Four Conference Races in the FCS That Already Feel Different
All of the conference title races in FCS college football could well end up going the way they were predicted in the preseason.
But some races feel different than even just a few weeks ago.
A sluggish start for some of the top teams from recent seasons are foreshadowing a different race as the fall 2021 schedule moves into October.
Yes, the race is especially on in the following four conferences:
Weber State (1-3, 0-1), ranked sixth in the Stats Perform FCS Preseason Top 25, has captured at least a share of the last four Big Sky titles, but they’re a game down in the standings of the largest FCS conference, having suffered a loss to UC Davis on top of nonconference defeats to Utah and James Madison. That type of strong schedule isn’t conducive to a fast start with an injury at starting quarterback, and the Wildcats have gone the last 2½ games without Bronson Barron (knee). Their four championship teams had a combined plus-36 turnover margin, but this season’s team is minus-4, including minus-5 in losses. It’s possible they will have to win their seven remaining games, including difficult matchups with Montana State (home) and Eastern Washington (away), to return to the national playoffs.
The good news for two-time defending champ Monmouth (2-2, 1-0) is that it handled Charleston Southern in the Big South’s earliest conference opener. Everything else, though, has suggested vulnerability for the No. 13 preseason squad that returned 21 of 22 starters from the spring before losing several to preseason injuries. Nobody anticipated defeats of 35 and 30 points to Middle Tennessee and Holy Cross, respectively, with a three-point scrape past Fordham in between. The Hawks have allowed nine passing touchdowns with just one interception and 274.3 passing yards per game, up 78 from the spring. While they have won 11 straight Big South games by double digits, including by a combined 49 points in the last two meetings with the other recent power, Kennesaw State, they have to go on the road to face the nationally ranked Owls and North Carolina A&T, the other chief contender.
First things first: Running back Malik Grant has done a credible job replacing the injured Julius Chestnut. Now the reality: The Northeast Conference’s defending champ and preseason favorite Sacred Heart (2-2, 0-1) is not the same team without Chestnut, who, before he departed the season-opening win against Bucknell with a lower leg/knee injury, went over 100 rushing yards for the 10th straight time. The first-team All-American accounted for 53.5 percent of the Pioneers’ scrimmage yards in their five spring games – the high in the FCS. In two of their three games since his injury, they haven’t scored a touchdown, and their 227 offensive yards in an NEC loss to Bryant were the second-fewest in 21 games since the start of their 2019 season. The Pioneers’ three all-time playoff appearances are the most for an NEC program, but they have little margin for error in the upcoming conference schedule.
The different feeling here is unlike the previously mentioned conferences because preseason favorite Chattanooga (1-2, 0-0) is only jumping into the conference schedule on Saturday and defending champ VMI (3-1, 1-0) is off to a strong start. What’s different, and basically unexpected, in this deep race is that 2021 continues to be disastrous for Wofford (1-2, 0-1), the 2017-19 champ, and Furman (2-2, 0-1), whose 14 titles are the most in SoCon history. The top picks in the SoCon’s two spring preseason polls are a combined 4-10 in conference this calendar year. They are the lowest-scoring teams in the conference, with Furman dominated by Mercer 24-3 last Saturday and Wofford’s identity of having a dominant rushing offense slipping more away (the Terriers’ 195 rushing yards per game rank 24th nationally, down from an average above 300 throughout the 2010s decade).