North Dakota State will go for its sixth FCS championship in seven years in 2018, and the defending champs will likely start the year at the top of every major preseason poll.
But that doesn't mean the Bison will go unchallenged on the road back to Frisco. A combination of postseason regulars and on-the-rise newcomers look primed to join NDSU in the 2018 title mix.
Here are the four teams with the best chances to end the Bison's FCS championship dominance this year:
James Madison was the team that ended North Dakota State's remarkable five-year title run with a shocking 27-17 2016 semifinals win in Fargo. The Dukes would win their second national title over Youngstown State the next month to establish itself as a legitimate lasting threat to NDSU's dynasty. The No. 1 Dukes then lost to the No. 2 Bison in a thrilling 17-13 finish in last year's national championship game.
Overall, the Dukes are 28-2 over the last two seasons (playoffs included), with their only other loss coming against FBS foe North Carolina in 2016. James Madison will once again be the top team standing in NDSU's way, despite losing arguably its best two players — quarterback Bryan Schor and defensive end Andrew Ankrah.No matter, JMU returns its top postseason pass catcher from last year in 6-5 target Riley Stapleton, and a balanced backfield with Marcus Marshall, Trai Sharp and Cardon Johnson (combined for 2,006 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns in 2017). This experienced core of playmakers should help ease the transition of the new starting quarterback — either Cole Johnson or Ben DiNucci — before tough CAA conference play and the postseason begins.
On defense, JMU comes off a record-setting 2017 where the unit forced 31 interceptions (four returned for touchdowns) and 44 total turnovers. In their past two postseason matchups, the Dukes have held a very efficient Bison offense to an average of 17 points and 306 offensive yards per game. In five playoff games against all other competiton during this two-year stretch, the NDSU offense averaged 43.2 points and 515 yards per game.
James Madison has shown before that it could keep up with — and even slow down — North Dakota State in the postseason. With another run this year, the Dukes could start their own impressive run of two titles in three years.
South Dakota State
North Dakota State has lost just three times in the past two seasons — once to JMU in the 2016 semifinals and twice against its neighbor to the south.
South Dakota State came out of Fargo with a 19-17 upset in 2016 and then handled the Bison at home 33-21 in 2017 for back-to-back Dakota Marker rivalry game wins. The Jackrabbits have been to six straight FCS playoffs, and reached the quarterfinals round in consecutive seasons for the first time in program history. Last year's playoff run came to an end in a 51-16 semifinals loss to James Madison.
It's not quite fair to say SDSU has NDSU's number, despite consecutive regular season wins. The Bison still own a 3-0 advantage over the Jackrabbits in postseason play, including a revenge 36-10 win in the 2016 quarterfinals. But this recent glimpse of head-to-head success is worth noting amidst SDSU's growth as a contender.The Jackrabbits are led by senior quarterback Taryn Christion, who was seventh in the nation with 3,515 passing yards to go along with 35 passing touchdowns and nine rushing scores in 2017. In his two career regular season starts against NDSU, he's thrown four touchdowns and rushed for another while limiting his turnovers to just one interception. He's complemented well by running back Isaac Wallace.
It'll be interesting to see if SDSU can take the next step in the postseason after exiting on beatdowns to JMU and NDSU the past two years. But the Jackrabbits are a balanced team on both sides of the ball and have shown they're not intimidated by the six-time champs up north.
Eastern Washington fell short of a postseason bid in 2017 after star receiver Cooper Kupp was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams and head coach Beau Baldwin left for the offensive coordinator job at Cal. The Eagles set their sights on returning to the FCS playoffs in 2018 behind the arm of Gage Gubrud.
Gubrud, a senior, threw for 26 touchdowns and 3,342 yards a season after leading EWU to the semifinals with 48 and 5,160 in 2016. Despite this statistical drop-off, Gubrud still finished second in the nation in total offense (357.8) and led the team's eighth-best passing attack. Look for Gubrud's numbers to tick back up in coach Aaron Best's second season at the helm.
Before playoffs gear up in November, EWU must prove it can handle quality teams during the regular season. In last year's 7-4 campaign, the Eagles lost to all three eventual playoff teams on its schedule in North Dakota State, Southern Utah and Weber State — by an average margin of almost 18 points per game. Their only other defeat came against Texas Tech of the FBS.
EWU will be challenged again this year with three more 2017 playoff teams on its schedule. The Eagles will travel to Northern Arizona and Weber State, and will host Southern Utah.
Kennesaw State can make the jump from playoff newcomer to legitimate title contender in 2018. The Owls had a breakout 2017 campaign in their third year as an FCS program, finishing at 12-2 and advancing to the quarterfinals.
Kennesaw State's rushing attack paces the way after averaging a nation-best 330.2 yards per game in 2017. Under center, quarterback Chandler Burks was one of the most dangerous running quarterbacks with 28 touchdowns and 1,103 rushing yards. He added nine touchdowns through the air.
A mobile quarterback who can extend plays like Burks could neutralize the relentless NDSU defense at times, as SDSU's Christion and JMU's Schor did the past two years.
Weekend Vibes pic.twitter.com/3P6A69zB0D— Kennesaw State FB (@kennesawstfb) June 29, 2018
The Owls defense is led by sophomore linebacker Bryson Armstrong, winner of the 2017 Jerry Rice Award as the top freshman in the country. His 11 sacks were a team-high while his 114 total tackles led all of the Big South conference.
KSU's top two regular season tests include home games against Samford and Jacksonville State. The latter will be played at a neutral site at SunTrust Park in Atlanta to close out the season.