Which FCS teams will make the most noise this fall? Here's my Preseason Top 10 going into the season.
1) Villanova: The Wildcats went 10-3 last season and return 15 total starters for this fall. Four returning starters on the O-Line should help dual-threat quarterback Chris Whitney thrive, while playmaking receiver Matt Szczur gives ‘Nova an all-purpose threat on the outside. After posting defensive improvement each of the past four seasons, look for the Wildcat defense to be the best in the Colonial Athletic Conference in 2009.
2) Montana: The Grizzlies have won 11 straight conference titles, and were picked to win their twelfth during the Big Sky's media day last month. Junior running back Chase Reynolds (1583 yards, 22 TDs last year) and senior wideout Marc Mariani (4.4 speed, 19.0 ypc average last year) make the Griz offense as potent as ever, while All-American safety Shann Schillinger helps make Montana's defense one of the best in the FCS. Former Oregon QB and transfer Justin Roper should compete for the open quarterback job.
3) Richmond: Mike London's team won the National Title a year ago and the former Virginia assistant is among the hottest coaching names in collee football. Quarterback Eric Ward should be even better in 2009 as the Spiders get back four full-time starters on the offensive line, including two All Americans. A defense which held opponents to 15.6 ppg last year gets nine total starters back this season.
4) Appalachian State: Quarterback Armanti Edwards may be nursing a "bum toe" after a recent and violent confrontation with a lawnmower, but the Mountaineers should be in good hands as the FCS' best player returns for his senior year. CoCo Hillary is a dynamic playmaker at receiver while FS Mark LeGree (7 interceptions in 2008) leads a defense which gets back nine total starters from last year's team.
5) Southern Illinois: The Salukis return 16 total starters from last year's playoff team (including nine on defense), which went 9-3 and won the Missouri Valley Conference.While they lose their top rusher and receiver from 2008, the offense should be in better hands as they enter year two under Dale Lennon.
6) Weber State: The Wildcats were one of the biggest surprises in the country last year, and despite returning only nine total starters from last year's 10-4 team still have plenty of talent. QB Cameron Higgins, running back Trevyn Smith, and wide receiver Tim Toone are all All-American candidates, while the secondary should be strong with All American safety Beau Hadley back for his senior year.
7) James Madison: Quarterback Drew Dudzik was effective in the playoffs last year when Rodney Landers was injured, and should win the job this summer in a competition with Justin Thrope. Mickey Matthews always has one of the most talented and well schemed teams in the FCS, and has led JMU to the playoffs each of the past three seasons.
8) Elon: The Phoenix get back 18 total starters from last year's team, which went 8-4 and at one point rose as high as 3rd in the country in the polls. Receiver Terrell Hudgins (who led the conference in receptions) returns, as do all five starters from the offensive line. Scott Riddle is now an experienced quarterback and should challenge Armanti Edwards for All-League honors this season.
9) Hofstra: The Pride may have gone 4-8 last season but they are one of the hottest picks as a ‘surprise' FCS team in 2009. 18 total starters return from a team which outgained CAA competition by 16 yards per game, while the Pride get back a number of starters who were lost to injury in 2008. Look for the defense to be much improved with All Conference selection MLB Luke Bonus leading the way.
10) Holy Cross: Is this the year a Patriot League team finally makes the playoffs? Quarterback Dominic Randolph led the Crusaders to a 7-4 mark last year, but all four losses came by a combined eight points. With a little luck in 2008 (not to mention more experience on the offense line) the Crusaders could run the table in the Patriot League.
On the Cusp: Northern Iowa, Massachusetts, Eastern Washington, McNeese State, Harvard, Furman, New Hampshire, South Dakota State