Defending national champion James Madison expected to lead the way in 24-team field
Which teams would be out of the FCS playoff field is almost as big as which ones are projected to be in this year’s 24-team field.
There are plenty of contenders.
The start of the second season over Thanksgiving weekend is a long way off, of course, but it’s always fun to look into the crystal ball. The power conferences – Big Sky, CAA Football, Missouri Valley and Southern – each had four qualifiers last season. Only one other conference – the Southland – had multiple bids.
This year, we’ll project the CAA (home to reigning champ James Madison) and Missouri Valley (home to 2011-15 champ North Dakota State) to lead the way with five bids each.
When it shakes out, there’s more than a half-dozen quality teams that roll off the tongue as being snubbed, including Illinois State, Kennesaw State, McNeese, Montana, Northern Arizona, The Citadel, UT Martin and Weber State.
Here is Athlon’s projected 2017 FCS playoff field (in alphabetical order):
Albany (at-large bid)
One of the final two teams left out of last year’s field needs running back Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks to return from a knee injury and bring the Great Danes in from the front porch.
Cal Poly (at-large bid)
A great start last season was followed by a disappointing final month, and the Mustangs don’t play Eastern Washington or Montana in the Big Sky’s unbalanced schedule.
Charleston Southern (Big South champ)
A strong defense will fuel the way, but the two-time defending Big South champ will have to win at Kennesaw State in a late-season clash.
A brutal early schedule – Jacksonville State, LSU and UT Martin – will challenge a Southern Conference power that has a new coach in Tom Arth.
Central Arkansas (at-large bid)
Coming of a 10-win season, the Bears get the recent Southland powers – defending champion Sam Houston State, Southeastern Louisiana and McNeese – on their striped turf.
Dayton (Pioneer champ)
It’s risky business to not pick San Diego as it comes off the first-ever playoff win in PFL history, but Dayton may have an inside track with a home game against the Toreros.
Duquesne (NEC champ)
The Dukes tied for the Northeast title last season, but there’s always a hollow feeling when another team (Saint Francis) earns the automatic bid in a competitive conference.
Eastern Washington (at-large bid)
If a non-conference run of Texas Tech, North Dakota State and Fordham isn’t enough, first-year head coach Aaron Best and the defending Big Sky co-champ Eagles open conference play at Montana.
Fordham (at-large bid)
As Chase Edmonds chases the FCS career rushing record, the Rams hope to win the Patriot League title and guarantee they won’t be one of the final two teams left out of the playoff field like last year.
Jacksonville State (Ohio Valley champ)
With three straight unbeaten conference seasons, the Gamecocks always have their eyes focused on the postseason.
James Madison (CAA Football champ)
Head coach Mike Houston’s defending national champion Dukes should be favored in every regular-season game, including their opener at East Carolina.
Lehigh (Patriot champ)
The league schedule will get tricky because the defending champ has road games against the second- through fourth-place teams in last year’s standing – Fordham, Colgate and Bucknell.
New Hampshire (at-large bid)
With 13 straight appearances in the playoffs, head coach Sean McDonnell’s squad has the longest active run in the FCS – six more than North Dakota State.
North Dakota (Big Sky champ)
After sharing last year’s title, the veteran Fighting Hawks have a tough conclusion to the Big Sky schedule by visiting Southern Utah and hosting Eastern Washington.
North Dakota State (Missouri Valley champ)
Last year’s schedule was tougher, but how’s this for some road matchups: at Eastern Washington, Youngstown State, South Dakota State and Illinois State.
Northern Iowa (at-large bid)
The only team on this list to have a losing record (5-6) last season, the Panthers hope to make amends in the loaded Missouri Valley Conference.
Richmond (at-large bid)
The Spiders tend to rev up the play late in the season and this time it’s new head coach Russ Huesman, defensive coordinator of their 2008 national championship team, leading the way.
Samford (at-large bid)
The surging Southern Conference program has played in six playoff games over four appearances, but none have been at home.
Sam Houston State (Southland champ)
Only North Dakota State has more wins in the FCS since the start of 2011, but the Southland power keeps bowing out of the postseason in blowout fashion.
South Dakota State (at-large bid)
Five straight playoff appearances are great, but the Jackrabbits have been eliminated in three of those years by North Dakota State.
Villanova (at-large bid)
Head coach Andy Talley, who revived ‘Nova football in 1985, has handed the reins over to longtime assistant Mark Ferrante.
Western Illinois (at-large bid)
In head coach Charlie Fisher’s first season in Macomb last year, the Leathernecks started with a 5-1 record, but lost four of their final five games and missed the playoffs.
Wofford (Southern champ)
The schedule opens with two SoCon games for a team that might be the favorite in head coach Mike Ayers’ 30th season.
Youngstown State (at-large bid)
In ending the Penguins’ 10-year playoff drought, head coach Bo Pelini led them to four wins and a runner-up finish to James Madison.
— 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 James Madison Athletics)