With FCS dynasty North Dakota State returning a mere seven starters this season, there's a sense around FCS college football that the national title race is more open.
Selection Sunday — Nov. 24 — is a long way off, of course, but we're looking into the crystal ball early to see whose names will be called for the 24-team field. Ten will go in as conference champs and automatic qualifiers, while the other 14 are at-large selections.
Here is Athlon’s projected 2019 FCS playoff field (in alphabetical order):
Colgate (Patriot champ)
The only Patriot team with a winning record in each of the last two seasons outscored league foes 223-26 last year.
Duquesne (Northeast champ)
Running back A.J. Hines goes for a fourth straight 1,000-yard season for a squad that handled Towson in last year's playoffs.
Eastern Washington (Big Sky champ)
The 2018 FCS runner-up doesn't have the other three Big Sky playoff qualifiers (Weber State, UC Davis and Montana State) on its schedule.
Elon (at-large qualifier)
New head coach Tony Trisciani is tasked with a demanding schedule as the Phoenix go for a third straight playoff appearance.
Furman (at-large qualifier)
Winning the Southern Conference bid is preferred considering the Paladins' non-conference schedule (including two FBS opponents and one non-qualifying Division II team) may backfire.
Illinois State (at-large qualifier)
The Redbirds seek to overcome two disappointing seasons with 16 returning starters, led by senior running back James Robinson.
Indiana State (at-large qualifier)
Behind a five-game, season-ending winning streak, the Sycamores finished 7-4 — the biggest improvement in the FCS following a winless 2017 season.
Jacksonville State (Ohio Valley champ)
A non-conference visit by Eastern Washington helps to highlight the schedule of the five-time defending Ohio Valley champ.
James Madison (CAA champ)
The Dukes, who won the 2016 FCS title and was the runner-up two years ago, return 19 starters for head coach Curt Cignetti’s first season.
Kennesaw State (Big South champ)
The two-time defending Big South champ won more games last season (11) than it has returning starters (10).
Maine (at-large qualifier)
After being a surprise CAA champ, the Black Bears remain road warriors with seven games away from Alfond Stadium.
McNeese (at-large qualifier)
In a Southland Conference with experienced quarterbacks, new head coach Sterlin Gilbert will go up-tempo with Cody Orgeron, son of LSU coach Ed Orgeron.
Montana State (at-large qualifier)
The Bobcats earned their first playoff win since 2012, but, in an oddity, co-Big Sky first-team quarterback Troy Anderson is switching back to linebacker.
Nicholls (Southland champ)
Um, Mr. Schedule Maker, the defending Southland co-champ isn't playing a home game until Oct. 5.
North Dakota State (Missouri Valley champ)
In the last eight postseasons, the seven-time FCS champion Bison have only played inside the Fargodome prior to the championship game in Frisco, Texas.
Northern Iowa (at-large qualifier)
Once again, the Panthers face a challenging non-conference schedule before jumping into the Missouri Valley schedule.
Sam Houston State (at-large qualifier)
Prior to last year's 6-5 record, the Bearkats had won at least nine games in seven consecutive seasons, reaching at least the FCS semifinals five times.
San Diego (Pioneer champ)
Head coach Dale Lindsey’s squad returns 13 starters and takes an FCS-high 29-game league winning streak into the season.
South Dakota State (at-large qualifier)
The Jackrabbits have reached the FCS semifinals in back-to-back years and have Missouri Valley powers North Dakota State and UNI at home this season.
Southeast Missouri (at-large qualifier)
Coming off their first playoff season since 2010, can the Redhawks survive their road schedule (Montana State, Missouri, Austin Peay, Jacksonville State, Tennessee State, and Eastern Illinois)?
Towson (at-large qualifier)
Ditto for the Tigers, who follow up their first playoff appearance since 2013 with road games against The Citadel, Maine, Florida, James Madison, Stony Brook, and William & Mary.
UC Davis (at-large qualifier)
Eddie Robinson Award-winning head coach Dan Hawkins has a lineup led by senior Jake Maier, ranked No. 1 among returning quarterbacks by Athlon.
Weber State (at-large qualifier)
The Wildcats, who have won a share of two straight Big Sky titles, will prep for conference play against San Diego State, Nevada and UNI.
Wofford (Southern champ)
A Nov. 2 matchup with FBS champ Clemson falls smack in the middle of the two-time defending champ's SoCon schedule.
— 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 of South Dakota State Athletics)