If you blink in college football, you’re going to miss a lot.

Thank you (ahem), NCAA transfer portal … NIL … coaching carousel … conference realignment …

Amid all the swirling changes, however, the dominance of a small handful of programs have been a constant atop FCS college football:

South Dakota State has risen up to meet North Dakota State’s FCS dynasty with back-to-back national championships and a 29-game winning streak heading into the new campaign.

Montana has returned to the FCS elite, and Montana State was already there.

It doesn’t figure to change much during the 2024 season, either.

Even since his never-too-early 2024 outlook just a few days after the 2023 national championship game, FCS senior editor Craig Haley has been counting down the days to the Aug. 24 kickoff – 100 away on May 16 – and now he’s released his FCS football preseason top 25 rankings, a projection he will contribute to the Stats Perform national media poll (about 55 voters) in August.

Even Haley admits, he’s looking forward to all the twists and turns of the 2024 FCS football season – maybe even being proven wrong – on the way to the NCAA Division I FCS championship game the night of Jan. 6 in Frisco, Texas.

1. North Dakota State Bison

  • 2023 Season: 11-4, 5-3 MVFC (tie/third); final ranking: 3 (FCS semifinalist)
  • Three Notable Games: at Colorado (Aug. 29); South Dakota State (Oct. 19); at South Dakota (Nov. 23)
  • Quick Hit: First-year head coach Tim Polasek – a part of four FCS championship-winning staffs as an assistant during the 2010s – is back in Fargo with the same high level of expectation.

2. South Dakota State Jackrabbits

  • 2023 Season: 15-0, 8-0 MVFC (first); final ranking: 1 (FCS champion)
  • Three Notable Games: at Oklahoma State (Aug. 31); at North Dakota State (Oct. 19); South Dakota (Oct. 26)
  • Quick Hit: The possibility of a national title three-peat strengthened with Walter Payton Award-winning quarterback Mark Gronowski’s decision to resist a possible FBS transfer.
Capping the 2023 season, South Dakota State’s Jimmy Rogers became the eighth first-year head coach to win the FCS national title.

3. Montana Grizzlies

  • 2023 Season: 13-2, 7-1 Big Sky (first); final ranking: 2 (FCS runner-up)
  • Three Notable Games: at Eastern Washington (Sept. 28); Weber State (Oct. 5); at Montana State (Nov. 23)
  • Quick Hit: Opposing teams and their fan bases will be muttering, “Just don’t kick it to Junior Bergen.” 

4. South Dakota Coyotes

  • 2023 Season: 10-3, 7-1 MVFC (second); final ranking: 4 (FCS quarterfinalist)
  • Three Notable Games: Southern Illinois (Sept. 28); at South Dakota State (Oct. 26); North Dakota State (Nov. 23)
  • Quick Hit: The offense returns 10 starters, including the dangerous trio of quarterback Aidan Bouman, running back Travis Theis and wide receiver Carter Bell.

5. Montana State Bobcats

  • 2023 Season: 8-4, 6-2 Big Sky (tie/second); final ranking: 9
  • Three Notable Games: Idaho (Oct. 12); Sacramento State (Nov. 9); Montana (Nov. 23)
  • Quick Hit: Across coach Brent Vigen’s first three seasons, MSU ranked second in FCS football in rushing yards per game (to PFL member Davidson). Quarterback Tommy Mellott had nearly 2,500 of the yards.

6. Villanova Wildcats

  • 2023 Season: 10-3, 7-1 CAA (tie/first); final ranking: 6 (FCS quarterfinalist)
  • Three Notable Games: Youngstown State (Aug. 29); New Hampshire (Oct. 26); Delaware (Nov. 23)
  • Quick Hit: One of three defending tri-champions, the Wildcats will face CAA opponents that went only 21-43 within the conference last season.

7. Sacramento State Hornets

  • 2023 Season: 8-5, 4-4 Big Sky (tie/sixth); final ranking: 13
  • Three Notable Games: Nicholls (Sept. 14); at Montana State (Nov. 9); UC Davis (Nov. 23) 
  • Quick Hit: The Hornets return three quarterbacks who started a win last season – Kaiden Bennett, Carson Camp and Carson Conklin.

