Five overlooked FCS teams
(STATS) - There was no overlooking the Saint Francis football team this past season.
It's not as though the national media descended on Loretto, Pennsylvania, with Super Bowl-like intensity. But coach Chris Villarrial had the Red Flash knocking at the door for a few years, so it wasn't surprising when they knocked it down with their first winning season since 1992.
SFU finished 6-4 overall and 4-2 in the Northeast Conference, adding a blowout win over the University of Faith that the NCAA did not recognize toward the Red Flash's overall record. On the final day of the regular season, they had a chance to win the NEC title and qualify for the FCS playoffs for the first time.
While there's a lot more in the 125-school FCS than the big bully on the block, North Dakota State, it's also easy for a team that has struggled for a few seasons to garner significant attention.
Here are five teams that got overlooked on a grand scale and deserve more attention as they try to build on their 2015 success:
Hampton (6-5, 5-3 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) - Back on Sept. 12, the Pirates held a double-digit lead after three quarters against eventual FCS semifinalist Richmond. While they didn't hold on for an upset, the tight game suggested coach Connell Maynor's squad might post its first winning season since 2011. The play of Virginia graduate transfer David Watford made a difference as he was the MEAC second-team quarterback. Junior wide receiver Twarn Mixson was a beneficiary, becoming the second Hampton player to go over 1,000 receiving yards in a season. Defensively, the Pirates jumped to third in the MEAC in fewest yards allowed per game after finishing ninth in 2014. Defensive end Miles Groom was a terror in his final season, collecting 16 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and 15 quarterback hurries. The Pirates posted season-ending wins over Florida A&M and Savannah State by a combined 75-3.
Holy Cross (6-5, 3-3 Patriot League) - Like Hampton, the Crusaders won their final two games to end a three-year streak of losing seasons - a combined 9-26 record mainly because they went 4-17 in games decided by seven or fewer points. They didn't quite solve the problem of losing close games, but quarterback Peter Pujals was explosive, so the Crusaders won a few blowouts. He threw for a school-record 508 yards against Fordham, finished with 3,195 yards and 28 touchdowns and made the All-Patriot first team. So did his two favorite wide receivers, fellow junior Brendan Flaherty - whose 106 receptions set the league record - and senior Kalif Raymond. Pass rusher Dewayne Cameron was the leader of a much-improved defense, and the Crusaders were plus-nine in turnovers, which helped them to outscore opponents 351-249. Veteran coach Tom Gilmore must believe his program is back on track.
Incarnate Word (6-5, 5-4 Southland Conference) - Coach Larry Kennan's Cardinals made a quick jump in their second season in the Southland, improving from 2-9 overall and 2-6 in conference games from their first go-around in 2014. They were picked ninth in the conference's 11-team preseason poll yet finished fourth, alternating wins and losses the entire season. That included a credible 27-17 loss at UTEP in their first-ever matchup against an FBS opponent. Linebacker Myke Tavarres was a first-team All-American in his only season with the Cardinals, totaling 110 tackles, 22 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. The offense struggled at times, but quarterback Trent Brittain got acclimated again after he missed most of the 2014 season with a broken ankle. The offense had only two senior starters at season's end.
Morehead State (7-4, 6-2 Pioneer Football League) - Overcoming an 0-2 start in coach Rob Tenyer's third season, the Eagles posted their first winning record since 2007 and finished in a tie for third place in the PFL. The breakthrough season came in exciting fashion as six of the Eagles' final seven games were decided by seven or fewer points and led to Tenyer receiving a three-year contract extension through 2019. Junior Austin Gahafer took a big step in his third year as the starting quarterback, earning the league's offensive player of the year award after he accounted for 3,244 passing yards and 29 total touchdowns. Senior cornerback Justin Grier matched Gahafer's excellence on the defensive side, tying for the FCS high with nine interceptions (and in the fewest games). He helped the Eagles finish third in the FCS in turnover margin (plus-13).
Weber State (6-5, 5-3 Big Sky) - Coach Jay Hill's second season went a lot differently than his debut in 2014, when the Wildcats finished with two wins for the third straight season. An overtime triumph at Montana would make a season for many teams, but there was a lot more for the Wildcats as they finished in a four-way tie for fourth in the largest FCS conference (after being picked 10th and 11th in the 13-team conference's two preseason polls). In a familiar storyline, they won their final two games to secure the winning season. Senior center Joe Hawkins became the first Wildcat to earn first-team All-Big Sky honors in four years, but the defense led their breakout season. The unit ranked first in the conference in total defense, and six of the top seven players in tackles, led by linebackers Emmett Tela and Karsen Liljenquist, were underclassmen.