The sounds of “Play ball” arriving across major league stadiums on Thursday will bring a feeling of renewal to everyone. And a sense of optimism, even if it’s fleeting for many teams.
But as many enjoyed spring training while it led up to Opening Day, spring football also has us anticipating the 2018 season.
If this was Opening Day (well, weekend) in FCS college football, these five thoughts would rule:
There’s always such anticipation for season-opening games because an entire offseason builds toward them.
North Carolina A&T and Jacksonville State are expected to get a jump on other teams with an FCS Kickoff matchup in Week Zero (although it’s yet to be announced officially). In Week 1, Northern Iowa visiting Montana, where Bobby Hauck has returned as head coach, is another big intersectional game, and the FCS vs. FBS matchups are aplenty, including James Madison at NC State and South Dakota State at Iowa State.
Sorry, parity lovers, North Dakota State, which has won six of the last seven FCS national titles, and James Madison, the 2016 champ and '17 runner-up, are the teams to beat again this year.
In fact, the drop-off to the next tier — let’s say Eastern Washington, Kennesaw State New Hampshire, Sam Houston State and South Dakota State — appears greater than last offseason, when South Dakota State was a clear threat at No. 3 and Sam Houston State had an experienced team at No. 4.
There’s no shortage of top returning quarterbacks in the FCS. The Walter Payton Award that honors the national offensive player of the year has come to be dominated by signal-callers, and this year’s standouts include Kennesaw State’s Chandler Burks, South Dakota State’s Taryn Christion, Northern Arizona’s Case Cookus, Eastern Washington’s Gage Gubrud, Samford’s Devlin Hodges and North Dakota State’s Easton Stick. But UC Davis wide receiver Keelan Doss topped them all last season while finishing third in the Payton voting.
The Buck Buchanan Award, or FCS defensive player of the year, is just as wide open with the likes of Jacksonville State safety Marlon Bridges, Samford defensive end Ahmad Gooden, North Dakota State safety Robbie Grimsley and South Dakota State linebacker Christian Rozeboom as leading preseason candidates.
Idaho is a Wild Card
Idaho’s return to the FCS level and the Big Sky Conference after 22 seasons in the FBS has people wondering where the Vandals fit in on the national level.
Despite finishing 4-8 last season, head coach Paul Petrino’s squad of mostly former FBS players should be a contender in the Big Sky. The Vandals posted a 28-6 win over a Sacramento State squad that went 6-2 in conference play. But the Vandals have to replace four-year quarterback Matt Linehan, and the change probably brings them back to the rather larger pack in the Big Sky.
Idaho’s Sept. 1 opener will be at Fresno State.
Bend But Don’t Break
Offenses continue to fly up and down the field like a basketball fast break. North Dakota State head coach Chris Klieman often says his team will win even when its vaunted defense gives up field goals. It’s avoiding the touchdowns that is the key for teams.
Scoring defense might be the best statistic outside the win and loss columns. Last year, 10 of the top 16 teams in the FCS in scoring defense won conference titles. Two years ago, five teams ranked in the top seven won conference titles.
— 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 Samford Athletics)