Other returning all-conference selections: wide receiver Tyrone Scott, defensive back/return specialist Montrae Braswell, kicker Jose Pizano, and punter Grant Burkett.
6. Sacramento State
(9-3, 8-0 Big Sky)
Similar to Missouri State, Sac State has come up snake eyes in the playoffs despite capturing Big Sky titles in head coach Troy Taylor's two seasons (2019 and '21). His Hornets utilize a quarterback rotation with Jake Dunniway and Asher O'Hara, and the offensive weapons run deep with wide receiver Pierre Williams (135 career receptions), tight end Marshel Martin, and running back Cameron Skattebo. Hybrid safety/linebacker Marte Mapu disrupts opposing pass attacks.
7. Southern Illinois
(8-5, 5-3 Missouri Valley)
Head coach Nick Hill may wish he was still the quarterback at his alma mater. Returning starter Nic Baker can distribute the ball in all directions, including to wide receiver Avante Cox (204 career receptions) and running backs Javon Williams Jr. (41 total TDs in career), Romeir Elliott, and Justin Strong. Between the 2021 spring and fall seasons, SIU posted eight top-25 wins.
(10-3, 7-1 CAA)
The new largest FCS conference (13 teams in 2022, 14 in '23) may have the best title race. Quarterback Connor Watkins takes over the defending co-champ's offense, and it's experienced up front with playmakers in wide receivers Rayjoun Pringle and Jaaron Hayek and running backs DeeWil Barlee and Jalen Jackson. Transfer linebackers Danny Damico (UAlbany) and Antonio Montero (Rice) will make an impact.
9. Kennesaw State
(11-2, 6-0 Big South)
In the competitive ASUN-WAC Challenge, Kennesaw State (49-10 since 2017) is the team to beat. Triple option QB Xavier Shepherd led the FCS with 23 rushing touchdowns and threw for 15 more. Elusive running back Iaan Cousin also will benefit from the return of three starters on the offensive line. While the defense returns eight starters, it's impossible to replace leading tackler Evan Thompson at linebacker.
10. Stephen F. Austin
(8-4, 4-2 AQ7)
Following their first playoff season since 2014, the Lumberjacks will chase the ASUN-WAC Challenge title. Quarterback Trae Self (3,201 yards, 28 TDs) throws to dynamic wide receiver Xavier Gipson, who's averaged over 40 yards on 30 career TD receptions. The defense features leading tacklers Myler Heard (safety) and Brevin Randle (linebacker) and 6-6 pass rusher B.J. Thompson (9½ sacks).
11. Holy Cross
(10-3, 6-0 Patriot)
No Patriot League program has claimed four straight outright titles, but Holy Cross is primed to do so with a highly experienced squad under head coach Bob Chesney. Linebacker Jacob Dobbs (137 tackles, 9½ sacks) was named Patriot Defensive Player of the Year while the Crusaders led the FCS in total defense. Quarterback Matthew Sluka (25 total TDs) could claim offensive honors.
(6-5, 5-3 Southern)
In a deep SoCon, the Mocs may have the most talent. Their defense is the conference's best, returning Player of the Year Devonnsha Maxwell on the edge and linebackers Ty Boeck and Jay Person. Returning QB Cole Copeland or transfer Preston Hutchinson will get the ball to Ailym Ford, who has rushed for 2,244 yards and 20 TDs in 22 career games.
13. Weber State
(6-5, 5-3 Big Sky)
Full, healthy seasons out of quarterback Bronson Barron and running back Josh Davis could help the Wildcats — 2017-20 Big Sky champs — to rebound in a big way. Davis seeks to get back to the 1,000-yard level in each of his first two seasons (2018 and '19). Running back Dontae McMillan, wide receiver Ty MacPherson, and cornerback Eddie Heckard are other key returnees.
14. Rhode Island
(7-4, 4-4 CAA)
The Rams' seven wins were the most since they had eight in 2001. They are strong in the trenches, which is welcome news to quarterback Kasim Hill and the running backs, including Kevin Brown Jr. back from injury, plus for cornerback Jordan Jones (five interceptions) and safety O'Neil "Buzz" Robinson to operate on the back end of the defense.
15. Eastern Washington
(10-3, 6-2 Big Sky)
The schedule, including matchups at Oregon and Florida, may prove too hard to overcome for one of the FCS' consistent powers. Longtime backup QB Gunner Talkington seeks to step in for Walter Payton Award recipient Eric Barriere. The Eagles always have a wave of wide receivers, this time returning Freddie Roberson, Efton Chism III, and Johnny Edwards IV.
