Sneak peek to 2017 FCS title contenders

(STATS) - During his locker room speech after his team won the FCS national championship Saturday, James Madison coach Mike Houston didn't quite throw around the word "repeat" as a late New Year's resolution.

But two outgoing seniors, cornerback Taylor Reynolds and linebacker Gage Steele, were already looking ahead and telling the Dukes what they can accomplish in 2017.

They're allowed to put the pressure on the Dukes - they're "alumni," Houston said.

"But they're right," Houston said. "You've created expectations. But you know what? We had those expectations anyway. We had the expectation that we wanted to win the CAA (Football) championship, and I think anybody that follows the CAA knows the champion of that conference every year has a chance to win the national championship."

North Dakota State not winning the national crown after five in a row has opened up the title picture to a new mind-set. But the Missouri Valley Football Conference power will be right in the mix - arguably still the favorite.

At least one CAA or MVFC team has appeared in every national final since 2002, and the two top FCS conferences have combined for 11 of the 15 national titles in that period.

The 2016 national runner-up, Youngstown State, comes from the MVFC, but it appears to be losing too much talent to be a national title contender next season.

Here's a quick look ahead:

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FIVE TO BEAT=

Eastern Washington (12-2, 8-0 Big Sky; 2016 final ranking: 4) - It will feel all different without Cooper Kupp, the most decorated wide receiver in Division I history. Quarterback Gage Gubrud also loses his two other 1,000-yard receivers, Shaq Hill and Kendrick Bourne. In addition, the national semifinalist has to prove it won't be losing too much on defense, although defensive tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli is a big building block at 6-foot-4, 315 pounds. Coach Beau Baldwin's Eagles will even fly east to face Fordham and star running back Chase Edmonds.

James Madison (14-1 8-0 CAA; 2016 final ranking: 1) - The celebrating will last only so long for the newly crowned national champions because they'll want to get back to work. They have a legitimate chance to go back-to-back if they fill some senior losses. Twelve starters from the national championship game will return. Quarterback Bryan Schor won CAA offensive player of the year honors and two-time Georgia Tech leading rusher Marcus Marshall will step in for the departing Khalid Abdullah, with Cardon Johnson and Trai Sharpe already returning to the backfield. The defense gets back defensive end Andrew Ankrah and safety Raven Greene.

North Dakota State (12-2, 7-1 Missouri Valley; 2016 final ranking: 3) - "Only" a national semifinalist, the Bison have different motivation than in past offseasons. The defense will remain outstanding with linebacker Nick DeLuca expected to rejoin defensive end Greg Menard and safety Tre Dempsey after being injured for most of his senior season and earning a medical redshirt. The offense has to reload on the line following the loss of three starters, but quarterback Easton Stick will still be surrounded by standouts at the skills positions. Coach Chris Klieman is 40-5 through three seasons.

South Dakota State (9-4, 7-1 Missouri Valley; 2016 final ranking: 6) - With Missouri Valley offensive player of the year Taryn Christion continuing to feed the ball to tight end Dallas Goedert and wide receiver Jake Wieneke, the Jackrabbits will have an FBS-level offense. Coach John Stiegelmeier's squad won't play an FBS opponent, however, and the schedule sets up favorably after this season's first trip to the national quarterfinals. Linebacker Christian Rozeboom barely missed winning the STATS FCS Jerry Rice Award as the national freshman of the year.

Sam Houston State (12-1, 9-0 Southland; 2016 final ranking: 5) - Coach K.C. Keeler may have the nation's most prolific offense again with the return of quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe, the STATS FCS Walter Payton Award winner, and all the key running backs and wide receivers. But having surrendered 127 points over their last two playoff losses (quarterfinals this season, semifinals in 2015), the defense still needs work behind defensive end P.J. Hall and linebacker Justin Johnson, the Bearkats' leading tackler.

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TOP 10 MATERIAL=

Jacksonville State (10-2, 7-0 Ohio Valley; 2016 final ranking: 7) - The Gamecocks, who have gone unbeaten in the OVC for the last three seasons, might take a slight step back from the last two years because of the loss of quarterback Eli Jenkins. Coach John Grass always attracts FBS transfers, though, and his squad already features running back Roc Thomas and a solid defense led by defensive end Darius Jackson and safety Marlon Bridges, the conference's 2016 defensive and rookie of the year, respectively.

North Dakota (9-3, 8-0 Big Sky; 2016 final ranking: 12) - So many key players will return from UND's best season on the FCS level. Included are Big Sky defensive player of the year Cole Reyes at safety, quarterback Keaton Studsrud, running backs John Santiago and Brady Oliveira, and cornerback Deion Harris. Unlike 2016, Eastern Washington and Montana are on the Fighting Hawks' conference schedule.

Richmond (10-4, 5-3 CAA; 2016 final ranking: 8) - Russ Huesman, the defensive coordinator of Richmond's 2008 FCS championship team, has replaced Danny Rocco as head coach, having guided Chattanooga the last eight seasons. Huesman's background is more defensive-oriented, but he inherits a good problem on offense with the return of two-time 3,000-yard passer Kyle Lauletta as well as Kevin Johnson, who replaced an injured Lauletta for their playoff run to the national quarterfinals.

The Citadel (10-2, 8-0 Southern; 2016 final ranking: 10) - The Bulldogs are known for their triple-option offense, but their All-America candidates won't be in the offensive backfield: cornerback Dee Delaney, safety Kailik Williams and left tackle Isaiah Pinson. Quarterback Dominique Allen returns as the offensive trigger after rookie coach Brent Thompson led his SoCon team to a second straight conference title and playoff appearance for the first time in program history.

Villanova (9-4, 6-2 CAA; 2016 final ranking: 11) - While coach Andy Talley has retired after 32 seasons, Mark Ferrante, his successor, has been in the 'Nova program for 30 years. Also adding to the continuity will be the return of third-year starting quarterback Zach Bednarczyk, safety Rob Rolle and two of the team's three co-tackle leaders, Ed Shockley and Jeff Steeb.

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WILD CARDS=

Lehigh (9-3, 6-0 Patriot; 2016 final ranking: 21) - With the return of wide receivers Troy Pelletier and Gatlin Casey, running back Dom Bragalone and quarterback Brad Mayes to an offense that was among the best in the FCS, the Mountain Hawks have a season pass to the end zone. But this level is a step up for the 2016 Patriot League champion, which was knocked around by New Hampshire in the first round of the playoffs.

Youngstown State (12-4, 6-2 Missouri Valley; 2016 final ranking: 2) - Coach Bo Pelini got the 1990s FCS dynasty back to prominence this season, leading YSU to a national runner-up finish. The loss of some stalwarts (running back Jody Wells, defensive ends Derek Rivers and Avery Moss, and some of the suspended players in the playoffs) will make the Penguins less formidable, but there's still a solid nucleus, including quarterback Hunter Wells as well as the offensive tackle Justin Spencer-running back Tevin McCaster combo that will keep the run game moving along.

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