As the FCS season prepares to kick off in earnest, a glimpse into its future
(STATS) - It will be hard for any FCS game this week - even the rest of this year - to be more exciting than last Saturday's FCS Kickoff which opened the entire college football season.
But rest assured, the FCS is full of fascinating results every week. The games will grow in stature as upsets of FBS opponents, conference races and last-second thrillers unfold.
A high-level look at the conferences as action opens in earnest this week:
BIG SKY CONFERENCE=
STATS' Predicted Champion - Eastern Washington
The Forecast - The title race appears up for grabs after quarterback Vernon Adams Jr.'s transfer from Eastern Washington to Oregon for his final season. Still, considering the many weapons around him, Jordan West should do just fine as Adams' replacement with the three-time defending Big Sky champion Eagles. Rivals Montana State and Montana have the same mindset of winning shootouts, although senior leadership on defense aids new Montana coach Bob Stitt. Throw in FCS playoff contenders Cal Poly, Idaho State and Northern Arizona, and a stellar race is ahead.
Maybe, Just Maybe - Cal Poly is ready to pounce on the uncertainty around the conference. Like so many others, though, the Mustangs' questions are on defense. Their triple option offense could lead the FCS in rushing once again, but they must survive a barbaric early season schedule.
BIG SOUTH CONFERENCE=
STATS' Predicted Champion - Coastal Carolina
The Forecast - Coastal Carolina-Liberty matchups seem to get better each season and their Nov. 19 meeting at Liberty figures to decide the conference's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs. Each program has won or tied for a record seven Big South titles. No matter who wins that night, expect both teams to make the playoffs and be top 10-worthy.
Maybe, Just Maybe - Charleston Southern beat Coastal in 2013 and Liberty last season. In getting home dates versus both of the Big South's traditional powers, coach Jamey Chadwell's Buccaneers are ready to play more than a spoiler. Gaining the conference's automatic bid might be easier than an at-large bid. The Bucs don't want to have to nail one down in their regular-season finale against, um, Alabama.
STATS' Predicted Champion - Villanova
The Forecast - Having an experienced quarterback stands out with the top four teams in the CAA's preseason poll - Villanova (John Robertson), James Madison (Vad Lee), New Hampshire (Sean Goldrich) and William & Mary (Steve Cluley). Villanova's veteran defense could be a difference-maker in the conference and the Wildcats are one of a handful of teams with realistic national title hopes.
Maybe, Just Maybe - Defending champion New Hampshire, which has reached the national quarterfinals in each of the last two seasons, might repeat as champion even though it lost an influential senior class. Picked third in the CAA's preseason poll, UNH won't face Villanova, James Madison and Towson because of unbalanced scheduling.
STATS' Predicted Champion - Harvard
The Forecast - Harvard and Dartmouth are on a collision course for Halloween. The key is not to get tripped up by other Ivy teams while they keep an eye on each other. Harvard probably shouldn't be thinking 10-0 again, but it's not like the Crimson will enter any game as an underdog.
Maybe, Just Maybe - It's easy to forget about Princeton after it disappointed as a slight Ivy favorite last year, going 5-5 overall and 4-3 in the league. But coach Bob Surace has a bunch of talented upperclassmen. His Tigers will be title contenders if they can win games in New England (Brown, Harvard and Dartmouth).
STATS' Predicted Champion - North Carolina A&T
The Forecast - The easiest prediction is that there won't be another five-team tie for the MEAC title. OK, maybe it will happen again because the MEAC has featured some wild races, and everybody wants to play in the inaugural Celebration Bowl in December. But North Carolina A&T has some unfinished business after letting control of last year's title race slip into the five-way tie with Morgan State, Bethune-Cookman, South Carolina State and North Carolina Central. The Aggies need running back Tarik Cohen to come up big in their Nov. 7 trip to South Carolina State.
Maybe, Just Maybe - How a Morgan State team that returns 17 starters from last year's playoff qualifier was picked fifth in the MEAC preseason poll is perplexing. With an improved defense, the Bears will be there in the end again. They don't play N.C. A&T and South Carolina State.
MISSOURI VALLEY CONFERENCE=
STATS' Predicted Champion - North Dakota State
The Forecast - NDSU's loss to Montana suggested the "Drive for Five" straight national titles isn't a foregone conclusion. But the Bison figure to get on a roll provided quarterback Carson Wentz's ankle injury doesn't linger long. Illinois State and Northern Iowa both face tough schedules in the first half of the season, but they are the biggest challengers to the Bison dynasty.
