FCS Football: 2020 National Title Contenders
FCS college football tends to feature many of the same national title contenders year to year, and, of course, the scenario is led by the North Dakota State dynasty.
The 2020 postseason could have a familiar look because many of the teams that made deep playoff runs this past year appear primed for encores. The Bison will have a veteran team, something they didn't have going into the 2019 campaign, yet that didn't stop them from going 16-0 and winning a third straight FCS title and eighth in the last nine seasons.
They're favored to get back to the title game in Frisco, Texas, but other top programs are in the national title mix, too.
Here are eight teams that hope to be on top of the FCS in 2020.
— 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.
North Dakota State Bison
Coach: Matt Entz (16-0, one season)
2019 Season: 16-0 (8-0 Missouri Valley), FCS champion, No. 1 Athlon Power Poll
Key Returnees: QB Trey Lance, RB Adam Cofield, WR Christian Watson, LT Dillon Radunz, RT Cordell Volson, OLB Jabril Cox, MLB Jackson Hankey, SS Michael Tutsie
3 Key Games: at Oregon (Sept. 5), at Northern Iowa (Sept. 26), South Dakota State (Oct. 17)
What to Know: The national champ will return 14 starters amid its wealth of talent. In 2019, Lance (42 total touchdowns, one turnover) became the most accomplished freshman in FCS history, named the outstanding player in the national championship game just one day after receiving the Walter Payton Award. Cox could be the top FCS prospect for the 2021 NFL Draft. Heading into their season opener at Oregon, the Bison have an FCS-record 37-game winning streak and a six-game winning streak against FBS opponents.
(Photo courtesy of North Dakota State Athletics)
James Madison Dukes
Coach: Curt Cignetti (14-2, one season; 81-28 overall)
2019 Season: 14-2 (8-0 CAA), FCS runner-up, No. 2 Athlon Power Poll
Key Returnees: RB Percy Agywei-Obese, RB Jawon Hamilton, WR Jake Brown, OT Liam Fornadel, DT Mike Greene, NG Adeeb Atariwa, FS/PR D'Angelo Amos, PK Ethan Ratke
3 Key Games: Delaware (Sept. 5), at North Carolina (Sept. 19), at Villanova (Oct. 24)
What to Know: Tasked with replacing 13 starters, the Dukes surely won't match the dominance they showed throughout most of 2019. It's likely one of their backup quarterbacks, Cole Johnson or Gage Moloney, will have to rise to a higher level of play. Either way, the offense will boast one of the best running back units in the FCS. VMI transfer wide receiver Kris Thornton, who caught 87 passes in 2018, hopes to make an impact. Atariwa and Greene lock down the interior of the defensive line.
(Photo courtesy of James Madison Athletics)
Coach: Bobby Hauck (96-26, nine seasons; 111-76 overall)
2019 Season: 10-4 (6-2 Big Sky), FCS quarterfinalist, No. 9 Athlon Power Poll
3 Key Games: at Eastern Washington (Oct. 3), Sacramento State (Oct. 17), Montana State (Nov. 21)
Key Returnees: QB Cam Humphrey, RB Marcus Knight, WR Samori Toure, WR Samuel Akem, LT Conlan Beaver, LB Jace Lewis, S Robby Hauck, S Gavin Robertson
What to Know: Coming off their first 10-win season since 2013, the Griz will have an explosive offense again, featuring Knight (25 touchdowns) and Toure, a first-team All-American. Humphrey should step in at quarterback after making three starts when Dalton Sneed was sidelined by injury last season. The concern is more on defense, where the losses include Olson, the school's all-time tackle leader. Lewis and Robby Hauck, though, are coming off 131 and 129 tackles, respectively.
(Photo courtesy of Montana Athletics)
Montana State Bobcats
Coach: Jeff Choate (28-22, four seasons)
2019 Season: 11-4 (6-2 Big Sky), FCS semifinalist, No. 4 Athlon Power Poll
Key Returnees: QB Tucker Rovig, RB Isaiah Ifanse, OL Connor Wood, OL Lewis Kidd, DE Amandre Williams, DE Chase Benson, LB/RB Troy Andersen, LB Callahan O'Reilly
3 Key Games: at Utah (Sept. 12), at Weber State (Oct. 17), at Montana (Nov. 21)
What to Know: The Bobcats seek to build off their first appearance in the national semifinals in 35 years, but the Big Sky comes first, and the conference is rich in top teams. Andersen, a two-way force, is often the best player on the field, and forms a rugged combo with Williams as the defense seeks to overcome the big losses of Bryce Sterk and Derek Marks up front. Rovig keeps improving behind center, but a lot of the game plan involves handing off to Ifanse.
