Ranking the FCS conferences

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(STATS) - CAA Football or the Missouri Valley Football Conference? There's really no right or wrong answer as to which is the best conference in the FCS.

The CAA had the final say last season when its champion, James Madison, defeated MVFC member Youngstown State in the FCS championship game.

Previously, North Dakota State captured a record five straight national titles coming out of the MVFC. Of course, that followed up the CAA's run from 2003-2010, when it had seven finalists and four different champions during the eight-year span.

If pressed, the 10-team Missouri Valley gets the nod as the best conference, although the CAA is deep in quality among 12 programs.

Here's a ranking of the 13 FCS conferences heading into the 2017 season:

13. Pioneer Football League (11 teams)

The non-scholarship PFL always struggles to make big strides nationally, but it did last season with league champion San Diego earning the league's first-ever playoff win, 35-21 over Big Sky member Cal Poly. The Toreros still deserve the favorite's role this year, but Dayton and Drake finished on seven- and four-game winning streaks, respectively, and bring that momentum into this season. The PFL often dips below the Division I level for games, but at least it was 13-1 against those teams a year ago.

12. Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (11 teams)

Having surged ahead of the Southwestern Athletic Conference in the rivalry between the two historically black leagues of the FCS, the MEAC slipped last season, punctuated by an 0-10 record against out-of-conference FCS teams and Bethune-Cookman and South Carolina State not being their usually strong selves. But the rivalry between North Carolina Central (which has won a share of three straight titles) and North Carolina A&T has never been better.

11. Southwestern Athletic Conference (10 teams)

The West Division teams carried the SWAC last year, but a season with better health should make 2014 and '15 conference champ Alcorn State dangerous again. Grambling State won last year's conference title and went on to win the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl. The Tigers will push for those same honors again. Southern and Prairie View A&M keep the West best again.

10. Northeast Conference (7 teams)

No NEC team has gone unbeaten in conference play since former member Albany went 7-0 in 2008. The way its teams consistently knock each other off underscores why national rankings continue to elude the membership. In recent years, Duquesne has been the most consistent program under coach Jerry Schmidt, but fellow co-champ Saint Francis won last year's head-to-head meeting before claiming its first NEC title and playoff bid. Wagner was the only NEC team to take down Saint Francis.

9. Ivy League (8 teams)

The last 10 league titles have included either Harvard or Penn, if not both, so there's no reason not to expect them to be a part of this year's title hunt. Princeton, which shared last year's title with Penn, will continue to have an explosive offense and make for another three-team race. The other teams incorporated young players into the mix last season, so there is a chance for some upsets this year.

8. Patriot League (6 teams)

This might be too low of a ranking because defending champion Lehigh and Fordham (behind FCS rushing champion Chase Edmonds) should both make the playoffs this season. Both teams will be among the highest scoring in the FCS, although, like the rest of the league, they have to improve defensively. Colgate always does well when expectations are down, and they are after finishing only 5-5 and then losing many experienced players.

7. Ohio Valley Conference (9 teams)

Although Jacksonville State doesn't appear as strong as recent seasons, it has gone undefeated in conference play for three straight seasons. The Gamecocks' final two regular-season games will be against UT Martin and Tennessee State, the other expected playoff contenders. However, the OVC needs to do better in the postseason than last season. Jacksonville State was the only qualifier and it squandered the No. 3 playoff seed by losing in the round of 16.

6. Big South (6 teams)

The Big South enjoyed a solid 2016 season, but there was not a dominant team and playoff representative Charleston Southern lost in the first round. The Buccaneers should be in a two-team title race with Kennesaw State because Liberty is transitioning toward the FBS level in 2018. It's the always awkward departure as Liberty will be above the FCS scholarship maximum and although the Flames are ineligible for the conference title and a playoff bid, its games will count in the Big South standings.

5. Southland Conference (11 teams)

One college football annual has Sam Houston State winning the FCS title this season. It's a bit of a stretch considering how the Bearkats' deep postseason runs generally end in ugly fashion, but their returning firepower - led by senior quarterfinal Jeremiah Briscoe, the 2016 STATS FCS Walter Payton Award winner - may give them the nation's best offense. Central Arkansas figures to keep pace with the Bearkats in the conference title race again. McNeese will jump back into the title mix with an easier schedule (rival Sam Houston is not on it) and Southeastern Louisiana and Nicholls have high hopes. It should be a good season for the Southland.

4. Southern Conference (9 teams)

In having four playoff teams for the first time last season, the SoCon rose in a huge way. The Citadel may be hard-pressed to win a third straight title after suffering heavy personnel losses, which could make Wofford, a surprise quarterfinalist last season, the favorite. Chattanooga remains a power despite a coaching change (Russ Huesman to Tom Arth) and Samford has the SoCon's reigning offensive player of the year in quarterback Devlin Hodges. The wild card is Mercer, which needs consistency, but has enough veterans to beat any team in the conference.

3. Big Sky (13 teams)

It bodes well for the largest FCS conference that seven different members have received playoff bids in one of the last two seasons. Eastern Washington's pedigree is unmatched in the conference, with last year's semifinal appearance its fourth of the decade, including the 2010 national title. But North Dakota won a share of last year's title with the Eagles and it gets to host this year's matchup. After those two, the pecking order can be picked from a hat between the likes of Cal Poly, Weber State, Northern Arizona (which gets back stud quarterback Case Cookus from injury), Southern Utah and longtime power Montana, which had a rare losing record in conference play a year ago.

2. CAA Football (12 teams)

The defending national champion doesn't always deserve to be the preseason No. 1 the following season, but James Madison does as it could win back-to-back titles under second-year coach Mike Houston. The other teams that finished in the top five in the conference race last season - Villanova, New Hampshire, Richmond and Maine - all have to play at JMU this season. Albany was one of the last two teams left out of the playoff field and hopes to get there this season. Delaware figures to be on its way back behind former Richmond coach Danny Rocco.

1. Missouri Valley Football Conference (10 teams)

The Valley was the only conference to place three teams in the quarterfinals last season, and the one that reached the final, Youngstown State, only finished third in the regular season behind North Dakota State and South Dakota State. The defending co-champs are the favorites again and should be in everybody's top 5 entering the season. SDSU simply needs to avoid facing the Bison in the playoffs, having been eliminated by them in three of the last five postseasons. Youngstown State is reloading under coach Bo Pelini. Add in Illinois State, Northern Iowa and Western Illinois and the Valley schedule is a gauntlet of Top 25 teams.