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FCS Football: Six Burning Questions for the Upcoming Season

Another exciting season is just four Saturdays away.

2023 Division I FCS Football Championship Photo by Trevor Fleeman/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

College football is so close we can practically taste it. While much of the world has its attention on the big boys, however, a very exciting (and intriguing) FCS season is hanging in the balance as well. 2022 will of course go down as historic in its own right for several reasons, the biggest being that someone new finally took the crown away from mighty NDSU.

The excitement of last fall set the stage for what could be an extremely pivotal 2023 campaign. Several questions loom large with less than a month to go before the first games. They will all be answered in due time.

Can anyone dethrone South Dakota State?

It’s a pretty clear consensus that South Dakota State is the team to beat this year. By nearly every metric, the Jacks are heavy favorites to hoist the trophy again this winter in Frisco. For a team that didn’t lose hardly anyone from their dominant championship run last fall, it’s not really a surprise, even with the retirement of legendary head coach John Stiegelmeier. Jimmy Rogers is taking the reigns now and he’s inherited quite a unit. Who out there can realistically take down the Jackrabbits? Or can anyone at all?

Fortunately for fans who don’t want to a see repeat this year, the other top two teams who are poised to give the Jacks their best challenge each, coincidentally, have to make a trip to Brookings this season, so we may get this question answered sooner rather than later.

On September 9, Montana State will come in and if that matchup sounds familiar, it’s because it seems to happen a lot these days. The Bobcats and the Jacks have met in each of the last two national semifinals since 2021 with both teams winning once. It was, of course, South Dakota State who took last year’s matchup rather convincingly to punch their ticket to Texas.

MSU still needs to prove it can hang with the Jackrabbits in the trenches because last season the ‘Cats got ran over by Isaiah Davis and company. On the other side, their own vaunted run game was rendered almost completely ineffective. If Montana State’s offensive line has improved then this contest becomes really interesting. Remember, quarterback Sean Chambers got hurt early in that meeting last winter and it undoubtedly made a difference in the outcome. Both teams should be healthy with this clash coming in Week 2 and this should be a good litmus test for both programs. It may also very well be a preview of yet another playoff matchup.

Then there’s the rivals from the North and last year’s victims of SDSU’s title game onslaught. North Dakota State will take on Rogers’ team in the annual Dakota Marker game on November 4 and they’re desperately hoping for some sort of footing in this rivalry series that’s been one-sided as of late. NDSU lost both meetings last year and dropped the two games before that as well.

If the Bison want to snap the losing streak they’ll need to shore some things up starting with quarterback play. Cam Miller is a solid signal-caller but it’s becoming increasingly clear that to beat the Jacks, exceptional play is required at that position. In the championship, Miller threw two interceptions and got sacked once. While he did throw for over 200 yards in each of the two meetings last year, solid numbers like that aren’t enough.

Time will tell but as of right now, betting against the Jacks seems like a good way to lose money.

Is this finally the year NDSU can’t rebound?

North Dakota State v Arizona Photo by Rebecca Noble/Getty Images

North Dakota State’s 2023 offseason has been anything but the normal ho hum. Usually this time of year we’re talking about the Bison gearing up for another almost surefire run at a title but pump the brakes. This time it’s not that cut and dried. Matt Entz and the boys in Fargo have lost a lot over the last eight months and not in the typical way. Several guys opted to hit the transfer portal for greener pastures; an uncommon sight to say the least for the team that’s the gold standard in FCS football, but just how concerning is it?

There’s no question that getting beat down by their rivals in Frisco last winter had some adverse side effects. It was, after all, the first time the Bison had suffered a loss in the championship game and it was a resounding one at that. Shortly after the lopsided defeat, several star players entered the portal. Kobe Johnson... 2022’s leading rusher... found a new home with Colorado State. Safety Marques Sigle is now a Wildcat with Kansas State and Courtney Eubanks is also gone. These are just a few of the names that are no longer at NDSU.

