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College Football Is Not Over: FCS Pre-Season Top Ten Plus Walter Payton Award Watch List

James Madison Dukes 2021 Football Hype – Go Dukes!

Yes, you read that correct, college football, is in fact, not over. The Football Bowl Subdivision, or the FCS as most people like to call it, will most likely be playing a spring season this year. Right now 100 teams from the FCS have agreed to a spring season, that will culminate with a April 18-May 15 championship game. 20 Teams have opted not to play. Mostly because the FCS also plans on having their normal schedule in the fall. With that being said, that means that some teams who opt to play in the spring will likely play 17-18 games over the course of 8-9 months. The FCS will also be missing it’s biggest star in the spring, as North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance has opted out to prepare for the NFL Draft. The Bison held a sort of one game showcase for him in the fall, and he looked underwhelming.

If the spring season does happen, it would basically replace the XFL that only lasted one year. However, with the timing and schedule a bit up in the air, here is what we do know about the 2021 FCS Spring Season:

  • The FCS Championship is usually culminated with an early January championship game. There will be a championship for the spring season, and it will take place some time between April 18-May 15. Instead of a field of 24 that usually make the post-season, only sixteen will make the post-season this year.
  • With the 16-team bracket, 11 teams will automatically qualify after winning their conference. On top of that 5 other teams will make the 16-team bracket as at-large bids.
  • Schools that opted to play games in the fall will have their results considered in the selection process for the spring championship field.

The obvious question surrounding this modified schedule is what teams and what conferences will be taking part. Here’s the latest spring season info from each conferences:

  • Big Sky: 12 Teams will play six conference games each, beginning on February 27.
  • Big South: Five teams will play four conference games each starting March 13th. Also of note, two teams from the Big South played at least one game in the fall.
  • CAA: Eleven teams will play six conference games each. The start date for the CAA is March 6th.
  • MEAC: This one is a bit of a mystery. The conference previously announced a start date of February 20th. However, since that announcement Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M have decided not to play.
  • Ivy: No Games Scheduled for the Spring..
  • MVFC: Eleven teams will play eight conference games each beginning on February 20th. Three teams have also played at least one game in the fall.
  • NEC: No Spring Schedule Yet.
  • OVC: Eight teams will play seven conference games each, beginning on February 21st. Four teams have also played at least one game in the fall.
  • Patriot League: No Spring Schedule Announced.
  • Pioneer League: No Spring Schedule Announced.
  • SoCon: Nine teams will play nine conference games each starting February 20th. Three teams have also played at least one game in the fall.
  • Southland: Seven teams will play six conference games each beginning February 20th. Four teams have also played at least one game in the fall.
  • SWAC: Ten teams will play six conference games each starting February 27th. The schedule also includes one non-conference open date for each team.
  • The last regular season games of the spring schedule, including conference championship games, must come no later than April 17th.
  • The sixteen team bracket will be announced on Sunday April 18th. The four rounds will be conducted each of the next four weekends, culminating with a National Championship Game on May 15h.
  • The National Championship game will take place in Frisco, Texas. Toyota Stadium in Frisco has been the host of the National Championship game since 2010, and will continue to do so until 2024.

Fourth & Long: Pre-Season FCS Power Rankings

  1. North Dakota State

Yes, North Dakota State is still the team to beat in the FCS. This spring, the Bison will be without quarterback Trey Lance, OT Dillon Radunz, and LB Jabril Cox, who could all be drafted in the first four rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft. Zeb Noland, the former Iowa State player, was supposed to be the starting quarterback, as he was groomed for the position as Lance’s back-up in 2019. However, Virginia Tech transfer Quincy Patterson could become eligible for the spring season, and then the quarterback position will be up for grabs. If the FCS Season was played in the Fall, we might be talking about this North Dakota State team being the best team in the history of the FCS, but without Lance and some others, they still have some question marks. Expect the Bison to end up in Frisco in May.

Toughest Game: April 3rd vs South Dakota State – One of the most underrated rivalries in college football, these two teams always play a tight game. This spring the game will take place in the FargoDome, so you can expect this to be a loud one.

2. Weber State

While a lot of teams were hurt by transfers and players declaring for the Draft, Weber State came out of that period as huge winners, as they’re roster is mostly intact. They did lost quarterback Jake Constantine, but many around the program agree that it’s not a huge loss. He was never a top-level threat to top teams like NDSU and James Madison. Luckily the Wildcats landed a big time FBS transfer in 6-foot-5 quarterback Randall Johnson. He played at Middle Tennessee State in 2019 and was in JuCo ball in 2018.

The Wildcats are coming off of two quarter-final appearances and one semi-final appearance in 2019. Is Johnson the final piece that the Wildcats had been missing the last few years? The offensive line returns four of five starters this spring, along with about 80% of their tackling from a defense that was one of the best in the country a year ago.

