Our offseason coverage continues this week with our annual look at the teams that are contenders for the upcoming football season. 2019 proves to be an interesting one to predict with plenty of unknowables. Add in the fact that some teams are playing 12 games, it’s going to be really interesting to see who makes it to Frisco on January 11th. Have some fun at look back at the previous posts on this topic from 2017 and last year.
UC Davis – The Aggies were a whisker away from a semifinal appearance last year and are poised to be a national contender again. Dan Hawkins has revitalized this program, led by JUCO transfer quarterback Jake Maier, who may be a contender for the Walter Payton this fall. Maier threw for nearly 4,000 yards and 34 touchdowns last fall. UC Davis has to deal with the loss of All-Amercian Keelan Doss at wide receiver, but there is plenty of firepower back this season. Hawkins has upped the ante on the schedule, playing three of the first four on the road (at Cal, at San Diego, at NDSU). They also have matchups with Montana and a second trip to North Dakota, this one to Grand Forks. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Aggies in the last four.
Eastern Washington – Another Big Sky entrant and the Eagles are loaded for another Frisco run this year. Eric Barriere was really good in the semifinals against Maine and Bison fans may forget, he was pretty good in the national championship game as well. EWU is one of the teams that will play just five home games this season, so they’ll do to some damage on the road. The season begins with three of the first four away from Cheney, including an FBS trip to Washington, then Jacksonville State and Idaho. To the Eagles benefit, somehow they don’t play Weber State, UC Davis or Montana State, the other Big Sky playoff teams from last season. (Love the Big Sky scheduling) Aaron Best had a rocky start as head coach at Eastern losing both games, but since he’s racked up a 19-5 record since then. He’s got his team rolling and EWU will be in the mix again this season.
James Madison – The 2016 national champions and 2017 national runners-up were noticeably absent from the quarterfinals last year. A week full of turmoil was capped off with Mike Houston leaving for East Carolina and then the Dukes lost at the horn to Colgate. Curt Cignetti takes over a team many believe is as talented as the title team from ’16. Rashad Robinson, who missed all of last season, returns after a foot injury cost him his 2018. He was the CAA preseason defensive player of the year. Riley Stapleton is back and ready to pick up where he’s left off the last two seasons. Cignetti needs to figure out if Ben DiNucci is his quarterback. DiNucci got pulled in the Colgate game last year as he kept throwing to the wrong team. That’s a major key to see if the Dukes will go from good to a national contender. JMU opens at West Virginia, its non-conference is nothing to write home about, but the league schedule is intriguing, including a road game at Elon (Cignetti’s old school) and home games with Villanova and Towson. Last year’s CAA champ Maine is not on the schedule.
South Dakota State – Taryn Christion may be gone, but the cupboard isn’t bare in Brookings. Talented pieces on offense return in Cade Johnson at wide receiver and Pierre Strong at running back. Strong was especially impressive to me with his performance against the Bison in the FCS semifinals. The Missouri Valley Freshman of the Year is poised to have a monster 2019. John Steigelmeier needs to pick a quarterback, something the Bison know something about. Christian Rozeboom is a senior and next to Jabril Cox, could be the co-defensive player of the league. The Jacks non-conference is relatively easy, after a season opener with Minnesota, SDSU plays three straight home games against new D-1 school Long Island, then Drake and Southern Utah. The conference schedule is even more advantageous, with home games against NDSU, Illinois State and Northern Iowa. SDSU will be back and near the top of the league and polls.
North Dakota State – The Bison have some holes to fill, there’s no question about it. But they have plenty of talent returning to make them a contender to win another title. New coach Matt Entz needs to make a decision about quarterback, which I believe to be redshirt freshman Trey Lance. He has all the tools to be a special player at this school. Jabril Cox is just a junior and he won’s freshman and defensive player of the year his first two years playing for the Bison. What award is next? Buck Buchanan? Wide receiver and the other linebacker spots are major question marks for the Bison when fall camp opens. They also need to address the offensive line, where three new players will make their way into the starting lineup. NDSU has a difficult schedule both in and out of the league. A road trip to Delaware and home game with UC Davis jump right off the page. Then in league play it starts with a road trip to Illinois State, home with UNI and then on to Brookings. The loss of Seth Wilson could be big as well, I was projecting Wilson to be the top running back on the team this season. Interested to see who steps up in his absence.
Other teams to watch:
Towson – The Tigers were one of the surprise stories in 2018, making the playoffs for the first time since their national title game appearance in 2013. Tom Flacco is worth the price of admission, he won’t surprise teams like he did last year, but I believe he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Road trips to Gainesville and then JMU will do them no favors. Being bounced at home in the playoffs by Duquesne could not have sat well. Expect the Tigers to do some damage.
Illinois State – The Redbirds beat an FBS team in Colorado State last year and then their whole season fell apart. Brock Spack has a terrific running back in James Robinson, a potential Payton finalist in 2019. Brady Davis got another year of eligibility instated to him this offseason, so he’s the guy. An FBS game at Northern Illinois starts things, the conference brings home games against NDSU and UNI and road trips to SDSU and Youngstown. Think the Redbirds return to the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
Digest, debate and discuss.