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Strength of Schedule Could Shape FCS Playoffs in 2017

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Top 25 rankings are fluid during the college football season, but going into the 2017 campaign, there are some telling signs about the schedules of some of the FCS powers.

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The strength of regular season schedules – and lack of strength – just may foreshadow the postseason.

Missouri Valley Football Conference rivals North Dakota State and Northern Iowa enter the season with the most games against teams ranked in Athlon Sports’ FCS Preseason Top 25 – five each.

NDSU, the preseason No. 1, faced what the NCAA deemed as the toughest schedule in the FCS last season, and although this year’s non-conference schedule is tamer, conference play will be rugged with the likes of No. 3 South Dakota State and No. 14 Youngstown State (last year’s national runner-up) on the road and home games against No. 13 Northern Iowa and No. 19 Western Illinois. A trip to No. 6 Eastern Washington in September is the big non-conference game. Also, conference rival Illinois State, the 2014 and ’15 MVFC co-champ, isn’t in the preseason poll, but that may not last long.

Northern Iowa annually plays one of the stronger schedules in the nation. In addition to an Oct. 28 matchup at NDSU, the Panthers face Western Illinois and Youngstown State at home and South Dakota State on the road. There also are visits to No. 22 Cal Poly and the season opener at Iowa State, a Big 12 program they upset last year in Ames.

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Conference play also provides South Dakota State with four games against preseason ranked teams (at Youngstown State and Western Illinois, home vs. Northern Iowa and NDSU). Also checking in with four ranked opponents are CAA Football powers Richmond (out of conference at No. 4 Sam Houston State before No. 20 Albany, as well as No. 8 Villanova and No. 2 and reigning national champ James Madison in conference play) and Villanova (Richmond, James Madison and Albany in conference play and No. 12 Lehigh out of conference).

The other ranked team with four games against preseason ranked opponents is No. 15 Chattanooga. The Southern Conference power opens at No. 9 Jacksonville State as well as LSU and later faces No. 25 The Citadel, No. 18 Samford and No. 10 Wofford in a row in conference play.

Related: FCS' Southern Conference to Challenge Best in FBS in 2017

Of particular note is Eastern Washington. While the Eagles only face three preseason ranked teams in North Dakota State, No. 21 Fordham and 2016 Big Sky co-champ North Dakota, they’ve long been the poster team for difficult FCS schedules. They also open against Texas Tech and face Montana, Southern Utah and Weber State, a trio that made an FCS playoff appearance in one of the last two seasons.

Speaking of North Dakota, there are huge expectations surrounding the Fighting Hawks, including a preseason No. 5 ranking. However, they’ve never won an FCS playoff game, and in between a season opener at Utah and the home finale against Eastern Washington, they don’t face another preseason ranked team.

Of course, UND’s schedule is much tougher than No. 24 McNeese’s. After a subpar 6-5 season last year, the Cowboys don’t have Southland Conference rival Sam Houston State or an FBS opponent on a schedule that only has one fellow preseason ranked team – No. 17 Central Arkansas. It might lead to an excellent record, but it might take until late November to determine just how good McNeese is this year.

James Madison, of course, is a great team, coming off its second FCS championship. The Dukes open at East Carolina – a winnable game, indeed – and have ranked matchups within the CAA against Villanova, New Hampshire and Richmond. The conference games are at home.

— 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.