Make no mistake, the 2024 FCS college football season will have its share of teams that go from flying under the radar in the offseason to having people praise them by regular season’s end, and beyond. Here is a list of candidates who hope to change the national perspective.

Each summer, there’s a question across FCS college football: What teams are going to emerge in the fall that weren’t being talking about nationally in July?

Sure, everyone who follows the level knows South Dakota State is loaded … again.

Sure, the dynamic duo in Montana each has the kind of program to once again dominate.

And North Dakota State will always be North Dakota State.

But what teams could become a playoff seed that maybe we didn’t see coming, what HBCU program could make the Celebration Bowl that maybe we weren’t talking about prior to Week 0, who may be a surprise in a conference race?

We take a look at some potential under-the-radar FCS teams:

No. 1: Eastern Illinois Panthers

2023 Record: 8-3

What to Know: EIU had as many wins last season as its five previous seasons combined, and it plays in a conference – the Big South-OVC – that it could win handily due to a surprising amount of talent. The recent trend of the NCAA transfer portal has improved the Panthers immensely, as they’ve found a way to blend that talent with their own homegrown recruits out of the high school ranks. The summer transfer haul was impressive for a team that was just a breath away from the 2023 FCS playoffs. This could be the Panthers’ best season since the Jimmy Garoppolo days of going 12-2 in 2013.

Coach Chris Wilkerson has stabilized this program, and with returnees such as quarterback Pierce Holley, running back M.J. Flowers and wide receiver Eli Mirza on offense, and defensive end Joel Barrows, linebacker Elijawah Tolbert and an excellent secondary on defense, this should be a special season.

Pivotal Matchup: Sept. 21 at Illinois State. This in-state game is shaping up to be one of the top non-conference games in the FCS. With EIU playing both Illinois and Northwestern in FBS matchups, the Mid-America Classic against ISU is pivotal in terms of what the Panthers’ resume would be for the postseason.


No. 2: Morgan State Bears

2023 Record: 4-6

What to Know: Morgan State came oh-so-close to a big 2023 season, coming within 22 points of an 8-2 record. With eight starters returning to the defense, the Bears are loaded with talent, including leading tackler Erick Hunter, defensive lineman Elijah Williams and defensive back Carlvainsky Decius. The offense has seven starters back, but will hardly have to score 40 points a game to win. It’s lining up to be a special season for coach Damon Wilson’s team.

The bottom line is, the Bears look like they have their best team since the 2014 season, when they won a share of the MEAC title and advanced to the FCS playoffs. They could end up rumbling toward their best overall record since they finished 9-2 in … gulp … 1979.

Pivotal Matchup: Nov. 23 vs Howard. While Morgan State’s game with North Carolina Central also looms large, this traditional rivalry game with the defending MEAC champion Bison is a pivotal one for the Bears. But then again, what’s new?

No. 3: Mercer Bears

2023 Record: 9-4

What to Know: After having its most accomplished season since re-entering the realm of college football in 2013 after a 70-year hiatus, the Bears are hardly sneaking up on anybody. After winning 22 games the past three seasons under coach Drew Cronic, they won’t shock anyone by having a strong campaign. Mercer made the FCS playoffs (and won a game) for the first time out of the highly competitive Southern Conference, finishing nationally ranked at No. 17. The graduation of wide receivers Ty James and Devron Harper Jr. would be the reason to overlook the Bears, but don’t make the mistake. Starting with the impressive linebacking duo of Isaac Dowling and Ken Standley, the Bears have talent.

Aside from Mercer’s usual non-conference game against an SEC opponent – this time Alabama – there isn’t one game on the schedule that doesn’t look like a potential win. What if the Bears went 11-0 against the FCS and picked up a top-eight playoff seed?

Pivotal Matchup: Oct. 12 vs. Princeton. It would be easy to go with a matchup against Chattanooga to open the SoCon schedule or Western Carolina in October … or really any conference battle. But this Princeton game could be pivotal for the Bears as they continue to build their brand as a national power. Can they knock off a traditional Ivy League title contender?

No. 4: Illinois State Redbirds

2023 Record: 6-5

What to Know: The Redbirds always play black-and-blue football, so there are a couple things you can count on for 2024: 1. They’ll be stout up front on the offensive line, and 2. A running back will likely do well. Mason King returns off being the 2023 Missouri Valley Football Conference newcomer of the year, Wenkers Wright led the team in rushing two seasons ago and Western Illinois transfer Seth Glatz paced the team in rushing in the spring game. And who will play quarterback? Kansas State transfer Jake Rubley certainly looked good in the spring. Don’t forget pass targets Eddie Kasper and Daniel Sobkowicz, who could pick up national honors if the QB situation is solid.

Defensively, this program is usually stout – as last year’s 20-5 points per game allowed would indicate. Four of ISU’s five losses were by three points or less (national champion South Dakota State beat the Redbirds by 19), so coach Brock Spack’s program wasn’t far from the playoffs.

Pivotal Matchup: Sept. 21 vs. Eastern Illinois. Non-conference matchups are going to go a long way at determining whether ISU has the postseason in its future. Sure, all MVFC games are key, but the Redbirds need to win this massive in-state rivalry matchup and avenge last year’s 14-13 loss.

No. 5: Western Carolina Catamounts

2023 Record: 7-4

What to Know: There’s no question the Catamounts have lost key talent from last year’s team, but the argument is this: Was last year an anomaly or a sign of things to come in Cullowhee, North Carolina? The answer is this offensive system under coach Kerwin Bell is going to score a boatload of points. The offensive line is mostly intact, wide receiver Calvin Jones and running back Brandon Adams are back, and, most importantly, quarterback Cole Gonzales returns.

There’s a buzz around WCU football, and while this program tripped itself up down the stretch last year – not coincidentally with star running back Desmond Reid injured – the Catamounts were just a few points away from being 9-1 against FCS opponents and in the playoffs for the first time since a national runner-up finish in 1983.

Pivotal Matchup: Oct. 26 at Mercer. This may settle a playoff spot and maybe the SoCon race in what is typically a parity-filled league.

Elon Phoenix

What to Know: The Phoenix are coming off a 6-5 season, and with the craziness of CAA schedule rotation in an enormous league, they’re a team to consider as a title threat. They’re traditionally a tough out in one of the FCS’ better leagues, and can count on great QB play from 2023 transfer Matthew Downing, who threw for more than 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns (with no interceptions) in the final four games last season.

Robert Morris Colonials

What to Know: It’s hard to ignore what the Colonials (4-7 in the Big South-OVC last year) have returning and what they added with Merrimack transfer running back Tyvon Edmonds, Jr. (1,247 rushing yards – tied for the eighth-most in the FCS). Now that RMU is back in the Northeast Conference, look for a lot of offense and a potential title run.

Weber State Wildcats

What to Know: Based on their recent successes, it would be dumb to discount the Wildcats, but they dipped to 6-5 overall and 4-4 in the Big Sky last year, so some fans might overlook them. That wouldn’t be wise, considering their recent history of solid defense and excellent special teams play in a conference known for its offense. It starts up front with defensive linemen Matt Herron and Brayden Wilson.

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