College football isn't just about the major conferences, as the FCS has provided plenty of intrigue on a national level in recent years. North Dakota State has dominated the FCS ranks with three consecutive national titles, but Eastern Washington ranks as Athlon’s projected champion for 2014, with the Bison picked No. 2 nationally.
The Bison lost coach Craig Bohl to Wyoming, and there are a handful of key seniors departing. However, the defense should be solid, and there’s still talent at the skill positions on offense.
The Eagles are explosive on offense with quarterback Vernon Adams back at the controls, and the defense is expected to improve in 2014. Eastern Washington will have a chance to play spoiler at Washington on Sept. 6.
2014 FCS Top 25 and Playoff Predictions
1. Eastern Washington
Few teams are motivated quite like the Eagles, who have lost at home in the FCS semifinals the last two seasons. Coach Beau Baldwin’s program has the firepower to match the 2010 national championship squad, as opponents must pick their poison between trying to stop quarterback Vernon Adams (4,994 yards, 55 TDs), wide receiver Cooper Kupp (93 receptions, 1,691 yards, 21 TDs) and running back Quincy Forte (1,208 rushing yards, 16 total TDs). While the offense scores in bunches, linebackers Ronnie Hamlin and Cody McCarthy will push for improvement from the defense.
Related: FCS 2014 All-America Team
2. North Dakota State
(15–0, 8–0 Missouri Valley) New coach Chris Klieman inherits a team that graduated 24 seniors, so the Bison must display the overall depth built up by the previous regime while chasing what would be an FCS-record fourth straight national title. The nation’s best defense for three straight years still features linebacker Carlton Littlejohn and safety Colten Heagle. New quarterback Carson Wentz has go-to weapons in wide receiver Zach Vraa and running back John Crockett.
3. Southeastern Louisiana
(11–3, 7–0 Southland) Former Oregon quarterback Bryan Bennett has set the bar high for the many transfers whom coach Ron Roberts has brought into the program. The 2013 conference Player of the Year is a dual threat, but he also wants to get the ball to playmakers Rasheed Harrell and Xavier Roberson. Pass-rushing linebacker Isiah Corbett fuels the defense.
4. New Hampshire
(10–5, 6–2 CAA) Many key players return from last season’s surprising national semifinalists, including 1,000-yard rusher Nico Steriti and 1,000-yard wide receiver R.J. Harris. The big plays on coach Sean McDonnell’s defense often come from linebacker Akil Anderson and safety Casey DeAndrade. New Hampshire doesn’t face Villanova or Towson in CAA play.
5. Northern Iowa
(7–5, 3–5 Missouri Valley) The Panthers ended the 2013 season strong after injuries wrecked their promising start. Better health with quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen, running back David Johnson and linebacker Jake Farley, son of coach Mark Farley, could lead to a conference title run. Opposing ball-carriers will look to avoid 6'4", 311-pound defensive tackle Xavier Williams.
6. Jacksonville State
(11–4, 5–3 OVC) Offensive coordinator John Grass was elevated to head coach after Bill Clark left for UAB. Grass’ veteran team will keep relying on bulldozer running back DaMarcus James and sophomore quarterback Eli Jenkins. The Gamecocks added Alabama transfer LaMichael Fanning, a defensive end.
(10–3, 6–2 Big Sky) Senior quarterback Jordan Johnson ignites an offense that has plenty of options with wide receiver Ellis Henderson and running backs Jordan Canada and Travon Van. Although there are big losses at linebacker, defensive end Zack Wagenmann is among the best in the nation. The special teams are strong.
(6–5, 5–3 CAA) Last year’s CAA favorites were among the nation’s more disappointing teams, but the Wildcats will return to prominence behind dual-threat quarterback John Robertson, who can be unstoppable, and running backs Kevin Monangai and Austin Medley. Linebackers Don Cherry and Joey Harmon both had breakthrough seasons.
9. McNeese State
(10–3, 6–1 Southland) Coach Matt Viator must replace quarterback Cody Stroud and other key players on offense, but running backs Kelvin Bennett and Derek Milton, a Mississippi State transfer, are ready for lead roles. There were fewer losses on defense, where senior end Everett Ellefsen is the leader.
(13–3, 6–2 CAA) The early departure of 2,500-yard running back Terrance West to the NFL has set back the national runner-up Tigers. But his understudy, Darius Victor, impressed as a freshman last season, and coach Rob Ambrose has raised the talent level. Defensive end Ryan Delaire and cornerback Tye Smith are difference-makers.
11. South Dakota State
(9–5, 5–3 Missouri Valley) Senior running back Zach Zenner can become the first FCS player to rush for 2,000 yards in a season three times. The Austin Sumner-to-Jason Schneider passing combo takes pressure off Zenner. Still, the Jackrabbits have to fill some holes on both lines.
