FCS Week rolls on with Part Two of my series on the potential FCS over FBS upsets of 2008. Here are my seventh through fifth most likely upsets.
Iowa State struggled tremendously in their first year under former Texas defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, going only 3-9 despite having a veteran quarterback in Brett Meyer back. Chizik’s team did show improvement down the stretch as they won two out of their last three games against Big 12 competition, including a stunning 31-28 upset over Colorado. Nevertheless they lose a four-year starter at quarterback in Brett Meyer as well as big play wide receiver Todd Blyth, who moves on after becoming Iowa State’s all-time leading receiver. The Cyclones do return fourteen starters for 2008, including their three top rushers from 2007 and four starting offensive lineman. However, this was an offense which averaged a paltry 18.2 points per game, and was held under 20 points per game on eight separate occasions last season (including games against Kent State and Northern Iowa.) Chizik is a great defensive mind but he’s never had to gameplan for an FCS team with the kind of talent he had at Auburn and Texas, so it was no surprise that his Cyclones fell to Northern Iowa in week two last season. While he has seven starters back to work with he loses his two best assets in linebackers Alvin Bowen and Jon Banks, and with them the heart and soul of his defense. He’ll need more than scheme if he’s going to stop South Dakota State’s offense; he’s going to need to inspire effort and intensity.
South Dakota State won the Gateway Conference in their first year of conference competition last season and finished the year ranked 19th in the country after pulling off an upset of powerhouse North Dakota State in the finale. South Dakota State loses a number of key players off of the offense and the defense but does return their starting quarterback Ryan Berry, who came on strong after a shaky opening to the 2007 season. The Jackrabbits have a core group of underrated skill position players to include receiver JaRon Harris, who is widely considered one of the best “small school” draft prospects in the country. I’m also very high on running back Kyle Minett, who excelled during spot duty for departing senior Cory Koening last season. Major losses from the defensive side of the football could hurt the Jackrabbits, but that’s assuming Iowa State’s Austen Arnaud and company are in a position to strike early and often (a big “if” at this point)
One thing I look for when predicting upsets are FCS teams that have a mentality of winning and FBS teams which have struggled against FCS competition in recent years. This matchup is clearly a case of both as South Dakota State comes off of a 7-4 season and a 4-0 record in conference play while Iowa State is coming off of a 24-13 loss to Northern Iowa last season and a 3-9 record. South Dakota State’s main problem over the last few seasons has been inconsistent quarterback play but with Ryan Berry coming back they should be able to more easily disseminate the ball to their playmakers, including potential NFL prospect JaRon Harris. I think Chizik will have Iowa State headed in the right direction sooner rather than later but he’s just not an offensive mind, and considering just how poorly Iowa State’s offense started last season (not to mention a new quarterback replacing a four-year starter) there isn’t precedence for Iowa State to score many points against even a rebuilding South Dakota State defense. South Dakota State is a talented FCS team and after a strong finish last year I give the Jackrabbits a decent shot at knocking at an Iowa State team which is undergoing an identity change.
#6: McNeese St. at North Carolina (August 30)
Year one under former Miami (Fl) and National Championship Head Coach Butch Davis saw its ups and downs in Chapel Hill, as the North Carolina Tar Heels played a fairly competitive but uninspiring 4-8 season. The Tar Heels managed to take down Davis’ old team in Miami as well as play fairly competitive games against the likes of Virginia Tech and South Carolina, but as is the case with many of the teams in our countdown were plagued by inconsistent quarterback play. TJ Yates did an admirable job coming in as a redshirt freshmen but his 18 picks went along way towards North Carolina’s -6 turnover ratio, while the Tar Heel offense amasses a rather mundane 21.2 points per game during the 2007 campaign. With 10 starters back they should be improved in 2007, but they’re going to have to rely more on the running game with continued questions at quarterback.
It was a record setting year in 2007 for the McNeese State Cowboy’s, who went undefeated in the regular season en route to an 11-1 season and an FCS playoff appearance (The Cowboys lost to Eastern Washington in the first round.) Like many teams in the countdown the Cowboy’s defeated a FBS program last season, amassing more than 400 total yards in a 38-17 win at Louisiana Lafayette last season. McNeese returns 12 returning starters overall in 2008, including an amazing seven players to earn either First or Second team All-Conference honors. Quarterback Derrick Forroux is one of the best dual threat quarterbacks in the FCS, throwing for over 2000 yards in 2007 and rushing for over 500. Four offensive linemen return (two All-Conference), as does a veteran group of skill positions players, including playmaking wide receiver Steven Whitehead, who sat out last season with an injury. This offense put up more than 450 total yards against ULL last season in a 38-17 win, and with their top players back should find similar success against North Carolina.
