Can North Dakota State Make It Four Consecutive FCS Titles?

North Dakota State FCS Football; Brock Jensen
George Hammond

Can North Dakota State Make It Four Consecutive FCS Titles?

With the coronation of North Dakota State and its three-peat complete, the Bison will deservedly take their place on the mantel alongside Appalachian State as the only schools to win three consecutive FCS titles. North Dakota State capped a 15-0 season on Saturday with a 35-7 victory over Towson in Frisco, Texas.

Could they make it four in a row in 2014?

The Bison should be in the hunt – they have a decent nucleus returning even with 24 seniors leaving from a team that has won 24 straight and went 15-0 this season. But gone are head coach Craig Bohl, who went 104-32 in 11 seasons in Fargo, as well as quarterback Brock Jensen, who only won more games (48) than any other quarterback in FCS history.

“We’d like to think the program is in a different place than it was 11 years ago and the one thing we’ve always strived to do is leave a program better than what it was when we first got here, so we want to wish Coach Klieman (Chris) the very best and just keep it going,” said Bohl, who is taking over the head coaching job at Wyoming.

One of the key returnees next year, linebacker Carlton Littlejohn, echoed his former coach’s sentiments.  “We still have capable underclassmen that are making plays,” said Littlejohn, in Frisco, following the title game. “We just have to not focus on what we’re losing but what we still have and what we have to gain. I think we’ll still be a good football team next year with the guys we have.”

So, who are the candidates that might knock North Dakota State from its pedestal? One could come from its own Missouri Valley Football Conference – Northern Iowa.

The Panthers, a longtime elite program in FCS, are still looking for their first national title. They are a perennial playoff team, although the Panthers didn’t make it this year, but came close to a title in 2005 when they lost to Appalachian State, 21-16, in the national championship.

Northern Iowa had a disappointing 7-5 campaign in 2013 in a strange season filled with injuries and gut-wrenching defeats. The Panthers opened the season with four victories, including a 28-20 victory over Iowa State.  Then came five straight losses, including a 24-23 loss to North Dakota State.  Three of the losses in the five-game skid came in overtime and the Panthers lost the five contests by a total of just 28 points. They finished with three straight victories, including a victory over Youngstown State.

Northern Iowa will enter 2014 with a chip on its shoulder after being snubbed for a playoff bid. Despite the five losses, the Panthers believed their close defeats should have been considered, but they didn’t get a bid and to add to their disappointment, only two MVFC teams, North Dakota State and South Dakota State, got bids from a conference that was generally believed to be the toughest in the nation.

The Panthers, who get North Dakota State and South Dakota State at home in 2014, return just about everybody, including fifth-year senior running back David Johnson, four offensive linemen, both quarterbacks, Sawyer Kollmorgen and Brion Carnes, wide receiver Brett LeMaster, who missed this season with a knee injury, the entire secondary, and linebacker Jake Farley, who suffered a broken leg in the North Dakota State contest and was the team’s leading tackler at the time.

Another team to remember for next season is Jacksonville (Ala.) State. The Gamecocks went 11-4 in the Ohio Valley Conference and reached the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs. They routed Samford, 55-14, in the first round, and then beat McNeese State, 31-10, before falling at Eastern Washington, 35-24, in the quarter-finals.

All-American running back DaMarcus James returns after a record-breaking season where he ran for 1,477 yards to set the school’s single-season rushing record. He also set the OVC record with 29 rushing touchdowns to finish second in the nation.

“We want to be conference champions and we want to be national champions,” said second-year coach Bill Clark to the Anniston (Ala.) Star, following the loss to Eastern Washington. “We want to do better (than last year) and they should, too. It’s like that taste of something good to eat. It’s just a taste; we want more of it.”

Jacksonville State is getting help via the transfer route for next season, too. Among the newcomers are SEC transfers LaMichael Fanning, a 6-7, 270-pound defensive end from Alabama, and quarterback Christian LeMay of Georgia.  Another Georgia transfer, defensive back Shaquille Fluker, also is expected.   With LeMay, the Gamecocks have three solid quarterbacks as Max Shortell and Eli Jenkins also return.

Eastern Washington (13-2), which was the No. 3 seed in this year’s playoffs, should be a top 10 team again in 2014. Quarterback Vernon Adams returns as does wideout Cooper Kupp.  A native of Pasadena, CA, Adams is 20-4 as an EWU starter and led the nation this season in passing efficiency. Adams threw for 4,994 yards (second in the nation). Meanwhile, Kupp broke FCS records for a freshman with yardage and touchdowns.

In the CAA, one team to watch is New Hampshire.  The Wildcats (10-5), who made the playoffs for the 10th consecutive season (longest in the nation), lost in the semifinals, 52-14, to North Dakota State, but that was the first time New Hampshire had advanced that far. It had lost six quarterfinal-round games in the last nine years.

“I’m very proud of my team,” said Coach Sean McDonnell to the Concord (N.H.) Monitor. “We took a step this season that we hadn’t before. The biggest one is still in store.”

The Wildcats, which knocked off Southeast Louisiana in the quarterfinals, have 15 starters eligible to return. Quarterbacks Sean Goldrich and Andy Vailas return as does top running back Nico Steriti and top receiver R.J. Harris.  Five of the team’s top six tacklers also return in 2014, although the team does lose three starters on the defensive line.

These teams certainly aren’t the only ones that could make a title run. There are others such as Southeast Louisiana, which returns quarterback Bryan Bennett and running back Rasheed Harrell.  Villanova suffered major injury woes in 2013, but should bounce back with quarterback John Robertson and running back Kevin Monangai.  Montana has 14 starters returning with quarterback Jordan Johnson among them. The Grizzlies should have a say in the national title as will the Southland’s McNeese State.

And finally, expect Fordham, with a 12-2 record this season, to be in the top 10-15, too. Record-setting quarterback Mike Nebrich returns as does wide receiver Sam Ajala, tight end Dan Light and linebacker Stephen Hodge.