Toughest Game: Hosting (7) Montana State On March 6th – This game pits two strong defenses against one another. Montana State will bring it’s potent ground attack led by Isaiah Ifanse, while the Wildcats will try and get things going through the air with Johnson.

3. Montana

The Grizzlies were planning on having the best wide receiver duo in the country, in play-makers Samori Toure and Samuel Akem. However, Toure entered the transfer portal. Other than that, the Grizzlies have a roster that steered clear of the transfer for the most part. Montana had three players named to the pre-season All-American team in the fall. Linebacker Jace Lewis, defensive back Robby Hauck, and running back Marcus Knight are all key contributors to the Grizzlies success. The biggest question mark facing the Griz, is replacing quarterback Dalton Sneed. Redshirt senior Cam Humphrey is the expected starter, but he will pushed throughout the year by younger talent.

Toughest Game: Hosting (7) Montana State On March 27th – Montana have struggled of late against their in-state rivals. They just don’t match up well with the Bobcats explosive ground attack. However, Montana was ahead of schedule last year, so they have the talent needed. Will it be enough to stop the Bobcats?

4. South Dakota State

The Jackrabbits suffered a major loss for the season when wide receiver Cade Johnson decided to forgo the spring season to prepare for the NFL Draft. Johnson was easily the best wide receiver in the FCS, and it will impact a young quarterback like J’Bore Gibbs. However, the Jackrabbits also have on the best running backs in all of the FCS in the explosive Pierre Strong Jr. The Jacks also return four of five starting linemen from a year ago. Over that past couple of years, the Jackrabbits have closed the gap between them and the Bison from North Dakota State. This South Dakota State team is a complete team, so after some heart-breaking losses to the Bison, is this the year the Jacks get over the hump?

Toughest Game: At North Dakota State on April 3rd – We just got done talking about if this was the year that the Jacks could topple the Bison, however that doesn’t necessarily mean that has to be in the regular season. The Jacks will have a tough time in the Fargo Dome in the regular season, but these two often see each other in the post-season and that is where the Jacks want to stick it to the Bison.

5. James Madison

James Madison has been the only team that can stay with the Bison of North Dakota State recently. Since 2015 the Dukes have reached the title game three times, losing to North Dakota State in 2018 and 2020, while taking home the championship in 2017 over Youngstown State. With that being said, the Dukes could have a challenging season ahead of them. They lost an incredibly talented group of seniors last year. They lost their quarterback, Ben DiNucci, plus their top three pass catchers. On top of that, defensive standouts DL Adeeb Atariwa and defensive back D’Angelo Amos transfered to Virginia for the 2020 season.

However, the Dukes have a great ground attack returning. They return about 85% of their rushing yards from last year, along with three returning linemen. The Dukes brought in the nation’s second ranked recruiting class in 2017 and the number five class in 2018, so the talent is there, but can the Dukes overcome their roster exodus to be a threat for the national title?

Toughest Game: At Elon on March 6th – Elon has not beaten the Dukes since 2018, when current Dukes head coach Curt Cignetti was roaming the sidelines for the Phoenix. That win for Cignetti ended the Dukes 22-game CAA winning streak. Cignetti took over James Madison the next year, and handed the Phoenix a tough loss 45-10 in 2019. The Phoenix would probably like revenge. With roster as mysterious as any, is this the year the Dukes fall again to Elon?

6. Villanova

Villanova also lost a slew of All-Americans to the transfer portal before the spring season. On top of that, offensive lineman Paul Grattan transferred to UCLA and wide receiver Changa Hodge transferred to Virginia Tech. However, head coach Mark Ferrante better get his guys ready to play, or this might be his last year in Philadelphia. Since taking over the Villanova football program, Ferrante has a combined record of 19-16 and has made the playoffs only once, in 2019.

The Wildcats started out the 2019 season 6-0, however injuries crushed the Wildcats late in the season, culminating with a first round playoff loss. Signal caller Daniel Smith returns after a strong 2019 season where he threw for 3,274 yards. The Wildcats also return almost all of their rushing attack from last year. That includes Justin Covington, who led the FCS in rushing in 2019 before tearting his ACL. The offensive line returns four starters and the defense returns 74% of their tackling from a year ago.

Toughest Game: At Maine on April 3rd – Villanova got lucky this spring and won’t have to take on the Dukes from James Madison. However, Maine is another tough gritty team that will give everything to beat the Wildcats. These two teams play every year, and Villanova has dominated the head to head recently winning 5 of 6 since 2014. However, the Black Bears are a hard-nosed team, and if Daneil Smith doesn’t get it going early, the Wildcats could be in for a long afternoon.

7. Montana State

The Montana State and Montana argument is a bit tricky. Montana State matches up incredibly well with the Grizzlies. However, the Grizzlies have a roster that is more built for a playoff run. That doesn’t mean that the Bobcats can’t make a run as well. The Bobcats rushing attack is very explosive, led by tailback Isaiah Ifanse. However, the passing game is the biggest question mark for the Bobcats. North Dakota State transfer Matt McKay is in the mix to start at quarterback. On defense, head coach Jeff Choate will once again roll out a dominant defense in the spring. However, they did lose about half of their tackling from last year. With all that being said, Montana State can’t be considered a championship contender until their passing game catches up with the running attack and defense.

