Athlon Sports' Spring 2021 Preseason FCS Top 25 Rankings

A lot has changed in the subdivision, but not North Dakota State at No. 1

So much has changed prior to the spring season in FCS college football, but what remains the same is North Dakota State being the team to beat again.

 

A spring season is a significant change in itself, as all FCS conferences postponed their fall schedule due to concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. But so many top FCS players have moved on to FBS programs or NFL training, and only about three-quarters of the 127 FCS teams may be in action this spring.

 

The Athlon Sports Preseason Top 25, first released last spring, has been revised, and without teams that opted out of playing in their conference's spring season, including previously ranked Montana State (No. 5), Montana (7), Central Arkansas (11), Sacramento State (12), and Towson (25). The Citadel (21) also dropped out of the rankings following a poor fall non-conference performance.

 

The first spring game is scheduled for Feb. 13, but some conferences won't begin play until March. There will be a 16-team FCS playoff, down from the usual 24, with North Dakota State seeking a fourth straight national title.

 

Here is the revised Athlon Sports Preseason Top 25 with 2019 record and fall non-conference mark if applicable:

 

1. North Dakota State

(16-0, 8-0 Missouri Valley – 1-0 Fall 2020)

Previous Ranking: 1

Quarterback Trey Lance, the 2019 Walter Payton Award recipient, will be a first-round NFL draft pick by the time the Bison hope to be back in Frisco, Texas (May 16), seeking to add to their record eight national titles in the last nine seasons. He's turned their FCS-record 38-game winning streak over to 2019 Iowa State transfer Zeb Noland, who will seek out electrifying wide receiver Christian Watson. Second-year head coach Matt Entz has moved former safety James Kaczor up to linebacker alongside Jackson Hankey. The Bison end their MVFC season against stalwarts South Dakota State and Northern Iowa.

 

2. Weber State

(11-4, 7-1 Big Sky)

Previous Ranking: 3

After advancing to the FCS semifinals for the first time last season, the three-time defending Big Sky champ is primed for the next step under head coach Jay Hill. A new starting quarterback – perhaps Middle Tennessee transfer Randall Johnson – will have many offensive weapons, including two-time 1,000-yard rusher Josh Davis and wide receivers Devon Cooley, Rashid Shaheed and Randal Grimes, a UNLV transfer. The defensive line boasts end George Tarlas and tackle Jared Schiess.

 

3. Northern Iowa

(10-5, 6-2 Missouri Valley)

Previous Ranking: 2

The Panthers have a talented roster heading head coach Mark Farley's 20th season, but it would have been much stronger without key losses over the last year. Their physical defense has a standout on each level with defensive tackle Jared Brinkman, linebacker Bryce Flater and cornerback Omar Brown. Quarterback Will McElvain throws to 6-foot-4 touchdown-maker Isaiah Weston.

 

4. James Madison

(14-2, 8-0 CAA)

Previous Ranking: 4

Last year's CAA champ and national runner-up returns only seven starters, but the schedule suggests a possible 8-0 regular season. Head coach Curt Cignetti has a ridiculously strong backfield, led by seniors Percy Agyei-Obese and Jawon Hamilton. Former defensive tackle Mike Greene is shifting to the edge. Senior Ethan Ratke, who will back in the fall, has kicked 58 field goals, 17 shy of the all-time FCS record.

 

5. South Dakota State

(8-5, 5-3 Missouri Valley)

Previous Ranking: 6

The Jackrabbits' eight straight playoff appearances mark the second-longest active streak to North Dakota State's 10. They will face the Bison and Northern Iowa on the road, so two-time 1,000-yard rusher Pierre Strong Jr. is going to have to be even better to overcome the loss of two-time 1,000-yard receiver Cade Johnson. Returning from injury, sophomore quarterback J'Bore Gibbs has battled to earn the top job again.

 

6. Kennesaw State

(11-3, 5-1 Big South)

Previous Ranking: 10

An April 10 trip to Monmouth is the main challenge for a sixth-year program that has 34 wins in the last three seasons (third-most in the FCS). Senior linebacker Bryson Armstrong is a big-game player and the triple-option offense has elusive quarterbacks in Tommy Bryant and Jonathan Murphy.

 

7. Villanova

(9-4, 5-3 CAA)

Previous Ranking: 8

‘Nova has been hurt by the departure of graduate transfers, but running back Justin Covington, who suffered a midseason knee injury in 2019, has returned to the backfield along with dual-threat quarterback Daniel Smith, who accounted for an FCS-high 48 touchdowns as a junior.

 

8. Nicholls

(9-5, 7-2 Southland)

Previous Ranking: 14

Running back Julien Gums (1,234 yards, 17 total TDs) and wide receiver Da'Jean Dixon (1,044 yards) are back to wreak more havoc on opponents of the two-time defending Southland champ.

 

9. Illinois State

(10-5, 5-3 Missouri Valley)

Previous Ranking: 9

Yet another Missouri Valley team ravaged by grad transfer and NFL draft losses. All-America running back James Robinson is gone, so mammoth left tackle Drew Himmelman (6-10, 315) will open holes for dual-threat quarterback Bryce Jefferson.

 

10. Sam Houston

(7-5, 6-3 Southland)

Previous Ranking: 16

The second-winningest FCS program in the 2010s (99 wins) has a different vibe because the defense has the lead role, including a menacing D-line trio of Trace Mascorro, Joseph Wallace and Jevon Leon. The offense will keep moving with Donovan Williams (14 rushing TDs).

