As students settle into campus for the beginning of the school year, FCS football gets ready to kickoff. But before Week Zero games start this weekend, The Spectrum’s sports staff discuss the upcoming season and the Bison’s chance to repeat as champions.
Let’s just start with the big one. Are the Bison the favorites to win the National Championship?
Taylor Schloemer (Sports Editor): Without looking too far into it, you have to say yes. Defending national champions, the pick to win the Missouri Valley Football Conference (MVFC) crown, as well as No. 1 ranked in the nation. The offense lost a few pieces, but the core from last year is still there. Quarterback Easton Stick returns, as does Darrius Shepherd, a top receiving option. Then again, the Bison’s bread and butter over the years has been a strong running game, and North Dakota State bring the best running back group in the nation. Bruce Anderson, Lance Dunn and Ty Brooks will lead the way on the ground.
Thomas Evanella (Sports Staff Writer): At this point, it is impossible to say no. Ranked No. 1 in both the MVFC and STATS preseason polls, the Bison are the consensus national title favorites. Seasoned veterans return on both sides of the ball, nicely complementing a group of budding young stars. Offensively, Stick will depend upon his stable of running backs, which includes sophomore Seth Wilson, a flashy rushing and receiving option. The Code Green defense is anchored by an elite backend. Jalen Allison and Marquise Bridges will play coverage on the outside with hard-hitting seniors Jaylaan Wimbush and Robbie Grimsley manning the safety positions. Once again, it’s all looking up for the Herd.
Is there anyone who can keep pace with NDSU?
TE: Allow me to add this caveat first: there are no easy victories in the Missouri Valley. That being said, when the dust settles, this could be one of NDSU’s easiest seasons in conference. South Dakota State is ranked No. 3 in the preseason poll, mostly as a result of their semifinal appearance in 2017. SDSU lost both Dallas Goedert and Jake Wieneke to the NFL, leaving QB Taryn Christion without his top two options. The Jacks are ranked second in the MVFC preseason poll, but it’s difficult to imagine it finishing that way. South Dakota suffered a major loss under center with Chris Streveler departing for the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The ‘Yotes dropped out of the top 25 as a result. Northern Iowa, Illinois State and Youngstown State are in the top 25, but none stack up to the Bison.
TS: So here is the obvious one: it’s James Madison. Last year’s runners-up and the national champions two years ago, the Dukes are the only other team than SDSU to beat the Bison in the last two years. They have dreams of taking over the Bison’s dynasty, but this year will be the hardest test in the past three years. Bryan Schor vacates the quarterback helm, and that position always brings a large question mark when there is a change of the guard. How the Dukes can handle the transition will be key to stay with the Bison.
You mention James Madison. How close is their Colonial Athletic Association to the Missouri Valley?
TS: It is close, but top to bottom, the Valley is still a bit better. Given that five Valley teams made the playoffs last year as compared to four from the CAA, it is close. The two are head and shoulders above the rest of the conferences in the FCS. NDSU will see the first CAA team left out of the playoffs last year in Delaware early in the season, and that will be a good marker to see just how good the CAA is.
TE: Cumulatively, it is challenging to gauge which conference is superior with so few head-to-head matchups. The game between NDSU and Delaware will be the only MVFC and CAA meeting this year. There’s no doubting these are the top two conferences in the nation, but the Colonial continues to close the gap. New Hampshire ought to be a playoff team again, along with upstart Stony Brook, Delaware and Elon. It’s too tight to call.
Who will be the best player in the FCS this year?
TS: With two-time Walter Payton Award winner Jeremiah Briscoe finally done tormenting the FCS, the subdivision has an open mantle on top of the offensive charts. That spot seems to be primed to be taken over by Samford’s Devlin Hodges. As a junior, he came just short of 4,000 yards passing to finish third in the FCS. The only two quarterbacks to throw for more were Briscoe and South Dakota’s Chris Streveler, both of which graduated. Samford and Wofford will fight it out for the Southern Conference crown, and Hodges will be the key.
TE: UC Davis’ Keelan Doss might just be the most talked about FCS player when next year’s draft comes around. The California native posted a gaudy 1,499 receiving yards on 115 receptions last year, finding the end zone eight times. A lanky wideout, Doss was a rarity in the FCS: a player with legitimate NFL bona fides as a junior. He returns with aspirations for his first winning season in college. Doss finished third in the Walter Payton Award voting last year, all while playing for a 5-6 squad. Doss will be relied upon once again in head coach Dan Hawkins’ second season, in an offense that averaged 30-plus points per game last year. He and the Aggies look to make a big splash in the Big Sky.
Since you guys were so good at this last year, who ends up in Frisco?
TE: NDSU is the easy pick, and rightfully so. The Bison are well coached and play a disciplined brand of football. Simply put, when they’re on their game, the Herd are nearly impossible to beat, especially if they have home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Opposing them will be Kennesaw State in just their fourth season as a program. Coach Brian Bohannon has steered the Owls to a rapid ascent among the FCS’s elite, culminating in a quarterfinal appearance last year. This season, the Owls will make the jump to the title game. The best rushing offense in 2017 along with a top tier defense? Sounds like the formula another team we know uses.
TS: Well, I got half of the matchup last year right with the Bison going to Texas, and we can forget about what I said about North Dakota. The Bison go again, but their opponent is a bit up in the air. This is the first major rebuild in the potential JMU dynasty, so the pressure is there. I can’t shake the gut feeling that they crack, opening the door for another team. After a 7-4 year, Eastern Washington and Gage Gubrud bounce back and make a run to Frisco.