(Photo courtesy of Montana State Athletics)
Northern Iowa Panthers
Coach: Mark Farley (159-83, 19 seasons)
2019 Season: 10-5 (6-2 Missouri Valley), FCS quarterfinalist, No. 5 Athlon Power Poll
Key Returnees: QB Will McElvain, WR Isaiah Weston, TE Briley Moore, DE Elerson Smith, LB Bryce Flater, LB Chris Kolarevic, CB Xavior Williams, CB Omar Brown
3 Key Games: Weber State (Sept. 19), North Dakota State (Sept. 26), South Dakota State (Nov. 7)
What to Know: Farley's 20th season again features a difficult schedule, including Iowa and Weber State out of conference. The talent is high, with Moore returning from injury, but the Panthers want to have a stronger run game to support McElvain, who ranked third among freshmen in passing yards and touchdown passes. Flater racked up 143 tackles and Smith 14 sacks on one of the nation's best defenses.
(Photo courtesy of UNI Athletics)
South Dakota State Jackrabbits
Coach: John Stiegelmeier (166-105, 23 seasons)
2019 Season: 8-5 (5-3 Missouri Valley), FCS second round, No. 10 Athlon Power Poll
Key Returnees: QB J'Bore Gibbs, RB Pierre Strong Jr., RB C.J. Wilson, WR Cade Johnson, WR/PR Jaxon Janke, LB Logan Backhaus, LB Seven Wilson, CB Don Gardner
3 Key Games: at Nebraska (Sept. 19), at North Dakota State (Oct. 17), at Northern Iowa (Nov. 7)
What to Know: Getting Gibbs back to full strength from an ACL tear would go a long way for a Jackrabbits program that fell back after reaching the FCS semifinals in 2017 and '18. In Gibbs' absence, another freshman, Keaton Heide, proved he can run an offense that will be improved in 2020, featuring two-time 1,000-yard rusher Strong and two-time 1,000-yard receiver Johnson. The defense is tasked with replacing key seniors, so it shouldn't be as strong as last season.
(Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Athletics)
Coach: Mark Ferrante (19-16, three seasons)
2019 Season: 9-4 (5-3 CAA), FCS first round, No. 17 Athlon Power Poll
3 Key Games: at Wake Forest (Sept. 19), James Madison (Oct. 17), at Delaware (Nov. 14)
Key Returnees: QB Daniel Smith, RB Justin Covington, RB DeeWil Barlee, WR Changa Hodge, OL Paul Grattan, DE Malik Fisher, LB Forrest Rhyne, CB Jaquan Amos
What to Know: This list deserves a wild card, and the Wildcats appear ready for a big step behind an explosive offense that's led by Smith, whose 48 total touchdowns as a junior topped the FCS. Covington is returning from injury, but Barlee impressed when he stepped in at running back. Rhyne fuels the defense. Ferrante is still seeking his first playoff win, but he was part of the many successful seasons under former head coach Andy Talley, including the Wildcats' 2009 national championship campaign.
(Photo courtesy of Villanova Athletics)
Weber State Wildcats
Coach: Jay Hill (47-30, six seasons)
2019 Season: 11-4 (7-1 Big Sky), FCS semifinalist, No. 3 Athlon Power Poll
Key Returnees: RB Josh Davis, WR Devon Cooley, WR/KR Rashid Shaheed, OG Ty Whitworth, DT Jared Schiess, DE George Tarlas, CB Eddie Heckard, PK Trey Tuttle
3 Key Games: at Northern Iowa (Sept. 19), Montana State (Oct. 17), at Eastern Washington (Oct. 24)
What to Know: The offseason took a turn when two-year starting quarterback Jake Constantine entered the NCAA transfer portal. He was backed last season by sophomore Kaden Jenks, who suffered a broken leg. Whoever leads the offense will have a host of weapons, led by two-time 1,000-yard rusher Josh Davis. The defense will stay strong, although it will be hard to replace defensive ends Jonah Williams and Adam Rodriguez. Tuttle, with 61 field goals through his junior season, is on pace to set the FCS career record.
(Photo courtesy of Weber State Athletics)