(10-3, 7-1 Southland)
Coming off a Southland title, the Cardinals join the WAC under new head coach G.J. Kinne. Although they lost star quarterback Cameron Ward (Washington State transfer), two-year Nicholls starter Lindsey Scott Jr. arrives to team up with wide receiver Taylor Grimes, who tied for the FCS high with 15 TD catches among his 87 receptions for 1,145 yards. Linebacker Kelechi Anyalebechi's 131 tackles set the program's single-season record.
(7-3, 6-2 Southern)
Motivation isn't a problem after last season: The Bears fell just short of their first SoCon title and playoff bid. Neither is talent: They return seven of their top eight tacklers, including first-team all-conference selections Solomon Zubairu (defensive end) and Lance Wise (safety), and a veteran offense that features quarterback Fred Payton and running back Fred Davis (14 TDs).
(11-2, 7-1 Southern)
Former Furman offensive coordinator George Quarles is the new head coach, replacing the retired Randy Sanders. Even with the loss of 1,500-yard rusher Quay Holmes, the defending SoCon champion returns 1,000-yard rusher Jacob Saylors, quarterback Tyler Riddell, and top receiver Will Huzzie. Cornerback Alijah Huzzie is only a redshirt sophomore, but he's one of the Bucs' best players already.
19. Southeastern Louisiana
(9-4, 6-2 Southland)
The Lions' offense will be more run-oriented without quarterback Cole Kelley, but his replacement, Cephus Johnson III, can still rely on wide receivers Gage Larvadain and CJ Turner. In a Southland race that's up for grabs, it will be hard to have a better secondary than one including Ferlando Jordan (10 career interceptions), Zy Alexander, and Brandon Barbee.
(5-6, 3-5 CAA)
Ryan Carty, the offensive coordinator of Sam Houston's 2020 national championship squad, is now guiding his alma mater. His Blue Hens have a stout defense behind linebacker Johnny Buchanan and defensive backs Kedrick Whitehead and Noah Plack. Quarterback Nolan Henderson, who's 10-2 as a starter the last two seasons, is healthy again and ready to connect with wide receivers Thyrick Pitts and Jalyn Witcher.
21. Northern Iowa
(6-6, 4-4 Missouri Valley)
UNI's always difficult schedule is made easier by the lack of North Dakota State on it. Theo Day's 14.9 yards per completion led the FCS, although long-range kicker Matthew Cook (53 career field goals) may be the No. 1 offensive weapon. Cook was joined on the All-MVFC first team by middle linebacker Spencer Cuvelier and free safety Benny Sapp III.
22. Jackson State
(11-2, 8-0 SWAC)
After the Tigers won their first SWAC championship since 2007, head coach Deion Sanders was named the FCS coach of the year (Eddie Robinson Award) and his quarterback son Shedeur the national freshman of the year (Jerry Rice Award). The signing of five-star cornerback Travis Hunter adds to the biggest FCS story outside Fargo, North Dakota.
23. William & Mary
(6-5, 4-4 CAA)
A 6-2 start followed by an 0-3 November reminds the Tribe about the need for closers. They return 10 defensive starters, led by All-America end Nate Lynn off a 12-sack campaign. Head coach Mike London has two quarterbacks, Darius Wilson and Hollis Mathis, capable of operating the CAA's top-ranked rushing attack, which returns versatile Bronson Yoder, Donavyn Lester, and Malachi Imoh.
24. Eastern Kentucky
(7-4, 4-2 AQ7)
EKU's 21 all-time playoff appearances are third among current FCS programs, but the most recent was in 2014. The Colonels have an experienced lineup to contend in the ASUN-WAC Challenge, led by quarterback Parker McKinney (5,766 career passing yards) as a fourth-season starter, linebacker Matthew Jackson, and on the defensive line.
(6-5, 5-3 CAA)
The signing of former NC State/Montana State quarterback Matt McKay was an attention grabber for a lineup that returns veterans in the skills positions, including All-CAA wide receiver Jackson Parham. Safeties Cole Coleman and Omar Rogers and defensive end Torrence Williams highlight the nine returning defensive starters.
5 More Teams to Watch:
Furman (6-5, 4-4 Southern)
Harvard (8-2, 5-2 Ivy)
Murray State (6-5, 3-3 Ohio Valley)
North Dakota (5-6, 3-5 Missouri Valley)
Richmond (6-5, 4-4 CAA)
— 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.TheAnalyst.com. He appears frequently on radio, TV and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.