Storylines and Things to Watch for the FCS Spring Season

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistFebruary 26, 2021

Storylines and Things to Watch for the FCS Spring Season

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    Now that you've caught your breath after Alabama toppled Ohio State for the national championship just a few weeks back, we hope you've caught your second wind.

    It's time for college football again.

    And, no, we're not talking about spring practice. This is the real deal.

    While FBS programs across the country are getting ready to kick things back into gear for the 15-practice spring session and on the heels of recruiting season ending with national signing day, the FCS is about to start an unprecedented spring season.

    This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the "little brothers" to be in the spotlight. If you love the sport, you're going to really enjoy watching some quality football teams suit up and take action. But you probably don't know as much about it, right?

    That's why you need a study guide for the FCS season.

North Dakota State's Dominating Defense

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    Oh, so you've got Bama fatigue, huh? The FCS doesn't want to hear about it. 

    There's no question fans of the other level of Division I football are sick and tired of North Dakota State. If you want to hear about a dynasty, try this on for size: The Bison have won 39 consecutive games, haven't lost since 2017 and have claimed eight of the past nine national championships.

    Call it Bison Boredom.

    The top-ranked team is the far-and-away favorite to win it again this season.

    Trey Lance's departure for the NFL draft leaves head coach Matt Entz with Iowa State transfer Zeb Noland, who so far hasn't exactly looked like the exciting playmaker Lance was. The cupboard isn't bare in Fargo, though. Noland is plenty capable, and he has some great players around him.

    Receiver Christian Watson is one of the top playmakers at every level, and linebackers Jackson Hankey and James Kaczor could contend for the Buck Buchanan Award, which goes to the top defensive player in FCS.

    This team is deep and talented, and games against Missouri Valley Football Conference powerhouses South Dakota State (April 3) and Northern Iowa (April 10) will be huge tests. They already dispatched then-No. 11 Central Arkansas, but that came back in the fall, when Lance was still around.

Who Are the Capable Contenders?

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    Sam Hodde/Associated Press

    Now that we've discussed the favorite, it's time to talk about who, if anybody, can topple the Bison.

    Perhaps the top contender would be the James Madison Dukes, who have won a pair of national championships under former coaches Mickey Matthews (2004) and Mike Houston (2016). The latter is now the head coach at East Carolina.

    A strong running game, spearheaded by Percy Agyei-Obese and Jawon Hamilton, will lead the way for head coach Curt Cignetti, a one-time Alabama assistant who spent several years in FBS football.

    A pair of Missouri Valley Conference foes whom North Dakota State will play are in the mix, too. That would be perennial contender Northern Iowa and the new upstart, offensive-minded South Dakota State. Southern Conference powerhouses Furman and Wofford will have a say-so, as will Big Sky champs Weber State.

    Villanova and its explosive quarterback, Daniel Smith, could pose a problem, and though Big South program Kennesaw State only joined the FCS in 2015, this could be its season. Others like Eastern Washington, Sam Houston and Illinois State deserve some consideration, too.

    North Dakota State certainly has the upper hand, but there are a lot of things that can happen, and plenty of teams have the firepower to compete.

Prime Time Football

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    No FCS program will have as much hype surrounding it as the Jackson State Tigers, and that's because of the famous name roaming the sideline.

    In 2020, Deion Sanders took the head coaching job at the SWAC program, which has been down for the past few years and is coming off a 4-8 season. Prime Time knows how to make headlines, and he did just that during recruiting when 4-star JUCO recruit De'Jahn Warren chose the HBCU program over Georgia.

    Sanders also has his son, Shedeur, coming in next year, but the Tigers want to win now. They got off to a good start on opening weekend, dispatching NAIA program Edward Waters by a score of 53-0. 

    The Tigers have some playmakers, like running back Kymani Clarke and receiver Warren Newman. And though Sanders hasn't proved himself as a coach just yet, he knows how to relate to players, and athletes are gravitating toward him and the program. It could be a fun rebound year.

What a Real College Football Playoff Looks Like

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    Sam Hodde/Associated Press

    Every year, you hear the same ol' refrain that the FBS should expand the College Football Playoff.

    While there are plenty of noteworthy pros and cons to doing so, one thing cannot be argued is it would make for a fun, exciting few weeks of do-or-die football.

    Everybody's going to get to see just what it looks like this spring.