Butch Davis may have North Carolina well on its way to becoming a force to reckoned with in the ACC, but coming off of a 4-8 season the Tar Heels are more likely another year or two away, even with 18 returning starters in 2008. It’s never easy opening the season against a good FCS team like McNeese State, and considering the fact that incumbent quarterback T.J. Yates missed the spring and is coming off of offseason shoulder surgery you almost have to expect some rust from the Tar Heel offense. McNeese State has an “expect to win” attitude under Head Coach Matt Viator that has manifested itself in a 17-3 record over the past two seasons. I like the fact that McNeese State has an experienced quarterback and offensive line, not to mention speed and athleticism at the skill positions. North Carolina’s otherwise solid defense struggled against mobile quarterbacks last year, and one factor we’ve seen throughout most FCS upsets is the ability of a mobile quarterback to break down even good FBS defenses. I could see North Carolina having a winning season in 2007, but their August 30th matchup with McNeese State is by no means a “warmup” game, which I fear the Tar Heels will treat it as before preparing for a Thursday night matchup with Rutgers in week three.
Duke University’s football shortcomings are well documented, but just in case you’ve been living under a rock since 1960 I’ll gladly go through them with you. Three winning season in the last 45 years, two of them under Spurrier. Also a grand total of ten wins over the past eight years, including an impressive 0-12 performance in 2006. Quite simply, Duke has been the punching bad of not just the ACC, but of the entire college football community. Things could change sooner rather than later however for the Blue Devils, as famed offensive mind David Cutcliffe comes in to take charge of a program which has more potential than most people realize. He comes in at the right time too, as Duke returns seventeen returning starters including all of last year’s major statistical leaders. QB Thaddeus Lewis showed outstanding development last year from a woeful 2006, and should thrive under Cutcliffe’s tutelage, as should an up-and-coming group of receivers to include potential All-ACC performer Eron Riley. The offensive line is a constant concern however, as last year’s group (which also happened to be the entire 2006 group) 45 sacks and paved the way for a very non-hoah 2.0 per carry. This year they have to replace two starters off of what might be best described as just a very unskilled line, although the Blue Devils do get 10 back on defense to include a massive front four to include the once amazingly highly touted DT Vince Oghobasse (6’6, 310.)
James Madison is a traditional FCS power which is usually competitive with FBS teams including many from the Atlantic Coast conference. They did lose their opener to North Carolina last year but held the Tar Heals to a paltry 2.9 yards per carry on the ground. The Dukes are coming off an impressive 8-4 season in which their only FCS loses came to playoff bound teams (Richmond, Delaware, Appalachian State.) JMU lost those three games by a combined five points and should have beaten National Champion Appalachian State had it not been for a series of unfortunate events late in the game which sparked the Mountaineers to victory. This year James Madison returns a veteran squad of 15 returning starters including duel-threat quarterback Rodney Landers, who rushed and passed for over 1000 yards last year. Also back are four starting offensive lineman from a unit which allowed the fewest sacks in FCS play to go along with two veteran tailbacks in Eugene Holloman (1085 yards in 2006) and Griff Yancy (688 yards, 6.3 avg last year.) While they lose veteran safety Tony LeZotte on defense JMU is still in relatively good shape, returning three starters from last year’s unit. I like the way JMU matches up with Duke, which has traditionally struggled with rush defense and rushing offense over the last few seasons.
Don’t get me wrong, Duke is definitely a team on their way up and, from a talent perspective, is much better than the vast majority of college football fans realize. But JMU is a talented and experienced FCS team with an “expect to win” mindset that doesn’t get left off the bus when they play FBS teams. Duke dropped their 2006 opener to Richmond and likely will need some time to adjust to Cutliffe’s offense, which will demand more on Duke’s experienced but problem ridden offensive line. Believe it or not I think that Duke could be overconfident coming into this game, as the Blue Devils will be facing the prospect of four winnable home games right out of the starting gate. One thing when dealing with traditional losing teams like Duke is that they tend to under-perform in new situations, and even though they may very well come out firing during the opening part of the season they’ll have to deal with a brand new monster; expectations. Considering JMU’s proven offensive formula and some close losses to FCS super powers last season this game looks like a legitimate toss-up.
We’re almost there! Expect my most likely FCS over FBS upsets by Friday!