Updated: Aug 22, 2019
It’s mid-July, but the preseason polls from the FCS are starting to descend on us. I am going to be commenting on the Hero Sports and Athlon Sports top 25’s. Brian McLaughlin is the Hero columnist and Craig Haley the man for Athlon. Both are at the top in FCS Football knowledge.
Let me start by expressing the difficulty of accurately predicting how 125 plus FCS teams are going to shake out before the games begin. First, injuries to key personnel can derail the process (New Hampshire comes to mind last year). Also, these teams are made up of 18-23-year-old young men. Preseason hype can go to these players heads and they think they only have to show up to win. Last year 10 teams from the Hero list didn’t make the playoffs and 12 of the Athlon picks weren’t in the playoffs (50%). Half the picks to make the quarterfinals washed out in each poll. So early picks are a crap shoot.
I am going to critique the top six picks other than the Bison.
Jacksonville State has an average preseason rank of 6.5 in the two polls. The Gamecock’s are frequent flyers to the FCS playoffs. Appearing the last 6 years. Hero tags them in the following way: “To us, this looks like the best JSU team on paper since the 2015 team that went to the natty title game. The talent is abundant, and let's not forget that quarterback Zerrick Cooper turned the heads of Clemson's coaching staff way before he arrived at JSU as a transfer.” Athlon pegs them in this way: “Having lost only one Ohio Valley Conference game in coach John Grass’ five seasons, the Gamecocks are primed for another banner campaign, although their success in the playoffs is always the issue.”
My view of JSU is that their win-loss record is benefited by playing in a weak league (Ohio Valley Conference, OVC), but that this has led to early one and done losses in 3 out of their 6 playoff appearances (For these three one and dones, they were a seeded team, ouch).
I see two major obstacles JSU must overcome. They need to play better defense against the good teams. In the last six years they have given up over 30 points 19 times. In the playoffs, they have given up over 35 points 6 times in the last 11 games. The Bison have given up more than 30 points once in the last 31 playoff games. Even in their Frisco run in 2015, the Gamecock’s gave up 35 and 38 before surrendering 38 to Wentz and company. Folks, that’s bad defense.
Next, JSU has to stop playing sloppy and undisciplined football. What do I mean? They rank in the bottom 25% of all FCS teams for the last three years in amount of penalty yards per game (almost 74). Too many penalties mean the players aren’t locked in or focused. So, to call them sloppy and undisciplined isn’t harsh. It’s just a description of the product on the field. In the opener last year against North Carolina A&T (who the Bison play next year), the Gamecocks turned a 403 total yards of offense to NC A&T’s 148 yards into a 20-17 loss. How? They committed 14 penalties for 149 yards and were 4-1 in turnovers (minus 3). That is sloppy and undisciplined football.
Coming in next in these two preseason polls is Eastern Washington (5.5 average). Here’s how Hero Sports views them, “EWU loses a huge senior class, but plenty of underclassmen saw valuable playing time in the run to the national championship game. Five starters on offense and five on defense return from the FCS title game's starting lineup. But with electric quarterback Eric Barriere fully settled in as the starter along with the running game and defense improving under head coach Aaron Best, the Eagles should continue their momentum.” Athlon puts it this way, “Despite losing a number of key players to graduation, the 2018 national runners-up, who lost 38–24 to North Dakota State in Frisco, Texas, remain in the title hunt. Dual-threat quarterback Eric Barriere, who set a playoff record with seven touchdown passes in the semifinals and running backs Antoine Custer Jr. and Tamarick Pierce will work behind an outstanding O-line. Linebacker Chris Ojoh and safety Dehonta Hayes finished second and third on the team in tackles, respectively. Incredibly, the Big Sky’s other three 2018 playoff teams — Weber State, U C Davis and Montana State — are not on the Eagles’ schedule."
Here's my take on what Eastern must accomplish if they want to bring home the bacon. Yes, they improved on defense last year, but not in the playoffs. Against their four playoff opponents they gave up 454 yards per game (YPG) in total offense, 217 YPG in rushing and 26.8 points per game. That’s bad defense. Bad defense doesn’t win championships.
The next threat to dethrone the Bison is Maine with an average rank of 5. Athlon says the following, “With seven road games following last year’s nine, the Black Bears’ nickname might be changed to Road Warriors in former offensive coordinator Nick Charlton’s first season as head coach. Fortunately, the first national semifinalist in program history returns significant talent, including quarterback Chris Ferguson and three All-CAA first teamers — kick returner Earnest Edwards, defensive end Kayon Whitaker and cornerback Manny Patterson.” Hero’s take is as follows, “The Black Bears' colors are blue, white and navy blue -- but the real colors of this program are black and blue. Last year, Maine proved it with an impressive CAA championship run, playoff seed and run to the FCS semifinals before crisscrossing the United States finally took its toll. This is a hard-nosed program that goes after hard-nosed kids in Jersey, PA and the outer boroughs of NYC. Not everybody fits Maine and Maine doesn't fit everybody ... but the kids that stick? They can hit. Look for another strong campaign in Orono, Maine.”
