A sneak peek to FCS 2020
By CRAIG HALEY
(Stats Perform) - As North Dakota State rightfully revels over winning the FCS national championship, it's time for a sneak peek into next season.
Call it 2020 vision.
Considering what North Dakota State just accomplished - winning a third straight national title and eighth in nine years after returning only seven starters from a year ago - the Bison remain the team to beat going into the 2020 season. This time, they'll return a veteran lineup.
Here's a quick look toward the top teams and possible conference favorites come September:
TEAM TO BEAT
North Dakota State (16-0, 8-0 Missouri Valley; 2019 final ranking: 1) - The Bison will take an FCS-record 37-game winning streak into their season opener at Oregon. They will have a veteran lineup after starting only eight seniors (of 14 overall) in the national championship game. Quarterback Trey Lance was the first freshman to claim the Stats Perform FCS Walter Payton Award, and he will operate behind four returning starters on the offensive line. The defensive headliner will be senior linebacker Jabril Cox, who has decided against early entry into the NFL Draft.
James Madison (14-2, 8-0 CAA; 2019 final ranking: 2) - The Dukes will have to replace a dominating senior class, but All-America lineman Liam Fornadel will pave the way for a deep corps of running backs, led by Percy Agyei-Obese and Jawon Hamilton. Incoming transfers should play key roles.
Weber State (11-4, 7-1 Big Sky; 2019 final ranking: 3) - The offense will be loaded with key returnees, including running back Josh Davis. Coach Jay Hill has led the three deepest playoff runs in program history, and the next step is reaching Frisco.
Montana State (11-4, 6-2 Big Sky; 2019 final ranking: 4) - A full season out of running back Isaiah Ifanse will go a long way (yeah, into the end zone), and Amandre Williams at the Buck position and linebacker Troy Andersen highlight the national semifinalist's defense.
Northern Iowa (10-5, 6-2 Missouri Valley; 2019 final ranking: 5) - UNI will have one of the nation's top defenses, with the returnees including defensive end Elerson Smith, leading tackler Bryce Flater at linebacker and cornerbacks Xavior Williams and Omar Brown. All-America tight end Briley Moore also will be back from injury.
South Dakota State (8-5, 5-3 Missouri Valley; 2019 final ranking: 10) - There's strength in the offensive skills positions with running back Pierre Strong Jr. and wide receiver Cade Johnson, and quarterbacks J'Bore Gibbs and Keaton Heade impressed as freshmen this past season.
Montana (10-4, 6-2 Big Sky; 2019 final ranking: 6) - The Griz will light up the scoreboard with running back Marcus Knight and wide receivers Samori Toure and Samuel Akem. Of course, the defense must replace linebacker Dante Olson, the Stats Perform FCS Buck Buchanan Award winner.
Illinois State (10-5, 5-3 Missouri Valley; 2019 final ranking: 7) - The loss of running back James Robinson is glaring, but the Redbirds still have quarterback Brady Davis, 6-foot-10 tackle Drew Himmelman, defensive linemen Romeo McKnight and John Ridgeway and cornerback Devin Taylor.
Austin Peay (11-4, 7-1 Ohio Valley; 2019 final ranking: 8) - Former starting quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall will return from injury and keep the Governors on the move as he reconnects with wide receiver DeAngelo Wilson.
Sacramento State (9-4, 7-1 Big Sky; 2019 final ranking: 9) - After leading the biggest turnaround in the FCS, Stats Perform FCS Eddie Robinson Award-winning coach Troy Taylor is glad to have back quarterback Kevin Thomson for a final season.
Central Arkansas (9-4, 7-2 Southland; 2019 final ranking: 11) - Quarterback Breylin Smith returns to keep looking downfield to Lujuan Winningham and Tyler Hudson. Cornerback Robert Rochell is coming off a banner junior season.
Kennesaw State (11-3, 5-1 Big South; 2019 final ranking: 13) - Kennesaw's triple option offense will eat up yards behind quarterbacks Tommy Bryant and Jonathan Murphy, and linebacker Bryson Armstrong returns as the conference's defensive player of the year.
Nicholls (9-5, 7-2 Southland; 2019 final ranking: 14) - The well-traveled Lindsey Scott Jr. takes over at quarterback as transfers impact a group whose returnees include running back Julien Gums, offensive lineman P.J. Burkhalter and linebacker Evan Veron.
Villanova (9-4, 5-3 CAA; 2019 final ranking: 15) - Dual-threat quarterback Daniel Smith accounted for an FCS-high 288 points (on 48 total touchdowns) this past season, and running back Justin Covington, wide receiver Changa Hodge and others are back in the skills positions.
Furman (8-5, 6-2 Southern; 2019 final ranking: 21) - The Paladins will host SoCon champ Wofford in the season opener, and running back Devin Wynn and pass rusher Adrian Hope will be ready. Standout kicker Grayson Atkins is expected to leave as a graduate transfer.
New Hampshire (6-5, 5-3 CAA; 2019 final ranking: N/R) - Improved consistency appears next for the Wildcats, who broke in freshman quarterback Max Brosmer under interim coach Ryan Santos. Safety Evan Horn gets better each season.
LIKELY CONFERENCE FAVORITES
Big Sky - Weber State: The conference is loaded with strong teams, but the Wildcats have won a share of three straight titles.
Big South - Kennesaw State: After a second-place finish, the Owls' impressive postseason bodes well for getting back on top of the standings.
CAA - James Madison: The outright champ in three of the last four seasons.
Ivy - Princeton: The Tigers have playmakers, but Dartmouth and Yale are right there in a tight pack.
MEAC - Seriously, South Carolina State may go in as the favorite over North Carolina A&T, the Celebration Bowl champ in three straight seasons.
Missouri Valley - North Dakota State: If you don't know this one, move on to the FBS.
Northeast - Central Connecticut State: The big concern is replacing quarterback Aaron Winchester.
Ohio Valley - Austin Peay: Coach Mark Hudspeth has built on Will Healy's construction job.
Patriot - Holy Cross: All the young talent has grown up quickly.
Pioneer - San Diego: The Toreros will enter the season with 37 straight league wins, two shy of the FCS record.
Southern - Furman: The Paladins have more back on offense than three-time defending champ Wofford.
Southland - Central Arkansas: The Bears shared the 2019 title with Nicholls.
SWAC - No surprise, Alcorn State (East Division) and Southern (West Division) are still the teams to beat.
Updated January 16, 2020