FCS Showcase Week 1

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Enjoyed the FCS Kickoff last Saturday? Great! There’s plenty more where that come from.

Lost among all the talk of BEST WEEKEND EVER! emanating from the Worldwide Leader is that the Week 1 offering from the Championship Subdivision is quite impressive in its own right.

The opening weekend FCS slate features Playoff contenders in nonconference competition, as well as some of the Subdivision’s best individual talent. CFB Huddle will showcase the best the FCS has to offer each week throughout the season.

THE CITADEL at MERCER

Kickoff: Thursday, 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT
TV: Fox Sports Southeast

Craig Haley, who covers the FCS better than anyone in the nation, tabbed this one the FCS Game of the Week. Given these teams went down to the wire in a 21-19 Citadel win last October, the designation’s certainly justified.

The Citadel’s breakout 2015 season included the program’s first win over an SEC opponent in 27 tries, and an FCS Playoffs victory against Coastal Carolina.

The Bulldogs lost head coach Mike Houston to James Madison, but the triple-option offense that made them the nation’s second-most prolific rushing team (346.9 yards per game) remains in place.

The Citadel also returns Dominique Allen, the quarterback and driving engine of that prolific option attack. Along with running back Tyler Renew, the Bulldogs will finish at or right near the top of the national rankings for rushing offense once again by season’s end.

Mercer’s a program still in its infancy, returning to the field from a 71-year layoff in 2013. The Bears moved from the non-scholarship Pioneer League to the Southern Conference just two years ago, and acclimated rather well in short order. Head coach Bobby Lamb, who had a successful run at Mercer’s SoCon counterpart Furman, is 21-14 in his first three seasons with the Bears (though 10 wins came during their season in the PFL).

However, a young team with an outstanding defense, paced by linebacker Tosin Aguebor, showed signs of breakthrough in 2015. The Bears held opponents below 22 points per game for the campaign.

Quarterback John Russ contributed to a multifaceted run game that ranked No. 20 nationally, while adding a dangerous enough passing attack to keep defenses off-balance. His 6-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio (18-3 overall) was among the best in the nation last season.

This one comes down to Mercer’s ability to slow that option, though. The Citadel runs it as well as any team in the FCS, if not all of college football. It’s a look at can wear down defenses both physically and mentally. Mercer has a slight advantage over future Bulldog opponents in that it had an offseason to prepare.

NORTH DAKOTA at STONY BROOK

Kickoff: Thursday, 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT
Stream: Stony Brook Athletics

North Dakota boasts its best team since moving to the Big Sky Conference, generating some modest Playoff buzz in the preseason. The return of running back John Santiago, who rushed for nearly 1,500 yards with 16 touchdowns in 2015, paces a North Dakota offense that averaged north of 28 points per game.

CAA media slated Stony Brook for the lower-middle portion of the top-heavy conference, ahead of Maine, Elon, Albany and perennial cellar dweller Rhode Island, and behind Towson and Delaware. The Seawolves have routinely exceeded expectations under head coach Chuck Priore, whose tenure includes appearances in the FCS Playoffs, and a transition from the Big South Conference to the wildly more competitive CAA.

Stony Brook’s still seeking its breakthrough campaign in the CAA, finishing in the neighborhood of .500 every year since making the jump. If this is the fall the Seawolves do so, it will start on defense, where they held opponents below 16 points per game a season ago. Replicating the production of defensive lineman Victor Ochi won’t be easy, though probably more feasible than jump-starting an offense that averaged fewer than 18 points per game.

Stony Brook’s 11th-ranked rush defense (sans Ochi) vs. Santiago should shape this clash of styles.

WESTERN ILLINOIS at EASTERN ILLINOIS

Kickoff: Thursday, 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT
Stream: OVC Digital Network

A showdown of two 2015 FCS Playoffs participants, both of which return lineups capable of making a run at the postseason again in 2016. This in-state pairing could go a long way in determining which makes the postseason come November, should both again be in position for at-large invitations.

You are probably familiar with Eastern Illinois’ recent history of outstanding offenses, even if you’re aware that you are. Tony Romo won the Walter Payton Award as the Panthers’ starting quarterback in 2002. Jimmy Garoppolo did likewise in 2013. Garoppolo powered the same high-flying offensive approach Dino Babers took to Bowling Green and won a MAC championship with, and now brings to Syracuse in 2016.

