The kickoff of our offseason coverage begins with a look at the five teams that are contenders to win the national championship in 2017. In light of the Athlon preseason poll, a closer look at the national title contenders for this upcoming season.
- South Dakota State – The Jackrabbits are coming off their best finish in school history, making the national quarterfinals. SDSU returns its three headed monster on offense, Taryn Christion is the reigning Valley player of the year and has his main weapons, Jake Wieneke and Dallas Goedert back. The Jacks do not play an FBS game this season, their toughest road games are trips to Montana State and Youngstown. SDSU gets UNI and NDSU in Brookings this year, and remember the Jacks went 2-0 on the road against those teams last season. Christian Rozeboom is a blossoming defensive standout, but I have questions about the rest of the defense. Great potential with this team to be good again this year.
- James Madison – The defending national champions return 12 starters, including quarterback Bryan Schor, who I thought was excellent in the playoffs, his best being the win in Fargo. JMU brings back two running backs and adds Georgia Tech transfer Marcus Marshall. I really like tight end Jonathan Kloosterman, who had touchdowns in the semis and title game against Youngstown State. JMU’s secondary was excellent and should be again this coming fall. The schedule falls their way, with a winnable FBS game against East Carolina, and then CAA rivals Villanova, New Hampshire and Richmond all at home. I expect the Dukes to be in Frisco again this January.
- North Dakota State – For the first time in six years, North Dakota State begins the football season not as the national champions. The Bison return 16 starters, including two NFL defensive prospects in Nate Tanguay and Nick DeLuca, both who were not on the field in the JMU loss. Easton Stick returns as the starting quarterback and has a new offensive coordinator to work with in Courtney Messingham. Stick will have three new offensive linemen to protect him, a position that bears watching during fall camp. A considerable easier non-conference schedule awaits NDSU with no FBS game this year, but two difficult road trips to Youngstown and Brookings are on the calendar. The Bison have all the pieces to return to the top of the FCS mountain.
- Eastern Washington – It’s been an offseason of turnover in Cheney, with a new head coach and now on a third offensive coordinator before the year begins. Gage Gubrud returns as the signal caller for the Eagles after a brilliant 2016, but has to find some new guys to throw the football too. Gone is Cooper Kupp and his band of merry men, but EWU always finds guys to catch the ball. The Eagles non-conference schedule is always aggressive and that’s the case again this year. Road trips to Texas Tech and Fordham, along with hosting NDSU. Big Sky road games to Missoula, Grand Forks and Cedar City are no cupcakes either. Tough way for Aaron Best to begin his head coaching career, think the Eagles are a national player though, too talented not to be.
- Sam Houston State – Bison fans will chuckle seeing Sam Houston here, but fact is, outside of Richmond and NDSU, SHSU is only team to be in the quarterfinals the last two years. Jeremiah Briscoe returns after winning the Payton Award last year, but the last time we saw him was one of the worst performances we’ve ever seen against JMU. The Bearkats last three seasons have ended by being outscored by a combined 162-20, including allowing over 60 points in two of those games. SHSU has been torched for playing a lousy schedule in the past, they have tweaked that a bit by starting the year hosting Richmond. This would appear to be a motivated team, playing in a conference that is still trying to catch up. They’ll be in the final eight again.
Other teams to watch:
- The Citadel – People that frequent this blog know I like this team and how they have come together. They have won the SoCon the last two years, the man who built the team, Mike Houston is now coaching at James Madison, but Brent Thompson picked up where he left off. They have a D-2 game on the schedule, but also end the year with national champion Clemson. They lost their opening playoff game at home to Wofford, another reason why I think they’ll be inspired this year.
- North Dakota- UND is another team that lost its opening playoff game at home, a reason alone for a team to be motivated thru the offseason. The Fighting Hawks return their entire backfield, from quarterback to all-conference running backs to adding former Fargo South standout James Johannesson. The secondary is impressive, led by Cole Reyes and Deion Harris. The non-conference schedule is aggressive, starting at nationally ranked Utah, and a road game in Vermillion with USD. They also have matchups with Montana, Montana State and Eastern Washington, stepping up their schedule from last year, interested to see how they respond to that. Think they’re a final eight team.
You know the drill. Digest, debate and discuss.