During an unprecedented spring FCS football season, Sam Houston won its first national championship in school history. The Bearkats ended the long reign of North Dakota State, who kicked off their dynasty by winning their first title in 2011 and won eight times in nine years.
After Sam Houston’s breakthrough season last season, which teams could be next to win their first title? Here are six FCS teams that could be the next first-time national champion. Teams are listed with their preseason Stats Perform Top 25 ranking.
6 potential first-time FCS national champions
No. 3 South Dakota State (8-2 in 2020-21, lost in the national championship)
South Dakota State was 16 seconds away from having its name off this list last spring. After a heartbreaking loss in the national championship game, the Jackrabbits know what it takes to get there. With several returning starters like RB Pierre Strong Jr., South Dakota State remains one the most talented teams in the country. The Jackrabbits will hope that talent and experience can finally get them over the hump.
No. 6 Weber State (5-1 in 2020-21, lost in the first round)
Weber State has won four straight Big Sky titles. Last spring, the Wildcats made the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year. Eventually, Weber State has to reach the championship stage as a part of their progression into one of the nation’s best. There’s no better time for them to do so than this season with one of the best running backs in the country returning, Josh Davis. Davis plus a defense led by LB Conner Mortensen may be the reason that Weber State can rebound from an early playoff loss to become the last team standing.
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No. 8 North Dakota (5-2 in 2020-21, lost in the quarterfinals)
If a team can make it in the gauntlet that is the Missouri Valley Football Conference, it can make it anywhere. After winning a share of the spring MVFC title, North Dakota’s experience against elite competition can be a difference-maker come playoff time. Battle-tested players like RB Otis Weah will be unfazed by playoff pressure. If North Dakota can build momentum off another successful regular season, it can be a hard out come November and December.
No. 10 Jacksonville State (10-3 in 2020-21, lost in the quarterfinals)
Jacksonville State has its eyes set on a title. The Gamecocks are adding back one of the best quarterbacks in school history, Zerrick Cooper, to a team that was seven points away from advancing to the semifinals in the spring. Cooper now gets to command a talented team that also features two returning All-Americans on the defensive side of the ball, S Nicario Harper and DE DJ Coleman. Jacksonville State’s balance in multiple phases of the game is good reason to believe that it could lift the trophy at the season’s end.
No. 14 Central Arkansas (5-4 in 2020-21)
We last saw Central Arkansas play in the fall of 2020 during the traditional time for the regular season, finishing 5-4. While that record doesn't scream national champion, a deeper dive into last fall's performance will show a team willing to compete against any competition, whether it be FBS or FCS. Two of the Bears' losses came to FBS teams (UAB and Arkansas State), while another was at then-No. 1 North Dakota State. This drive to play is an intangible that can be valuable against other top competition. When added to the already elite Bears passing attack, the intangibles gained last year are an impactful advantage. Any bonus for QB Breylin Smith and his two preseason All-Americans, WR Tyler Hudson and WR Lujuan Winningham, may finally put Central Arkansas on the podium.
No. 15 Southeastern Louisiana (4-3 in 2020-21)
Southeastern Louisiana’s chances to win its first national championship lie on the shoulders of reigning Walter Payton Award winner QB Cole Kelley. That may seem like a lot of pressure to put on one player, but Kelley is coming off a spectacular season where he accounted for 27 total touchdowns. The 6-foot-7 quarterback gives the Lions a chance to win any game they play in. Another eye-catching season from Kelley may see him end up with more hardware for both him and his teammates.