After failing to reach the FCS national championship game during the 2016 season, North Dakota State returned to its place atop the subdivision. The Bison bested James Madison 17-13 in suburban Dallas to win their sixth title in the last seven seasons.
As the dawn of the 2018 FCS season nears, NDSU again is the team to beat but some familiar names will be there to challenge Chris Klieman’s squad. Can James Madison make a third straight national championship game appearance or does Bison neighbor South Dakota State have what it takes to seriously contend for the national title?
We shall see.
In the meantime, here’s a look at the top five teams to watch in the FCS this season.
1. North Dakota State
Just like (not so) old times, the Bison are again the kings of FCS football, and it likely will take a massive effort for someone to knock them off the throne. The NDSU program is a machine and might be better than a good chunk of schools in the FBS. It beat Iowa in 2016 and Iowa State in 2014.
The Bison return 13 starters, led by quarterback Easton Stick (2,466 passing yards, 28 touchdowns, 12 rushing touchdowns). Running back Bruce Anderson (1,216 rushing yards, 12 rushing touchdowns) also is back, while linebacker Jabril Cox will anchor a defense that yielded more than 14 points just twice last season.
2. James Madison
The Dukes fell short of back-to-back FCS national championships, so the motivation level for this season should be amped up a notch. There are 12 starters back from last season’s squad that lost its only game in the final against NDSU.
Replacing quarterback Bryan Schor won’t be easy. However, James Madison’s calling card should again be on defense, where it allowed more than 17 points once and kept five opponents to fewer than 10. Cornerback Rashad Robinson’s game seems built for the NFL.
3. South Dakota State
Talented receiving duo of Jake Wieneke and Dallas Goedert have moved on, but the Jackrabbits still have quality back from last season’s 11-3 team that lost to JMU in the FCS semifinals. Taryn Christion has thrown for 7,229 yards and 65 touchdowns – with 12 interceptions – the last two seasons and Christian Rozeboom is among the top linebackers in the FCS.
The biggest hurdle for South Dakota State might be its schedule, with road games at North Dakota State, Northern Iowa and Illinois State.
4. Kennesaw State
In just three seasons, Kennesaw State has blossomed into one of the top programs in the FCS. In 2017, the Owls went 12-2, won the Big South title and reached the FCS quarterfinals.
The good times could continue in 2018, as fleet-footed quarterback Chandler Burks, who rushed for 1,103 yards and 18 touchdowns, returns to guide the offense. Linebacker Bryson Armstrong enjoyed a strong rookie season with 114 tackles, including 12 1/2 for loss.
5. Jacksonville State
The Gamecocks are 54-12 over the last five seasons, but have only one appearance in the FCS championship game (2015) to show for that success. Sure, Jacksonville State has not lost an Ohio Valley Conference game since Nov. 16, 2013, but dropping its first playoff contests each of the last two seasons might be reason for concern.
JSU has some big shoes to fill on both sides of the ball, but there’s enough talent for the Gamecocks to remain the class of the OVC. They’ll continue to run the ball (217.3 yards per game in ’17) and depend on a stout defense (15.0 points per game allowed) to get by.