Sneak peek to FCS 2019
By CRAIG HALEY
(STATS) - There's more than a glimmer of hope outside Fargo, North Dakota, for teams that expect to be FCS national title contenders next season.
Sure, you've heard that idea before while North Dakota State's dynasty has reeled off a record seven FCS championship seasons in the last eight years.
But the Bison have to replace their largest senior class - 24 members deep, including quarterback Easton Stick, the all-time wins leader for an FCS quarterback - and they're transitioning to a new coach, Matt Entz, who's been promoted from defensive coordinator with Chris Klieman off to take over at Kansas State.
James Madison should have as talented a roster as NDSU, but the Dukes also will have a new coach. Others also return experienced squads.
Here's a quick look toward the 2019 FCS season:
TWO TO BEAT
North Dakota State (15-0, 8-0 Missouri Valley; 2018 final ranking: 1) - The Bison will bring a 21-game winning streak into the season. The transition to Entz should be smooth. At quarterback, Trey Lance is highly regarded, and if it's not the redshirt freshman taking over, it could be Iowa State transfer Zeb Noland. New starters will be found across the lineup, but running backs Ty Brooks, Seth Wilson and Adam Cofield are familiar names who are ready for larger roles, and linebacker Jabril Cox and safety James Hendricks will be back. There's a demanding five-game stretch of North Dakota, at Delaware, UC Davis, at Illinois State and Northern Iowa, and the Dakota Marker game is at South Dakota State.
James Madison (9-4, 6-2 CAA; 2018 final ranking: 9) - There's no disputing the Dukes' talent, the question is more about how well they adjust to new coach Curt Cignetti and his staff following Mike Houston's spectacular three-year run. Only two of the Dukes' CAA-high 14 all-conference selections were seniors, with third-team quarterback Ben DiNucci among the 2019 returnees, but seeking a higher level of play. Plus, safety Rashad Robinson, the CAA preseason defensive player of the year, never made it to the field in 2018 because of injury and will be back.
South Dakota State (10-3, 6-2 Missouri Valley; 2018 final ranking: 3) - The Jackrabbits have reached the national semifinals in the last two seasons. While quarterback Taryn Christion is irreplaceable, the running back duo of Pierre Strong Jr. and Mikey Daniel is excellent, and there will be few better in the FCS at their positions than linebacker Christian Rozeboom, wide receiver Cade Johnson and place-kicker Chase Vinatieri.
Maine (10-4, 7-1 CAA; 2018 final ranking: 4) - Coach Joe Harasymiak departs, but the CAA champ and national semifinalist will return significant talent for new coach Nick Charlton's first season, including quarterback Chris Ferguson and three all-conference first-teamers, kick returner Earnest Edwards, defensive end Kayon Whitaker and cornerback Manny Patterson.
Eastern Washington (12-3, 7-1 Big Sky; 2018 final ranking: 2) - The national runner-up loses key players across the lineup, but the playoff experience will help the younger talent and a handful of starters hope to be back after suffering season-ending injuries. Quarterback Eric Barriere will be highly seasoned and running back Antoine Custer Jr. seeks to cap a strong career. Linebacker Chris Ojoh and safety Dehonta Hayes, who were second and third on the team in tackles, respectively, are defensive headliners.
TOP 10 CONTENDERS
UC Davis (10-3, 7-1 Big Sky; 2018 final ranking: 7) - Despite the loss of two-time All-America wide receiver Keelan Doss, quarterback Jake Maier, the Big Sky offensive player of the year, will be surrounded by a wealth of offensive talent. The schedule includes Cal and North Dakota State, but not the Aggies' tormentor in 2018, Eastern Washington.
Towson (7-5, 5-3 CAA; 2018 final ranking: 20) - CAA offensive player of the year Tom Flacco returns behind center as well as top offensive weapons Shane Simpson, Shane Leatherbury and Jabari Allen. If place-kicker Aidan O'Neill matches his 22 field goals of 2018, he would tie the FCS all-time record of 75 (Montana's Dan Carpenter, 2004-07).
Illinois State (6-5, 3-5 Missouri Valley; 2018 final ranking: NR) - We've been here before with the Redbirds and they disappointed in 2018 despite an FBS win over Colorado State, but thoughts of improvement stand tall like 6-foot-10 left tackle Drew Himmelman. Quarterback Brady Davis and running back James Robinson will return from a team that was full of underclassmen.
Jacksonville State (9-4, 7-1 Ohio Valley; 2018 final ranking: 10) - The Gamecocks aren't far ahead of Southeast Missouri, but they have won five straight Ohio Valley Conference titles (with the 2018 loss to SEMO their only one within conference play). Quarterback Zerrick Cooper, wide receiver Josh Pearson and safety Marlon Bridges are an undeniable trio of standouts.
Nicholls (9-4, 7-2 Southland; 2018 final ranking: 14) - Another season in Thibodaux, Louisiana, might seem like quarterback Chase Fourcade's sixth or seventh to opponents, but the Southland player of the year will be one of the Colonels' nine returning players who earned a form of all-conference honors.
Wofford (9-4, 6-2 Southern; 2018 final ranking: 13) - A stout returning offensive line and both quarterbacks (Joe Newman and Miller Mosley) will keep the triple option offense on the move, while a healthier Mikel Horton at nose tackle will boost a defense that faces some key losses. The continuity will be even better coach Josh Conklin's second season.
Weber State (10-3, 7-1 Big Sky; 2018 final ranking: 6) - Despite key senior losses, it appears coach Jay Hill has built a program for the long haul (21 wins over the last two seasons). All-around threats Josh Davis and Rashid Rasheed will keep racking up yards, although quarterback was a problem in each of the Wildcats' losses in 2018.
LIKELY CONFERENCE FAVORITES
Big Sky - Eastern Washington: Eagles don't have fellow 2018 tri-champs UC Davis and Weber State on the schedule.
Big South - Kennesaw State: But Monmouth is close behind.
CAA - James Madison: Cignetti's first conference game is at Elon, his former school.
Ivy - Yale: After a big step backward, the Bulldogs will have a strong senior class to rekindle their 2017 championship form.
MEAC - North Carolina A&T: Despite stumbles at home against conference foes in 2018, the Aggies still won the title and then the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl for a third time.
Missouri Valley - North Dakota State - Well, of course.
Northeast - Duquesne: The Dukes return from a playoff win with running back A.J. Hines, the NEC offensive player of the year, and quarterback Daniel Parr.
Ohio Valley - Jacksonville State: The gap has closed in the OVC.
Patriot - Colgate: The run game will remain strong and the defense gets back defensive end Nick Wheeler, although leading tackle T.J. Holl is pursuing a graduate transfer.
Pioneer - San Diego: The Toreros have a 29-game league winning streak, but Dayton and Drake have a shot.
Southern - Wofford: The SoCon may not be quite as strong as this past season.
Southland - Nicholls: The Southland looked so different in 2018. Can perennial power Sam Houston State regain cohesiveness and back to a top level?
SWAC - Alcorn State (East) and Southern (West): Wait, quarterback Noah Johnson is back again at Alcorn? Southern also has its triggerman back, Ladarius Skelton.
Updated January 10, 2019