2016 FCS storylines - Part II
(STATS) - There will be many intriguing storylines that surprise people throughout the 2016 FCS season.
This time last year, quarterback Case Cookus was just joining Northern Arizona, so few knew about him. All he did was win the starting job away from two seniors and go on to set the FCS record for touchdown passes by a freshman.
Southern Utah, The Citadel, Penn? Yeah, nobody saw conference titles coming from them.
If there is a constant in the FCS, it's North Dakota State - the five-time reigning national champion. The Bison are set to kick off the FCS season Aug. 27 and they just might be playing in the last game again, Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas.
In between, there will be plenty of surprising storylines.
But we already know some of the biggest before the start of the season.
Here is the second half of 12 major storylines to watch for:
Big South, Coastal Carolina move in different directions=
The Big South has been at its height in the last three seasons, but the loss of Coastal Carolina to an impending move to the FBS level severely hurts the strength of the conference. Coastal, which is departing the FCS with an independent schedule this year, will play five of the six remaining Big South squads - all but Kennesaw State. Fortunately for the Big South, defending champ Charleston Southern appears strong enough to remain a top-10 team.
Record year in the Missouri Valley?=
The partially approved "de-regionalizing" of the FCS playoffs would come into effect if four teams from one conference are in the field. Bank on it with the Missouri Valley, which has sent five qualifiers to each of the past two playoffs (the placing of all five in one half of the 24-team bracket last year created the uproar). The nation's premier FCS conference, led by North Dakota State, appears to be strong enough to chase a record six bids this year.
Portland State regroups after difficult offseason=
A player from several FCS programs died in the offseason - much too young, of course. Portland State has had a particularly rough offseason. It continues to cope with the loss of two players, starting linebacker AJ Schlatter in January to complications following throat surgery and three-year starting left tackle Kyle Smith in April to a drug overdose. Last year, the Vikings rallied around FCS coach of the year Bruce Barnum. This year, the Vikings are rallying around each other.
A 2,000-yard rusher again=
Amazingly, in this age of passing offenses, there's the chance for the FCS to produce a 2,000-yard rusher for the fifth straight season. The magical level has been reached six times (by four players) in the last four years. Last season, it was Lamar All-American Kade Harrington. He's back as a senior, and with Fordham junior Chase Edmonds (1,838 yards in 2014 and 1,648 last year), there are two distinctive possibilities this year.
Sam Houston State seeks the final step=
With national championship game appearances in 2011 and '12 (under then-coach Willie Fritz) and semifinal-round appearances the last two years (under coach K.C. Keeler), Sam Houston State has been the most successful FCS program behind North Dakota State. With a veteran returning squad, including quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe and defensive end P.J. Hall coming off big postseasons, the Southland Conference power has only one final step - to win a national title.
Winning a conference title trumps most things for an FCS team. There are always unpredictable title races - last year, Southern Utah won the Big Sky after being picked ninth in the preseason poll. But this year, many of the defending champs appear strong enough to repeat, including Charleston Southern (Big South), Richmond (CAA), Harvard (Ivy), North Carolina A&T (MEAC), North Dakota State (Missouri Valley), Duquesne (Northeast), Jacksonville State (Ohio Valley), Colgate (Patriot), Dayton (Pioneer) and Chattanooga (Southern).
Not convinced? OK, you want a repeat champion? North Dakota State will win the FCS national title again.