It’s easier to find dark horse candidates for the FCS national title than actual favorites – the pool of teams is much greater.
To many people, there’s defending champion James Madison and dynasty program North Dakota State (the 2011-15 champ), and then everybody else.
In truth, Eastern Washington and Sam Houston State are usually making deep runs in the playoffs, and this year, South Dakota State has an offense to match those powers.
Dark horse candidates tend to rise up from the upper-tier conferences – teams such as national runners-up Towson (CAA Football) in 2013, Jacksonville State (Ohio Valley) Conference) in 2015 and Youngstown State (Missouri Valley Football Conference) last year.
So don’t overlook these three dark horse candidates which hope to be playing in the 2017 FCS national title come January:
Granted, the Fighting Hawks expect to be a top 10 team this season, but they qualify as a dark horse simply because they’ve never won an FCS playoff game. The 2001 Division II national champion made its first FCS playoff appearance last season, falling to Richmond to end a 9-3 season in which the Hawks won a share of the Big Sky title with Eastern Washington. They have a mindset similar to North Dakota State – run the ball and play strong defense, especially against the run. Head coach Bubba Schweigert is replacing five starters on defense, but Cole Reyes and Deion Harris are NFL prospects in the secondary. While quarterback Keaton Studsrud won’t wow anybody, the depth at running back will: juniors John Santiago and Brady Oliveira, and Minnesota transfer James Johannesson.
It will be weird to see the Wildcats lining up on Saturdays without Andy Talley on the sideline, but their 32-year head coach retired after last season, which ended with a playoff loss to South Dakota State and a 9-4 record. New head coach Mark Ferrante was Talley’s long-time right-hand man, so the style of play will be the same – a ball-control offense backed by a gritty, tough defense. The offense returns nine starters, led by quarterback Zach Bednarczyk, who moves into his third season as the starter. Running backs Aaron Forbes and Matt Gudzak will be productive as they share carries. The defense will miss All-America defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon, but safety Rob Rolle and linebackers Jeff Steeb and Ed Shockley return off big seasons. Villanova will get its shot at fellow CAA Football power James Madison on Oct. 14.
The Terriers’ record was a mere 4-3 last October after they fell in overtime to eventual Southern Conference champion The Citadel, but they got hot at the right time and went on to the playoffs, win twice (including against The Citadel) and reach the national quarterfinals in a 10-4 season. Head coach Mike Ayers enters his 30th season – the second-longest tenure among active FCS coaches – just three wins shy of 200 with the Terriers. His triple-option offense troubles defenses by nature, but this year it will be made tougher by the abilities of two different quarterbacks, returning starter Brandon Goodson and Joe Newman, a breakout player late in his freshman campaign. Even better, the playoff-hardened defense returns eight starters, including anchors on the D-line in Miles Brown and Tyler Vaughn, and inside linebacker Datavious Wilson, who led the team in tackles as a freshman.
None of these three teams has a big-time passing game. Each runs the ball well on offense and stops opponents on defense. It’s a winning formula.
— 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 Villanova University Athletics)