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Get your bull's-eye here

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Who knew in early September that the first game of the 2010 Missouri Valley Football Conference season - Northern Iowa beating North Dakota State - would be a matchup of two playoff-bound teams.

It was hard to foresee after Northern Iowa was picked fourth and North Dakota State sixth in the Valley's preseason poll.

Of course, the MVFC was basically turned upside down last season. Southern Illinois, which was the overwhelming preseason favorite, found out the hard way.

"Preseason favorites, I think, are all just guesses. That was very obvious last year," said Salukis coach Dale Lennon, whose team finished 5-6 overall and 4-4 in the tight conference.

SIU's type of misfortune in the favorite's role was widespread across the FCS. Only five of the 14 teams picked to win a conference title did so, and four of them shared it with one or more teams. Stephen F. Austin in the Southland Conference was the only preseason favorite to win an outright title.

All this would seem to make a trip to the fortune teller in February a preposterous concept, but somebody has to be the favorite in each conference. So let's throw some pressure into the air the way footballs soon will be flying at spring practices across the FCS.

Here are the teams to beat in each conference race:

Big Sky - Eastern Washington (13-2, 7-1 last season): It's hard not to pick the reigning national championship squad, but Montana State, which handled the Eagles in their matchup last season, wouldn't be a bad pick, either. It hurts coach Beau Baldwin's champs immensely that tailback Taiwan Jones is entering the NFL Draft as a junior. But one can't ignore the confident Eagles return eight starters on each side of the ball, including the exciting Bo Levi Mitchell-to-Brandon Kaufman passing combination on offense and game-changers like defensive tackle Renard Williams and safety Matt Johnson on defense. The Eagles will host Montana State on Sept. 24. That's worth a slight nod.

Big South - Liberty (8-3, 5-1): OK, Mitchell-to-Kaufman sounds good, but Liberty's combination of Mike Brown-to-Chris Summers could be even better. The Flames also feature the best kicker in the FCS in Matt Bevins. Coach Danny Rocco has to rebuild the lines, although the big returnee - make that BIG - is 6-foot-5, 380-pound nose tackle Asa Chapman. Also, one has to wonder if falling just short of the playoffs for three straight seasons is taking a toll on the Flames. Stony Brook won't feel sorry for them. The Seawolves are working hard to take over conference supremacy.

QB Bo Levi Mitchell was named the Most Outstanding Player in Eastern Washington's FCS championship game win over Delaware.
CAA Football - William & Mary (8-4, 6-2): There may not be a more motivated team in the FCS considering the Tribe lost at home to Georgia Southern in the Round of 16 as the No. 2 playoff seed. It helps to have talent and the Tribe have plenty of it, led by All-CAA tailback Jonathan Grimes. Quarterback Mike Paulus should settle in behind an experienced offensive line. The defense was pushed around by Georgia Southern, but gets back cornerback B.W. Webb and perhaps linebacker Jake Trantin, who left school this past fall.

Great West - Cal Poly (7-4, 2-2): The Mustangs could be riding high behind their spread triple option, which racks up rushing yards. All the key runners return, led by slotback Mark Rodgers and 6-3, 230-pound fullback Jake Romanelli. Cornerback Asa Jackson already is a three-time All-Great West first-team selection, but the Mustangs have to improve against the pass. Coach Tim Walsh's squad will face a brutally tough non-conference schedule, including trips to San Diego State, Northern Illinois and Montana and a home date against Eastern Washington.

Ivy League - Penn (9-1, 7-0): The Quakers will bring a 15-game league winning streak into the season, but they are vulnerable. They will have to overcome the loss of 33 letter-winners and face road games at rivals Brown and Harvard. Quarterback Billy Ragone is a gifted runner and was a finalist for league player of the year honors as a sophomore. Like Ragone, left tackle Greg Van Roten, defensive tackle Brandon Copeland and linebacker Erik Rask are returning all-league first-team selections. The Quakers also will bring in a superb freshman class and get back defensive tackle Jared Sholly after he missed last season with an injury.

