The FCS Kickoff Classic game has become a strong season-opening showcase for teams in the subdivision. Without a lot of competition to pull way college football-hungry fans, the two teams in this year's Week Zero matchup are anxious to prove themselves worthy of the spotlight.
Youngstown State and Samford are set to play in the 2019 Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff at the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Ala., but they may as well be standing at a crossroads, trying to decide whose season will go in the right direction.
Neither team made the FCS playoffs last season. Samford, from the Southern Conference, is replacing quarterback Devlin Hodges, the Walter Payton Award recipient, and other standout seniors, and its best game might have been a close loss at Florida State. Youngstown State returns only nine starters while it tries to get back to its 2016 level, a national runner-up finish. The Missouri Valley Football Conference team's first win that postseason was against Samford.
FCS Kickoff: Youngstown State vs. Samford
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 24 at 3 p.m. ET
Where: Cramton Bowl (Montgomery, Ala.)
Youngstown State vs. Samford: Three Things to Watch
1. Samford's new quarterback(s)
Devlin Hodges eclipsed Steve McNair's FCS career record for passing yards as a senior, but Samford's quarterback position has to remain a strength given the Bulldogs' offensive style (more than 50 pass attempts a game last season). Head coach Chris Hatcher signed former South Florida quarterback Chris Oladokun, a dual-threat signal-caller who started three of the Bulls' final four games last season, and junior Liam Welch knows the offense well. Wide receiver Chris Shelling (63 receptions, nine touchdowns) will be the go-to option.
2. Youngstown State’s physicality
They don't play soft in the Missouri Valley Conference, and Youngstown State feels it can exert its muscle. While his offensive line isn't as stout as in recent season, head coach Bo Pelini will want to pound the run after his Penguins averaged more than 225 rushing yards in wins last season. Fifth-year QB Nathan Mays' carries may reach double figures and he can spread the handoffs to Christian Turner, Joe Alessi and young bruiser Braxton Chapman. When Samford has the ball, Penguins defensive ends Justus Reed and Shereif Bynum will be a handful.
3. Has the recruiting paid off?
The concept is common across college football, but it's especially important for the younger and less experienced players on Samford and Youngstown State to quickly handle larger roles. Samford lost two other All-Americans, wide receiver Kelvin McKnight and defensive end Ahmad Gooden, in addition to Hodges, and YSU saw the departures of its top offensive and defensive players plus two veteran kickers. Considering the expected day-time temperatures in Alabama for this game (forecast calls for a high of 91), there's even more reason to rotate in extra players and avoid a meltdown.
Each of the first five FCS Kickoff games matched two nationally ranked teams, but Samford and Youngstown State come in unranked. Earning a win will go a long way toward the direction of their season. If it's Samford, the Bulldogs could be 3-1 at worst a month from now. With its next three games at home, Youngstown State has designs on a 4-0 non-conference start to the season.
The Penguins have swept four all-time meetings between the two programs. They'll need to counter how Samford will try to spread them out with their fast-paced passing offense, but the Penguins' run game will own the clock. Pro-style QB Joe Craycraft is a stronger passer than Nathan Mays, so it would be interesting if both teams rely on two signal-callers.
Prediction: Youngstown State 27, Samford 24
— 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 Youngstown State)