I see Maine as overrated. This “black hole” defense earned its reputation by playing 10 of the worst offensive teams in the nation last year. So, holding bad offenses down isn’t a Herculean task. They only played 4 good offenses last year (teams that averaged over 400 YPG in total offense). They averaged giving up 35 PPG in these four games. That’s one less 30 PPG than NDSU has given up in the last eight years. Also, on offense, taking away their blow out over JSU (55 points), Maine only averaged 24.3 PPG. That won’t get you to Frisco.
SDSU and U C Davis are tied at 4 in these two preseason polls. I will take U C Davis first. Athlon states “The Aggies so enjoyed their first appearance in the FCS playoffs last season that they’re eyeing a run even further than the quarterfinals. Senior quarterback Jake Maier, the 2018 Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year who passed for 3,931 yards and 34 touchdowns, is surrounded by a wealth of offensive talent, including running backs Ulonzo Gilliam and Tehran Thomas, wide receiver Jared Harrell, tight end Wesley Preece and four returning starters on the offensive line. Eddie Robinson Award-winning coach Dan Hawkins must restock a defense that features sophomore linebacker Montell Bland.” Hero gives the following for their 2019 prospects, ‘The Aggies are loaded coming off a heartbreaking loss in the quarterfinals. Offensively, U C Davis brings back almost its entire starting lineup outside of WR Keelan Doss and has a top FCS QB in Jake Maier under center. The defense has six starters back. The ascension of this program is impressive, and it should continue in 2019.”
I see U C Davis as where Eastern Washington was before last year. They played bad defense. For them to be a serious Frisco threat they will need to find a new gear on that side of the ball. But is that really going to happen for 2019? They lose half their starters and the coach was quoted as saying can anybody really play good defense now days? The answer to that is yes, the Bison have done it for 50+ years and especially the last eight.
How bad was Davis defense last year? They gave up 431.8 YPG in total defense. 185.3 of it was rushing YPG and they surrendered 27.8 PPG. All their defensive statistical averages were worse than their opponents averaged against all other teams. Putting it another way, U C Davis was a team you needed to play if you wanted to improve your offensive statistics. Let’s delve into this a little deeper. Against FBS and top 25 FCS Sagarin rated teams they gave up 464.5 YPG, 187.3 YPG in rushing and 33 PPG. The rushing totals are even worse when you consider San Jose State was the worst rushing team in the FBS (129th) and Stanford wasn’t much better at 122nd worst. In summary, I see U C Davis as the media darlings based on the offensive side of the ball ONLY. Until proven otherwise, that’s the wrong formula.
How about them Jackrabbits’? Hero says the following, “Finding a starting quarterback and filling some big holes in the secondary are key question marks for the Jackrabbits, but the talent returning is eye-opening with around 14 starters back on offense and defense. The weapons on offense are as good as it gets for the new QB, and the defense is anchored by All-American linebacker Christian Rozeboom.” Athlon predicts: “The Jackrabbits know what the next step is after reaching the quarterfinals in 2016 and the semis in the last two seasons. How they replace the best quarterback in school history (Taryn Christion) is their biggest question. Either redshirt freshman J’Bore Gibbs, junior Kanin Nelson or transfer Kurt Walding will be the answer. The running back duo of 2018 Missouri Valley Freshman of the Year Pierre Strong Jr. and Mikey Daniel should take some pressure off the new signal caller. There are few FCS players better at their positions than linebacker Christian Rozeboom (SDSU’s three-time tackle leader), wide receiver Cade Johnson and placekicker Chase Vinatieri (Adam’s nephew).”
My take, the Blue Bunnies won’t make the next step until they play better defense. The prognosticators are right in looking at who is going to replace Taryn, but whoever it is, the QB isn’t going to have to go out and carry the team by winning the game. They need a dual threat guy who manages the game and doesn’t lose games via bad decisions. SDSU is intriguing in that they had several young defensive linemen populate the depth chart last year. If they progress further and become “studs”, this will be an interesting year for them. It must pain Steigelmeier to see Tuszka, Waege and Costner Ching (all South Dakota boys) playing on our defensive line. As well as any team in FCS, SDSU has just reloaded after key losses of key players the last four years. They should be in the hunt again this year.
