Sept. 1, 2009

By Adam Caparell

Change is in the air.

The Football Championship Subdivision has operated its playoff format the same way for years, but come next year things will be vastly different.

When 2010 rolls around, the FCS will crown its champion in the month of January after the playoff is expanded one round, from four to five. It's been the same way since 1977, but next year FCS fans will have another week of football to enjoy.

So which team will capitalize on the final four-round FCS Championship? Here are 10 teams, in alphabetical order, who are national title contenders.

Appalachian State
The Football Championship Subdivision's most recognizable team will once again be a national title contender. And it all begins at quarterback where Armanti Edwards, the reigning Walter Payton Award winner, returns for his senior season. Edwards, a dynamic dual-threat QB, ran for 941 yards and 11 TDs and passed for 2,902 yards and 30 TDs last season. Edwards, however, caused a big scare for Mountaineers fans when he injured his foot in a lawnmower accident earlier this month. Appalachian State has won four straight SoCon titles, three of the past four national championships and owns a 13-1 record in the FCS playoffs with Edwards under center.

Don't forget about the Phoenix in the SoCon. While Appalachian State is always in the spotlight, Elon was picked second in the SoCon by the media and third by the coaches in their respective preseason polls. The name to watch on this team is Terrell Hudgins, the wide receivers who was named to the Payton Award watch list this summer. Hudgins finished 2008 with 86 catches for 1,116 yards and 10 touchdowns as Elon reached levels it's not normally used to. Last year, the Phoenix finished No. 17 in the TSN season ending poll, the highest the program has ever finished in a national poll. And this year, the expectations will be even higher as many of the team's top playmakers on both sides of the ball return.

James Madison
The Dukes return 18 starters from last year's team that made it all the way to the national semifinals, beating four league champions in the process. James Madison returns some of the nation's top players and probably has the top return man in the game in Scotty McGee. The guy is borderline unstoppable considering he returned three punt returns and on a kickoff for touchdowns last season. The Dukes won last season's CAA title with an 8-0 record, but this year they were tabbed co-preseason favorites along with Villanova. Head coach Mickey Matthews won the 2008 Eddie Robinson Award.

Last year's national runners-up will once again be a bear as the Grizzlies take aim at Big Sky Conference championship and more. The media and the conference coaches picked Montana to repeat in the Big Sky as 13 starters are expected to return for a team that lost to Richmond in the FCS Championship game, 24-7. Montana has been to the national championship game in three of the last six seasons. Chase Reynolds is the name to watch. The running back set a Montana single-season record last year with 22 rushing TDs. Not bad for a junior who was expected to be a receiver when he set foot on campus.

New Hampshire
The Wildcats, coming off a fifth straight trip to the FCS Championship, have been tabbed as the team to beat in the CAA's North Division. That should come as no surprise considering New Hampshire has a championship pedigree having advanced to the national quarterfinals four of the last five years. The Wildcats will feature one of the nation's top quarterbacks this season in junior R.J. Toman. The Colonial Athletic Association Preseason Offensive Player of the Year is also a legitimate candidate for the Payton Award. Stepping in to replace Ricky Santos - the 2006 Payton Award winner - Toman threw for over 3,000 yards last year and 28 TDs last year and will be expected to have a huge season this fall.

Northern Iowa
The Panthers shared the Missouri Valley Football Conference championship with Southern Illinois last year, but the media, coaches and conference SIDs picked UNI to win the league this fall. It makes sense considering UNI will return its offense practically intact. Senior quarterback Pat Grace will lead the way as the Panthers look to win their third straight league title. After finishing No. 4 in the national rankings last year, losing to national champion Richmond in the semifinals in the game's waning moments, bigger and better will be expected in 2009.

The defending national champions are legitimate threats to make it two in a row this season thanks to the fact they return 18 starters from last year's squad. Led by junior linebacker Eric McBride, who shared CAA Football Preseason Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors, the Spiders will have a big bulls-eye on their backs this fall. But taking down the champs won't be easy considering they have five players featured on the Preseason All-CAA Football Team. And few teams are as experienced or battle-tested as Richmond. Remember, the Spiders knocked off four league champs last season and knocked off three of the FCS' top programs in Appalachian State, UNI and Montana on their way to the title.

Southern Illinois
Southern Illinois should fight tooth and nail with UNI for the Missouri Valley Football Conference championship this year thanks to the fact the Salukis return 18 starters off of last year's squad. SIU had six players on the pre-season all-conference team. Four of them came from the defense meaning SIU should feature one of the formidable units in the conference. Ten starters are expected back and SIU head coach Dale Lennon has said the Salukis will feature a few new wrinkles to their 3-4 package.

With three teams considered national championship material, it's easy to see that the CAA has distinguished itself as arguably the premier conference in the country. Villanova will battle Richmond and New Hampshire for the conference title this season and possibly more. The Wildcats bring back 15 starters from a team that went to the quarterfinals of last year's championship. With four linemen back on the offensive line, Villanova should be especially strong running the ball this year after averaging 213.7 yards per game last season, good for 12th in the nation.

Weber State
It had been 40 years since Weber State last claimed at least a share of the Big Sky Conference Championship. But the Wildcats tied Montana for the conference crown and made it all the way to the national quarterfinals last fall. Quarterback Cameron Higgins was the driving force behind their run last season and will be counted on for another big year while RB Trevyn Smith will look to lead the league in rushing for a fourth straight season. He'd be the first to accomplish that feat. Thirteen starters are expected back for the Wildcats, but there are some concerns about a defense that does feature some all-conference players, just not a ton of overall experience.