At the very least this feels unlike any summer the Bison and their fans have experienced in quite sometime. They are not the preseason favorites to win it all for the first time in what feels like forever and Entz’s staff appears to have a mighty challenge of regrouping the collective team mentality moving into the fall.

It’s not, however, necessarily time to hit the panic button... yet.

If there’s any team out there that deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to offseason uncertainty like this, it’s North Dakota State. The Bison have an uncanny way of doing their best when the chips are down and, despite what some may think, they still have the tools to contend for a title.

You can’t ignore the best homefield advantage in the country. With only two losses in the Fargodome since 2017, they still have that in their back pocket. Doing enough in the regular season to get home games in the playoffs has proven to be a foolproof formula for getting to Texas and with contests against many of the weaker MVFC foes on their slate, the Bison should again see at least some December ball at home.

There is also a fair amount of senior talent sticking around including All-American defensive tackle Eli Mostaert along with running backs T.K. Marshall and TaMerik Williams. So no, not everyone is gone despite what it may feel like.

All hope is not lost for NDSU, however, it’s becoming apparent that this season shapes up to be a fork in the road of sorts for the Bison. Failing to at least get back to the big game this year will have the alarms sounding in the state of North Dakota.

Gut check time as arrived in Fargo.

Are the Vandals really back?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 11 Idaho at Indiana Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Perhaps no team in college football has had a more tortured run of it over the last three decades than Idaho. After a rough showing in the FBS the Vandals opted to make an unprecedented move back down to the FCS ranks in 2017 but even that change in scenery didn’t seem to help for a while. Last year, though, it appeared the sun finally rose on a new era in Moscow. Jason Eck took over as head coach and the results were all but instant. The Vandals won seven games in Eck’s first season and qualified for the playoffs for the first time since their first run in the FCS (then I-AA) going all the way back to the 1990s.

A phenom quarterback in Gevani McCoy came onto the scene and lit it up in his freshman campaign last fall, winning the coveted Jerry Rice Award along the way. His top target, Hayden Hatten, is also returning which is big news for the Vandals. The tandem was responsible for 1,209 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2022.

Anticipation is high for much of the same as we move into late summer and everyone wants a piece of the action. Earlier this offseason the Big Sky Conference announced that Idaho and its famed Kibbie Dome would play host to a game under the ESPN lights in October when Montana comes to town. That’s a big deal for a program that just two seasons ago went 4-7.

The love has been rolling in for the Vandals and not just on part of the television networks. Picked to finish second and fifth in Big Sky play by the media and coaches respectively, Idaho saw six of its players land on the conference’s preseason all-conference team with Hatten being named preseason offensive player of the year. McCoy was also chosen as the league’s top quarterback.

If Idaho is indeed the real deal, though, they’re going to have prove every ounce of it. Their schedule is no joke as the Vandals will face the other four Big Sky teams that reached the playoffs alongside them last year. On top of that they’ll also see two FBS opponents (Nevada and California) both on the road. It’s hard to envision them running that table.

Still, hope is running rampant in the streets of Moscow and the once-lowly Vandals are an afterthought no more.

Are there any legitimate contenders out East?

Lehigh Mountain Hawks (14) Vs. Holy Cross Crusaders (42) At Fitton Field Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

It seems like much of the preseason media praise is being given to the aforementioned teams out West. While the Montana and Dakota schools are soaking up most of the attention, however, there are some intriguing things brewing on the other side of the country.

Let’s start with the team that came the closest to knocking South Dakota State out of the playoffs last year. Holy Cross is the real deal despite what some will tell you about the conference they play in. While it is true that the Crusaders blew through the Patriot League with ease last fall and likely will again this year, it shouldn’t be misconstrued as them being nothing more than a big fish in a small pond.

Head coach Bob Chesney has himself some ballers in Worcester. Quarterback Matthew Sluka is one of the best in the country and can hurt defenses in a variety of ways. All-American linebacker Jacob Dobbs is back after suffering an injury that kept him out most of last year. This was a team that went toe to toe with SDSU for a little more than three quarters not even eight months ago.