However, when defensive-minded Kim Dameron stepped in as head coach, Eastern Illinois shifted to a run-heavy offense (173.3 rushing yards per game). Meanwhile, a Leatherneck offense not long ago defined by its rushing attack turned the reins over to a quarterback, Trenton Norvell, with the body of an NFL prospect (6-foot-5, 225 pounds).

Western Illinois’ a dark-horse contender in the loaded Missouri Valley. While Eastern figures to contend for No. 2 in the OVC — let’s be real, Jacksonville State’s running away with that conference — the Panthers have an uphill climb to bridge the 28-point gap between these two squads seen in last season’s opener.

DUQUESNE at YOUNGSTOWN STATE

Kickoff: Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT
Stream: ESPN 3

Defending Northeast Conference champion Duquesne might be one of the more dangerous opponents for a power-FCS conference team like Youngstown State. The Dukes took the Colonial’s William & Mary to the brink in last November’s FCS Playoffs matchup, ultimately falling in a 52-49 shootout.

Duquesne’s seven touchdowns were the most the Tribe allowed in a game all season.

Quarterback Dillon Buechel enters his senior year an intriguing NFL dark-horse prospect. Building off a junior campaign in which he passed for 2,871 yards (14th-best in FCS) and 24 touchdowns, Buechel’s a name to know this FCS season.

A national powerhouse under Jim Tressel in the 1990s, Youngstown State seeks its return to the big time in Bo Pelini’s second year. Pelini’s first year leading the Penguins included losses of a combined five points to 2015 FCS Championship Game participants Illinois State and North Dakota State; an eight-point loss to open the season at Pitt; and a road win over Western Illinois.

Youngstown State may be on the cusp of a breakout campaign, but losing at home Week 1 to an NEC opponent would put the Penguins on thin ice early.

COASTAL CAROLINA at LAMAR

Kickoff: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT
Stream: ESPN 3

Lamar’s been nothing if not steady since relaunching its dormant football program in 2010. The Cardinals won four or five games every year, save an eight-win campaign in 2014.

Paced by Kade Harrington, the nation’s leading rusher a season ago at 2,092 yards, Lamar has the firepower to compete with the upper echelon of the Southland Conference. The Cardinals stand against an impressive measuring stick in Week 1, taking on a Coastal Carolina program transitioning out of FCS.

The Chanticleers’ meteoric rise from reinstating football just 13 years ago, to becoming a Playoff fixture under former TD Ameritrade CEO Joe Moglia, culminated last year with an invitation to join the Sun Belt. Football contributed mightily to Coastal Carolina’s swelling athletic profile, even if the Chants don’t have a national championship like their baseball counterparts.

Moglia’s offensive innovation has made Coastal Carolina one of the best passing and rushing offenses in college football. If anyone can make a play to unseat Harrington as the nation’s leading rusher, its Deangelo Henderson. The powerful Chanticleer back went for 1,346 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2015.

Coastal trekking to south Texas for this one could play a part in the outcome. The Chants do not qualify for the Playoffs this season, another possible factor every time they take they field. Their level of motivation against a good opponent serves as a barometer for the transitional campaign.

ALCORN STATE at BETHUNE-COOKMAN

Kickoff: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT
TV: ESPN

The annual MEAC-SWAC Challenge features one of its best matchups since the game’s inception a little more than a decade ago. Bethune-Cookman is a perennial contender in the MEAC, and 2016 is no exception with the Wildcats returning Meanwhile, Alcorn State is the preseason pick to win the SWAC East division.

Perhaps Sunday’s matinee showcase could be a preview of December’s Celebration Bowl. The Braves reached the game’s inaugural installment, and nearly knocked off North Carolina A&T in an exciting, high-scoring affair.

That game served as something of a coming-out party for Alcorn State quarterback Lenorris Footman. The dual-threat play-maker scored two touchdowns in a 41-34 loss. The Braves might have fallen short, but their offensive effort against one of the nation’s best defenses should serve as a springboard into a big 2016.

Footman leads the uptempo Alcorn State offense into Daytona Beach. After playing this cross-conference matchup in Orlando for the previous few years, the 2016 MEAC-SWAC Challenge moves to campus venues in 2016. Bethune-Cookman gets the honors for this year’s edition of the Labor Day Sunday tradition.