August 07, 2017

(STATS) - Instead of the school name and roster number, there may as well be a bull's-eye on the James Madison jerseys.

The reigning national champion Dukes were picked Monday as an overwhelming preseason No. 1 in the STATS FCS Top 25.

"I think we deal with it by embracing it and going at it head-on," senior quarterback Bryan Schor said. "It's not something we're going to run away from as a team. We realize people are going to be gunning for us. We were lucky enough to go on and win a national championship. That's something that everybody else wants."

James Madison, which won the CAA Football title and only lost to North Carolina in a 14-1 season, collected 134 of the 163 first-place votes and 4,034 points in the national media poll. On the way to winning their second national title, the Dukes ended North Dakota State's five-year championship run in the semifinals.

NDSU was picked second in the preseason poll, followed in the Top 5 by Sam Houston State, South Dakota State and Eastern Washington. The Missouri Valley Football Conference had a poll-high six teams and the CAA was second with five.

James Madison has reloaded its lineup for a potential championship repeat, adding some FBS transfers to a lineup that already featured 12 returning starters. Tight end Jonathan Kloosterman, left tackle Aaron Stinnie, defensive end Andrew Ankrah and safety Raven Greene earned STATS FCS Preseason All-America honors last week.

The Dukes have begun fall camp in preparation for their season opener, Sept. 2 at East Carolina.

"I've been extremely pleased with the way they've approached summer workouts, the way they've worked, their focus," second-year coach Mike Houston said. "They are very driven and I think they have high expectations for themselves."

North Dakota State was a motivated team at the start of preseason camp, having not returned as the FCS champion for the first time in six years. The Bison (12-2), however, are coming off a share of their sixth straight Missouri Valley title. Coach Chris Klieman's team returns 14 starters plus All-America linebacker Nick DeLuca, but it lost All-America defensive end Greg Menard to a season-ending knee injury this past weekend.

Sam Houston State, like North Dakota State, was eliminated in last year's playoffs by James Madison. The defending Southland Conference champion Bearkats (12-1) return 13 starters, led by quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe, the 2016 STATS FCS Walter Payton Award recipient, and defensive end P.J. Hall. Their coach, K.C. Keeler, won the 2016 STATS FCS Eddie Robinson Award.

South Dakota State earned a share of its first Missouri Valley title last season, and this year coach John Stiegelmeier and the Jackrabbits (9-4) have national championship aspirations. Among their 15 returning starters are the dominating triumvirate of quarterback Taryn Christion, tight end Dallas Goedert and wide receiver Jake Wieneke.

Eastern Washington will seek its fifth Big Sky title in six seasons as another of the national title contenders. The Eagles (12-2) no longer have coach Beau Baldwin leading the way, but veteran offensive line coach Aaron Best has taken over in a likely seamless transition. Quarterback Gage Gubrud, who threw for an FCS single-season record 5,160 yards, is one of 14 returning starters.

The rest of the Top 10 was Ohio Valley Conference champion Jacksonville State (10-2); Richmond (10-3); Big Sky co-champ North Dakota (9-3); Youngstown State (12-4), 2016 the national runner-up; and Villanova (9-4).

Wofford (10-4) held the No. 11 ranking, followed by Chattanooga (9-4), New Hampshire (8-5), Big South co-champ Charleston Southern (7-4), Central Arkansas (10-3), Southern Conference champ The Citadel (10-2), Patriot League champ Lehigh (9-3), Northern Iowa (5-6), Samford (7-5) and Illinois State (6-6).

Rounding out the Top 25 were SWAC champ Grambling State (11-1), Fordham (8-3), Cal Poly (7-5), Albany (7-4) and Western Illinois (6-5).

A national panel of sports information and media relations directors, broadcasters, writers and other dignitaries select the STATS FCS Top 25. A first-place vote is worth 25 points, a second-place vote 24 points, all the way down to one point for a 25th-place vote.

The Top 25 will be released every Monday afternoon during the regular season, except for Sunday morning, Nov. 19, prior to the selection of the 24-team FCS playoff field. A final Top 25 will follow the FCS championship game, which will be held Jan. 6 in Frisco, Texas.

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