Yesterday, we posted a Savvy Index list of FCS teams ranked from 31st to 128th.
Today, we are taking a look at the top 30 FCS teams and discussing in more detail the top 20. Some of these projections will change as teams begin practice and we gain additional information.
1. North Dakota State
The Bison were 16-0 and won their third straight national title in 2019. With 15 returning starters, NDSU is favored to win it all again. NFL-ready quarterback Trey Lance returns after passing 287 times in 2019 and not throwing a single interception. He also rushed for 1100 yards. Senior running backs Ty Brooks and Adam Cofield each rushed for over 800 yards and 15 of 16 pass catchers are back. Safeties Michael Tutsie and James Hendrix return with 12 interceptions but the defense will have to replace All American linebacker Jabril Cox who transferred to LSU. Even so, the Bison have linenacker Jackson Hankey back and he led the team in tackles (127). NDSU has a challenging schedule that begins with nationally ranked Oregon of the FBS and is followed by four ranked FCS opponents. But, the Bison have been 137-13 from 2010 to 2019 and have been so thoroughly dominating that it would be surprising if they didn’t win it all again.
2. James Madison
The Dukes must replace starting quarterback Ben DiNucci and half of their starting roster but Percy Agyei-Obese and Jawon Hamilton should each rush for more than 900 yards. All three leading receivers graduated and that takes 2300 receiving yards off the table but there are five others who had at least 100 receiving yards. Two outstanding defensive linemen return to lead a high-pressure defense that finished in the top 15 for both sacks and tackles for loss. However, it will be tough to replace Dimitri Holloway, Rondell Carter, and John Daka who combined for 258 tackles, 65.5 tackles for loss and 30.5 sacks. JMU has played for the national championship in three of the past four years but seems less likely to get there this year. Despite being ranked second nationally, Savvy is projecting a 12-win season.
3. Kennesaw State
KSU won 11 games for the second year in a row and with a favorable schedule, should be able to do it again in 2020. The Owls’ triple-option led the nation in rushing with 342 yards per game at a 6.3 ypc clip. Although quarterbacks Daniel David and Tommy Bryan each ran for over 450 yards, neither could complete more than 53% of their passes. At the same time, they only passed 7.5 times per game so it might not matter. As is common with many triple option teams, the yardage per completion was very high (21.4). Linebacker Bryson Armstrong returns after posting 95 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 12 tackles for loss to earn All Big South honors. nation. and most of the playmakers return to a defense that held opponents to 18.7 ppg. This looks like a good year for KSU to finally get to the national championship.
4. Montana State
In 2017, the Bobcats won just five games. The wins increased to eight in 2018 and 11 last year. Now, MSU believes it is a legitimate challenger to North Dakota State for the national championship. The ‘Cats have plenty of offensive firepower with Isaiah Ifanse returning with over 1000 yards on the ground despite not being the featured running back. Tucker Rovig is considered by many to be the heir-apparent at starting qb but our Savvy-metrics point to North Carolina State transfer Matt McKay. In either case, Montana State has an enviable quarterback situation. Both top receivers graduated but the returning group is deep and capable. Troy Anderson was a quadruple threat as he threw passes, ran the ball, caught the ball, and had 6.5 sacks on the defensive side. Montana State plays at Utah, then has four FCS opponents that should make it to the rankings, so the schedule won’t be easy. This team should win the Big Sky and make a deep run in the playoff. Savvy is projecting a 12-win season.
5. South Dakota State
Many analysts see SDSU taking a minor drop this because of the graduation of All American linebackerseason Christian Rozeboom who had 111 tackles. However, there is still a good lineup of linebackers with the return of Seven Wilson and Logan Backhaus who combined for 162 tackles and 10 tackles for loss. Also back is defensive end Reece Winkelman who came up with 6.5 sacks. The Jackrabbit defense was seventh in the nation for fewest yards allowed and tied national champion North Dakota State with 4.53 yards per play. SDSU was in the top 20 for sacking quarterbacks and sixth in the nation for intercepting passes. On the offensive side, the Jackrabbits return Pierre Strong Jr. (1018 yards) at running back along with all 13 others who carried the ball. Cade Johnson (1222 yards) is back to lead all 13 receivers who caught passes in 2019. In all, 15 starters are returning including nine on defense. Uptrends are strong for this team and Savvy Index sees it as a national title contender — except — the Jackrabbits are in the conference that has annual national champion favorite North Dakota State. Those two will likely decide the Missouri Valley Conference and probably much more when they play each other on September 29th.
