Phil Steeles' 2012 FCS Top 40 Countdown
1) SAM HOUSTON ST- LY we had the Bearkats #22 at the start of the ssn and they of course easily surpassed that going 11-0 in the reg ssn incl an OT win at New Mexico. They were ranked #1 into the playoffs but after the long layover lost a defensive struggle in the FCS Championship game to finish #2. TY they ret 16 st’rs incl their top 6 rushers (all 266+ yds) and 11 of their top 13 tkl’rs. With 2 FBS foes on the schedule they will likely not be undefeated after the regular ssn but now with the extra practices and playoff experience from LY and the hunger created by coming up just short, we will call for the Bearkats to take the FCS Title TY.
2) JAMES MADISON- Last year JMU’s 5 losses were to North Carolina and 4 ranked FCS tms including FCS Champ NDSU and 2 of those were by a combined 4 pts. They were #2 in the FCS in avg home attendance LY avg over 25,000. The Dukes are our pick to win the highly competitive CAA this year as they have the best schedule of the conf’s top 5 teams with 2 sets of our power ratings calling for them to go 8-0 in CAA play. They ret 13 st’rs, get a ‘10 starter back and add in 3 BCS transfers on D.
3) MONTANA ST- The Bobcats have had 10 straight winning seasons, the longest streak in their history. LY after an opening loss to Utah they won 9 straight and were ranked #1 before falling to rival Montana in the reg ssn finale. They had their 1st playoff win since ‘06 but lost in the quarterfinals to SHSU. This year while they return just 14 st’rs, they ret 73% of their lettermen, 9 of their top 10 tkl’rs, their top 4 rushers and QB DeNarius McGhee. They have a good conf schedule hosting EWU, avoiding NAU and while they play their rival UM in Missoula, the road tm has won 3 straight in the series and the Grizzlies are in a rebuilding year. That has us calling for the Bobcats to win a 3rd straight Big Sky Title.
4) YOUNGSTOWN ST- All 4 of the Penguins FCS losses LY were by 7 pts or less (comb 17 pts) and they were the only team to beat FCS Champion North Dakota St. They were a MVFC best +88.8 ypg in conf play and this year ret 16 st’rs incl 10 on offense and add several transfers to fill in the defensive holes. We will call not only for the Penguins to make their first playoffs since 2006 but to also capture their 1st conference crown since that same year as they are our pick for MVFC Champ.
5) WOFFORD - The Terriers outgained conf foes by a SoCon best in each of the last 2 years (+98 & +131 ypg) but while they won a share of the SoCon Crown in ‘10 they tied for #2 LY. They still made their 4th playoffs in 5 yrs but fell to UNI by 7. TY they ret 15 st’rs incl AA FB Eric Breitenstein and a conf best 73% of their lettermen. They are our pick to win the 3 headed monster that is the SoCon which is a big accomplishment for one of Div-I’s smallest schools.
6) NORTH DAKOTA ST- The Bison had an almost perfect season LY as their only loss was to YSU by 3. NDSU did it with a defense that again was in the top 10 in takeaways helping the Bison to a rare 2nd straight ssn with positive DD TO’s (+15 in ‘10, +18 LY). They also held their 4 playoff opp to a combined 27 pts. Surprisingly they were actually 7th in the MVFC being outgained by 27.9 ypg in conf play. TY they ret 14 st’rs incl 8 on D but do lose their top 2 tkl’rs. While one set of power ratings call for an 11-0 ssn (incl an FBS win), they have the burden of being the FCS’s reigning champs and will get an extra effort from every opponent week in & week out but are capable of a 2nd straight Championship.
7) EASTERN WASHINGTON - The Eagles won the FCS Championship in ‘10 but after just missing out on defeating Washington in LY’s opener, shockingly opened 0-4. They rallied however to have a 5th straight winning ssn at 6-5. TY they must replace Payton Award winner QB Bo Levi Mitchell but bring in Kyle Padron who replaced Mitchell as the starter at SMU. They also ret 14 st’rs and 75% of their lettermen. While a game at Montana St may keep them from the Big Sky Title, they should return to the playoffs and if they regain the Red Turf magic they had in ‘10 could find themselves in the FCS Title hunt.
8) TOWSON - Every year there seems to be a team which comes out of nowhere and makes a big splash in the FCS. LY that team was Towson, as after 4 str losing years incl a 1-10 season in ‘10, the Tigers not only made the playoffs but won the outright CAA title. A big part was true frosh RB Terrance West who won the inaugural Jerry Rice Award for the FCS’s top frosh. TY they ret 18 st’rs but face 2 FBS teams incl LSU the week before a crucial CAA gm vs James Madison. They played well as an underdog coming into LY but how they handle the pressure of being the CAA favorite will have a lot to do with how far they go this year.
9) STONY BROOK - The Seawolves came up just short of upsetting UTEP in LY’s opener despite outgaining the Miners. They still won their 3rd straight Big South Title but for the first time got the playoff auto-bid that went with it. After beating Albany they came up just short of upsetting SHSU despite outgaining the Bearkats. You do not normally see a team in the Top 10 which lost a 1,400+ yd rusher but at SBU Brock Jackolski (1418, 6.6) was just the #2 rusher and they add in PS#41RB Marcus Coker (1384, 4.9 at Iowa LY). The Seawolves return 16 st’rs and look to be on track for their 2nd straight auto-bid and another playoff run.
