The tough part may be ahead for some of the surprise teams in FCS college football because as the season heads toward late October, they have everybody’s attention in conference.
Of the five teams listed below, none was picked in the top half of its conference’s preseason poll, and now they’re all at least three games above .500.
This Halloween, Cinderella will look quite comfortable wearing shoulder pads and cleats.
The five surprising FCS teams:
Eastern Kentucky (5-2, 2-0 AQ7)
Coming From: While the Colonels were 3-6 in coach Walt Wells’ first season last fall, they were 3-3 against FCS opponents. After not participating in the Ohio Valley Conference spring season, they were picked fifth in the preseason poll of the one-year AQ7.
Key Wins: 35-27 over then-No. 19 Austin Peay; 38-35 at Central Arkansas
Key Factor: Second-half productivity has stood out during a four-game winning streak. The Colonels have outscored opponents 62-25 (+37) in that stretch after being outscored 34-24 (-10) following intermission in their 1-2 start to the season.
What’s Ahead: Following a bye this week, an expected home win over Lamar on Oct. 30 would set the Colonels up for an intriguing November, including a first-time matchup at defending FCS champion Sam Houston on Nov. 13.
Columbia (4-1, 1-1 Ivy)
Coming From: When the Ivy League last played in 2019, the Lions finished 3-7, so they’ve already surpassed that win total. They were picked seventh out of eight teams in the league’s preseason poll.
Key Wins: 22-20 at Central Connecticut State; 23-14 vs. Penn
Key Factor: The Lions have held a halftime lead and not surrendered it in the second half of all four wins, and Dante Miller has averaged 131.5 yards in those games. It also helps to have the No. 3 active winningest coach at all NCAA levels in Al Bagnoli (261-127).
What’s Ahead: Overlooked due to the Ivies having three 5-0 teams for the first time since 1968, the Lions have a difficult stretch of Dartmouth, Yale and Harvard in their next three games.
No. 15 South Dakota (5-2, 3-1 MVFC)
Coming From: The Coyotes finished 5-7 in 2019 and 1-3 in the Missouri Valley’s spring season. They were picked eighth out of 11 teams in the conference’s preseason poll.
Key Wins: 20-13 over then-No. 13 North Dakota; 34-21 at then-No. 16 Northern Iowa
Key Factor: Coach Bob Nielson’s team tends to get the jump on opponents, having outscored them by 111 points (149 to 38) in the first half of games, which is the third-highest advantage in the FCS. They didn’t have a halftime lead during their shortened spring campaign (two of four games were tied, though).
What’s Ahead: The Coyotes will host Illinois State on Saturday with the chance to secure their first four-game winning streak in conference since 2006. After meeting Western Illinois, the final two games (South Dakota State and North Dakota State) are much more difficult.
No. 13 UT Martin (5-1, 2-0 OVC)
Coming From: UTM contended for the Ohio Valley Conference title in 2019, but went 3-4 in the spring schedule. Coach Jason Simpson’s squad was picked exactly in the middle of the preseason poll in fourth.
Key Wins: 34-31 at then-No. 9 Jacksonville State; 48-24 vs. Murray State
Key Factor: After ranking last in the OVC in rushing offense during the spring, the Skyhawks are No. 1 at 227.5 yards per game. Combined with the conference’s top rushing defense (107.2), they have the top average in time of possession (33 minutes, 44 seconds), and it ranks eighth out of 128 FCS teams.
What’s Ahead: The next three games are at Graham Stadium, where the Skyhawks have won 10 of their last 12. Two of their final five games are against Southeast Missouri, but the road finale on Nov. 20 – not Saturday’s matchup – counts toward the OVC standings.
Prairie View A&M (5-1, 4-0 SWAC)
Coming From: The Panthers were 9-8 against Southwestern Athletic Conference opponents in coach Eric Dooley’s first three campaigns. After being picked fourth out of six West Division teams in the preseason poll, they’re off to their best start in conference since 2015.
Key Wins: 24-10 over Grambling State; 27-17 over Arkansas-Pine Bluff
Key Factor: No FCS team averaged more penalties (11.5) and penalty yards (nearly 94.7) per game than the Panthers in the most-recent full season of 2019, but they’ve cut it to 5.7 and 52, respectively. The improved efficiency reflects in their outgaining opponents by nearly 129 yards per game.
What’s Ahead: A win at Southern on Saturday could set up a de facto West Division championship game at Alcorn State on Nov. 13.