North Dakota State has won the past two FCS national championships and seven of the last eight titles, making the Bison the team to beat once again heading into 2019.
However, this will be a different NDSU team. Gone is four-time championship coach Chris Klieman to Kansas State, and in is former assistant Matt Entz. The Bison lost 15 starters from their 2018 title squad, including Easton Stick, the all-time winningest FCS quarterback.
So, is the rest of the country smelling blood? These seven teams look to put an end to North Dakota State’s dominance in 2019-20.
James Madison, the team that squashed NDSU’s five-year title run in 2016, tops our list of potential dynasty stoppers for the second straight year. Like the Bison, the Dukes have a new coach in Curt Cignetti, who replaces Mike Houston after the latter left for the ECU job. But unlike NDSU, JMU returns 19 starters in 2019.
Second-year starting quarterback, and Pitt transfer, Ben DiNucci is joined by all three of his top receivers and all five starting offensive linemen from last year. On defense, the conference’s 2018 preseason defensive player of the year Rashad Robinson (seven interceptions in 2017) is back after missing all of last year due to turf toe.
James Madison was bounced in last year’s second round of the FCS playoffs to close out a 9-4 year, double the amount of losses the Dukes had the previous two seasons combined. JMU is the only program to hand North Dakota State a playoff loss in the past eight years.
UC Davis lost two-time All-American receiver Keelan Doss but returns mostly everyone else in its explosive offense. That includes senior quarterback Jake Maier, who finished with 3,931 passing yards (third in FCS) and 34 touchdowns (second) in 2018.
The Aggies (10-3) won their first Big Sky conference championship and advanced to the national quarterfinals in their first taste of the FCS playoffs last year. UC Davis was outscored 20-8 by Eastern Washington in the final quarter of that crushing 34-29 loss.
It’s been a steady rise for the program, now a legitimate a national contender. The Aggies finished with just two wins in 2015, three in ’16 and five in ’17. After a double-digit win total and a deep playoff run last year, UC Davis’ next step could be a first trip to Frisco to play for the national championship.
Eastern Washington’s hopes for a deep 2018 playoff run were thought to be crushed last year following record-setting quarterback Gage Gubrud’s season-ending injury in September. But in stepped dual-threat redshirt sophomore Eric Barriere and the Eagles soared to a runner-up finish behind North Dakota State in the 2018 FCS championship game.
Barriere shattered the FCS playoff record with seven touchdown passes against Maine in the semifinals and finished with 21 total TDs in 14 games. EWU loses some key seniors from last year’s squad, but with Barriere settling in as a full-time starter, the Eagles offense shouldn’t miss a beat.
After all, offense has never been a problem for Eastern Washington (43.1 points per game in 2018). But the key to its 2018 title game run was a much-improved defense that cut its points allowed per game by nearly two touchdowns from 2017 to 2018. Linebacker Chris Ojoh (105 tackles) returns to lead this unit.
Jacksonville State hasn’t made it past the second round since a 2015 runner-up finish, but the Gamecocks are as consistent as it comes. JSU has qualified for six straight FCS playoffs, has won four of the last five Ohio Valley championships and has only dropped one conference game in the past five years.
To challenge the Bison and other contenders on this list, Jacksonville State will need to move past its recent trend of early postseason exits. The potential is there, headlined by Clemson transfer Zerrick Cooper, who had 32 touchdown passes in his first season with the Gamecocks.
Top rusher Jaelen Greene (748 yards, four touchdowns) and top two receivers Josh Pearson (17 touchdowns) and Jamari Hester (11 touchdowns) are all back as well to lead an experienced core.
Maine is an up-and-coming program coming off its first-ever run to an FCS semifinals. Former offensive coordinator Nick Charlton is the new man at the helm of the Black Bears but the team identity remains the same.
Maine is a gritty team, especially on defense where it held opponents to 23.4 points per game in 2018 (30th in FCS). The Black Bears are strong in the trenches, led by senior defensive end Kayon Whitaker (9.5 sacks) and junior Alejandro Oregon (10 tackles for loss). Maine held opponents to under 20 points six times last year.
Maine might not have the consistency on offense to keep pace with other title hopefuls, but the Black Bears’ tough style of play should make them a tough out in the postseason.
The Terriers’ triple-option style is a scary sight for defenses come playoff time. Wofford was once again a top 5 team in 2018 in rushing offense and time possession. Fall behind early against the back-to-back SoCon champs and it’ll be a slow burn until the final whistle.
Wofford’s two leading rushers last year are gone but the Terriers welcome back rising sophomore Nathan Walker (549 rushing yards, three TDs) and senior quarterback Joe Newman (539 rushing yards, 12 total TDs). Just as important, the entire starting offensive line returns to ensure there’s no drop-off in the triple-option attack.
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The Terriers failed to reach the national quarterfinals last year after two straight trips in 2016 and ’17. Wofford bowed out in the second round, 13-10, to No. 4 seed Kennesaw State.
Towson was shellacked by Duquesne in a 31-10 first-round defeat last season, but this year’s Tigers seem primed for a deep run in the FCS championship bracket. Towson finished 7-5 in 2018 and reached the postseason for the first time since falling short in the 2013 title game.
Tom Flacco — yes, Joe’s brother — is back under center after tallying 32 total scores and eclipsing 3,000 passing yards last year as a first-time starter. He’s flanked by do-it-all running back Shane Simpson (six rushing TDs, five receiving TDs, one kick return TD) in a dangerous offense.
Towson will face some challenges in its regular season schedule, taking on Maine in non-conference play and James Madison, Delaware and Elon in the competitive CAA. The Tigers will also visit the Swamp to play FBS foe Florida in September.
Other teams to watch: Elon, Montana State, South Dakota State, Weber State