10) GEORGIA SOUTHERN - The Eagles switched back to the option in ‘10 and they looked like the GSU of old LY. They were ranked #1 by week 3 and seemed to be the team to beat until they were “upset” by conf foe App St but worked their way back up to #3 at the end of the regular ssn. They plowed through two CAA teams but then were shutdown by eventual FCS Champ NDSU. This year they ret 68% of their talented lettermen but just 13 st’rs and they must replace former GT transfer QB Jaybo Shaw, who was the leader of the offense.
11) NEW HAMPSHIRE - The Wildcats have the FCS’s longest playoff streak making the post-ssn in 8 straight years. While they lose the CAA OPOY QB Kevin Decker, NH has a long history of talented QB’s stepping up. They ret 14 st’rs & 79% of their lettermen and as long as a QB again steps up their streak will continue to grow.
12) DELAWARE - The Blue Hens could not hold onto a 19 pt lead in the 2010 FCS Championship game (2nd appearance 4 yrs). LY despite handing CAA Towson their only conf loss UD sat home for the playoffs at 7-4, thanks in part to 5 other CAA teams making the post season. TY they ret 14 st’rs incl 9 on an already strong D which adds a BCS transfer.
13) STEPHEN F AUSTIN - After 2 straight SLC Titles, the Lumberjacks had to replace a record setting QB and suffered through a 6-5 ssn LY in the shadow of SHSU. TY they ret 16 st’rs and should return to the playoffs for a 3rd time in the last 4 years.
14) NORTHERN ARIZONA - The Lumberjacks have had 4 winning seasons in the last 6 years but have a history of fading late in the season. This year they have the schedule to make a playoff run at the end of the year and with 14 ret st’rs, the talent to be able to do something once they get there.
15) NORTHERN IOWA - The Panthers shared the MVFC crown with NDSU LY but as the #5 seed fell at #4 seed Montana in the quarterfinals. While they return just 10 st’rs they get back 71% of their lettermen and have had 9 straight winning ssn’s despite returning 10 or fewer starters in 4 of those years.
16) APPALACHIAN ST - The Mountaineers have made 7 straight playoff appearances but after winning 3 straight FCS Titles haven’t been back to the title game in the last 4 yrs. TY while they ret 13 st’rs, they lose 42% of their lettermen and will not win the SoCon for a 2nd straight yr.
17) EASTERN KENTUCKY - The Colonels finished in a 3 way tie for the OVC title LY and made their 1st playoff in 3 yrs. TY they ret 17 st’rs and are our pick to take home the OVC Crown.
18) LEHIGH - The Mountain Hawks have won the Patriot League the L/2 yrs and for a 2nd straight yr beat a big conf champ as after beating UNI in ‘10, they beat Towson LY. They are the clear favorite in the PL again and will look to get another big playoff win for a 3rd straight ssn.
19) OLD DOMINION - The Monarchs would have been the talk of the CAA in their 1st ssn in the conf except for Towson’s Turnaround Tigers. TY will be their last in the CAA as they move up to the FBS. That we pick them at #19 only shows the quality of the depth in the CAA.
20) MONTANA - Picking the Grizzlies outside of the Top 10 is always a scary proposition especially as they just missed out on the Championship Game LY. However, they return just 7 st’rs and lost their HC mid-spring practice and off-field questions remain a distraction.
21) ILLINOIS ST - While the Redbirds return just 11 st’rs, they added 7 FBS transfers to fill in the holes but play in the highly competitive MVFC.
22) SOUTH CAROLINA ST - The Bulldogs are our pick to win a strong MEAC as they host both of the other main challengers in Bethune-Cookman & Norfolk St.
23) HARVARD - With 14 returning starters the Crimson are our pick to win the Ancient 8 this year but will have a tough game at Penn.
24) JACKSONVILLE ST - The Gamecocks have an early OVC showdown with EKU and despite returning just 11 ret st’rs have the talent to finish strong.
25) ALABAMA ST - The Hornets look like the team to beat in the SWAC East and we will call for them to take the SWAC Title as well.
26) SOUTHERN ILLINOIS -Will return to their winning ways after 2 down yrs.
27) MCNEESE ST - With 16 ret st’rs MSU could make some noise in the SLC.
28) GRAMBLING ST- The Tigers are our top pick of the SWAC West.
29) CHATTANOOGA -The Mocs have the talent to compete with the SoCon’s top 3.
30) MAINE -Will need a late winning streak to return to the playoffs TY.
31) CENTRAL ARKANSAS-Despite just 12 ret st’rs are still a talented tm.
32) MURRAY ST-The Racers could make an outside run for the OVC crown.
33) INDIANA ST-Sycamores are down a little from LY but are still happy to be here.
34) WILLIAM & MARY-A rebuilding but talented team who could pull some upsets.
35) PENN-The Quakers are Harvard’s top challenger for the Ivy.
36) NORFOLK ST-LY’s MEAC champ, who will again be in the title hunt TY.
37) DUQUESNE-Our pick to take home the NEC Title.
38) UT MARTIN-An early chance at an FBS upset could propel them even higher.
39) LIBERTY-A talented team which lost their HC due to their success.
40) HOLY CROSS-Look to be Lehigh’s top challenger for the Patriot League Title.