6. North Carolina A & T
Although A&T has been conference champions in two seasons, the trends during those years have been negative. There is too much talent to drop the Aggies far, but a repeat conference title is in jeopardy because co-Conference champ South Carolina State was young last year and Florida A&M is rising fast. This is the last season A&T can win the MEAC because it is moving to the Big South in 2021. Jalen Fowler is penciled in as the replacement at quarterback but the play of the 6’2”, 231 pound dual threat doesn’t seem to have garnered much trust among the coaches. Workhorse running back Jah-Maine Martin will carry the offensive load after rushing for 1446 yards at a whopping 7.7 ypc. This defense was #7 in FCS for getting to quarterbacks led by defensive linemen Jermaine McDaniel and Devin Harrell who combined for 23 sacks. The Aggies play a polite schedule that is conducive to 10 wins but not a lengthy playoff run.
7. Central Connecticut State
CCSU was undefeated in Northeast Conference play. Quarterback Aaron Winchester will be a big loss at the quarterback position after he graduated as the top passer in the conference as well as the sixth best rusher. Two experienced ball carriers return as well as six of the top seven receivers. CCSU had the fifth-best defense in FCS and the second-best at coming up with interceptions. Linebacker Foday Jalloh had 76 tackles as a freshman and cornerback Dexter Lawson led the conference with six interceptions. Senior linebacker Tre Jones was fourth in the Conference in both tackles for loss and sacks. This may be the toughest defense in all of FBS in 2020. The schedule is weak enough that CCSU may reach 11 wins again in 2020. Until it is shown that there is a competent replacement for Winchester, Savvy projections stop at 10 wins.
Former Heisman quarterback candidate Timm Rosenbach didn’t need long as offensive coordinator to ignite Montana’s offense. But then, Rosenbach is acknowledged by many as somewhat of an offensive genius. Five years ago, Rosenbach head coached Adams State to a 52-51 win after trailing 42-6. There is plenty of talent on the Montana roster despite the graduation of dual threat quarterback Dalton Sneed. His back up, Cam Humphrey, played in 10 games, completed more than 60% of his passes and had a much better than average interception ratio (1.9%). Marcus Knight returns at running back after rushing for more than 1000 yards and 25 touchdowns as a freshman. Seven receivers caught over 150 yards of passes and five of those return. The defensive front is still a concern but two, 100-tackle back-enders return. The Grizzlies will miss graduated linebacker Dante Olson who led the nation in tackles. It’s not a fluke that Montana went from six wins to 10 and it won’t be a fluke if the Griz get to 12 in 2020. For now, Savvy is saying 11.
9. Weber State
WSU won 21 games in the past two seasons and 2020 was looking to be just as good. Then, two-year starting quarterback Jake Constantine transferred — again. Constantine was previously at Boise State and before that at Ventura College. At Weber State, he threw for more than 4000 yards at a 63% completion rate but too many interceptions. Kaden Jenks should excel as Constantine’s replacement. Josh Davis returns as the feature back for WSU after he rushed for more than 1100 yards at a 6.2 ypc clip. Fourteen Wildcats caught passes in 2019 and all of them return including Devon Cooley and David Ames who combined for 114 receptions and nearly 1400 yards. The defensive secondary will be led by corners Ja’Kobe Harris and Eddie Heckard who each had three interceptions. Linebackers Connor Mortonson and Noah Vaea each had more than 100 tackles and defensive end George Tarlas had nine sacks. Many experts see Weber State as a title contender. Savvy Index says that while the defense will be in the top 15, a lackluster offense will keep lmit this team to 9.5 wins.
10. Nicholls State
NSU was 9-5 last season but two of those losses came against FBS teams (Kansas State and Texas State) and another against perennial FCS national champion North Dakota State. In 2020, Nicholls only plays one FBS opponent –- national champion LSU. That game will be an interesting homecoming for the Colonels’ starting quarterback Lindsey Scott Jr. who started his college career with the Tigers before transfering to the Missouri Tigers before transfering to NSU. Julien Gums (1232 yards) returns at running back but the next three ball carriers all graduated so depth is a concern. Leading receiver Dai’Jean Dixon (1044 yards) is back. Expect the Colonels to emphasize its strong rushing attack. An average passing game won’t get better until the offensive line does. A strong set of defensive backs return after eight of them intercepted passes. Nichols held mighty North Dakota State to just 55 yards in a playoff loss. Savvy projects nine wins for the third straight season.