(8–4, 6–2 Southern) The Southern Conference is down, and the Mocs, seeking their first FCS playoff berth since 1984, return the SoCon Offensive Player of the Year (quarterback Jacob Huesman) and Defensive Player of the Year (end Davis Tull). A healthier Keon Williams could make a run at a 1,000-yard season.
(12–2, 0–0 Patriot) The Rams, who began awarding scholarships three years before the rest of the Patriot League, are eligible for the league title again. Senior quarterback Michael Nebrich (4,380 yards, 35 touchdowns) will pick apart defenses with his three 1,000-yard wide receivers — Sam Ajala, Tebucky Jones and Brian Wetzel.
14. Coastal Carolina
(12–3, 4–1 Big South) Junior quarterback Alex Ross is one of the better-kept secrets in the FCS. Running back De’Angelo Henderson will try to replace All-American Lorenzo Taliaferro. Speaking of All-Americans, linebacker Quinn Backus already owns two Big South Defensive Player of the Year awards.
15. William & Mary
(7–5, 4–4 CAA) There will be a mugging or two reported in Williamsburg, where the Tribe have a suffocating defense led by All-CAA selections Mike Reilly at end and Airek Green and Luke Rhodes at linebacker. The offense features running back Mikal Abdul-Saboor and wide receiver Tre McBride.
16. Montana State
(7–5, 5–3 Big Sky) One of the easier Big Sky schedules will help the Bobcats try to rebound from a disappointing season. All-purpose standout Shawn Johnson racks up the yards, and Na’a Moeakiola returns from injury to join Alex Singleton at linebacker.
17. Tennessee State
(10–4, 6–2 OVC) Ball-hawking safety Daniel Fitzpatrick allows defensive end Anthony Bass and linebacker Nick Thrasher to dominate in the front seven. Quarterback Michael German needs to remain on the field, although Ronald Butler is capable of spelling him.
(6–6, 4–4 CAA) The CAA’s most dangerous passer, senior Michael Strauss, will operate behind a veteran offensive line and alongside excellent weapons, including wide receiver Stephen Barnette. The defense forces turnovers, and defensive tackle Evan Kelly gets into opposing backfields.
(8–6, 6–2 Southern) Coach Bruce Fowler flipped the switch on a team that was 2–4 in mid-October. Much of the talent is back, including quarterback Reese Hannon, blue-collar running back Hank McCloud and the defensive playmakers, defensive end Gary Wilkins and nickel Jairus Hollman.
20. Southern Illinois
(7–5, 5–3 Missouri Valley) Sophomore quarterback Ryan West will spread the ball around to running back Malcolm Agnew, All-America tight end MyCole Pruitt and all-purpose threat LaSteven McKinney. The former FCS power has to win more of the close games.
21. Sam Houston State
(9–5, 4–3 Southland) Former FCS title-winning coach K.C. Keeler from Delaware is the new sheriff in Huntsville, Texas, but change was coming regardless after the Bearkats’ standout senior class moved on. Running back Keshawn Hill is a breakaway threat, while free safety Michael Wade fuels a retooled defense.
22. James Madison
(6–6, 3–5 CAA) The big crowds at Bridgeforth Stadium are hoping for quick returns from new coach Everett Withers, who was the interim head coach at North Carolina in 2011. Georgia Tech transfer Vad Lee takes over at quarterback. Safety Dean Marlowe and linebacker Gage Steele are standouts on defense.
(7–5, 4–4 CAA) The Trent Hurley-to-Michael Johnson passing connection is dangerous, and linebacker Patrick Callaway fortifies the defense. The Blue Hens missed the 2013 playoffs by losing their final three games last season.
24. Eastern Illinois
(12–2, 8–0 OVC) A drop-off is likely after the Panthers lost star quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to the NFL and coach Dino Babers to Bowling Green. First-year coach Kim Dameron still has top receivers and playmaking running back Shepard Little (1,551 yards, 19 total TDs).
25. Youngstown State
(8–4, 5–3 Missouri Valley) Opponents will key on sophomore tailback Martin Ruiz now that four-year quarterback Kurt Hess is gone. The new signal-caller will have a strong group of receivers, but the four-time FCS championship-winning program hasn’t been to the postseason since 2006.
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Projected Playoff Teams
» Coastal Carolina (Big South champ)
» Eastern Washington (Big Sky champ)
» Fordham (Patriot champ)
» Furman (at-large)
» Jacksonville State (OVC champ)
» McNeese State (at-large)
» Montana (at-large)
» Montana State (at-large)
» New Hampshire (CAA champ)
» North Dakota State (Missouri Valley champ)
» Northern Iowa (at-large)
» Richmond (at-large)
» Sacred Heart (NEC champ)
» Sam Houston State (at-large)
» San Diego (Pioneer champ)
» South Carolina State (MEAC champ)
» South Dakota State (at-large)
» Southeastern Louisiana (Southland champ)
» Southern Illinois (at-large)
» Chattanooga (Southern champ)
» Tennessee State (at-large)
» Towson (at-large)
» Villanova (at-large)
» William & Mary (at-large)