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Stan Becton | NCAA.com | August 18, 2021

FCS football rankings: Sam Houston is No. 1 in 2021 preseason poll

Sam Houston defeats South Dakota State 23-21 to win first FCS title

After an unprecedented 2020-21 spring football season, fall FCS football has returned. So has the preseason Stats Perform top 25 poll.

Sam Houston will enter the year as preseason No. 1 as it looks to defend its title.

With the first games kicking off Aug. 28, here’s a look at the top 25 teams in the Aug.9 poll.

RANK

SCHOOL

TOTAL POINTS

Final 2020-21

1 Sam Houston (39) 1228 1
2 James Madison (8) 1180 3
3 South Dakota State (4) 1156 2
4 North Dakota State  1116 5
5 Delaware 1017 4
6 Weber State 927 9
7 Southern Illinois 888 8
8 North Dakota 886 6
9 Montana 778 NR
10 Jacksonville State 744 7
11 Eastern Washington 659 10
12 Montana State 654 NR
13 Monmouth 618 11
14 Central Arkansas 561 NR
15 Southeastern Louisiana 559 20
16 Villanova 440 16
17 VMI 397 12
18 Chattanooga 295 NR
19 Kennesaw State 255 17
20 Austin Peay 227 23
21 Northern Iowa 219 NR
22 Nicholls 173 25
23 UC Davis 172 14
24 Missouri State 168 13
25 North Carolina A&T 159 NR

Also receiving votes: Murray State (157), Richmond (113), ETSU (99), Sacramento State (57), Alabama A&M (49), Florida A&M (47), New Hampshire (42), Alcorn State (35), Holy Cross (22), Samford (20), UIW (19), Sacred Heart (17), Albany (14), Illinois State (10), Rhode Island (10), South Carolina State (10), Stephen F. Austin (10), Duquesne (4), Southeast Missouri (3)

The top 5

1. Sam Houston (WAC)

Sam Houston enters the 2021 season with hopes of defending its first national title. The Bearkats have not lost since November 2019 and return a talented roster with numerous preseason All-Americans. Led by redshirt junior quarterback Eric Schmid and senior defensive lineman Jahari Kay, Sam Houston looks to continue its winning ways.

CHAMPIONS: Relive the Bearkats' 2020-21 championship run

2. James Madison (CAA)

It’s been five years since we last saw James Madison raise the championship trophy in 2016, but it has remained a premier program in the FCS. This year should be no different as the Dukes enter 2021 with redemption on their mind after blowing a 24-3 lead in last year’s semifinals. Always dominant in Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) conference play, James Madison has championship aspirations fueled by five returning All-Americans.

3. South Dakota State (MVFC)

The Jackrabbits fell short of winning their first title last spring, losing 23-21 to Sam Houston in the championship game. Yet, with this loss come extensive postseason experience as South Dakota State returns 10 starters on both sides of the ball. This includes Walter Payton Award finalist, junior running back Pierre Strong Jr. South Dakota State enters the season as the favorites in the always-competitive Missouri Valley Football Conference (MVFC). 

4. North Dakota State (MVFC)

For the first time since 2017, North Dakota State will not start the season as defending champion. It’s a rare occurrence for the Bison, who have won eight out of the last 10 FCS championships. With one of the best wide receivers in the FCS, Christian Watson, North Dakota State’s roster is talented as always with a handful of NFL prospects. 

WINNING: Schools with the most FCS Championships

5. Delaware (CAA)

The Blue Hens burst onto the scene last spring, advancing to the semifinals after missing the playoffs the year before. With postseason experience under its belt, Delaware is out to prove that last season was not an accident. On offense, Delaware has a rushing attack powered by returning CAA player of the year, running back Dejoun Lee, and All-American left tackle David Kroll. Combined with another All-American in safety Kendrick Whitehead patrolling the defense, the Blue Hens enter the season with talent that should have them as a top team once again.

Surprise movement

Back in action

A glance at the rankings will show three teams in the top 15 unranked at the end of last spring. Montana (9), Montana State (12), and Central Arkansas (14) may catch the unsuspecting fan by surprise with their preseason ranking, but there’s a good reason behind their sudden surge. Montana State didn’t play last year. Central Arkansas and Montana played a handful of non-conference games in the fall and spring, respectively. When the fall kicks off for these three teams, they'll be looking to remind the FCS why they belong in the conversation with the nation's best.

POLLS: Find out where your team landed in the FCS preseason rankings

24. Missouri State (MVFC)

While Missouri State’s position in the preseason poll does not differ much from other national rankings, it does stand out. Missouri State finished last season with a share of the MVFC title and a playoff experience. The Bears dropped 11 spots over the offseason. With seven preseason all-conference players returning, including All-American cornerback Montrae Braswell, Missouri State’s drastic fall in the rankings might come as a bit of a surprise.

Other teams to watch

8. North Dakota (MVFC)

At No. 8 in the preseason poll, North Dakota is looking to build off of a season that ended with a share of the MVFC title and a quarterfinals run in the playoffs. With All-American running back Otis Weah in the backfield, the Fighting Hawks can make some noise in the deep MVFC.

10. Jacksonville State (ASUN)

Last spring, we saw Jacksonville State advance to the FCS quarterfinals before a close loss ended its season. Now members of the ASUN conference, the Gamecocks will look to improve on last season’s finish. They should receive a boost with the return of quarterback Zerrick Cooper, who missed last spring with an injury. Cooper enters the year just 161 yards away from being the school’s all-time leading passer.

15. Southeastern Louisiana (Southland)

Any program returning a Walter Payton Award winner should be on everyone’s radar. Southeastern Louisiana and reigning award-winning quarterback Cole Kelley have the attention of many after a season where he scored 27 total touchdowns. With some help on the defensive end from All-American Ferlando Jordan, the Lions could shock some teams in 2021.

WALTER PAYTON AWARD HISTORY: Here are the past winners of the Walter Payton Award

25. North Carolina A&T (Big South)

North Carolina A&T received 159 votes in the preseason poll. No longer in the MEAC, this year the Aggies will play their inaugural season in the Big South. Before leaving the MEAC, the Aggies won the last three Celebration Bowls. With preseason All-American running back Jah-Maine Martin in the backfield, North Carolina A&T will look to make a statement in its new conference and advance to the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

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