The 2015 FCS season wrapped up less than a week ago, but for some of us we’re already on to 2016 mode. (Thanks Nick Saban) The last couple of weeks of recruiting will be interesting to see how some teams wrap up classes, which includes NDSU, which will have about five to six scholarships to finish up. With that said, here are the six teams I believe that will contend for next season.
6. South Dakota State – The Jacks have the pieces to be good for a long time. I was expecting a drop off in 2015, but true freshman Taryn Christion gave SDSU a spark and when you have an all-American wide receiver, you’re going to be good. Jake Wieneke had a tremendous start to 2015, he cooled down in the middle part, but is still a beast to defend. SDSU opens a brand new stadium in the fall, which say what you will, will give the team a boost. The season starts with a major challenge at TCU, then Drake and Cal Poly at home. The conference schedule is brutal though, at NDSU, at Illinois State and at UNI. The Jacks somehow will find a way.
5. Richmond – Bison fans got to see the Spiders up close this year and while that Friday night wasn’t the best night of Richmond football, there’s plenty to be excited about in 2016. The Spiders are now the class of the CAA, Kyle Lauletta is just a junior under center and Brian Brown is a tremendous wide receiver. Losing Jacobi Green will be tough, but they have pieces all around on defense to be very good again. They’ll match up with Virginia in their FBS game, while conference-wise will get Villanova and James Madison at home and end the season with rival William and Mary on the road.
4. Sam Houston State – The Bearkats, much like the Jacks, always find a way. If not for NDSU, Sam Houston may have its own FCS dynasty. Two FCS championship appearances along with two semifinal trips. They have to find a way to get better on defense, which was apparent in the FCS playoffs, but they return 17 starters. KC Keeler will have to pick a quarterback too, rotating between Jeremiah Briscoe and Jared Johnson worked for the regular season, but seemed to fall apart in the postseason. The Bearkats just lost their FBS game with New Mexico, that was taken by South Dakota. With a nine game conference schedule, look for the ‘Kats to play another D2 school. They have too much talent to be ignored though, they’ll be there at the end.
3. Jacksonville State – JSU’s season ended with a thud in Frisco, but there’s lots to like about this team. Eli Jenkins was held in check by NDSU’s defense, but he’s a first team All-American quarterback. Losing Troymaine Pope at running back will be difficult, but this program has decided to go the FBS transfer route in re-stocking its program and will again this offseason. Despite what John Grass told me, the Ohio Valley is still not the strongest league on a national basis, which leads me to think that the Gamecocks will roll thru the league. They do get a test right out of the gates with LSU next season.
2. Northern Iowa – Had UNI been sent to the top bracket like they should have, the Panthers would have played the Bison in the FCS title game. I believe that. UNI has a ton of talent back for 2016, including the new QB-RB duo that developed in midseason, Aaron Bailey at quarterback and Tyvis Smith at running back. UNI brings back four starters on the offensive line, but defensively is where Mark Farley’s team has some question marks. De’Ondre Hall, the defensive player of the year in the Valley, along with Tim Kilfoy are gone, so the secondary has some holes. The linebacker core took a major hit Thursday when all-Valley player Brett McMakin declared he was entering the NFL Draft a year early. (??) Still surprised by that. Karter Schult is back, so is Farley’s son, Jared, who was great in the UNI-NDSU playoff game. Adam Reth was injured for the rest of the season, he returns too. The Panthers will challenge themselves out of conference, at Iowa State, home for Montana and at Eastern Washington. They host NDSU and SDSU and lose Illinois State off the schedule. Nothing can top last year’s brutal first five games, so even if UNI goes 1-2, they’re not out of anything.
1. North Dakota State- The five-time champs return 16 starters, a majority on the defensive side of the ball, which should make the rest of the Missouri Valley shudder. The Bison allowed just 36 points in four playoff games, it was a unit that truly was getting better as the season went along. Greg Menard has become a beast of a pass rusher and the linebacker core is as athletic as NDSU has ever had. Nick DeLuca is a dynamite middle linebacker, one that we’ll be talking about this time next year and the NFL Draft. There are some concerns though. NDSU has to find a new left tackle, figure the last three have all went on to the NFL (Paul Cornick, Billy Turner and Joe Haeg). The Bison will need to find a new punter and two new cornerbacks. Those are positions that bear watching during spring football. There are no questions under center, Easton Stick proved he’s ready for big time football going 8-0 in relief of Carson Wentz. The non-conference schedule is going to be interesting, Eastern Washington will be a test with Cooper Kupp and Iowa is coming off its best season in years. The Bison will have to go to UNI and an improving USD team, but get SDSU and Youngstown at home. There’s no reason to think that with the group that’s returning, another Frisco trip is out of the question.
TV UPDATE! Sunday night at 10:35 I’ll have my top five reasons on why NDSU won a fifth straight championship, that airs during Sports Sunday. Then Tuesday, Jeff, Eric and I will unveil our season ending award show, from top play to most improved to one to watch. Look for that.
This is a big weekend recruiting wise for NDSU, I’ll be back in New York for a few days, but returning on Monday. This post is just the start of a huge offseason of FCS coverage. Can’t wait.