Getting to know the challengers

The rest of the FCS sets their sights on the Bison

As it seems to be every year, the North Dakota State Bison enter a new football season as the favorite to take the title again.

However, the perceived gap between the Bison and the rest of the FCS is just that, perceived. With seemingly the majority of the subdivision in a state of flux, here is a preview of the FCS as the season gets set to kick off.

A Valley challenger approaches?

On paper, NDSU should win the Missouri Valley once again. The problem is, football is played on the field, and this could cause the Bison headaches. Three key Valley road games for the Bison could lead to a challenger, and it kicks off with a trip to Illinois State. The Redbirds had a season of two halves last year, beating FBS Colorado State early before missing the playoffs by losing four of their last five games. Perhaps the best running back in the subdivision James Robinson returns for Illinois State.

NDSU gets back-to-back road games to South Dakota State and Youngstown State. SDSU seeks to replace four-year starting quarterback Taryn Christion, but the Jacks always play the Bison tough. The same can be said about the Penguins. If either of those three teams can knock-off the Bison, the door can be open for a Valley title.

The other challenger to the top comes in the form of Indiana State. The Sycamores are a program trending in the right direction and could be the “dark horse” in the Valley this year, but they are firmly on the radar now.

The reason Fargo cares about the CAA

As well as NDSU handled the departure of former coach Chris Klieman, the same can not be said about James Madison. The drama, for lack of a better term, surrounding Mike Houston’s courtship by FBS programs and eventual move to East Carolina, could be put down as a reason for the team’s loss in the second round of the playoffs.

New coach Curt Cignetti was impressive at Elon and looks to continue fielding fine teams. The new coaching staff also includes former Maine defensive coordinator Corey Hetherman, who put together one of the best defenses in the FCS last year that lead to an impressive playoff run.

Ben DiNucci is one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the FCS but will need to cure the turnover bug for a deep run. Otherwise, the Dukes return with 20 starters from last year.

NDSU will give the CAA a litmus test with an early trip to Delaware, one of the teams that was in the gaggle at the top of the conference last season.

Sky’s the limit

The Big Sky surprised everyone last season with placing three teams among the top-eight playoff seeds. All three are ready to make noise again. Last season’s runner-up Eastern Washington get much-needed stability in the form of Eric Barriere as the quarterback and stable running backs as well.

Speaking of quarterbacks, UC Davis returns with Walter Payton Award frontrunner Jake Maier. The biggest downside for an otherwise solid returning offense is the loss of last year’s top receiver Keelan Doss. The defense is the biggest question and will get tested in Fargo later this year.

Weber State looks to make it three straight conference titles but will need a reload on the defensive side of the ball. All three teams are still in the conversation for top seeds come November.

The rest of the field

Jacksonville State, Nichols State and Wofford can all be tossed into the conversation for seeds come November as well. All three teams come with the same big question: can they hold up against teams in the top-three conference that play high-quality opponents throughout the season?

Lately, the answer has been no.

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