You also can’t ignore what’s been going on in the SoCon, at least at the top. Both Samford and Furman are really, really good and should be vying for national seeds come December. The Paladins were oh so close to taking out a lethal Incarnate Word team in the second round last year while the Bulldogs reached the quarterfinals.

Both of these groups return several key pieces and are positioned nicely to make another run. Samford is bringing back arguably the best signal-caller in the FCS with Michael Hiers along with one of his favorite pass catching targets Chandler Smith. Furman, meanwhile, will again have the talents of stud running back Dominic Roberto who ran for over 1,100 yards in 2022.

It’s going to take a lot, of course, to upend the top of the subdivision and even in spite of reloaded rosters, it will be a tall order for someone outside the preseason Top 3 to make national noise. Don’t be shocked, though, if one of these teams ends up throwing a wrench into the whole damn thing.

Will the ever-growing CAA step up to the plate?

Syndication: Wilmington News Journal William Bretzger/Delaware News Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Colonial Athletic Association ... or as it is now officially known... the Coastal Athletic Association... is the biggest FCS league with a whopping 15 teams but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best. The conference added Campbell and North Carolina A&T this year after bringing in Hampton and Monmouth a season ago but the league still feels like it’s struggling to find the program that will propel it back into national relevance since James Madison left.

William & Mary is the current favorite but it’s hard to look past that ugly blowout defeat to Montana State in last year’s playoffs. The Tribe return big names on both sides of the ball but they still need to prove they can hang with the bluebloods. One thing that’ll be working in their favor is a slate that doesn’t feature Delaware, New Hampshire, Villanova or Rhode Island; all playoff hopefuls.

If it isn’t W&M, though, then who takes the torch? The Blue Hens, despite the reinvigoration of adding Ryan Carty as the new head coach last season, had a lackluster end to 2022 going out with a whimper against the champs. Elon didn’t fare any better once they hit the playoffs and Richmond was essentially in the same boat although the Spiders did give Sacramento State a scare in the second round.

With all that in mind, it’s difficult to nail down what the CAA will look like this year at the top and where it sits in the national picture. There’s no question that the Missouri Valley and Big Sky are the most competitive leagues out there and currently it’s not a forgone conclusion that the CAA is even third in that discussion like it used to be.

The baton that JMU left behind is still rolling around for anyone to take.

What will the post-Deion Sanders era look like at Jackson State?

Cricket Celebration Bowl - Jackson State v NC Central Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images

The last three years were a whirlwind for Jackson State and its fans with the Deion Sanders show. Sanders propelled the Tigers and HBCU football as a whole back into the national spotlight in a way that hadn’t been done before. JSU went on an absolute tear during that span, winning 27 games and reaching the Celebration Bowl twice in a row. Those days, however, have come to an end with Sanders departing for Colorado and taking a large portion of the Tigers roster with him. But just because Coach Prime is gone, does that necessarily mean the success is too?

Former wide receivers coach T.C. Taylor has been appointed to carry the torch and lead the program. Taylor, like his predecessor, is a Jackson State alum and has NFL experience. He’s been with the program as a coach since 2019 but will get his first taste of being the head man this year.

He and his staff will have their work cut out for them as they inherit a roster that will not feature last year’s top three rushers, top four pass-catchers, starting quarterback or top eight tacklers. Whether it be through the transfer portal, graduation or the NFL calling, most of JSU’s top talent from a season ago is out the door.

Starting fresh isn’t always a bad thing, however, and so far Taylor has had a productive offseason in terms of filling the gaps. Jackson State has brought in 30 transfers (17 of them coming from the FBS) including former Virginia Tech QB Jason Brown and LSU linebacker Phillip Webb amongst several others. Despite losing a lot, this will not be a gutted team come August 26 when they take the field against SC State.

The biggest hurdle in JSU’s way still looks to be SWAC-rival Florida A&M. While the Tigers have gotten the best of the Rattlers lately, the preseason polls have FAMU finishing first in the league this year with Jackson State coming in second.

A new age of Tiger football is underway in Mississippi.