Matchups vs. FBS, coaching debuts help highlight the fun
Spring football is invigorating fans of FCS college football much like spring training has whet the appetite of baseball fans.
The FCS even beat MLB to the Far East, with the Penn Quakers playing an exhibition in China on March 9 before the Oakland A's and Seattle Mariners made their way to Japan for their season-opening series.
Optimism rules for everybody at this time of the year. If it was Opening Day (well, weekend) in the FCS, these five thoughts would be flying around like touchdown passes:
Week 1 matchups
Samford and Youngstown State get the FCS schedule going in the FCS Kickoff Aug. 24 in Montgomery, Alabama, but most teams jump into the pool over Labor Day Weekend.
Dreams of FCS upsets over FBS programs are there with such notable games as South Dakota State at Minnesota, James Madison at West Virginia, Indiana State at Kansas, Alcorn State at Southern Miss, Montana State at Texas Tech, Incarnate Word at UTSA, Colgate at Air Force, UC Davis at Cal, Northern Iowa at Iowa State, Nicholls at Kansas State, Illinois State at Northern Illinois, Weber State at San Diego State and Eastern Washington at Washington.
Inter-conference FCS matchups also fire up interest. The best of Week 1 includes Eastern Illinois at Chattanooga, Southern Illinois at Southeast Missouri, Towson at The Citadel, Southern at McNeese, Montana at South Dakota and Elon at North Carolina A&T.
Bison the team to beat
North Dakota State is the standard in the FCS – it's won a record seven national titles in the last eight years, including the last two – so huge graduation losses (15 starters) won't knock the Bison off the mountain.
A worthy FCS program would have to do that.
The Bison, under new head coach Matt Entz, still have the winning script: a killer run game and defense. Oh yes, they're also 24-1 at the Fargodome in playoff games this decade.
But if not the Bison
OK, it's true North Dakota State is more vulnerable than in recent seasons.
Eastern Washington, the national runner-up last season, isn't going anywhere with quarterback Eric Barriere returning to lead their high-powered attack. Neither is NDSU's rival South Dakota State, which has reached the national semifinals the last two seasons.
Last year's top two teams in CAA Football, Maine, which reached the semis, and James Madison, the only national champ (2016) to interrupt NDSU's dynasty, return veteran squads. UC Davis and Weber State join Eastern Washington as defending Big Sky champs.
Year of the linebacker
The depth of quarterbacks stood out going into last season. This year, the linebackers form a stacked group at the top.
Leading the way are 2018 Buck Buchanan Award winner Zach Hall of Southeast Missouri and third-place finisher Dante Olson of Montana. They were the top tacklers in the FCS.
There's also everybody’s favorite NFL linebacker prospect Jabril Cox, who will be a junior at North Dakota State this season.
But the list doesn't end there with likes of seniors Christian Rozeboom of South Dakota State, Jonas Griffith of Indiana State and Cam Gill of Wagner; Kennesaw State junior Bryson Armstrong; and Furman sophomore Adrian Hope, who led the FCS in sacks in his first season.
New head coaches
Incredibly, the FCS has 25 new head coaches for the second straight year.
Matt Entz's debut for North Dakota State is against Butler at Target Field in Minneapolis. National semifinalist Maine promoted Nick Charlton, and they open against Sacred Heart.
Also in the CAA, Elon's Curt Cignetti made the move across the conference to James Madison and will open at West Virginia, while Mike London is William & Mary's first new coach in 40 years, replacing Jimmye Laycock and opening against Lafayette.
Other notable debuts will occur with Austin Peay's Mark Hudspeth (North Carolina Central), Charleston Southern's Autry Denson (at Furman), Howard's Ron Prince (at Maryland) and Morgan State's Tyrone Wheatley Jr. (at Bowling Green).
— 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 Athletics)