Maybe, Just Maybe - If Wentz's ankle injury is a long-term problem, the Missouri Valley race could open up. Youngstown State is an improved November away from something big under new coach Bo Pelini. He didn't return home to Youngstown to almost get into the playoffs.
STATS' Predicted Champion - Bryant
The Forecast - NEC commissioner Noreen Morris must send out a memo each year that calls for a terrific title race because it keeps happening. So why not Bryant winning the title for the first time? The Bulldogs might have the best offense in the conference and they host both Duquesne and 2014 co-champ Sacred Heart. Oh, yes, those two plus the other 2014 co-champion, Wagner, should keep everybody tightly bunched again.
Maybe, Just Maybe - Duquesne is tired of the close calls as other NEC teams go to the playoffs. The Dukes might have the most talent in the conference behind Dillon Buechel and Chris King on offense and Zach Zidian and Christian Kuntz on defense.
OHIO VALLEY CONFERENCE=
STATS' Predicted Champion - Jacksonville State
The Forecast - No team had a more disappointing postseason last year than Jacksonville State - losing at home in its first game as the No. 3 seed - although it did occur against eventual semifinalist Sam Houston State. Coach John Grass' team has little excuse not to win the OVC title again when it returns 12 of the 29 players on the All-OVC preseason team, led by 2014 defensive player of the year Devaunte Sigler. A bad eight-day stretch of Eastern Kentucky (Oct. 31) and Eastern Illinois (Nov. 7) would cloud the picture.
Maybe, Just Maybe - Southeast Missouri's Tom Matukewicz was overshadowed last season when the other new coaches in the OVC were Grass and Eastern Illinois' Kim Dameron, but he acquitted himself nicely. If his offense featuring wide receiver Paul McRoberts and running back DeMichael Jackson gets any kind of consistent quarterback play, the Redhawks are ready for a higher level.
STATS' Predicted Champion - Bucknell
The Forecast - Fordham had the best team in the league last season yet needed overtime to beat Bucknell in the Patriot League game of the year. The Bison are no longer just up-and-coming, they have arrived as a program under Joe Susan. Three of their final four league games are on the road, so a title won't come easy. But there is no standout team this season, meaning the Bison might be bringing the league trophy back to campus.
Maybe, Just Maybe - Mention Lafayette and all you will hear about is how the Leopards lost four-year standout running back Ross Scheuerman. But the Leopards could repeat 2013, when they struggled against a difficult non-league schedule and became the first team to reach the playoffs with a losing record. They care about league wins the most.
PIONEER FOOTBALL LEAGUE=
STATS' Predicted Champion - San Diego
The Forecast - Defending champion San Diego is helped by Jacksonville's ineligibility for the PFL title and postseason because the Dolphins might have the league's best team. The race is ever so tight, as reflected in the preseason coaches poll. Dayton and Drake have to play Jacksonville and San Diego doesn't.
Maybe, Just Maybe - Within league play last season, Campbell won its first four games and then lost its last four. With a little more consistency, the Fighting Camels could be fighting for the title come November. Defensive linemen Ugonna Awuruonye and Greg Milhouse are all-league talents.
STATS' Predicted Champion - Chattanooga
The Forecast - Chattanooga fans always seemed to be ahead of themselves as Russ Huesman was building the program. There was no overstating last season, though, as the Mocs swept through the conference schedule and reached the national quarterfinals. Huesman's son Jacob figures to win a third straight SoCon offensive player of the year award.
Maybe, Just Maybe - It's possible Chattanooga could lose its SoCon opener at Samford Sept. 19. If that happens, Samford, Western Carolina, Wofford and Furman are waiting to make the title race different from last year's one-sided affair.
STATS' Predicted Champion - Sam Houston State
The Forecast - Not to be lost in the Sam Houston hype is that the Bearkats won't have it easy in conference games away from Bowers Stadium. The thing is, coach K.C. Keeler's roster has too much talent for the rest of the conference, including quarterback Jared Johnson, defensive end P.J. Hall and 17 other returning starters.
