"Opening Day" is a term we're all embracing across the sports world — the return to the sights and sounds of the games we love.
There's so much to look forward to with the 2020 FCS season. Top players and teams are scheduled to kick off the action in either Week 0 (Aug. 29) or over Labor Day weekend (beginning Thursday night, Sept. 3).
With an eye on the horizon, the following are five thoughts to know about the beginning of the 2020 FCS season.
Bison the Team to Beat Again
We all know North Dakota State is still in the midst of a dynasty, winning the last three FCS national titles and a record eight in the last nine years. The Bison have done it under three different head coaches — first Craig Bohl, then Chris Klieman and last year Matt Entz in an amazing 16-0 debut.
The return of nine offensive starters, led by 2019 Walter Payton Award recipient Trey Lance at quarterback, will keep the Bison marching into opposing end zones. The impending loss of All-America linebacker Jabril Cox to an FBS grad transfer will leave the defense with just five returning starters, but middle linebacker Jackson Haney and strong safety Michael Tutsie — both rising juniors — are among the best at their positions in the FCS.
North Dakota State will kick off the campaign in one of its more anticipated matchups, taking a six-game winning streak against FBS opponents to Oregon. There are also big openers with Northern Iowa at Iowa, Eastern Washington at Florida and Point University at Kennesaw State (just kidding).
Before those games, the FCS Kickoff in Week 0 pits Austin Peay versus Central Arkansas in Montgomery, Alabama. Other big FCS vs. FCS openers include Delaware at James Madison, Wofford at Furman, Southern Illinois at UT Martin, Elon at The Citadel, San Diego at UC Davis, and South Carolina State versus Grambling State at the MEAC-SWAC Challenge in Atlanta.
New Coaches, Teams
There's nothing like making a strong first impression.
Dixie State and Tarleton move up from Division II as FCS independents, opening their Division I era against Southern Utah and Sam Houston State, respectively.
Thirteen FCS programs have new coaches. The debuts include Missouri State's Bobby Petrino against Oklahoma, Cal Poly's Beau Baldwin against ULM, Northern Colorado's Ed McCaffrey against Fort Lewis, and McNeese State's Frank Wilson against Louisiana. Howard's Larry Scott opens against Central State in the Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic, hosted by the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
Nine of the 28 players on the Athlon 2019 Postseason FCS All-America Team return: Lance; offensive linemen P.J. Burkhalter of Nicholls, Liam Fornadel of James Madison and Dillon Radunz of North Dakota State; Montana wide receiver Samori Toure and long snapper Matthew O’Donoghue; Portland State safety Anthony Adams; Austin Peay nickelback Kordell Jackson; and Northern Arizona placekicker Luis Aguilar.
There's no shortage of top returning quarterbacks besides Lance. There's also Eastern Washington’s Eric Barriere, Jacksonville State's Zerrick Cooper, Villanova's Daniel Smith, and Sacramento State's Kevin Thomson. Also, former Montana State quarterback Troy Andersen is a rock as a linebacker who still moonlights at running back.
North Dakota State is not a lock, North Dakota State is not a lock, North Dakota State is not a lock. We'll say it 10 times to try to convince ourselves.
But when the Bison go for a 10th straight Missouri Valley Football Conference, they'll be facing three other possible top-10 teams in Northern Iowa, South Dakota State, and Illinois State. It's a dominating conference.
CAA champ James Madison, the 2019 national runner-up and a finalist in three of the last four seasons, won't drop too far despite needing to replace 13 starters. Weber State, Montana, and Montana State are headliners out of the 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 Athletics)