Crashing the FCS playoff party
(STATS) - North Dakota and Saint Francis were first-time qualifiers in the FCS playoffs last season, while others returned for the first time in five or more years - none more prominent than Youngstown State ending a 10-year drought as the national runner-up.
The 2017 season could have some more party crashers.
A lot has to go right for them, of course, but here are five teams that feel primed to knock down the door to the 24-team playoff:
Albany (7-4 record in 2016) - The Great Danes made their only FCS playoff appearance in 2011 via the Northeast Conference's automatic bid. Their move to CAA Football in 2013 has made returning more difficult, but they're coming off their best season since joining the conference, including a first-ever FBS win over Buffalo. The key for coach Greg Gattuso's squad is junior running back Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks, who rushed for 1,401 yards and 16 touchdowns last season, to be fully healthy after he suffered a torn ACL in the final game. The Danes return 13 starters, but they're rebuilding on the offensive line.
Kennesaw State (8-3) - With winning records in back-to-back seasons, the Owls have made people take a close look at their start-up program, but both years have included three wins over sub-Division I programs. There's only one such opponent on this year's schedule. To get to the playoffs, coach Brian Bohannon's program surely has to win the Big South's auto bid, but the Owls have yet to beat defending co-champs Charleston Southern (which they play at home) and Liberty (which isn't eligible for the 2017 title). Emerging quarterback Chandler Burks is one of 17 returning starters.
Marist (5-6) - A first playoff berth under 26th-year coach Jim Parady really would create a November to remember because the Red Foxes play at San Diego and Dayton, who have made the last three Pioneer Football League playoff appearances, during the final month of the regular season. The Red Foxes won their first four league games last season before slumping to a 5-3, fourth-place finish. The defense has to improve to match a potentially explosive offense that features quarterback Mike White, wide receiver Juston Christian and running back Marcellus Calhoun.
Nicholls (5-6) - Losses to two FBS opponents (Georgia and South Alabama) by a combined three points got everybody's attention last season, but the Colonels failed to beat the upper-echelon teams in the Southland Conference. That must happen this season for them to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2005. In a 2016 season of freshman standouts in the conference, coach Tim Rebowe had two of the best in quarterback Chase Fourcade and first-team All-Southland defensive tackle Sully Laiche.
UT Martin (7-5) - The Skyhawks won the Ohio Valley Conference title and reached the playoffs in coach Jason Simpson's first season in 2006, but neither has happened since then. The runner-up to Jacksonville State last year, they pose a serious threat again, and this time they get to host the Gamecocks in a Nov. 11 matchup. Quarterback Troy Cook, a former third-stringer at Florida State, is coming off a breakout season and joins safety Kahlid Hagens as senior leaders on a team that returns 15 starters.