There’s optimism, renewal and anticipation as college football programs welcome in spring practices across the nation.

While each of the 128 programs has a clean slate prior to the 2024 FCS season, none can embrace its recent success quite like South Dakota State, which has captured back-to-back national championships and is riding a 29-game winning streak.

The NCAA will allow up to 15 spring practices, often staggered over about five weeks, as teams begin to take important steps toward the 2024 FCS season.

With the offseason work well underway, here are six burning questions across FCS nation:

What’s Changing in the 2024 FCS Season?

Including Dartmouth’s Sammy McCorkle being elevated from interim status, 29 FCS programs have had a head coaching change since the start of the 2023 season, one fewer than the record 30 of the 2014 cycle (according to the NCAA Record Book). It doesn’t include incoming FCS member West Georgia hiring a new coach (Joel Taylor, the former Mercer defensive coordinator), but there’s at least one in all 13 FCS leagues, led by the SWAC (five changes) and the Ivy League (four). West Georgia, which is joining the United Athletic Conference, is one of seven schools that will have an FCS affiliation change on July 1, which include CAA Football jumping to a record 16 FCS teams for the 2024 season.

Fast Fact: In the 2024 FCS season, the NCAA will allow teams to play 12 regular-season games – instead of the usual 11 – for just the second time since 2014 (the ’19 season). An extra regular-season game is allowed in years when there are 14 Saturdays from the first permissible playing date through the last playing date in November.


Are the Jackrabbits Primed for a Three-Peat?

It’s a distinct possibility for the two-time reigning FCS champion despite the loss of 13 of the 22 starters in the FCS championship game. Underclassmen who progressed in the shadows of the seniors are ready for larger roles. The key is 2023 Walter Payton Award-winning quarterback Mark Gronowski forsaking transfers opportunities to return for another season alongside the likes of All-MVFC standouts Amar Johnson (all-purpose), Gus Miller (center) and Tucker Large (defensive back/return specialist).

Fast Fact: Since the first FCS playoff in 1978, a school has won two or more consecutive national titles eight different times, including North Dakota State with a record five in a row from 2011-15 and Appalachian State with three straight from 2013-15. In the 2024 FCS season, South Dakota State seeks to be a third program with at least a three-peat.


Who’s Under More Pressure, Montana or Montana State?

Montana was an easy answer last offseason, but a surprising season that resulted in the Grizzlies’ first national title game appearance since 2009 has returned the program to an elite level. Given wide receiver/returner Junior Bergen rebuffing FBS transfer options, coach Bobby Hauck’s program is now counting who’s back. Meanwhile, the Bobcats are lamenting the losses a bit more via a second-round playoff ouster as well as graduation and transfers. A healthier Tommy Mellott behind center would bring stability to the team.

Fast Fact: Since the FCS’ formation in 1978, Butler’s Arnold Mickens holds the record for carries in a game (56 against Valparaiso in 1994). The Montana vs. Montana State rivalry tops that number prior to the FCS, with the Bobcats’ Paul Schafer rushing 58 times in the 1968 game, capped by his 1-yard touchdown with 12 seconds left to provide a 29-24 win over Montana. He finished with 234 rushing yards.


Where Does North Dakota State Fit Into the Big Picture?

Hah, in no way have we forgotten about the Bison, even though the FCS dynasty program has gone a whopping two consecutive seasons without a national title (after winning nine in an 11-season span from 2011-21). Actually, the Bison, under new coach Tim Polasek, were No. 1 in Craig Haley’s Never-Too-Early Preseason Top 10 shortly after this past season. In trying to reclaim the MVFC and FCS titles back from SDSU, they are well-stocked with quarterback Cam Miller, wide receiver Eli Green, defensive tackle Eli Mostaert, linebacker Logan Kopp and free safety Cole Wisniewski.

Fast Fact: In NDSU’s 20 FCS seasons since a rise to Division I in 2004, the Bison have held a national ranking in all but the 2009 campaign, with 16 of their 17 top-25 finishes within the top 10. After reaching the national semifinals with three playoff wins last season, they were No. 3 in the final Stats Perform FCS Top 25 Poll, presented by FedEx Ground.

North Dakota State has a 176-21 (.893) record, including the playoffs, since making the first of its 187 straight appearances in the Stats Perform FCS Top 25 Poll on Nov. 1, 2010. (Tim Sanger/NDSU Athletics)

Who’s Revving up the Bandwagon Ready?

This list is reserved for teams that finished outside the final top 25 poll. It’s take your pick in the United Athletic Conference, which boasts Central Arkansas and Tarleton State. UCA somewhat unachieved last season, but will return a stellar lineup that includes quarterback Will McElvain, running back ShunDerrick Powell and defensive end David Walker, while Tarleton’s veteran lineup is playoff-eligible for the first time. Eastern Illinois may be the team to beat in the Big South-OVC, and the top three conferences have playoff contenders in Illinois State (MVFC), Weber State (Big Sky) and Elon (CAA).  

Fast Fact: Perhaps we shouldn’t look too deep for upstarts. Since the FCS championship game moved to Frisco, Texas, 11 of the 14 eventual national champions have been seeded No. 1 or 2.

2024 FCS Season: Who Are Some of the Key Returning Players?

Gronowski’s return to South Dakota State to chase another Walter Payton Award would mean all four players to receive the 2023 season-ending FCS National Awards are back – also Tennessee State defensive end Terrell Allen (Buck Buchanan), Montana running back Eli Gillman (Jerry Rice) and Montana State’s Mellott (FedEx Ground Doris Robinson Scholar-Athlete). Gronowski, North Dakota State’s Miller and Western Carolina’s Cole Gonzales formed the top three in FCS passing efficiency, and 11 of the 15 quarterbacks in that statistic would be back. Walker, who was third in the 2022 Buchanan Award voting at Central Arkansas, will seek to be a first-team All-American for the third consecutive season.

Fast Fact: Gronowski was the fifth Payton Award recipient to play on the national championship-winning team in the same season. He followed North Dakota State’s Trey Lance (2019) to also claim the most outstanding player award in the title game (that award wasn’t started until 2009).

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