11. Austin Peay
Controversial head coach Mark Hudspeth took over at APU last season and led the program to its first 11 win season plus two wins in the playoffs. He did it with a stifling rush defense that posted 54 tackles for loss and held opponents to an average of fewer than one rushing touchdown per game. That group is led by defensive tackle Josephus Smith who had 18.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. Kordell Jackson returns to the secondary after coming away with seven interceptions last year. The Governors have a decent passing attack but must get better efficiency from quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall. Receivers and the offensive line look strong but three of the top four running backs graduated. Coach Hudspeth has had multiple brushes with NCAA violations so it’s uncertain how long he’ll be here. but for now, Savvy Index sees this team losing its first two before winning eight straight. Expect an additional win in the playoffs.
12. Sacramento State
After winning just two games in 2018, the Hornets burst onto the national scene last season with nine wins. And, there’s plenty of talent returning to think they can do it again. Although Big Sky offensive player of the year Kevin Thomson just transferred to Washington, the list of quarterbacks is deep, talented, and won’t throw as many passes to opponents. Sophomre Jake Dunniway is the early favorite. Running back Elijah Dotson returns with 742 yards. All 15 Hornets who caught passes are back. Fifteen experienced defensive linemen return to one of the strongest fronts in FCS. The Hornet defense was fourth in the nation for getting to quarterbacks. Although 56% of the sack producers graduated, linebacker Marcus Hawkins returns and is expected to get 10 or more sacks. Daron Bland returns to the secondary but graduations have raised concerns for depth. The Hornets open the season at San Diego State, then travel to Seattle to play the Huskies. After that, there is every reason to believe this team will reel off 9 straight regular season wins and add two more in the postseason.
Despite rushing 610 times, Wofford only had four fumbles in 2019. All three running backs return to a tricky triple-option offense that finished third in FCS for rushing. The Wofford defense was good enough to finish in the top 40 for fewest yards allowed per play but there is concern this year that pass coverage ore yards per play (5.55) than Wofford. Four of the top six coverage guys graduated so there is concern for pass coverage in 2020. Last year, this team intercepted passes at about half the national rate and now, four of those six interceptors are gone. Wofford regressed to eight wins last year. Savvy is projecting another eight wins this year.
14. Southeast Missouri State
After four straight losing seasons, coach Tom Matukewicz finally built a winner and posted back-to-back nine win seasons. Daniel Santacatarina must be replaced at quarterback but all three of the top rushers and three of the four top receivers are back. Returning at linebacker are Zach Hall and Justin Swift who combined for 216 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, and 5.5 sacks for a defense that should be near the top 20. The Redhawks will struggle in their FBS cross-over game at Mississippi before battling a tough Ohio Valley Conference. Savvy projects this as an eight win team.
15. Sam Houston State
Only North Dakota State had more wins in the 2010’s than SHSU. Future Hall of Fame coach K.C. Keeler has a national championship ring and he has averaged an incredible nine wins per season over 26 campaigns. Last year, he used a two quarterback system to get to the playoffs. Both qbs return but Savvy projections indicate that Eric Schmid will get most of the reps and Ty Brock will take a step back. Both must improve passing accuracy. SHSU’s entire running back corps returns led by junior Donovan Williams who will surpass 1000 925 yards. Three of the top four receivers are back and it seems likely this will again be a top Southland Conference offense. The Bearkat defense held opponents to under 19 ppg and should be even better in 2020 as the Bearkats return one of the strongest defensive lines in the nation. The back end looks excellent with the return of defensive backs Zyon and Tristin McCollum. With no FBS opponents and the Southland Conference appearing to be mediocre, SDSU should rise to nine wins in the regular season.
