Four FCS playoff staples seek a return in 2020
By CRAIG HALEY
(Stats Perform) - The past decade was so good for Sam Houston State that it's been unusual for the Bearkats to fall short of making the FCS playoffs the last two seasons.
Maybe the new decade will begin in the way it looked for much of the 2010s, when Sam Houston collected seven straight appearances in the 2011-17 playoffs, reaching the national title game twice and at least the quarterfinals four other times.
It's easy to get that impression when listening to how seventh-year coach K.C. Keeler felt about last year's 7-5 squad, which tied for third place in the Southland Conference.
"As good a team as I've ever had," Keeler said, "personality, leadership, talent, doing all the right things, battling back from adversity. A good number of (the players) are back."
Sam Houston is projected to return five starters on offense and seven on defense. The Bearkats seek a full season out of quarterback Eric Schmid, who was limited to six starts and eight games by injuries. He was spectacular at times as a redshirt sophomore, throwing for 531 yards and five touchdowns against UIW and 420 yards and four touchdowns against Houston Baptist.
The defense ranked No. 1 in the Southland and features defensive tackle Joseph Wallace and cornerback Zyon McCollum. The position of need is the offensive line, where only one starter returns, although it is all-conference first-team selection Colby Thomas.
Sam Houston isn't alone as a recent playoff staple that wants back in the playoffs this year. Three others that hope to make returns are Eastern Washington, Jacksonville State and New Hampshire.
The Eagles made six playoff appearances in the 2010s, but have missed out in two of coach Aaron Best's three seasons - both seven-win campaigns - with a 2018 national runner-up finish in between.
They have only nine returning starters at this point, but one of them is senior Eric Barriere, who's one of the best quarterbacks in the FCS. Plus, 2018 standout linebacker Chris Ojoh will be back from injury and starting offensive tackle Tristan Taylor and starting linebacker Jack Sendelbach are seeking extra seasons of eligibility from the NCAA.
Considering the Gamecocks won five straight outright Ohio Valley Conference titles under coach John Grass and lost to only one conference opponent in doing so, their 3-5 conference record (6-6 overall) was stunning last season. It reflected in the usually dominant Gamecocks ranking just fifth in the conference in scoring offense, scoring defense and total defense.
Quarterback Zerrick Cooper has passed for over 3,400 yards each of the past two seasons as well as 60 touchdowns, but the offensive line must provide better protection in his senior season. Defensive end D.J. Coleman and linebacker Zack Woodard had breakout seasons for a program that made seven playoff appearances last decade.
It's been two seasons since the end of UNH's 14-year run of qualifying for the playoffs (eight times in the 2010s), but the Wildcats tied for third in CAA Football in 2019 under interim coach Ricky Santos. It's still uncertain whether long-time coach Sean McDonnell, who's facing health issues at 63, will return to the sideline.
The Wildcats, who were last in CAA Football in scoring, will return 15 starters, and the young talent has grown up with the likes of quarterback Max Brosmer, running back Carlos Washington Jr. and Patrick Flynn and Niko Kvietkus anchoring the offensive and defensive lines, respectively. Safety Evan Horn ended his junior season as the national defensive player of the week for a win over rival Maine.
Updated February 11, 2020