Eastern Washington edges North Dakota State for preseason top spot
PHILADELPHIA -- The last team to defeat North Dakota State in the FCS tournament was Eastern Washington in 2010.
If any team is worthy of stopping NDSU's dynasty this season, it may be the Eagles.
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"North Dakota State, they've been on another level than everybody else the last three years," Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin said. "I feel like we have a chance to be right there."
Eastern Washington has won the Big Sky Conference title and reached the national quarterfinals in three of the past four seasons. The Eagles captured their only FCS title to cap the 2010 season after beating North Dakota State in overtime in the quarterfinals.
No team has been on NDSU's level since then. The Bison have a 43-2 record during the past three seasons, entering the 2014 campaign with 24 consecutive wins to tie the FCS record. The Bison are seeking to become the first program to win four FCS titles in a row.
But the Bison are a much different team this season, having to replace 24 seniors under a new head coach, Chris Klieman, who was elevated from defensive coordinator after Craig Bohl left to become Wyoming's head coach after last season. The Bison return four starters on offense and six on their smothering defense.
Eastern Washington has more experience on its roster, including five preseason All-Americans and 12 returning players who earned All-Big Sky honors last season. Leading the way is junior quarterback Vernon Adams, who finished second in the voting for the 2013 Walter Payton Award as the outstanding FCS player.
But it's hardly a two-team race in the FCS as the preseason top 25 has a familiar look with a number of teams setting their sights on a conference title and beyond. Defending Southland Conference champion Southeastern Louisiana, which gained two first-place votes, was picked third in the preseason poll after finishing 11-3 last season and reaching the national quarterfinals behind quarterback Bryan Bennett.
New Hampshire, the team which ended Southeastern Louisiana's season in the playoffs, was fourth in the poll, gaining one first-place vote. Coach Sean McDonnell's squad from the Colonial Athletic Association has qualified for the postseason in 10 consecutive seasons -- the longest active streak in the FCS.
Perennial FCS power Montana, picked fifth, believes it has the team that can take down Eastern Washington in the Big Sky. The Grizzlies will feature a high-powered offense behind senior quarterback Jordan Johnson.
Also voted to the top 10 were No. 6 Jacksonville State out of the Ohio Valley Conference, No. 7 Coastal Carolina from the Big South Conference, No. 8 McNeese State out of the Southland and then two teams from the Missouri Valley, No. 9 Northern Iowa, which was unranked at the end of the 2013 season, and No. 10 South Dakota State.
The CAA had the most teams in the preseason top 25 with six, followed by the Big Sky and the Missouri Valley with four each. The OVC and Southland had three each, the Southern Conference two, and the Big South, Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and Patriot League one each.