16. Southeastern Louisiana
Uptrends for this team on Savvy Index are among the best in FCS. Not only did the Lions double their wins in 2019 but they came within two possessions of upsetting Mississippi of the SEC. Quarterback Chason Virgil was third in the nation for passing yardage but he graduated. In his place will be 6’7”, 260 pound Cole Kelley who is expected to be a star. Besides plenty of passing experience already, Kelley has 347 yards rushing. Apparently, defensive backs are reluctant to tackle him. The Lions have five running backs with experience along with their three top receivers. Southeastern averaged 354 yards per game passing which was second best in FCS. Ferlando Jordan leads this potential top 20 defense afer intercepting five passes and returning them for 255 yards— or —- a mere 51 yards per return. Senior Alexis Ramos will be the linchpin of the linebackers after he had 80 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, and five sacks while defensive lineman Josh Carr Jr. returns with 14.5 sacks. Watch for this team as a threat to upset FBS Tulane in the season opener enroute to 10 wins.
Monmouth won 11 games, the Big South Conference, and a trip to the national playoff yet you won’t find the Hawks in most preseason rankings. Why? For starters, qb Kenji Bahar graduated after passing for more than 3600 yards and FCS’ top running back Pete Guerriero has taken his 1995 (6.7 ypc) to the pros. That leaves coach Kevin Callahan, the only head football coach Monmouth has ever had, with a pretty sparse set of skill players. No other quarterback on the roster passed more than eight times and no other running back came with 70% of Guerriero’s yards. But Monmouth believes that Brandon Harris is ready to take over at quarterback and breakaway speedster Lonnie Moore IV is ready to explode onto the scene. Anthony Budd will star in the secondary but the Hawks need to find two more coverage guys. This team should win eight, reach the rankings, and depart early from the playoff.
18. Central Arkansas
The Bears begin their 100th season of college football with the eyes set on another round two playoff spot. However, the jury is still out on whether Nathan Brown is the coach who can lead this program back to the glory years of repeated national titles. What is certain is that CAU will continue its quick-pass offense that helped Breylin Smith sling nearly 500 passes and get 32 of them in the end zone. His average distance was a mere 7.6 yards but his completion rate ws over 64%. For this team to take the nex step, Smith must cut his 3.3% interception rate. However, much of his interception problem originated in an offensive line that ranked 93rd in the nation for giving up sacks and 78th for tackles in the backfield. Leading rusher Carlos Blackman is gone but there are plenty of experienced receivers returning. Defensive Back Robert Rochell had six interceptions but he needs help if the Bears are going to stop opponents from getting nearly 12 yards per completion. With a tough schedule, Savvy sees CAU as an eight win team.
19. Jacksonville State
JSU will likely exceed its total of six wins but Savvy Index doesn’t see this team progressing far in the national playoff. The Gamecock defense has regressed to being about average over all which might be good enough to contend for the Ohio Valley Conference championship but certanly not the national. Zerrick Cooper returns at quarterback. Cooper led the team in passing (28 tds) and was second in rushing with 320 yards. Michael Matthews (585) yards) returns to lead a group of running backs that might not be exciting, but there certainly are plenty of them. Five of the top seven receivers graduated taking with them 2481 yards. JSU was 29th in total offense. Savvy Index sees that dropping into the 40’s. Zack Woodard had 96 tackls whild D.J. Coleman came up with five sacks. This defense finished near the bottom in covering passes partially because it struggled to get to quarterbacks. Despite two years of slightly declining metrics, Savvy still sees this team getting to seven wins.
20. Illinois State
Illinois State rebounded in 2019 after three disappointing seasons. The Redbirds are led by Memphis transfer qb Brady Davis who has elected to return for a sixth year. ISU had difficulty passing last season (49% completions; under seven ypa) but should do better now that the receiving corps isn’t extraordinarily young. All American running back James Robinson (1977 yards) is gone which saps an offense that was already anemic. But, the Redbirds have one of the best defenses in FCS after holding opponents to 16 ppg and holding mighty North Dakota State under 10 points in the 2019 quarterfinals. Although many experts project ISU as a top ten team, Savvy-metrics point to seven wins and an on-again, off-again relationship with the rankings.
Here is the full list of top 30 FCS teams . . .
|FCS preseason 2020|
|program total||2020 preseason ranking||projected wins||wins in 2019|
|134.2||1||N Dakota St.||15||16|
|95.6||5||S Dakota St.||10||8|
|95.3||6||N Carolina A&T||10||9|
|95.3||7||C Conn St.||10||11|
|90.7||14||SE Missouri St.||8||9|
|90.6||15||Sam Houston St.||9||7|
|88.0||24||S Carolina St||9||8|