The last time a team other than North Dakota State held the title of FCS champion, Ke$ha’s “TiK ToK” was the No. 1 song on the Billboard Top 100, Avatar led the way in the box office and Alabama had just claimed its first of what would become four overall FBS titles in the Nick Saban era.
But does anyone have a legitimate shot at unseating NDSU after half a decade of greatness? Let’s take a look at some of the most likely candidates:
Sam Houston State
Fourteen members of the Bearkats were selected to the Southland Conference’s preseason first, second or third teams, showing where last season’s national semifinalists stack up against the rest of its conference.
SHSU returns 16 starters from last year, headlined by offensive playmakers Corey Avery and Yedidiah Louis. Avery averaged 99 yards per game on the ground and rushed for 15 touchdowns last year while Louis caught a team-high 71 passes for seven touchdowns.
Adding to a tough, in-your-face defense led by defensive end P.J. Hall (75 tackles, 11 sacks in 2015), the Bearkats look to return to the semifinals for the fifth time in six years and take the next step.
JSU was ranked No. 1 for 11 weeks last season and cruised through the FCS playoff bracket last year – including a 62-10 win over SHSU – before being stopped by the Bison.
The Gamecocks no longer have Troymaine Pope, last year’s leading rusher, but Eli Jenkins returns under center as an FCS All-American candidate after passing for 2,788 yards and rushing for 1,161 more in 2015.
Senior Aaron Bailey returns as the Panthers’ leading passer and rusher after combining for 32 touchdowns last year. With three seniors in its running back corps, UNI will also look for more production on the ground to complement Bailey.
On defense, UNI finished with the fourth-best turnover margin in the FCS and ranked in the top 20 in sacks.
The Panthers reached the quarterfinals in last year’s bracket, falling to NDSU 23-13.
The offensive-minded Spiders averaged 33 points per game last year and will look to keep pace this year behind the arm of quarterback Kyle Lauletta. The redshirt junior finished third in the nation in passing yards last season and will have his top target in Brian Brown (76 receptions) back for his senior season.
One area where Richmond will look for improvement in will be on defense, where it gave up 371 yards per game last year.