One of the most dominant teams in Division I football doesn’t even play in the FBS, and North Dakota State -- which is 8-2 against FBS schools -- heads into the 2015 season on a quest for a fifth straight national championship. But the Bison aren’t alone in the hunt for a title, as a few teams, including past champions and runner-ups, set their sights on the kings of the FCS.
Here are three questions heading into the 2015 FCS season:
1. Will North Dakota State complete the five-peat?
Even though Montana upset North Dakota State in the final seconds of Week 1, NDSU still has a strong grasp on the FCS; and unless another team in the FCS proves its mettle late in the season, the Bison have a real shot at a fifth straight title. NDSU not only returned its entire coaching staff, it also returned key offensive skill players such as quarterback Carson Wentz and sixth-year senior Zach Vraa at wide receiver, who bring a high level of consistency to a team that scored over four touchdowns per game last season. Wentz scored four touchdowns by himself (two rushing and two passing) against Montana in a 35-point performance where the Bison led most of the game.
The biggest test will be on defense, which previously was a strength for NDSU. The Bison lost six starters from their No. 5 ranked defense in 2014, and those losses were evident as NDSU gave up 434 yards through the air and another 110 yards on the ground against Montana.
Though NDSU has never lost its season opener during its four straight title years, the Bison have lost only three times during that stretch -- to Youngstown State (2011), Indiana State (‘12) and Northern Iowa (‘14) -- by an average of 8.6 points.
While the defense will be the biggest weakness in NDSU’s quest for a five-peat, the offense will keep the Bison in every game and they should still be considered the favorites in the FCS.
2. Which team has the best shot to end NDSU’s bid for a five-peat?
You don’t win a lot of games without making a few enemies, especially when you win four straight FCS titles. NDSU beat Illinois State in 2014 and knocked out Sam Houston three times from 2011-2014. Both teams, plus a surging Villanova, have the best chances to upend the Bison in 2015.
Illinois State gave NDSU a big test in last season’s national championship game, but it still lost in a 29-27 grudge match. The Redbirds, who weren’t even ranked until Week 4 last season, return key offensive weapons, including quarterback Tre Roberson. The senior posted impressive numbers in Illinois State’s bout with NDSU, with 163 yards passing, 157 yards rushing, four total touchdowns and just one interception. He also nearly made the game-winning play with a 58-yard rushing touchdown in the final two minutes to give the Redbirds a four-point lead that lasted all of 59 seconds. Even though ISU and NDSU are in the same conference, they don’t play in the regular season this year and the Redbirds are 2-7 overall against the Bison. Even with that record, Illinois State’s offense can combat NDSU, as the Redbirds finished No. 17 in total offense in 2014, while the Bison finished No. 28. The challenge will be on defense, where ISU finished at No. 30.
Player to watch: RB Marshaun Coprich. The senior finished fifth in the Walter Payton Award voting, given to the top player in FCS. Coprich led all FCS players with 2,274 yards and 27 touchdowns on the ground last season.
NDSU has knocked Sam Houston State out of the playoffs in three of the previous four years, including the semifinals in 2014 and in the FCS title game in 2011 and 2012. Sam Houston had the ninth-best rushing offense in the FCS last season, which could spell trouble for NDSU (the Bison ranked 94th in rushing defense in 2014). Sam Houston returns 20 starters from last year’s 11-5 season in which the Bearkats won the Southland Conference, including quarterback Jared Johnson and 2014 Southland Freshman of the Year defensive end P.J. Hall. Wide receivers Yedidiah Louis, LaDarius Brown and Derreck Edwards all return to give the Bearkats a three-headed monster in the receiving corps. The trio combined for 2,243 receiving yards in 2015. The Bearkats also lost rusher Keshawn Hill (who rushed for 1,200 yards and 18 touchdowns) to graduation, but Johnson was just as capable of a rusher, actually outpacing Hill with 1,275 yards. Sam Houston also returns Jalen Overstreet (764 yards, seven touchdowns) and Donavan Williams (679 yards, nine touchdowns) to supplant Hill’s production. If the Bearkats can get their ground game churning better than they did last season and keep offenses from scoring (they allowed 3.6 touchdowns per game in 2014), Sam Houston has a good shot at taking down the Bison.
Player to watch: DE P.J. Hall. Not only was the sophomore named the Southland Freshman of the Year, Hall finished first on the team with 12 sacks and four forced fumbles, and fourth on the team with 93 tackles, 30 of which were for a loss.
Villanova is back in the top five of the coaches’ poll for only the third time since winning the FCS championship in 2009, and they have the tools to stay there. Nova returns 14 starters and 32 letterwinners from last year’s 11-3 (7-1 CAA) season, including reigning FCS National Offensive Player of the Year and CAA Preseason Offensive Player of the Year John Robertson at quarterback and CAA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year Don Cherry at linebacker.
Player to watch: QB John Robertson. The senior signal-caller is only the second Nova player (with Brian Westbrook) to post three 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Not only did Robertson finish last year as the Wildcats’ leading rusher with 1,272 yards and second on the team with 11 rushing touchdowns, he also threw for 2,836 yards and 35 touchdowns.
3. How will Youngstown State fare with new coach Bo Pelini at the helm?
Ranked No. 16 in the preseason coaches’ poll, the Pelini-led Penguins have high expectations and are poised for a breakout year. Armed with Pelini and his 67-28 record in eight seasons at Nebraska, the Penguins seek a return to the postseason for the first time since 2006, when YSU lost to Appalachian State 49-24 in the semifinals. Pelini wasn’t the only former Cornhusker to make the trip from Lincoln to Youngstown. The Penguins added four defensive FBS transfers, including defensive ends Avery Moss and defensive back LeRoy Alexander, who both played for Pelini in 2013. The Penguins return 44 players from last year’s 7-5 squad, including starters at key offensive positions. Quarterback Hunter Wells, running back Martin Ruiz and wide receiver Andrew Williams all return to help lead the Penguins back to FCS prominence. Wells, who finished seventh in the Jerry Rice Award for the FCS’ top freshman, completed almost 60 percent of his passes and threw for 1,772 yards and 11 touchdowns. Ruiz rushed for over 1,000 yards for his second straight season, including 10 rushing scores in 2015. Finally, Williams’ leadership will help a young receiving corps for the Penguins, as the senior caught 54 passes for 976 yards and six touchdowns. Even with some new and old faces among the Penguins, all eyes will be on the fiery Pelini, whose intense demeanor should help stir the pot of a team in need of a postseason resurgence.