Give Craig Haley credit. The senior editor at STATS FCS, perhaps the leading national expert on the Football Championship Subdivision, knows how to get people talking about college football in early June.
Haley released his FCS Top 25 preseason poll at www.athlonsports.com and he eschewed the usual way of doing things — giving the preseason No. 1 to the defending national champion — in favor of picking who he believes is going to be at the top of the heap at the end of the year.
That means Haley ranked North Dakota State first and defending national champion James Madison second.
Haley’s top 5 looks like this:
- James Madison
- South Dakota State
- Sam Houston State
- North Dakota
Which, by the way, is a pretty good indicator of the quality of FCS football being played along the I-29 corridor in the Dakotas. It’ll be awesome when the NCAA puts all three Dakotas teams on the same side of the bracket and has them play in the first couple of rounds. Maybe set it up so UND can travel to Brookings in the second round and then the winner can come to Fargo in the quarters. Bus trips. Cheap. Perfect. Can’t wait.
What gives, Craig? Why the love for NDSU and the diss of JMU?
“I always make my preseason poll the way I think it will finish. I don’t think the defending national champion has to be preseason No. 1 because they won the previous year,” Haley said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. “I call it how I think it’s going to be at the end of the year and I think NDSU is going to win it all this year.”
Haley’s paragraph breaking down the Bison in the poll reads like this:
The Bison’s five-year run as FCS national champions ended against James Madison in the 2016 playoff semifinals, but their dynasty isn’t necessarily over because they’re strong enough (16 returning starters) to climb back to the top of the mountain. Oh yes, coach Chris Klieman’s program is probably a little more motivated this time around. With linebacker Nick DeLuca and defensive tackle Nate Tanguay returning from injuries, the veteran defense is the nation’s best and also features defensive end Greg Menard and safety Tre Dempsey among its bruisers. The loss of two starters on the offensive line is a bit of a concern, but quarterback Easton Stick will spread the ball around to running backs Lance Dunn and Bruce Anderson and wide receivers Darrius Shepherd and R.J. Urzendowski. The Bison have won at least a share of six straight Missouri Valley titles and are 83–7 in that time.
Haley said neither NDSU nor JMU is head and shoulders above the other — “There is no right or wrong answer” in picking a preseason No. 1, Haley said — but the Bison get the edge because of their defense and, as mentioned in the poll blurb, motivation after losing in the semifinals to James Madison last season.
“It’s not like NDSU was that far off last year. They got to the semifinals and were a little beat up and lost to the eventual champion. They were close,” Haley said. “I’ve been pretty transparent that I feel either team can be the No. 1 team and I realize most people will say James Madison will be No. 1. I think NDSU is going to be on a mission. They have the best defense in FCS. Do they have enough with their offense? Maybe, maybe not. But I think they’ll find a way. I believe they are the best team.”
NDSU opens Sept. 2 at home against Mississippi Valley State.
You can read the entire poll by clicking here: North Dakota state and James Madison, winners of the past six FCS national titles, could vie for another this fall