In the FCS Huddle: Too much of a good thing

Philadelphia, PA ( - Beau Baldwin gets it right. Playing tough non-conference games is the only way to prepare a team for a tough conference schedule.

Eastern Washington's seventh-year head football coach might have the best FCS team in the country this season - oops, sorry, North Dakota State - and as usual the non-conference schedule will get the Eagles ready for a postseason bid.

A year ago, a non-conference schedule that included trips to FBS Oregon State and Toledo and FCS national power Sam Houston State could have been disastrous, but it helped the Eagles toward going on a 10-game winning streak and capturing an outright Big Sky Conference title and a spot in the FCS national semifinals.

What kept the Eagles even at 2-2 early on is they reached for one sub-Division I cupcake - Western Oregon. They knew when to say when and still had a rugged non-conference schedule.

"To me, I think the tougher you make your schedule, a lot of times that does prepare you for the (playoff) situations," Baldwin said. "I think if you just set your schedule up so you can have a great regular season, I don't think it necessarily prepares you like you truly need to be or want to be to truly make a run in the playoffs. Plus, those are defining-type football games you can go after."

Eastern Washington, led by 2013 Walter Payton Award runner-up Vernon Adams at quarterback, will be at it again early this season with a rematch against Sam Houston State in the first college football game of the season on Aug. 23 as well as a visit to both the University of Washington and Big Sky power Montana State, although that game won't count toward the conference standings.

The Eagles will devour Division II Montana-Western as well, giving themselves at least one break before they begin their Big Sky schedule in late September.

While EWU didn't schedule itself out of the playoff mix with too much of a good thing last year, there are a few FCS national powers that have to guard against suffering too many non-conference losses early in the season and then never digging out of the hole.

Here are some notables:

Southern Utah (at Nevada, at Southeastern Louisiana, versus South Dakota State, at Fresno State)

The Thunderbirds had one of the better young nucleuses, especially on defense, while qualifying for the FCS playoffs for the first time last year. When they constructed their 2014 schedule, they couldn't have known how quickly Southeastern Louisiana would become a national title contender and they didn't necessarily know star linebacker Zak Browning would be gone to an LDS mission this year. With the two FBS games, this is surely an impossible start to the season. The only home game among the four matchups is against a South Dakota State team which features a two-time 2,000-yard rusher, Zach Zenner.

Likely best-case scenario: 2-2

Likely worst-case scenario: 0-4

More likely: 1-3 (win over South Dakota State)

Eastern Illinois (at Minnesota, versus Southern Illinois, at Illinois State, at Ohio University)

After being No. 2-ranked for a good portion of the FCS season a year ago, the Panthers are retooling without former head coach Dino Babers and a superb senior class led by Payton Award winner Jimmy Garoppolo. New Mexico State transfer Andrew Manley will fit in just fine at quarterback, so the offense may score in bunches again. That might not be enough to beat a Big Ten team (Minnesota), but winning at Ohio U. is not out of the question. The home game against run-heavy Southern Illinois (hey, at least there's no Terrance West) might be tougher than the visit to Illinois State.

Likely best-case scenario: 3-1

Likely worst-case scenario: 0-4

More likely: 2-2 (wins over Illinois State and Ohio University)

Villanova (at Syracuse, versus Fordham, at Penn)

The Wildcats are playing only three non-conference games again this season. They put themselves in an 0-2 hole a year ago, and they face the same horror story this year - a loss to an FBS team (Boston College last year) and a better-than-advertised Fordham squad. Fordham won't sneak up on 'Nova this time around, and after some fairly good matchups with Penn, the Wildcats figured it out last year in routing the Quakers. This year's "away" game at Penn is a potential trap considering the Wildcats visit defending CAA Football champion Maine a week later.

Likely best-case scenario: 2-1

Likely worst-case scenario: 0-3

More likely: 2-1 (wins over Fordham and Penn)

Central Arkansas (at Texas Tech, versus UT Martin, at Montana State, versus Missouri State)

This is a deceptively tough non-conference schedule. It's hard to imagine the Bears going winless because they have had winning records in seven of their eight FCS seasons, but they have lost a longtime head coach (Clint Conque, although new coach Steve Campbell has been highly successful) and last year's games against UT Martin (a 24-23 loss) and Missouri State (a 17-13 win) were tight matches. Visits to Texas Tech and Montana State both figure to be losses.

Likely best-case scenario: 2-2

Likely worst-case scenario: 1-3

More likely: 1-3 (win over Missouri State)

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