I’m sure some aren’t ready to think about 2015 just yet, but in honesty the new season begins on February 4th on signing day. We’ve got some major offseason coverage plans coming that we’ll announce later this week, and today’s post begins that coverage. Last year I predicted six teams to watch in 2014, you can go back and look at that post here. I base these rankings off of what the teams have coming back and what their respective schedules look like. These teams listed are not in any specific order.
- 1. NDSU – The four-time defending champions lose plenty of experience on the defensive side of the football, but return eight starters on offense, including four on the offensive line (also getting all-conference guard Zach Johnson back from missing all of this season). The Bison do not have an FBS game next year and their non-confernece schedule are all against Big Sky teams (Montana, Weber State and UND).
That’s where I see NDSU figuring out what they’re going to have on defense next season. The Valley doesn’t have Zach Zenner or David Johnson and the Bison bring back potential player of the year candidate Carson Wentz. NDSU needs to figure out who replaces John Crockett and who can step up at linebacker, but there are plenty of pieces back for the Bison to be contenders again in 2015.
- 2. Illinois State – It was a break thru season for Brock Spack’s team and it doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere in 2015. Both Tre Roberson and Marshaun Coprich are back to torture Valley defenses next season, but will need to find out who can replace Roberson’s receiving weapons as Leichen Neblett, Cameron Meredith and James O’Shaugnessy all graduate. Defensively ISU should be in good shape, as two of the Valley’s best are back in Teddy Corwin and Pat Meehan on the defensive line and linebacker. ISU opens the year at Iowa, will go to SDSU and Youngstown and of course don’t play NDSU in 2015. Everything is set up for the Redbirds to possibly be the preseason Missouri Valley favorite.
- 3. Sam Houston State – Bison fans got a first hand glimpse at the Southland favorites in 2015 and understand why they’ll be a national contender. KC Keeler’s team brings back a majority of its squad, especially on offense, quarterback Jared Johnson will be just a sophomore next year and standout wide receiver LaDarious Brown (held in check by NDSU) will be a senior. The Bearkats offensive line is nearly intact, they play at Texas Tech for their FBS game and the Southland will start a nine-game conference schedule in 2015, but they are the clear-cut favorites in that league, with the potential to be challenging for Frisco again.
- 4. Eastern Washington – Sorry FCS fans Vernon Adams is still around. The man who’s been runner-up for the Walter Payton the last two years will be the preseason pick for the award this season. The Eagles are as talented as they’ve been on offense with Adams and All-American wide receiver Cooper Kupp. Defense is always the issue with EWU, fans that watched Illinois State play them saw Coprich gash them on nearly every play. Beau Baldwin loves to play everyone and that’s the case again in 2015, the Eagles open the season at Oregon, then go to Cedar Falls to play Northern Iowa in the start of a home and home. They also play Montana State in a non-conference game. EWU will be the favorite to win the Big Sky, but I think the race for that title will be a lot closer than in past seasons.
- 5. Coastal Carolina – The Chanticleers opened my eyes and a lot of other people last year in what they did in the postseason. Plenty of fans ripped on me for rating CCU where I did during the season since their schedule wasn’t nearly as difficult as anyone in the Valley or Big Sky, and if they had not lost the season finale to Liberty, they would have been a top two seed. Quarterback Alex Ross was the second best quarterback NDSU saw last year (behind Roberson) and he’s back for another season, along with outstanding running back De’Angelo Henderson. Joe Moglia has something special going on in Myrtle Beach, they’ll have a chance to pull an upset to start the year, facing Kent State and will test themselves with an upstart Western Illinois team. Their biggest league challenge will come again from Liberty, but there’s no reason to think that the Chants won’t be a top six seed for the FCS playoffs next November.
- 6. Villanova – What could have been for the Wildcats. Walter Payton winner John Robertson missed Villanova’s quarterfinal game with Sam Houston with concussion-like symptoms and they ended up getting beat. Robertson is back for one last run and his supporting cast returns for the most part, including his standout wide receiver. The Wildcats open the year with another winnable FBS game, playing at UConn, remember Villanova lost in double OT to Syracuse to start this year. Because of the unbalanced CAA schedule, they don’t play New Hampshire again, which means their path to the title is considerably easier. Keep an eye on ‘Nova as the east coast team to make some waves.
- BONUS TEAMS – Youngstown State is the most intriguing team in all of FCS. The addition of Bo Pelini at coach makes the Penguins a must-watch in 2015. Hunter Wells is just a sophomore at quarterback and Martin Ruiz is a junior and very talented at running back. YSU plays Pittsburgh in its FBS game, and get Illinois State, SDSU and NDSU all at HOME. The Penguins make the FCS playoffs in 2015, ending a nine year drought. James Madison was the hottest team in the nation outside of Northern Iowa over the second half of the season. Vad Lee is a must-watch at quarterback, he makes the Dukes go and will terrorize CAA defenses next season. JMU does not play an FBS next season and gets Villanova at home, they’ll be the biggest challengers to the Wildcats run at the CAA.