Now to JMU. Hero picks them number one in FCS and Athlon number two, behind the Bison. Hero says the following, “Picture this: A team shows flashes of brilliance, but also has some notable "valleys" and is upset by Colgate in the FCS playoffs. Then its coach is lured away by an FBS program, and his successor is another accomplished FCS head coach ... a guy who led a program into the postseason that doesn't routinely make the FCS Playoffs. Let's face it, the comparison of Mike Houston coming to a strong JMU program in 2016 from The Citadel and Curt Cignetti coming to a strong JMU program in 2019 from Elon is hard to ignore here. It feels like we've seen this show before, and we here at HERO Sports feel like the end result is going to be similar. We feel like JMU looks, on paper, like the best FCS team in the land. North Dakota State is in a rebuilding mode (cough cough, does NDSU really "rebuild"?) and JMU is loaded with talent.“ Athlon puts their season perspective in the following manner, “First-year head coach Curt Cignetti beat the Dukes while at Elon last season and then joined them, replacing Mike Houston, who departed for East Carolina. Cignetti inherits 19 returning starters and all the key specialists. They’re motivated following a second-round ouster in the playoffs. Former Pitt quarterback Ben DiNucci was good, not great, in his first season, but he’ll be protected by an offensive line that returns intact. Plus, the trio of wide receivers Riley Stapleton, Kyndel Dean and Jake Brown is strong. Cornerback Rashad Robinson, the 2018 CAA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, missed last season with a foot injury and rejoins linebacker Dmitri Holloway on an athletic defense.”
While it is true that JMU has a host of players back, their under performance last year needs a little deeper evaluation. This is especially true after last year’s exaggerated expectations by most of the noteworthy sports analysts covering the FCS. In fact, it got me into doing my Bison blog. JMU’s 2016 and 2017 teams were very good but going into 2018 they were losing the heart of those teams. In fact, offensively the 2017 team took a downturn from 2016. College Sports Madness picked JMU at number two behind the Bison. I am going to write a separate article on this premature coronation of the Dukes as being almost equal to the Herd in FCS football. They weren’t and aren’t at that level.
Let’s look under the hood to see some significant question marks coming into this season based on some important shortcomings off last year’s team. First and foremost, JMU, even with three above average RB’s (all seniors with over 2,000 career yards each), couldn’t run the ball effectively in key games. They had five games where they didn’t rush for 150 yards (NDSU HAD NONE). Against Elon, Villanova, Stonybrook, New Hampshire and Delaware they only got 103, 131, 103, 64- and 93-yards rushing. The yards per carry for these games were 2.6, 3.4, 2.5, 1.7 and 2. Putting this into perspective, this means they averaged 98.8 YPG rushing in these five games. These five opponents averaged giving up a 135.2 YPG against all other foes. 98.8 YPG would have ranked JMU as one of the worst running teams in the FCS (112th) and their 2.44 yards per carry would have ranked them at 120 out of 124 FCS teams last year. JMU only played 12 full games (they got a 17-0 win over a bad team in a hurricane/rain shortened one quarter game), so in five of the 12 games they couldn’t move the ball on the ground. Since the backs were good, this means the offensive line play was suspect. They were going to get all five starters back this year until one of them left the team this summer. Since this group wasn’t young and inexperienced and didn’t just develop over the season, this has to be a BIG question mark coming into 2019.
Another glaring weakness last year is they didn’t play well against the seven good opponents they faced that were either FBS or top 25 FCS in Sagarin. They had three wins and four losses. Gee that’s one more loss than Stick had in his four-year career. JMU feasted on bad teams to the tune of the average margin of victory being 54.4 to 9.6. Against the good teams they managed a scoring spread of 21.7 to 20.3. Looking closer at these games shows they weren’t as dominant on defense as they are billed to be. The seven opponents only produced 377.2 YPG in total offense against other teams (this would rank them 63rd in the FCS or very average on offense). JMU’s vaunted defense only slowed them down to 362.9 YPG. This means they played good defense against average offensive teams. JMU only played two good offenses all year (teams that generate more than 400 YPG in total offense). Against these two (N C State and Towson) they gave up 453.5 YPG. That’s not dominant defense.
In short, if the Dukes want to get back to Frisco, they are going to have to run the ball a lot better, while losing their entire backfield (that combined for over 7,000 yards rushing in their careers) and they have to play better defense against good teams.
In closing I want to mention two ranked, but sleeper teams according to my evaluation. Weber State and Illinois State.
Weber State knows how to play defense. They gave up a stingy 121.2 YPG rushing and 317.7 YPG in total defense. They were a work in progress last year. Their offense was breaking in a new young QB and a true freshman RB. As the year turned to November they were becoming very good. If they progress further, I think Weber is the dark horse in the Big Sky.
As for Illinois State, they woefully under performed in win/loss last year. They were not a 6-5 team. They yielded only 126.8 YPG in rushing, 309.8 YPG total defense and gave up only 20 PPG. All of these were top 15% of FCS play. They also averaged over 31 PPG on offense and return probably the best RB in FCS in James Robinson. If they solve the character issue, they are team that could repeat 2014.
Obviously, you could guess that my top choice for another FCS Crown is the Herd. In a few weeks I will post an in depth preview as to what I am basing this on. It is based on two premises. First, the team that plays the best defense has the best chance of winning it all. I think Code Green is primed for another stellar year. Second, you need to be able to dominate in the run game and that begins in the trenches. Let me tease you with this, our projected starting five lineman averages 312 pounds per player coming out of the spring game. Sprinkle in our bevy of backs and probably the fastest QB in school history and I am projecting them to being one of the best running games in the FCS.
I hope your by a dock, a beach or a lawn chair enjoying another summer.