There’s a familiar look, but it stretches beyond North Dakota State
At least in one way, the eventual 2019 champion in FCS college football could have something new — a first-year head coach.
Three of the top contenders, including two-time defending champ North Dakota State, handed off the reins of the program after this past season.
But there should be a familiar look next season because some of the best teams in 2018 aren’t going anywhere.
Here are six teams (in alphabetical order) that plan to travel on the Road to Frisco (Texas) as national title contenders.
— 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.
Eastern Washington Eagles
Head Coach: Aaron Best (19-7, two seasons)
2018 Season: 12-3 (7-1 Big Sky), FCS runner-up
Key Returnees: QB Eric Barriere, RB Antione Custer Jr., RB Tamarick Pierce, WR Andre Boston, C Spencer Blackburn (applying for a medical redshirt), OT Chris Schlichting, DE Micah Johnson, LB Chris Ojoh, LB Jack Sendekbach, S Dehonta Hayes, S Calin Criner
3 Key Games: at Washington (Aug. 31), at Jacksonville State (Sept. 14), at Montana (Oct. 26)
National Title Aspirations: The national runner-up could overcome key losses with the return of some players who were lost to season-ending injuries and possibly offensive linemen who are pursuing an extra season of eligibility. Barriere (above) should be even better in his second season, and he’s already set the FCS single-game playoff record with seven touchdown passes. Incredibly, the Big Sky’s other three 2018 playoff teams — Weber State, UC Davis and Montana State – are not on the Eagles’ schedule.
(Photo courtesy of Eastern Washington Athletics)
James Madison Dukes
Head Coach: Curt Cignetti (first season; 67-26 overall)
2018 Season: 9-4 (6-2 CAA), FCS second round
Key Returnees: QB Ben DiNucci, WR Riley Stapleton, WR Kyndel Dean, OL Liam Fornadel, DL Ron’Dell Carter, DL John Daka, LB Dimitri Holloway, CB Rashad Robinson, CB/PR D’Angelo Amos, S Adam Smith, PK Ethan Ratke
3 Key Games: at West Virginia (Aug. 31), at Elon (Sept. 28), Towson (Oct. 26)
National Title Aspirations: Cignetti, who led Elon to a win at JMU last season, doesn’t figure to make significant changes in his first year in Harrisonburg, Virginia, because the Dukes return nine offensive starters, 10 on defense and all the key specialists. They are motivated after an early exit from the playoffs following back-to-back appearances in the title game. DiNucci seeks more consistency directing the offense and junior running backs Percy Agyei-Obese and Jawon Hamilton have to replace last year’s senior trio. Getting Robinson, the 2018 CAA preseason defensive player of the year, back from injury is huge.
(Photo courtesy of James Madison Athletics)
Maine Black Bears
Head Coach: Nick Charlton (first season)
2018 Season: 10-4 (7-1 CAA), FCS semifinalist
Key Returnees: QB Chris Ferguson, RB Ramon Jefferson, RB Joe Fitzpatrick, WR/KR Earnest Edwards, WR Jaquan Blair, LT Gunnar Docos, RG Liam Dobson, DE Kayon Whitaker, DL Charles Mitchell, MLB Deshawn Stevens, LB Taji Lowe, LB Jaron Grayer, CB Manny Patterson
3 Key Games: Towson (Sept. 14), at Colgate (Sept. 21), at Elon (Nov. 9)
National Title Aspirations: Charlton was elevated from offensive coordinator after head coach Joe Harasymiak’s departure. He’s well-versed with all the offensive talent on the defending CAA champion, and the defense also is loaded (Whitaker, Stevens and Patterson) even with the loss of All-American linebacker Sterling Sheffield. It’s key that Ferguson has a healthier season under center. The Black Bears played nine road games in 2018, and this year’s slate isn’t any easier, including FBS trips to Georgia Southern and Liberty.
(Photo courtesy of Maine Athletics)
North Dakota State Bison
Head Coach: Matt Entz (first season)
2018 Season: 15-0 (8-0 Missouri Valley), FCS champion
Key Returnees: QB Trey Lance, RB/KR Ty Brooks, RB Seth Wilson, LT Dillon Radunz, RT Zack Johnson, TE Ben Ellefson, DE Derrek Tuszka, DT Cole Karcz, LB Jabril Cox, FS James Hendricks, CB Marquise Bridges, P Garret Wegner
3 Key Games: UC Davis (Sept. 21), at Illinois State (Oct. 5), at South Dakota State (Oct. 26)
National Title Aspirations: The Bison dynasty, which has won a record seven FCS titles in the last eight years, won’t falter even with the loss of 14 starters and head coach Chris Klieman, who’s been replaced by his defensive coordinator, Entz. The preseason spotlight will be at quarterback, where the Bison have to replace Easton Stick, who went 49-3 and won back-to-back national titles as the starter. Lance is highly regarded, and Iowa State transfer Zeb Noland will push him. Cox (above) is ready to be a first-team All-American, but the defense isn’t as star-studded as recent seasons.
(Photo courtesy of North Dakota State Athletics)
South Dakota State Jackrabbits
Head Coach: John Stiegelmeier (158-100, 22 seasons)
2018 Season: 10-3 (6-2 Missouri Valley), FCS semifinalist
Key Returnees: RB Pierre Strong Jr., RB Mikey Daniel, WR Cade Johnson, WR Adam Anderson, OL West Genant, OL Even Greeneway, DE Ryan Earith, LB Christian Rozeboom, LB Logan Backhaus, CB Marshon Harris, PK Chance Vinatieri
3 Key Games: at Minnesota (Aug. 29), North Dakota State (Oct. 26), Northern Iowa (Nov. 16)
National Title Aspirations: It’s impossible to replace Taryn Christion, the best quarterback in school history, but the Jackrabbits will surround the new starter with a lot of talent. Junior Kanin Nelson has learned behind Christion, but redshirt freshman J’Bore Gibbs was recruited to be the heir apparent. Strong and Daniel bring speed and power to the run game, and Johnson (above) is a big-time wide receiver. Rozeboom has led the defense in tackles for three straight seasons. It helps to play North Dakota State, Illinois State and UNI at home.
(Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Athletics)
UC Davis Aggies
Head Coach: Dan Hawkins (15-9, two seasons; 127-70-1 overall)
2018 Season: 10-3 (7-1 Big Sky), FCS quarterfinalist
Key Returnees: QB Jake Maier, RB Ulonzo Gilliam, RB Tehran Thomas, WR Jared Harrell, TE Wesley Preece, RT Riley Gallant, NT Jordan Franklin, LB Montell Bland, LB Nas Anesi, LB Connor Airey, CB Devon King, S Erron Duncan,
3 Key Games: at North Dakota State (Sept. 21), Weber State (Oct. 26), Montana State (Nov. 16)
National Title Aspirations: Hawkins has the Aggies believing they can take the next step following a last-minute loss to Eastern Washington in the quarterfinals of their first FCS playoff appearance. While the loss of two-time All-America wide receiver Keelan Doss is significant, Maier has his other big offensive weapons back in the high-scoring unit. The offensive line also returns four starters. The defense needs improvement. If one team was pared from this list, it would be the Aggies.
(Photo courtesy of UC Davis Athletics)