8. Idaho Vandals

  • 2023 Season: 9-4, 6-2 Big Sky (tie/second); final ranking: 8 (FCS quarterfinalist)
  • Three Notable Games: UAlbany (Sept. 14); at Montana State (Oct. 12); Eastern Washington (Oct. 12)
  • Quick Hit: Weber State transfer Abraham Williams arrives with five career kickoff returns for touchdowns – two shy of the Big Sky and FCS football records.

9. William & Mary Tribe

  • 2023 Season: 6-5, 4-4 CAA (tie/sixth); final ranking: unranked
  • Three Notable Games: Furman (Sept. 21); Elon (Nov. 9); at Richmond (Nov. 23)
  • Quick Hit: The Tribe opened 4-0 last season, then weren’t the same while running back Bronson Yoder and wide receiver/kick returner DreSean Kendrick missed the final seven games due to injuries.

10. Central Arkansas Bears

  • 2023 Season: 7-4, 4-2 UAC (tie/second); final ranking: unranked
  • Three Notable Games: Austin Peay (Sept. 14); at Tarleton State (Nov. 9); at Eastern Kentucky (Nov. 23)
  • Quick Hit: Two-time first-team All-American David Walker has 40 tackles for loss and 20.5 sacks over the last two seasons.

11. Chattanooga Mocs

  • 2023 Season: 8-5, 6-2 SoCon (tie/second); final ranking: 14
  • Three Notable Games: at Tennessee (Aug. 31); at Furman (Oct. 12); at Western Carolina (Nov. 2)
  • Quick Hit: Following the Mocs’ first playoff appearance since 2016, Chase Artopoeus reconnects with a pair of wide receivers who combined for over 2,000 receiving yards, Javin Whatley and Sam Phillips.

12. Southern Illinois Salukis

  • 2023 Season: 8-5, 4-4 MVFC (tie/seventh); final ranking: 12
  • Three Notable Games: UIW (Sept. 14); North Dakota State (Oct. 12); at South Dakota State (Nov. 16) 
  • Quick Hit: The season opener at BYU is difficult, but the Salukis, under coach Nick Hill, have an FBS win in three of their last four fall campaigns.

13. UIW Cardinals

  • 2023 Season: 8-2, 6-1 Southland (second); final ranking: 22
  • Three Notable Games: at South Dakota State (Sept. 7); Nicholls (Oct. 12); at Southeastern Louisiana (Nov. 9)
  • Quick Hit: Hurt by its strength of schedule last season, UIW has upgraded it this year. The Cardinals were the highest-ranked team in the final 2023 FCS Top 25 poll (No. 22) to not appear in the postseason.

14. Illinois State Redbirds

  • 2023 Season: 6-5, 4-4 MVFC (tie/seventh); final ranking: unranked
  • Three Notable Games: Eastern Illinois (Sept. 21); North Dakota State (Sept. 28); at Northern Iowa (Nov. 9)
  • Quick Hit: To gain their first playoff appearance since 2019, the Redbirds believe they can reverse four losses by a combined eight points a year ago.

15. Weber State Wildcats

  • 2023 Season: 6-5, 4-4 Big Sky (tie/sixth); final ranking: unranked
  • Three Notable Games: at Montana (Oct. 5); at Sacramento State (Oct. 19); at Idaho (Nov. 16)
  • Quick Hit: The Wildcats’ five home FCS opponents were a combined 11-43 last year (not including forfeits); the six road foes were 41-28 (and then there’s the FBS opponent, 2023 national runner-up Washington).

16. Furman Paladins

  • 2023 Season: 10-3, 7-1 SoCon (first); final ranking: 7 (FCS quarterfinalist)
  • Three Notable Games: at William & Mary (Sept. 21); Chattanooga (Oct. 12); Western Carolina (Oct. 19)
  • Quick Hit: Bandit linebacker Luke Clark is the headliner on a defense that led the SoCon in scoring defense, total defense, sacks and forced turnovers last season.

