FCS champion Sam Houston. North Dakota State. James Madison. South Dakota State.
Put their names in a hat, shake it all up, and see what order falls out for the fall season. It may be the best way to do it considering how close everything feels heading into the highly anticipated season, when all 128 FCS programs will be filling Saturdays once again.
It’s easy to make a strong case that any of the four will stand on the victory stage on Jan. 8 in Frisco, Texas, holding the national trophy up the way Sam Houston did during this year’s unprecedented spring season. Give extra credit to the Bearkats for beating those other three elite programs on the way to their first FCS title.
While Sam Houston is the team to beat this fall, the Athlon Preseason FCS Top 25 predicts a familiar postseason matchup will occur on Jan. 8 – James Madison vs. North Dakota State.
Here are the MVFC teams ranked in the Athlon Sports 2021 Preseason Top 25 with spring season record unless otherwise noted:
2. North Dakota State (7-3, 5-2 Missouri Valley)
What to Know: It says a lot about the Bison (eight FCS titles from 2011-15 and 2017-19) that a 7-3 record and exit in the national quarterfinals are disappointing. Head coach Matt Entz seeks improvement at quarterback from Cam Miller or Virginia Tech transfer Quincy Patterson (a tank at 6-3, 235), to help turn around a stunning minus-10 turnover margin. The offense again boasts wide receiver Christian Watson, who appears to be the top 2022 NFL Draft prospect in the FCS, and running backs Dominic Gonnella (495 yards, 2 TDs) and Hunter Luepke (458, 6) working behind veteran lineman Cordell Volson. A stout defense returns its leading tacklers in linebackers Jackson Hankey, James Kaczor, and Jasir Cox and strong safety Michael Tutsie.
3 Key Games: Oct. 2 at North Dakota; Oct. 9 vs. Northern Iowa; Nov. 6 at South Dakota State
4. South Dakota State (8-2, 5-1 Missouri Valley)
What to Know: Missouri Valley offensive player of the year Mark Gronowski (ACL injury) is not expected to play this season, meaning Samford grad transfer Chris Oladokun or sophomore Keaton Heide (who played most of the national championship game) will quarterback the FCS runner-up’s offense. Still, the Jackrabbits think run first with running backs Pierre Strong Jr. (2,841 career yards and 22 TDs on a 7.3-yard average) and Isaiah Davis (305 all-purpose yards and 3 TDs in the national championship game). The defense welcomes back its three first-team All-MVFC selections — tackle Caleb Sanders, linebacker Logan Backhaus, and cornerback Don Gardner. Head coach John Stiegelmeier’s squad will play at home against its strongest conference opponents (Southern Illinois, Northern Iowa, North Dakota State, and North Dakota).
3 Key Games: Sept. 3 at Colorado State; Nov. 6 vs. North Dakota State; Nov. 20 vs. North Dakota
7. North Dakota (5-2, 4-1 Missouri Valley)
What to Know: The Fighting Hawks won’t sneak up on anybody this time around after earning a share of the MVFC title in their first season in the premier FCS conference (handing South Dakota State its only regular-season loss). Running back Otis Weah (730 yards, 9 TDs) produces against any defense, opening room for quarterback Tommy Schuster and the other offensive weapons. Also returning is an outstanding defensive core, including leading tackler Devon Krzanowski at linebacker.
3 Key Games: Oct. 2 vs. North Dakota State; Oct. 16 at Southern Illinois; Nov. 20 at South Dakota State
9. Southern Illinois (6-4, 3-3 Missouri Valley)
What to Know: The Salukis ending North Dakota State’s FCS-record 39-game winning streak was just the start of a memorable spring season. Head coach Nick Hill signed a bunch of transfers to infuse into an already deep lineup. Quarterback Stone Labanowitz’s offensive weapons run deep with wide receivers Avante Cox (66 receptions) and Landon Lenoir (45) and running backs Javon Williams Jr., Romeir Elliott, and Justin Strong. With an interception and 14 pass breakups, cornerback James Ceasar seemed to have a hand on every pass.
3 Key Games: Sept. 2 at Southeast Missouri; Oct. 9 at South Dakota State; Oct. 16 vs. North Dakota
14. Northern Iowa (3-4, 3-4 Missouri Valley)
What to Know: Head coach Mark Farley’s 20th season may have been epic if 2020 hadn’t been turned upside down, the roster drained by key losses to grad transfers and NFL Draft training. The obstacle this season is a daunting road schedule (Iowa State, Illinois State, and Missouri State in addition to the three games below). Defensive tackle Jared Brinkman is the reigning MVFC Defensive Player of the Year, and 2019 tackle leader Bryce Flater returns from injury. An injury to quarterback Will McElvain helped limit the offense to two passing TDs in the spring.
3 Key Games: Sept. 11 at Sacramento State; Oct. 9 at North Dakota State; Oct. 23 at South Dakota State
25. Missouri State (5-5, 5-1 Missouri Valley)
What to Know: The surprising Bears earned a share of the MVFC title as well as the program’s first playoff appearance since 1990 in head coach Bobby Petrino’s first season. Defensive end Kevin Ellis and linebacker Tylar Wiltz get into backfields, and cornerback Montrae Braswell was first-team all-conference. Running back Kevon Latulas’ return from injury boosts an offense that had two different quarterbacks, Jaden Johnson and Matt Struck, throwing to wide receiver Damoriea Vick (42 receptions).
3 Key Games: Sept. 11 vs. Central Arkansas; Oct. 30 vs. North Dakota; Nov. 13 vs. Northern Iowa