 

11. Southeastern Louisiana

(8-5, 6-3 Southland)

Previous Ranking: 17

The Lions bounced Villanova in the 2019 playoffs. Quarterback Cole Kelley literally stands tall (6-7) in the pocket, making it easier for him to spot his productive wide receivers, while cornerback Ferlando Jordan returned three interceptions for touchdowns as a sophomore.

 

12. Eastern Washington

(7-5, 6-2 Big Sky)

Previous Ranking: 20

That Montana and Montana State are sitting out the Big Sky spring season helps the Eagles, whose 13 consecutive winning seasons rank behind only McNeese (15) among active FCS streaks. Senior quarterback Eric Barriere directed the perennial power to the 2018 FCS championship game.

 

13. Southern Illinois

(7-5, 5-3 Missouri Valley – 1-0 Fall 2020)

Previous Ranking: 19

Given their rugged MVFC schedule, the Salukis' win over Southeast Missouri in October is important for their playoff resume. Sophomore running back Javon Williams Jr. is one of the nation's more versatile offensive players.

 

14. New Hampshire

(6-5, 5-3 CAA)

Previous Ranking: 15

Two-time Eddie Robinson Award-winning coach head Sean McDonnell is back from a medical leave of absence in 2019. The Wildcats also return their best player in senior safety Evan Horn, who remained in Durham following a look around the NCAA transfer portal.

 

15. Furman

(8-5, 6-2 Southern)

Previous Ranking: 18

Running backs Devin Wynn (1,182 yards, 14 TDs) and Devin Abrams eat up big gains for a living. Junior defensive end Adrian Hope (21.5 career sacks) hopes to devour more quarterbacks.

 

16. Jacksonville State

(6-6, 3-5 Ohio Valley – 3-1 Fall 2020)

Previous Ranking: 24

Zion Webb came off the bench to replace Zerrick Cooper and lead an FBS win at FIU to cap the Gamecocks' fall non-conference schedule. Webb will remain behind center, looking to connect with standout tight end Trae Barry.

 

17. North Carolina A&T

(9-3, 6-2 MEAC)

Previous Ranking: Unranked

The MEAC will host a conference championship game for the first time, and the Aggies (58-13 since 2014) may use it as a playoff springboard. All-America running back Jah-Maine Martin decided against entering the NFL draft after rushing for 1,446 yards and 23 touchdowns on 7.7 yards per carry as a junior.

 

18. Albany

(9-5, 6-2 CAA)

Previous Ranking: 23

Quarterback Jeff Undercuffler needs new receivers after throwing 41 touchdown passes, an FCS single-season record for a freshman, in the Great Danes' 2019 playoff campaign. They'll rely even more on running back Karl Mofor (1,609 scrimmage yards).

 

19. Austin Peay

(11-4, 7-1 Ohio Valley – 0-3 Fall 2020)

Previous Ranking: 13

The 2019 OVC co-champ had a disastrous fall campaign, but hopes to regroup behind new head coach Scott Walden. Cornerback Kordell Jackson was a 2019 consensus All-American, and wide receiver DeAngelo Wilson seeks to get back to that year's form (89 rec., 1,564 yds., 15 TDs).

 

20. Wofford

(8-4, 7-1 Southern)

Previous Ranking: 22

The Terriers are strong in the trenches, most notably sophomore defensive end Michael Mason. The offensive line will open running rooms for backs Jacquez Allen, Ryan Lovelace and the triple-option offense.

 

21. Monmouth

(11-3, 6-0 Big South)

Previous Ranking: Unranked

The 2019 Big South champs are replacing stars in quarterback Kenji Bahar and running back Pete Guerriero, but the Hawks still boast an excellent senior class. It includes linebacker and leading tackler Da'Quan Grimes and defensive backs Anthony Budd and Justin Terry.

 

22. Delaware

(5-7, 3-5 CAA)

Previous Ranking: Unranked

The Blue Hens seek to bounce back behind 15 returning starters and experienced special teams. A healthier Colby Reeder at linebacker and safety Kedrick Whitehead headline deep units.

 

23. Southeast Missouri State

(9-4, 7-1 Ohio Valley – 0-1 Fall 2020)

Previous Ranking: Unranked

The Redhawks, whose 13 conference wins the last two seasons lead the OVC, will rush the ball effectively with former Nebraska quarterback Andrew Bunch and running backs Zion Custis and Geno Hess.

 

24. Idaho

(5-7, 3-5 Big Sky)

Previous Ranking: Unranked

Third time's the charm back in the FCS? The Vandals are stacked at linebacker with Charles Akanno, Christian Elliss and Tre Walker, while transfer quarterback Mike Beaudry helped West Florida reach the 2017 Division II championship game.

 

25. South Carolina State

(8-3, 6-2 MEAC)

Previous Ranking: Unranked

Two of the Bulldogs' four MEAC Southern Division games are against North Carolina A&T, which they've lost to five straight times. Quarterback Corey Fields was named the conference's 2019 rookie of the year.

 

ON THE CUSP: Elon (5-6, 4-4 CAA); McNeese (7-5, 5-4 Southland); Richmond (5-7, 4-4 CAA); San Diego (9-3, 8-0 Pioneer); South Dakota (5-7, 4-4 Missouri Valley); UC Davis (5-7, 3-5 Big Sky)

 

— 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 University Athletics)

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