Our offseason coverage continues with a look at the top five contenders in FCS football for 2018. This is a yearly blog that started a couple of years ago, for reference, here’s our contenders from last season post.
Kennesaw State – The Owls are the trendy national pick this offseason and for good reason. A 12-2 record and a quarterfinal appearance last year grabbed the nation’s attention to this fourth year program. KSU’s triple option offense racks up yards in chunks, led by their quarterback Chandler Burks. The Owls have upgraded their schedule this season, including an FBS game with Georgia State and matchups with playoff teams Samford and Jacksonville State (they beat both last season). The latter game will be played in Atlanta’s baseball stadium. They’re not going to sneak up on anyone this year, but believe they’ll win the Big South and be a national top eight seed.
New Hampshire – UNH kept its playoff streak alive last season, qualifying for the postseason for the 14th consecutive year. They made it a worthwhile trip, knocking off Central Arkansas on the road before falling to SDSU in the quarterfinals. The Wildcats always find a way, and that’s an admirable trait of a team, think of 2013-14 when they made consecutive semifinal appearances. This year the schedule falls their way, a tough FBS game at Colorado (where NDSU will be in 2024), but in the CAA they get Stony Brook, Delaware and James Madison all at home. The Colonial is trending to be the top league in the country this year, watch for UNH to be near the top of the league and in the playoff mix again.
Eastern Washington – The Eagles were hosed last year, plain and simple. Our bracketology had them in the field of 24 with a 7-4 record, but were left out. Aaron Best’s team looked discombobulated when NDSU throttled them in September, but they got their act together by the end of the year. Gage Gubrud is back for his senior year, and I think EWU will be back near the top of the Big Sky. For some dumb reason, Eastern doesn’t play Montana with the unbalanced schedule in the Big Sky, but they do add Idaho. EWU does play a D-2 team to start and faces Washington State in its FBS game. Road trips to Bozeman and Ogden will not be easy, but think the Eagles return to the postseason and make some noise.
James Madison – Not going out on much of a limb here, as JMU will be really good again. The Dukes lost more than any other of these contenders, from Bryan Schor to Andrew Ankrah to Aaron Stinnie. But the stable of running backs is as good as anyone with Trai Sharpe, Marcus Marshall and the injured Cardon Johnson coming back in 2018. Oh yeah, Riley Stapleton is back too after a monster postseason. The biggest decision for Mike Houston is who is going to be his quarterback this fall, either Cole Johnson or Pitt transfer Ben DiNucci. The Dukes have a winnable FBS game, at North Carolina State. The conference schedule could be tricky with road trips to Richmond, Villanova and New Hampshire, but they do miss Delaware. I think the Dukes could very well again be a top two seed and return to Frisco.
North Dakota State – The defending national champions return as much talent as they did following the 2012 season. Much like 2013, NDSU has a four year starter under center in Easton Stick, and a majority of its dominant defense back. The running back core is as impressive as ever with Lance Dunn, Bruce Anderson, Ty Brooks and Seth Wilson to carry the ball. The defensive side of the ball is loaded, led by the return of All-American Greg Menard at defensive end. Linebacker is a spot worth watching, Jabril Cox returns after his fabulous freshman year, but there are questions at the other two spots. Special teams and wide receiver are also worth watching as NDSU needs to replace key personnel at each of those spots. The schedule is certainly in their favor, for the first time in their D-1 history, the Bison will play seven regular season home games. Delaware and SDSU will be the highlight games there, with a road trip to Northern Iowa. The only thing in my mind that can derail the train to Frisco is an injury to Stick, as the Bison are unproven at backup quarterback. This team is ready to make another march for a national title.
Here’s a couple of bonus teams to keep an eye on:
South Dakota State – Many Bison fans may scoff when reading SDSU’s name here, but the Jacks are still going to be good, despite what they lost. Jake Wieneke and Dallas Goedert are gone, but Taryn Christion is back for his fourth year under center. Christion’s last game was not good against JMU, but his talent speaks for itself and I like Jacob Brown and Mikey Daniel (each had touchdowns against NDSU last year). The defense should still be solid with Christian Rozenboom back at linebacker. SDSU has a tough schedule though, an FBS game at Iowa State and road trips to Fargo, Normal and Cedar Falls this year. The Jacks are a playoff team and I think they’re a final eight team for the third straight year.
Sam Houston State – Ah yes, the Bearkats. No, there isn’t a rule to include them on this list every year, but they’re history dictates we need to include them. SHSU has a new quarterback in transfer Mike Dare, and still some great weapons to throw the ball too. The Southland still hasn’t developed any real challengers, Central Arkansas has made the playoffs the last two years, but lost in the 2nd round each time. The Bearkats have a favorable schedule, no FBS game and home games against Prairie View and UND at home before conference play begins. They do have three straight road games, but don’t play McNeese State, another Southland contender in prior years. SHSU will find its way to the quarterfinals, mark it down.
Those are the teams. Bookmark this post. We’ll see what happens in September.