Maybe, Just Maybe - It wasn't Sam Houston that led the Southland in scoring and ranked fourth nationally, it was Central Arkansas. The Bears should have more continuity in coach Steve Campbell's second season and they welcome basically all of the conference's top teams to the purple-and-gray turf at Estes Stadium.
STATS' Predicted Champion - Alcorn State
The Forecast - The SWAC is the only FCS conference to have a championship game and now that winner could add a bowl title in taking on the MEAC champ in the Celebration Bowl. Southern had to rally in the West Division standings past Grambling State last season. Those two will slug it out again while Alcorn State figures to have a clearer path in the East Division.
Maybe, Just Maybe - On second thought, nothing is ever clear in the topsy-turvy SWAC. Alcorn State may have a tough time winning its first SWAC game, Sept. 12 at Alabama State. If there is an overlooked team, it's Alabama State. The Hornets, who have hired former Bethune-Cookman coach Brian Jenkins to take them to the next level, were picked only fourth by SWAC voters in the five-team East.
PREDICTED PLAYOFF FIELD=
There is a 14th at-large bid available for the 24-team playoffs after the MEAC relinquished its automatic bid to put its champion in the Celebration Bowl.
Automatic Bids - Bryant (NEC), Bucknell (Patriot), Chattanooga (Southern), Coastal Carolina (Big South), Eastern Washington (Big Sky), Jacksonville State (Ohio Valley), North Dakota State (Missouri Valley), Sam Houston State (Southland), San Diego (Pioneer) and Villanova (CAA).
At-Large Bids - Cal Poly (Big Sky), Eastern Illinois (Ohio Valley), Eastern Kentucky (Ohio Valley), Illinois State (Missouri Valley), James Madison (CAA), Liberty (Big South), McNeese State (Southland), Montana (Big Sky), Montana State (Big Sky), New Hampshire (CAA), Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley), Western Carolina (Southern), William & Mary (CAA) and Youngstown State (Missouri Valley).
AROUND THE FCS=
Wipe off the chalk: Last year's eight playoff quarterfinalists were ranked in the top nine of the STATS FCS Preseason Top 25. The intruder was No. 7 Jacksonville State … There are 48 FCS-versus-FBS matchups in the first full week of the season … The FCS game of the week is a rivalry battle of 2014 unbeaten conference champions, Jacksonville State (Ohio Valley) at Chattanooga (Southern) … How about jumping into the season with a conference game? No. 19 Southeastern Louisiana visits Northwestern State to open Southland play and Prairie View A&M heads to Texas Southern in the SWAC … Better yet, how about jumping into your first-ever game? Thursday night, start-up program Kennesaw State plays at East Tennessee State, which is returning to football after dropping the program in 2003 … No. 9 New Hampshire's visit to San Jose State on Thursday night comes 10 years to the day from the Wildcats' only other game in California (17-13 win over UC Davis on Sept. 3, 2005). Thursday's game is the 200th for UNH coach Sean McDonnell, who is 126-73 (.633) … How No. 6 Eastern Washington handles its former quarterback, Oregon's Vernon Adams Jr., is one of the big storylines of the week. But how will the Ducks handle EWU wide receiver Cooper Kupp? The All-American has five touchdown receptions in two career games against Pac-12 schools … Patriot League members in other sports, FBS programs Army West Point and Navy will take on Fordham and Colgate, respectively, this week … A look at Western Illinois' schedule would make anybody squeamish, and the Fighting Leathernecks get started on it by hosting old rival Eastern Illinois. The last time they met was in the 2002 playoffs, when WIU ended the college career of EIU quarterback Tony Romo … Six of the seven youngest coaches in Division I football are on the FCS level, the youngest being Murray State's Mitch Stewart, who won't turn 33 until Nov. 8 … Dayton's Connor Kacsor opened last season by rushing for 301 yards. On Saturday, he begins his season at Robert Morris, which had one of the worst rushing defenses in the FCS last year … Six SWAC teams take on FBS opponents this week. The last SWAC team to pull such an upset was Grambling in 1985 (Oregon State) … The MEAC holds a 7-3 series lead heading into Sunday's MEAC-SWAC Challenge between two-time winner South Carolina State (MEAC) and first-time participant Arkansas-Pine Bluff (SWAC) … Northern Arizona at Stephen F. Austin isn't just a strong non-conference matchup, it's two teams with Lumberjacks as their mascot … Ivy League teams will open their season on Sept. 19, the first of 10 consecutive weeks of games.