In the FCS Huddle: First-time FCS champion quite possible

Philadelphia, PA ( - One-third of the programs to have won FCS national championships have parlayed their success into a move to the FBS level.

The departure of Georgia Southern leaves the FCS devoid of a six-time national champion - the most ever - while Appalachian State has moved out with three titles, which ties for the third-most in history. So seven programs that have won 15 of the 36 national titles - nearly 42 percent - have left in search of the riches that one of the schools, Boise State, has found at the higher level.

All of this heightens the chance that a first-time national champion will emerge this year, as there are only 14 FCS schools remaining that have combined on the other 21 national titles.

Reigning FCS kingpin North Dakota State will try to become the first program to win four straight FCS titles, and the program that preceded the Bison's three-peat, Eastern Washington in 2010, could very well be the team to beat this season.

And it's never smart to leave Montana, a two-time champion and seven-time finalist, out of the title conversation.

But then the field opens greatly to programs that believe they will make a run to their first national championship. Some of the ones that have the best chance simply need to build on the success they enjoyed last season.

Two met in the national quarterfinals, with New Hampshire winning late at Southeastern Louisiana. UNH has qualified for the last 10 postseasons under coach Sean McDonnell and their three-win run to the semifinals - where they were routed by North Dakota State - was the best in school history. The Wildcats return plenty of key players, including quarterback Sean Goldrich, and their defense is catching up to their offense, which hasn't been the case in the past.

But the team they knocked out, Southeastern Louisiana, might be even better considering their many transfers and top returning players, including Southland Conference player of the year Bryan Bennett, the Oregon transfer at quarterback. Linebacker Isiah Corbett and cornerback Harlan Miller are potential All-Americans on defense.

Jacksonville State won two playoff games before its run ended in the quarterfinals at Eastern Washington. The Gamecocks have a new head coach in John Grass after Bill Clark turned last year's success into, well, what do you know, a job on the FBS level at UAB. Running back DaMarcus James will fuel the offense and Alabama transfer LaMichael Fanning should be a star at defensive end.

Jacksonville State first has to get past Eastern Illinois in the Ohio Valley Conference. The two-time defending conference champion Panthers, a 15-time playoff qualifier, have lost 2013 Walter Payton Award winner Jimmy Garoppolo, but could still have a banner campaign, likely with New Mexico State transfer Andrew Manley at the controls of a talent-laden offense.

Towson knocked out Eastern Illinois last season and went further than UNH, Southeastern and Jacksonville State in its quest for a first FCS national title, losing to North Dakota State in the championship. Although the loss of 2,500-yard rusher Terrance West drops the Tigers back considerably, coach Rob Ambrose has raised the talent level enough to keep his program in the national mix.

One team that didn't make the playoffs last season that likely has the best chance of challenging for a national title is Northern Iowa. The Panthers have appeared in more playoffs - 16 - than any other program that hasn't won the national title.

Their 7-5 season unraveled with costly injuries and close losses last year, but coach Mark Farley brings back a veteran team that features quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen and running back David Johnson, who were part of the MASH unit a year ago.

A few of the other teams that are ready for big seasons, though not necessarily ending as a first-time FCS champion, are playoff staple McNeese State, which has added former Kansas State quarterback Daniel Sams, pass-happy Fordham and run-happy South Dakota State.

With North Dakota State losing 24 seniors as well as coach Craig Bohl to Wyoming on the FBS level, the FCS national title picture is a lot more wide open, and the champion might be raising the trophy for the first time.

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