Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - North Dakota State may be staking its
claim as the Alabama of the FCS, but there's no Southeastern Conference
running roughshod over the FCS.
It's fairly balanced at the top even with the Bison chasing their third
straight national championship.
The big four FCS conferences match quality and quantity almost every season.
But this year may be a last stand for the Southern Conference alongside the
Big Sky Conference, CAA Football and the Missouri Valley Football Conference,
home to NDSU.
SoCon stalwarts Georgia Southern and Appalachian State are in their final
season before moving to the FBS level, and the conference won't be the same
without them next year.
Yes, conference realignment is clearly having an effect on the FCS as our
2013 conference rankings indicate:
1. Missouri Valley - The conference home of the two-time reigning FCS
champions was ridiculously deep last season with about seven of the 10 teams
among the 30 strongest in the FCS. That includes a 5-6 Northern Iowa squad
that suffered its first losing season since 2002. South Dakota State, behind
2,000-yard rusher Zach Zenner, is considered the biggest threat to North
Dakota State. Illinois State, Indiana State, Southern Illinois and Youngstown
State might take a small step backward this year as UNI moves forward again.
2. Big Sky - Similar to Northern Iowa in the Missouri Valley, the Big Sky will
be much stronger if perennial power Montana finds its way back up the mountain
after an awful season (in fact, it was the Grizzlies' first losing mark since
1985). Bitter rival, Montana State, has moved to the conference forefront
during quarterback DeNarius McGhee's career, and Eastern Washington has a
national championship and a national semifinal appearance in the last three
seasons. Cal Poly and Northern Arizona figure to have banner seasons again and
there is enough depth in the 13-member conference for a breakthrough team.
This just might wind up being the top conference.
3. Southern Conference - Georgia Southern, which has made appearances in the
last three FCS semifinals, and Appalachian State aren't eligible for either
the conference championship or an FCS playoff bid, but they keep the SoCon
strong this season. Their absence in the postseason will make it hard for the
SoCon to make waves, however. Wofford is the team to beat, and Chattanooga
thinks it can do just that this season. The Citadel and Samford really make
this a strong conference - at least until next year.
4. CAA Football - Too many good teams and no great teams have brought the CAA
back from the FCS lead. Villanova thinks it has a great team this year and
Towson, behind running back Terrance West, is headed to a banner season. The
two will try to separate themselves from the pack of New Hampshire (whose
defense will be down), Richmond, James Madison, Delaware and Stony Brook,
which comes aboard as Old Dominion - last year's best CAA team - departs the
5. Southland Conference - In starting the second tier of FCS conferences, the
Southland features Sam Houston State, which has lost to North Dakota State in
each of the past two national championship games, and Central Arkansas. It's a
twosome the Ohio Valley Conference - ranked sixth - can't match. The question
is whether the middle tier in the Southland, though improved with McNeese
State, Stephen F. Austin and likely Southeastern Louisiana, is as strong.
6. Ohio Valley Conference - Last year's surprise teams, Eastern Illinois and
Tennessee State, won't sneak up on opponents this year, and both are strong
enough to make the expanded 24-team playoffs. Jacksonville State is the steady
power in the conference, although it has undergone a coaching change, and
Eastern Kentucky and UT Martin have to overcome some big senior losses. This
was the FCS' most offensive conference last year and there's a lot of
7. Patriot League - The league will be on the rise as the scholarship classes
mount, but there likely isn't a Top 15 or 20 team this year if Colgate or
Lehigh take a step back. The teams behind the two powers are closing in for
a tight race. Holy Cross lost some close games and should be much improved.
Fordham, with the most scholarships to date, is coming on under coach Joe
Moorhead, but the Rams remain ineligible for the league title until 2014.
8. Ivy League - It's still Penn and Harvard, Harvard and Penn, with a little
Brown sprinkled into some title races. Princeton hopes to finally be putting
it together, and Cornell has quarterback Jeff Mathews at the controls again.
What can't be overlooked is a lot of players in this non-scholarship league
could be playing elsewhere on scholarship. It's a quality league.
9. Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference - Bethune-Cookman has taken its program to
a higher level under coach Brian Jenkins and the conference has a lot of
evenly matched teams capable of beating each other. Talent-wise it was a
relatively young conference last year. But to boast a high strength of
conference, the MEAC needs South Carolina State, which is coming off its first
losing season since 2001, to get back on track.
10. Big South - In going from a three-horse race to a two-horse race, the Big
South lost its most dangerous program in Stony Brook. Coastal Carolina and
Liberty will clash heads for the title. Only six teams deep - until Monmouth
arrives next year - the conference has dropped considerably. Liberty is trying
to step out the door to the FBS level.
11. Northeast Conference - The NEC sees its stock slip as well with Albany
joining the CAA and Monmouth football not being asked back after its athletic
program announced a move to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Wagner,
which has the smallest enrollment (2,000) of the seven remaining programs, is
the team to beat off last year's title and playoff win.
12. Southwestern Athletic Conference - After the realignment negatives, how
about some positive news? OK, the SWAC should be improved. But it basically
can only be that way after last year's poor season across the league.
Grambling State inexplicably fell to pieces after a 2011 title season.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Alabama State, Jackson State and Alabama A&M are a solid
group of programs.
13. Pioneer Football League - It's now the second-biggest FCS conference with
Mercer and Stetson raising the total to 12 programs, and the league finally
has an automatic playoff bid for its champion. But there are some lumps along
the way as its non-scholarship teams improve their non-conference scheduling.
Butler, Drake and San Diego shared the title last season. Jacksonville has
become a consistent winner as well, while Dayton wants to become a power
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