    For years, the FCS has rolled out a 24-team playoff at the end of the season that features tons of excitement, though the detractors would tell you North Dakota State's dominance proves the best team is always going to win out, no matter how many games are played.

    Because of COVID-19, the FCS playoffs will be reduced to 16 teams, but that's still an additional two weeks of football compared to FBS' four-team playoff. Ten conference champions will earn automatic berths, and there will be six at-large bids.

    The conferences with the autos are: Big Sky, Big South, Colonial Athletic Association, Missouri Valley Football Conference, Northeast Conference, Ohio Valley Conference, Patriot League, Pioneer Football League, Southern Conference and Southland Conference.

    It's going to have even more drama this year, especially with so few at-large bids up for grabs. There is even some realignment action happening, too.

    "It's going to be really difficult to determine because with the unlevel playing field in terms of games being played, we're going to have to look at the team completely with all the criteria that we do have," FCS committee chair Kyle Moats told NCAA.com's Anthony Chiusano.

    No matter what side you're on in expanding the FBS playoff argument, you should tune in this spring and pay attention to see if all the "worthy" teams make the field. It could give everybody an indicator of how the drama would play out on the bigger stage.

Oh, Cody O.

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    If you're looking for familiar names so you'll have some rooting interests, you may come across McNeese State quarterback Cody Orgeron.

    Yes, that's LSU coach Ed Orgeron's son, and the younger Orgeron can play some quality football. He is a senior dual-threat quarterback who is making a name for himself in the sport despite being undersized at 6'1", 184 pounds.

    McNeese State was once an FCS power, and it is trying to regain its form with Orgeron at the helm. After a strong season in which he accounted for 2,628 passing yards, 482 rushing yards and 27 total touchdowns, he's off to an exceptional start this year.

    In a comeback season-opening win over Tarleton State, Orgeron led his team back from a 31-17 fourth-quarter hole to score two late touchdowns and force the game into overtime. They ultimately won 40-37.

    Orgeron is a fiery competitor who can make important plays with the game on the line. The Cowboys may be a fun team to follow this season after a huge opening win.

Can an FBS Coach Lose His Job Playing an FCS Season?

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    Sam Craft/Associated Press

    It's been nearly a year-and-a-half since New Mexico State played football, and after being one of the few FBS programs to opt out of the fall season, the Aggies decided to play an FCS season instead.

    The experiment got off to an awful start.

    That same Tarleton State team that lost to McNeese State in double overtime traveled to Las Cruces and destroyed the Aggies 43-17. It was ugly and thorough, and it was not a good look for head coach Doug Martin.

    In seven seasons with the Aggies, Coach Martin has had one winning campaign and never another year with a record better than 3-9.

    "It's been a long time. I mean, it showed," Martin told KRQE's Jared Chester. "You know, we did things tonight that we haven't been doing in practice at all, as far as making mistakes and mental and physical errors, but yeah getting back on the field is the main thing and we just have to improve now. Again, I am just grateful we have these games to knock all of this off of us before we get to next fall."

    It was very bad football, and it's tough to explain away.

    There are plenty of excuses in this unprecedented year, and they are all warranted. But Martin has to be treading on thin ice anyway, with his record the past few years. If the Aggies get manhandled in the FCS, it's going to be a tough sell to keep the coach.

    Maybe playing this spring was a good idea for the Aggies football players, but Martin needs to turn things around, or he may be looking for another job.

Walter Payton Award Favorites

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    Tyler Evert/Associated Press

    With Trey Lance gone to the NFL, the defending Walter Payton Award winner leaves a wide-open race for FCS' equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.

    There are plenty of quality candidates.

    Two finalists return from a season ago in Villanova signal-caller Daniel Smith and Eastern Washington's Eric Barriere. The latter is the FCS's leading returner in total offense, and he could be a star in the making. Smith, meanwhile, threw 48 touchdown tosses a season ago.

    Though Lance is gone, North Dakota State receiver Christian Watson is a big-play machine who can post some eye-popping stats if he can get the ball in his hands.

    Albany quarterback Jeff Undercuffler was a freshman phenom a season ago, and though his team plays a grueling schedule, he has shown he can light up scoreboards.

    A few running backs, such as James Madison's Percy Agyei-Obese, Weber State's Josh Davis, Pierre Strong Jr. of South Dakota State and Albany's Karl Mofor could be factors, too.