Storylines for the 2015 FCS Season

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Folks erroneously set the countdown clock to college football at 100 days last week. For those whose calendars are set thusly, I have some strong #WellActually for you: the 2015 FCS season starts Aug. 29 when North Dakota State visits Montana for what should be a tremendous matchup of two of the nation’s best teams.

North Dakota State-Montana is a perfect opener to the 2015 FCS season, a campaign filled with intrigue and featuring an abundance of storylines.

Can Anyone Knock North Dakota State From Its Perch?

Calling North Dakota State the greatest dynasty in modern college football is in no way hyperbolic. The Bison’s four straight national championships stand as the most dominant run since Theodore Roosevelt’s intervention gave way to rule changes like the forward pass.

North Dakota State is a runaway No. 1 in every FCS poll I’ve seen thus far, and with good reason. Carson Wentz is perhaps the most talented playmaker the Bison have had at quarterback, adding a dual-threat element previously lacking from NDSU’s offense.

Running back John Crockett is gone after rushing for nearly 2,000 yards, but the Bison’s ground attack has never struggled to replace stars in the backfield, thanks to the consistent play up front from the offensive line.

The loss of Buck Buchanan Award winner Kyle Emanuel is the more significant departure; 19.5 sacks and 32.5 tackles for loss are gargantuan numbers to replicate, even for a defense that is typically the best in the subdivision.

Is This The Year Sam Houston State Gets Over The Hump?

If the 2015 FCS season is indeed the end of North Dakota State’s championship run, is Sam Houston State the program to benefit? The Bearkats have come oh-so-close in recent years, twice reaching the national championship game (2011 and 2012) and last year making a surprise run to the semifinals.

All three postseasons were ended by North Dakota State.

K.C. Keeler led Delaware to prominence, winning a national championship and finishing as runner-up once, but his first year at Sam Houston State started rocky. The Bearkats lost at Eastern Washington, were blown out by LSU as expected, but then dropped a lopsided home decision to Div. II Colorado-Pueblo. Not long into his tenure, the Keeler experiment was looking like a bust.

And that’s why you don’t judge football teams based on early September results.

The Bearkats’ ensuing run to a share of yet another Southland Conference title and the semifinals of the FCS Playoffs showed that Keeler had SHSU back on the track Willie Fritz laid before heading to Georgia Southern. Sam Houston State was also a year ahead of schedule, rolling into 2015 with many of the same playmakers responsible for the mid-season resurrection of 2014.

Should this be the year North Dakota State’s reign ends, Sam Houston State has been the program waiting patiently for its opportunity.

…Or, Will Illinois State Complete The Job It Started Last Year?

The only teams that have been able to beat North Dakota State in recent years are those from the Missouri Valley Football Conference — and that includes Big 12 competition. A lopsided defeat last season against Northern Iowa exposed some of the most significant cracks in the Bison’s armor seen since their championship run started, and Illinois State nearly finished the job.

Illinois State came one possession and a minute away from winning last season’s title. It took Wentz throwing for 78 yards in just three attempts for the Bison to reclaim the lead and take championship No. 4. With head coach Brock Spack bringing back quarterback Tre Roberson and running back Marshaun Coprich, who was reinstated last month from an indefinite suspension for selling marijuana to undercover police.

Unfortunately, the Redbirds and Bison don’t face in the Missouri Valley season.

How Will Eastern Washington Cope With Losing Vernon Adams?

Were Eastern Washington embarking on the 2015 FCS season with fourth-year quarterback Vernon Adams behind center, the Eagles might steal some first-place love from North Dakota State. But with Adams transferring to Oregon to potentially replace Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, Eastern Washington is perhaps flying under the radar.

Head coach Beau Baldwin’s fast-and-loose offensive style has produced one star quarterback after another, from Matt Nichols to Bo Levi Mitchell to Adams, so expect the Eagles’ offense to shine as bright with Jordan West guiding the offense as the red turf of their “Inferno.”

One reason is the return of standout wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who caught for 1,431 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2014.

Can Villanova’s John Robertson Repeat as Walter Payton Award Winner?

Dual-threat Villanova quarterback John Robertson heads into the 2015 FCS season already one of the subdivision’s most decorated players, having won the Jerry Rice Award, given to the nation’s top freshman in 2012, and claiming last year’s Walter Payton Award with more than 2,800 passing and 1,000 rushing yards, and an incredible 46 combined touchdowns.

Robertson’s outstanding 2014 ended with a concussion that kept him out of the Wildcats’ FCS Playoffs loss to Sam Houston State. There’s no telling how that contest might have shaken out with a healthy Robertson behind center, because Villanova was a viable contender to North Dakota State when at full strength.

His return in 2015 powers Villanova into the top five of most preseason FCS polls, and numbers approaching his eye-popping production of 2014 make Robertson a strong candidate to win back-to-back Walter Payton Awards. Appalachian State legend and Michigan Wolverines slayer Armanti Edwards accomplished the feat in 2008 and 2009.

Will Mike Kramer Lead His Third Different Big Sky Program to the FCS Playoffs?

Idaho State head coach Mike Kramer led Eastern Washington to the Div. I-AA semifinals in 1997, then took Eagles’ Big Sky counterpart Montana State to three Playoffs between 2002 and 2006.

After a one-year stint on Paul Wulff’s staff at Washington State, Kramer resurfaced in the Big Sky at Idaho State in 2011. It was certainly a tough job to take on: Idaho State has perennially resided in the cellar of the conference, and no Bengals head coach has left Pocatello with a winning record since Dave Kragthrope went 21-14 in 1980 through 1982.

Kramer’s tenure started just as rocky as how things went for most of his predecessors, with Idaho State winning a combined six games in his first three years.

However, employing one of the nation’s most prolific passing attacks, Idaho State rolled to eight wins in 2014. It wasn’t enough to land the Bengals an invite to the FCS Playoffs, however, and the Bengals must start the pursuit anew, and without two key figures: offensive coordinator Don Bailey was hired away by Hawaii, and FCS-leading passer Justin Arias graduated.

Regardless, the Bengals return enough that they’ll be threats in the Big Sky. Running back Xavier Finney and wide receiver Madison Mangum are two of the subdivision’s best at their respective positions, and should keep the Bengals’ 40-point-per-game offense humming along.

Will Bo Pelini Get Youngstown State Back to Prominence?

Youngstown State was once to Div. I-AA what North Dakota is to FCS now. Under Jim Tressel, the Penguins won four national championships and established a rivalry with Marshall that became the heavyweight title fight of Div. I-AA.

Tressel successfully made the jump from Youngstown State to the Big Ten, and the Penguins were never the same since. The program’s hope is that a head coach making the same jump, only in reverse, can have similar impact.

Bo Pelini resurfaced in his hometown almost immediately after he was fired at Nebraska, and the former Cornhuskers general went to work just as quickly.

Playing in the equal parts deep and top-heavy MVFC with the North Dakota State dynasty, reigning runner-up Illinois State, perennial contender Northern Iowa, an Indiana State program current Georgia State head coach Trent Miles left in great shape and annual Playoff team South Dakota State certainly makes Pelini’s job a challenge.

The last fired Nebraska coach to land at a less prominent school in Ohio was Frank Solich, and he’s done just fine as head coach of the Ohio U. Bobcats.