AP Photo
May 31, 2016
AP Photo

(STATS) - Dark horses. Sleeper teams. Overlooked teams.

Call them what you want, but there are always a number of teams that surprise during the FCS season.

Last year, Southern Utah won the Big Sky title after being picked eighth in the conference's two preseason polls. In the same title race, Portland State tied for second after being picked 12th in one of them.

The Citadel tied for the Southern Conference title after being picked seventh in the preseason.

There were surprises elsewhere, and more will come this year.

The following lists a potential surprise team from each of the 13 FCS conferences. To be considered for the list, the teams could not have had a winning record last season.

Some may contend in their conference title race, some definitely won't. But they're all capable of improvement and pulling a surprise or two this season.

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Big Sky Conference=

UC Davis (2-9, 2-6): The Aggies were plagued by injuries last season, but remained competitive against some of the better opponents on their schedule, highlighted by a midseason win over Northern Arizona. With 17 returning starters (nine on offense and eight on defense) plus plenty on special teams, they expect to improve in coach Ron Gould's fourth season. Quarterbacks Ben Scott and C.J. Spencer, who took over when Scott was sidelined, are back. The Aggies must win home games because they have a rugged road schedule, including two against FBS opponents Oregon and Wyoming.

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Big South Conference=

Gardner-Webb (4-7, 2-4): Although wildly inconsistent, the Runnin' Bulldogs have posted some impressive wins in recent seasons - the biggest last season coming over Big South power Liberty. This season, they face a difficult start to September, but can look forward to a four-game homestand in October. Coach Carroll McCray will have an athletic defense, led by veteran linebacker Aaron Cook and Chad Geter. Dual-threat quarterback Tyrell Maxwell returns to direct a veteran offense and can rely on one of the better tight ends in the FCS, Mike Estes.

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CAA Football=

Delaware (4-7, 3-5): Fourth-year coach Dave Brock has basically made a spot in the FCS playoffs as the minimum for a successful season. The Blue Hens have 18 returning starters (10 on offense and eight on defense) and many more players from the second unit. Improvement from quarterback Joe Walker will go a long way because Thomas Jefferson, Kareem Williams, Wes Hills and Jalen Randolph form a strong rushing attack. Transfer linebacker Troy Reeder, a starter at Penn State last season, was excellent during spring practice. The Blue Hens' home game against rival Villanova on Nov. 19 could be for a playoff spot.

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Ivy League=

Brown (5-5, 3-4): Senior leadership and a good offensive line are integral to Ivy title contention and coach Phil Estes has both for his 19th season. Senior quarterback Kyle Moreno will get time from his linemen to connect with excellent wide receivers Alex Jette and Troy Doles. While the defense is replacing four starters, including three in the secondary, it figures to have an improved pass rush. With a lot of key graduation losses across the league, the Bears are ready to make noise again.

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Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference=

Norfolk State (4-7, 4-4): In a conference with plenty of new faces at quarterback, the Spartans are helped by the return of Greg Hankerson. They need top running back Gerald Johnson to be healthy again and the defense is always solid and returns nine starters, although one of the two losses is linebacker Deon King, who led the FCS in tackles last season. The MEAC's unbalanced scheduling hurts the Spartans because they won't play Delaware State and Florida A&M, who are both coming off one-win seasons.

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Missouri Valley Football Conference=

Youngstown State (5-6, 3-5): Indiana State might have been a better pick if not for the recent loss of starting quarterback Matt Adam to academics. But Youngstown State fits the criteria because last year's record was so disappointing in coach Bo Pelini's first season. It's felt like playoffs-or-bust for several seasons and the 'Guins are still seeking their first postseason berth since 2006. They have an experienced squad, led by defensive end Derek Rivers and safety Leroy Alexander as well as quarterback Hunter Wells and running backs Martin Ruiz and Jody Webb.

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Northeast Conference=

Central Connecticut State (4-7, 3-3): Coach Pete Rossomando is counting on all the young players who have gained valuable playing experience to mature into a solid squad this season. Last year's two quarterbacks, Jake Dolegala and Tavion Pauldo, were both were freshmen. Among the veterans, cornerback Jevon Elmore is one of the best in the nation at his position. The Blue Devils, who again face some tough non-conference games, are a dark horse in the NEC title race.

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Ohio Valley Conference=

Southeast Missouri State (4-7, 3-4): The Redhawks lost four games by five or fewer points and their plus-10 margin in turnovers didn't match their team's record last season. Behind quarterback Dante Vandeven, the 2015 OVC freshman of the year, the offense will be improved even with running back DeMichael Jackson leaving the program. The defense features senior inside linebacker Roper Garrett, the leading tackler in each of the past two seasons. Three of the Redhawks' first four conference games are on the road.

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Patriot League=

Bucknell (4-7, 1-5): The Patriot League isn't the best conference around for defense, so that's what separates Bucknell. Last year, the Bison surrendered the fewest points and yards in the league, and they return all but one defensive starter, although it's a big loss in safety Clayton Ewell, the league's defensive player of the year. Coach Joe Susan's offense has to stay healthy and get quarterback R.J. Nitti and running back C.J. Williams back on track. The schedule is manageable, with league favorites Colgate and Fordham having to visit Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

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Pioneer Football League=

Marist (5-6, 4-4): Coach Jim Parady's 25th season leading the Red Foxes could be special. The big concerns revolve around the Red Foxes replacing senior leaders and rebuilding their defensive line. But Dan Njoku is ready to step in at nose tackle and the Red Foxes are anxious to get back linebacker Willie Barrett after he sat out last season with a knee injury. Youth was served a year ago with quarterback Mike White and wide receiver Juston Christian, and they will continue to form one of the league's more dangerous duos. The Red Foxes have six home games, starting with Bucknell.

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Southern Conference=

Wofford (5-6, 3-4): It doesn't feel right that traditionally strong Wofford has been mediocre (16-17) over the last three years. Coach Mike Ayers, in his 29th season, expects better play out of the Terriers. After being set back by injuries last season, they will have a veteran team. Quarterback Evan Jacks had the triple option averaging over 300 rushing yards last season, and his offensive line will be one of the best in the conference. The Terriers will challenge for a playoff berth.

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Southland Conference=

Abilene Christian (3-8, 3-6): The Wildcats keep announcing future FBS opponents, so they better lift their play on the FCS level. Last year was a step backward for coach Ken Collums' squad - its first losing season since 2005 (Division II until 2012). Quarterback Dallas Sealey had the upper hand on returning starter Parker McKenzie during spring camp. The defense struggled to stop the run last season, but it returns eight starters, including standout outside linebacker Sam Denmark.

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Southwestern Athletic Conference=

Jackson State (3-8, 3-6): Career assistant coach Tony Hughes, most recently at Mississippi State, steps in to try get the Tigers' traditionally strong program back to a high level in the SWAC. His team has to weather a potentially difficult September, but it returns nine offensive starters and eight on defense. They boast three of the top players in the conference in quarterback LaMontiez Ivy, wide receiver Daniel Williams and defensive end/linebacker Javancy Jones.

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