Toughest Game: At Montana March 27th – We pretty much covered thisin the Montana preview. I expect the Bobcats to beat the Griz when they play on March 27th, but if they are to meet in the playoffs this year, the Griz have the team better suited for a deep playoff run.

8. Kennesaw State

The Owls made the post-season in 2019 with a spotty resume. However, they ended up earning some respect across the country after beating Wofford in South Carolina in the first round, then giving a scare to eventual semi-finalist Weber State who pulled out a late victory 26-20, to send the Owls packing. Jonathan Murphy, sophomore quarterback, surprised some people in 2019. He ran for 206 yards and three touchdowns vs Wofford, then put up a 116 rushing yards and one touchdown versus Weber State. He is back with an offensive line that is mostly intact from last year. They also return 74% of their tackling from a year ago.

Toughest Game: At Gardner-Webb on March 27th – Yes Murphy had a great two game post-season run. However, this will be his first true road game in the regular season. How will he react and play in a game away from home. However, Gardner-Webb returns a slew of all-conference players from 2019, so traveling to take on the Bulldogs will be no easy task.

9. North Carolina A&T

Well, the Aggies have already clinched their spot in the 2021 Spring playoff bracket. They were the MEAC champions, who usually play in the Celebration Bowl, gets an auto-bid into the 2021 playoff bracket. With Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman opting not to play in the spring, the Aggies are the clear favorite in the MEAC. However, don’t be fooled, this Aggie team is the real deal. They have one of the top FCS running backs in the country in redshirt senior Jah-Maine Martin. North Carolina A&T also return four of their best defensive players from a year ago.

Toughest Game: At North Carolina Central on April 3rd – The only conference games that the Aggies will play are against North Carolina Central and South Carolina State, home and away. South Carolina has been tough for the Aggies that last couple of years. However, the Aggies are a favorite in this conference for a reason.

10. Northern Iowa

Northern Iowa wasn’t just crushed with players leaving, they were straight up gutted. Tight end Briley Moore played at Kansas State in 2020. Linebacker Chris Kolarevic is transferring to Nebraska to play the fall 2021 season, and defensive back Xavior Williams is doing the same at Iowa. On top of that offensive lineman Spencer Brown and defensive end Elerson G. Smith opted out of the season to prepare for the NFL Draft. With all of that being said, the Panthers do return some good starters. Will McElvain is back under center for the Panthers, along with one of the best receivers in the FCS, Isaiah Weston. They also return three starters from their offensive line. The defense will be led by defensive lineman Jared Brinkman and linebacker Bryce Flater.

Toughest Game: Hosting South Dakota State on April 17th – The Panthers do play North Dakota State the week before this game, but this game will be more important, as it could decide the playoff fates of the Panthers and the Jackrabbits. This could end up deciding who gets a bid, South Dakota State or Northern Iowa? If Northern Iowa can make the playoffs, with such a beaten down roster, then give head coach Mark Farley the Coach of the Year right now.

Walter Payton Watch List (Essentially the Heisman of the FCS)

  1. Cade Johnson, WR, South Dakota State: Johnson is hands-down the best receiver in the FCS. He is essentially the FCS version of Devonta Smith from Alabama. He runs great routes with precise cuts, and he physical enough in the air to bring down any catch. The only knock on JOhnson is his 5’10 frame and he doesn’t really have the top end speed teams look for in receivers under 6 foot.
  2. Jah-Maine Martin, RB, North Carolina A&T: Martin is one of the best backs in the country. Standing at 5-feet-nine-inches, he has a small frame, but has a physical running style. He is not only great on the ground, but he is also a threat in the passing game. Again, the only knock on Martin is his speed. He ran an official 4.54 40-time last spring.
  3. Daniel Smith, QB, Villanova: Smith threw for over 3,600 yards last year, and looks to keep the numbers piling up this season. He won’t have wide receiver Changa Hodge to look for when he gets into trouble. While Smith’s ceiling may be the highest of any player in the FCS, but his basement could be much lower as well.

Names to Watch: Pierre Strong Jr., RB, South Dakota State – Troy Andersen, LB, Montana State – Bailey Zappe, QB, Houston Baptist – Caylin Newton, QB, Howard – Zerrick Cooper, QB, Jacksonville State

Well there you have it! Now everyone is ready for some more college football. Jake and I will be covering the FCS weekly on the Fourth & Long Podcast, so make sure to tune in, or download on any of your favorite apps like Spotify, iHeartRadio, and Apple Music. Instead of the XFL this spring, we get more college football, what a surprise!

Follow Me on Twitter: @BrownlojCLE

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