17. Lafayette Leopards

  • 2023 Season: 9-3, 5-1 Patriot (tie/first); final ranking: 21
  • Three Notable Games: at Fordham (Oct. 5); Holy Cross (Oct. 26); at Lehigh (Nov. 23)
  • Quick Hit: Lafayette will open the season against a Buffalo program that has lost to Patriot League programs in each of the past two years (Holy Cross in 2022 and Fordham last year).

18. Elon Phoenix

  • 2023 Season: 6-5, 6-2 CAA (tie/fourth); final ranking: unranked
  • Three Notable Games: Western Carolina (Sept. 14); Richmond (Sept. 28); at William & Mary (Nov. 9)
  • Quick Hit: Six of the first seven opponents had winning records last season, but included in that stretch are four consecutive home games for the first time in Elon’s FCS era.

19. Tarleton State Texans

  • 2023 Season: 8-3, 4-2 UAC (tie/second); final ranking: unranked
  • Three Notable Games: at Baylor (Aug. 31);Central Arkansas (Nov. 9); at Stephen F. Austin (Nov. 16)
  • Quick Hit: Under coach Todd Whitten, the Texans posted a winning record in each of their four Division I reclassifying seasons. They’re playoff-eligible for the first time this year. 

20. Richmond Spiders

  • 2023 Season: 9-4, 7-1 CAA (tie/first); final ranking: 15
  • Three Notable Games: at Elon (Sept. 28); Delaware (Oct. 19); William & Mary (Nov. 23)
  • Quick Hit: The Spiders are the only FCS team to be returning two quarterbacks (Kyle Wickersham and Camden Coleman) who had 1,000+ passing yards and 10+ TD passes last season.

21. UAlbany Great Danes

  • 2023 Season: 11-4, 7-1 CAA (tie/first); FCS semifinalist; final ranking: 5 (FCS semifinalist)
  • Three Notable Games: at Idaho (Sept. 14); Elon (Oct. 19); New Hampshire (Nov. 2)
  • Quick Hit: Hard hit by graduation and transfers, the Great Danes are coming off their first CAA title, a program-record 11 wins and their deepest FCS playoff run.  

22. Nicholls Colonels

  • 2023 Season: 6-5, 7-0 Southland (first); final ranking: unranked
  • Three Notable Games: at Sacramento State (Sept. 14); at UIW (Oct. 12); at Lamar (Nov. 16)
  • Quick Hit: The Colonels offense will return both All-Southland first-team running backs, Jaylon Spears and Collin Guggenheim, and four of its five starting linemen.

23. Western Carolina Catamounts

  • 2023 Season: 7-4, 5-3 SoCon (fourth); final ranking: 23
  • Three Notable Games: at Montana (Sept. 21); at Furman (Oct. 19); at Samford (Nov. 23)
  • Quick Hit: The Catamounts, behind quarterback Cole Gonzales, led the FCS in offensive yards per game (504.1) last season.

24. Eastern Illinois Panthers

  • 2023 Season: 8-3, 4-2 Big South-OVC (third); final ranking: unranked
  • Three Notable Games: at Illinois State (Sept. 21); Southeast Missouri State (Oct. 5); at UT Martin (Oct. 26)
  • Quick Hit: The Panthers’ increase in winning percentage from 2022 to ’23 (.545, 2-9 to 8-3) was the highest in FCS football last year.

25.(tie) UT Martin Skyhawks

  • 2023 Season: 8-3, 5-1 Big South-OVC (tie/first); final ranking: 25
  • Three Notable Games: at Southeast Missouri State (Sept. 7); Eastern Illinois (Oct. 26); at Tennessee State (Nov. 2)
  • Quick Hit: Despite winning at least a share of three straight conference titles, the Skyhawks have only one playoff bid in that time (2021).

25.(tie) Youngstown State Penguins

  • 2023 Season: 8-5, 5-3 MVFC (tie/third); final ranking: 19
  • Three Notable Games: at Villanova (Aug. 29);South Dakota (Oct. 19), Northern Iowa (Nov. 16)
  • Quick Hit: The Penguins do not have a bye week built into their 12-game schedule after opening against Villanova, which eliminated them from last year’s first playoff bid since 2016.

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