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Stan Becton | NCAA.com | August 31, 2021

6 FCS teams that can make a surprise run to a conference championship

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

As the 2021 FCS season begins, every team feels that this could be their year. There are traditional powerhouses, but there are also teams flying below the radar that could make noise this fall. 

Last spring, we saw teams like North Dakota, Missouri State and Sacred Heart win their conferences after not receiving first-place votes in their preseason polls. This year, there are a handful of teams that have the chance to do the same, shocking their conferences.

Here are six FCS teams that can make a surprise run to a conference title.

These 6 FCS teams can make a surprise run to a conference championship

SWAC: Arkansas-Pine Bluff

Arkansas-Pine Bluff is the defending SWAC West Division champion but went into the season predicted to finish fifth in the same division this fall. Despite the low ranking, the Lions return 11 first or second-team All-SWAC players including QB Skyler Perry. With continuity and championship game experience, Arkansas-Pine Bluff has the talent to return to the top of its division.

AQ7: No. 14 Central Arkansas

As the newly formed AQ7 begins its inaugural season, it will have the luxury of the defending national champion, No. 1 Sam Houston, joining the conference. While Sam Houston is atop the conference preseason poll, Central Arkansas will ensure that their road to a championship won’t be easy.

After not playing in the spring, the Bears return with a loaded offense led by QB Breylin Smith and two of the nation’s best wide receivers. The offense gives them a chance to compete with the best of the best, especially in a shootout. If the defense can make timely plays, Central Arkansas can take home the first AQ7 title.

TALENTED TANDEMS: Central Arkansas’ Hudson and Winningham highlight the FCS's top duos

Pioneer: Dayton

Dayton returns to action after finishing 6-2 in Pioneer in 2019, a year in which it led the FCS in points per game. After a year off, the Flyers have a great chance to replicate this success with record-setting QB Jack Cook under center once again. Joined by the FCS’s all-purpose yards leader, RB Jake Chisholm, Dayton will have the firepower to contend. If a defense lead by All-American S Brandon Easterling can do its part, the Pioneer league may have a new champion.

Big South: No. 25 North Carolina A&T

One of the biggest question marks in FCS football lies in Greensboro, North Carolina — home of North Carolina A&T. After a recent run of dominance in the MEAC, the Aggies enter their first year in the Big South. Predicted to finish third in the conference’s preseason poll, the question remains if North Carolina A&T can replicate its success in a new setting.

MORE: Find out the latest news in HBCU football

The Aggies will get reigning conference champion No. 13 Monmouth at home during their homecoming, giving them one of the best home-field advantages in a game that could determine the conference. They also match up well against the triple-option offense at No. 19 Kennesaw State; North Carolina A&T has finished with a top-five run defense in each of the last five seasons.

The Aggies have the talent to make a surprise run at the Big South title in RB Jah-Maine Martin, DE Jermaine McDaniel, and LB Kyin Howard. If they can carry over their success to the fall, North Carolina A&T could win the conference title in their inaugural season.

CAA: Richmond

If defense wins championships, the Richmond Spiders have a great chance to win the CAA title. While the CAA has two FCS playoff semifinalists in No. 2 James Madison and No. 5 Delaware, Richmond has two of the top defensive players at their position in DE Kobie Turner and LB Tristan Wheeler. 

The two make the Spiders one of three teams that had multiple players land on the Buck Buchanan Award (FCS defensive player of the year) watch list. Turner and Wheeler lead a fearsome front seven that can keep games close. If returning QB Joe Mancuso can provide scoring support, Richmond can surprise the conference and win their first championship since 2015.

RANKINGS: Here are the latest FCS football polls

Southland: UIW

UIW’s conference title hopes lie on the shoulders of reigning Jerry Rice Award (freshman of the year) winning QB Cameron Ward. Ward threw for 2,260 passing yards and 24 touchdowns in just six games last year. While he is aided in the backfield by All-American RB Kevin Brown, it’s up to Ward to take the next step in his sophomore season to make the Cardinals contenders.

The Cardinals are predicted to finish third in the Southland this year, but losing defending national champion Sam Houston to a new conference leaves the conference open in 2021. UIW defeated predicted first-place winner Southeastern Louisiana last spring and scored 45 points in a loss to predicted runner-up Nicholls. This may be the year UIW can reign supreme.

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