The 2016 FCS season is fast underway and there’s a lot to live up to following the thrilling FCS Kickoff between North Dakota State and Charleston Southern.
Interest in the FCS has never been higher, so the storylines will only bigger and better this season.
Here is Athlon Sports' FCS Power Poll heading into the season’s first full week:
1. North Dakota State
(2016: 1-0, 0-0 Missouri Valley)
This Past Weekend: Beat Charleston Southern, 24-17, in OT
A few coaches from the five-time defending FCS champion Bison — including former assistant and now third-year head coach Chris Klieman — are hoping to start filling a second hand with title rings. But their opener suggests the dynasty faces many tough challenges ahead.
Next Opponent: No. 12 Eastern Washington (Sept. 10)
2. Sam Houston State
(2015: 11-4, 7-2 Southland)
Junior defensive end P.J. Hall is the headliner; but add Mouf Adebo, Luis Carreno and Missouri transfer Marcus Loud to the mix and the Bearkats’ fierce pass rush will keep quarterbacks on the run.
Next Opponent: Panhandle State (Sept. 3)
3. Northern Iowa
(2015: 9-5, 5-3 Missouri Valley)
The Panthers, behind standout quarterback Aaron Bailey, open with their fifth trip to Iowa State this decade. The highlights were a 20-19 loss in 2011 and a 28-20 victory in ‘13.
Next Opponent: at Iowa State (Sept. 3)
(2015: 10-4, 6-2 CAA)
With eight starters back on each side of the ball, the Spiders are a fairly complete team. The big question is whether junior Gordon Collins can fill the workload of departed All-CAA running back Jacobi Green.
Next Opponent: at Virginia (Sept. 3)
5. Jacksonville State
(2015: 13-2, 8-0 Ohio Valley)
After last season, JSU announced that, oh by the way, All-America quarterback Eli Jenkins played last season with a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. It didn’t show in his play, although he had surgery this offseason.
Next Opponent: North Alabama (Sept. 1)
Related: 10 FCS Quarterbacks to Watch in 2016
6. Charleston Southern
(2016: 0-1, 0-0 Big South)
This Past Weekend: Lost to North Dakota State, 24-17, in OT
The Buccaneers let a potential upset of top-ranked North Dakota State slip away, but coach Jamey Chadwell has to be thrilled with his team's gutty effort inside the Fargodome.
Next Opponent: Kentucky State (Sept. 3)
(2015: 9-4, 6-1 Southern)
Running back Derrick Craine (1,251 rushing yards) and defensive end Keionta Davis (13.5 sacks) are coming off record-setting seasons for the Mocs.
Next Opponent: Shorter (Sept. 1)
8. South Dakota State
(2015: 8-4, 5-3 Missouri Valley)
Two is better than one at quarterback with Zach Lujan passing the ball and Taryn Christion running it. A year ago, the Jackrabbits opened the season with a win over a Big 12 team – albeit Kansas.
Next Opponent: at TCU (Sept. 3)
9. Coastal Carolina
As they transition to the FBS level, the independent Chanticleers would have been better served by playing some FBS teams and not scheduling only FCS opponents.
Next Opponent: at Lamar (Sept. 3)
10. The Citadel
(2015: 9-4, 6-1 Southern)
Offensive coordinator-turned-head coach Brent Thompson will keep the triple option running along, but starting quarterback Dominique Allen is suspended for the season opener.
Next Opponent: at Mercer (Sept. 1)
11. Illinois State
(2015: 10-3, 7-1 Missouri Valley)
The Redbirds are trying to move on, but will the names of departed quarterback Tre Roberson and running back Marshaun Coprich appear in more stories this season than their actual replacements?
Next Opponent: Valparaiso (Sept. 3)
12. Eastern Washington
(2015: 6-5, 5-3 Big Sky)
New quarterback Gabe Gubrud will look to get the ball to wide receiver Cooper Kupp, the 2015 FCS offensive player of the year, again... and again... and again...
