There is almost always a surprise team in a conference race, sometimes one that nobody saw coming before the title race.
A lot of times, perceptions are formed by a preseason poll, and each rung down the ladder adds another layer of motivation.
Following is a team from each FCS conference that appears capable of a big step in 2020, including title contention for some:
Big Sky — Idaho (5-7, 3-5 in 2019)
Despite a demanding road schedule, the Vandals seek a breakthrough in their third season since dropping back from the FBS level. They feature a standout trio of linebackers in Charles Akanno, Christian Elliss, and Tre Walker. Head coach Paul Petrino has to decide on a new starting quarterback, likely between senior Colton Richardson and UConn transfer Mike Beaudry.
Big South — Gardner-Webb (3-9, 1-5)
New head coach Tre Lamb was a college quarterback, so he sees all the possibilities that exist with getting the ball to wide receivers Izaiah Gathings and Devron Harper — two of the Runnin’ Bulldogs’ 16 returning starters. The question is whether last year’s subpar defense will be much improved.
CAA — Richmond (5-7, 4-4)
The Spiders won four of their first five conference games last season before slumping in November. This year, head coach Russ Huesman needs a finishing touch from Joe Mancuso, who led all CAA signal-callers with 647 rushing yards, and linebackers Tyler Dressler and Tristan Wheeler.
Ivy — Cornell (4-6, 3-4)
A number of close losses robbed the Big Red of their first winning season since 2005, but the final two games – handing Ivy co-champ Dartmouth its only loss and a blowout win over Columbia – were a springboard for 2020. A veteran offensive line will help quarterback Richie Kenney improve, and sophomore linebacker Jake Stebbins is a future star.
MEAC — Norfolk State (5-7, 4-4)
Surprisingly, the Spartans haven’t finished above .500 since 2011, but this should be sixth-year head coach Latrell Scott’s strongest squad. Quarterback Juwan Carter is surrounded by excellent young players in the offensive skills positions. Both lines should be formidable.
Missouri Valley — North Dakota (7-5, FCS independent)
Let’s face it, the attention in the state is down south at North Dakota State, even when head coach Bubba Schweigert’s Fighting Hawks are moving into the MVFC. Defensive backs Jordan Canady and Evan Holm and linebacker Noah Larson will help guide a physical unit that was hardened by Big Sky schedules.
Northeast — Saint Francis (6-6, 3-4)
Quarterback Jason Brown led the conference in passing yards (3,048) and touchdown passes (28) while wide receiver Ra’Shaun Henry was in No. 1 in receptions (90). Head coach Chris Villarrial has the most returning starters (17) as well, so the Red Flash believe it will all blend into title contention.
Ohio Valley — Eastern Kentucky (7-5, 5-3)
The preseason attention will decrease after the Colonels disappointed a bit last season, but that just may mean they’ll sneak up on the title race under new head coach Walt Wells. It always starts with a strong offensive line, and the Colonels have it to benefit quarterback Parker McKinney and running back Alonzo Booth.
Patriot — Fordham (4-8, 2-4)
Nine all-league selections, including six on the first team, are among head coach Joe Conlin’s 20 returning starters. Quarterback Tim DeMorat and running back Zach Davis fuel the league’s top-ranked offense, and linebackers Glenn Cunningham and Ryan Greenhagen create havoc for opponents.
Pioneer — Davidson (8-4, 5-3)
The Wildcats have made huge strides in head coach Scott Abell’s two seasons, including last year’s fourth-place finish with their first winning league record since 2007. Quarterback Tyler Phelps will become a fourth-year starter and their dominating run game features Wesley Dugger going for a fourth straight 1,000-yard season.
Southern — The Citadel (6-6, 4-4)
The Bulldogs return the conference’s reigning defensive player of the year, linebacker Willie Eubanks III, and option quarterback Brandon Rainey may be the most influential offensive player. Head coach Brent Thompson’s squad lost by seven or fewer points four times last season, which means it wasn’t far off from something much bigger.
Southland — Abilene Christian (5-7, 4-5)
It was easy to find the Wildcats on this list a year ago, but the schedule proved to be too strong despite their win over Southland co-champ Nicholls. Fourth-year head coach Adam Dorrel will blend in a number of new starters, but the experience of running back Billy McCrary, linebacker Jack Gibbens and defensive end Kameron Hill is huge.
SWAC — Jackson State (4-8, 3-4)
The Tigers, Alabama A&M, and Alabama State all believe they can end Alcorn State’s six-year run of winning the East Division. At J-State, most of head coach John Hendrick’s key players are back, including linebacker Keonte Hampton, who was the conference’s defensive player of the year, and quarterback Jalon Jones.
— 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 Jackson State Athletics)