Next Opponent: at Washington State (Sept. 3)
13. William & Mary
(2015: 9-4, 6-2 CAA Football)
With 25 consecutive starts, senior Steve Cluley is the most experienced quarterback in a conference that is deep in FCS playoff contenders this season.
Next Opponent: at North Carolina State (Sept. 1)
14. James Madison
(2015: 9-3, 6-2 CAA Football)
Former Citadel head coach Mike Houston takes over a talent-rich program that has come up short in the playoffs each of the last two seasons.
Next Opponent: Morehead State (Sept. 3)
15. North Dakota
(2015: 7-4, 5-3 Big Sky)
It’s a tricky opener for a UND squad that was one of the last two (with Towson) to be left out of the playoff field in 2015. John Santiago was the Big Sky leader in all-purpose yards as a freshman.
Next Opponent: at Stony Brook (Sept. 1)
(2015: 8-5, 6-2 Big Sky)
Are the Griz still adding to their recruiting class? Second-year head coach Bob Stitt will have plenty of new faces on a team that scored many big wins in his debut.
Next Opponent: Saint Francis (Sept. 3)
17. McNeese State
(2015: 10-1, 9-0 Southland)
Defensive coordinator-turned-head coach Lance Guidry is still running the DWA (Defense With Attitude). Yeah, the Southland champion Cowboys might have a little ‘tude over the attention paid to rival Sam Houston State.
Next Opponent: Tartleton State (Sept. 3)
(2015: 7-4, 5-3 CAA Football)
The addition of former Oregon quarterback Morgan Mahalak is just what two-time 1,000-yard rusher Darius Victor and the Tigers’ veteran offense needed.
Next Opponent: at South Florida (Sept. 3)
19. Western Illinois
(2015: 7-6, 5-3 Missouri Valley)
It’s taken two graduate transfers to get first-year head coach Charlie Fisher’s small senior class into double figures at 11, but the Leathernecks are ready to build on last year’s playoff season.
Next Opponent: at Eastern Illinois (Sept. 1)
(2015: 6-5, 5-3 CAA Football)
The Wildcats want to send out retiring head coach Andy Talley with a big season. His 136 conference wins are a CAA record and he guided the conference’s most recent FCS championship season in 2009.
Next Opponent: at Pittsburgh (Sept. 3)
21. Portland State
(2015: 9-3, 6-2 Big Sky)
Quarterback Alex Kuresa returns to lead the Vikings coming off their best season ever on the Division I level – a six-win improvement. Bruce Barnum was the 2015 FCS coach of the year.
Next Opponent: Central Washington (Sept. 3)
22. Youngstown State
(2015: 5-6, 3-5 Missouri Valley)
Yup, it’s now or never for a senior class that hopes to spur the Penguins’ first playoff season since 2006. No doubt second-year head coach Bo Pelini will keep it interesting.
Next Opponent: Duquesne (Sept. 1)
(2015: 9-5, 6-0 Patriot)
Seven of the defending Patriot League champion’s nine wins were by seven points or less in a thrilling 2015 season, when the Raiders advanced to the playoff quarterfinals.
Next Opponent: at Syracuse (Sept. 2)
24. Northern Arizona
(2015: 7-4, 5-3 Big Sky)
The Lumberjacks haven’t won the Big Sky title since 2003, but they were installed as the favorite in the conference’s two preseason polls.
Next Opponent: at Arizona State (Sept. 3)
25. Eastern Kentucky
(2015: 6-5, 5-3 Ohio Valley)
Noah Spence’s early entry in the NFL Draft wasn’t all the Colonels defense lost. New head coach Mark Elder has only have three returning defensive starters.
Next Opponent: at Purdue (Sept. 3)
Power poll possibilities: Fordham (2015: 9-3, 5-1 Patriot); New Hampshire (2015: 7-5, 5-3 CAA Football); North Carolina A&T (2015: 10-2, 7-1 MEAC)
— 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.
(Top photo by North Dakota State University Athletics)