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference - Bethune-Cookman (10-2, 7-1): The high- scoring offense garnered much of the headlines in head coach Brian Jenkins' rookie season last year, but the defense features even more talent. Its returnees include linebackers Ryan Lewis and Reggie Sandilands as well as defensive end Ryan Davis. The Wildcats' 14-0 win at South Carolina State this past season is the Bulldogs' only loss in its last 27 MEAC games, and this year the Wildcats host their meeting on Sept. 10 in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Missouri Valley Football Conference - Northern Iowa (7-5, 6-2): This spot could easily be going to North Dakota State, but aside from an Oct. 29 road game against the Bison, the Panthers have the better home/away schedule within conference play. They return 18 starters, including catch-me-if-you-can Tirrell Rennie, who led all FCS quarterbacks in rushing for 1,294 yards and 15 touchdowns, tailback/kickoff returner Carlos Anderson and sack-happy defensive tackle Ben Boothby.

Northeast Conference - Albany (6-5, 4-4): Last season, Robert Morris became the first NEC team to play in the FCS playoffs, and it did so behind the only head coach in program history, 17th-year skipper Joe Walton. Bob Ford could match that feat this year, and he's been Albany's only head coach since he was appointed on April 27, 1970. The Danes were incredibly young in the skills positions last season and found a higher level of play after redshirt freshman Buddy Leathley took over as the starting quarterback at midseason. Andrew Smith led the team in rushing and fellow back Dillon Romain was the NEC Offensive Rookie of the Year. Last year's co-champs, Robert Morris and Central Connecticut State, will have a lot to say in the title race.

Ohio Valley Conference - Jacksonville State (9-3, 6-3): A loss at Tennessee Tech to close the regular season cost the Gamecocks a share of the 2010 title. This will be a year to make amends. Coach Jack Crowe has built the best talent base in the OVC and it reflects at quarterback, where the Gamecocks feature two big contributors, starter Marques Ivory and Coty Blanchard, the conference freshman of the year this past season. Behind defensive end Monte Lewis and 6-3 safety Keginald Harris, the Gamecocks should be particularly solid on defense.

Patriot League - Lehigh (10-3, 5-0): Breakout players Chris Lum (quarterback), Ryan Spadola (wide receiver) and Mike Groome (middle linebacker) will return to energize a team that may have arrived a year ahead of schedule. They ran away with last year's league title and won a playoff game at Northern Iowa. Andy Coen and his coaching staff are probably busy right now trying to figure out how to slow down Colgate running back Nate Eachus, but the Mountain Hawks are the team to beat.

Pioneer Football League - Jacksonville (10-1, 8-0): The FCS' top-scoring offense in 2010 - 42.2 ppg - could remain on the top perch with their returning talent. Quarterback Josh McGregor fired 12 of his 32 touchdowns to wide receiver Josh Philpart and J.J. Laster flashed brilliance with 8.5 yards per carry. The Dolphins and Dayton tied for the 2010 PFL title without playing each other. This year, they are scheduled to square off Oct. 8 at Jacksonville.

Southern Conference - Georgia Southern (10-5, 5-3): OK, it makes more sense that the team to beat would be Appalachian State. Well, Georgia Southern is returning all but one starter after it reached the national semifinals behind first-year head coach Jeff Monken. The feel-good story was the return of the triple option offense, led by quarterback Jaybo Shaw, but the defense could be the scariest in the FCS, fueled by nose tackle Brent Russell and safety Laron Scott. Of course, the Eagles will have to win at App State and Wofford, the 2010 SoCon co-champions. Er, on second
thought...

Southland Conference - Northwestern State (5-6, 4-3): Is it possible that the Demons could go from a 0-11 record in 2009 to the conference title in 2011? Stephen F. Austin did just that from 2007 to 2009. It seems SFA's two-year reign as conference champion could be over after the loss of 2010 Walter Payton Award (sponsored by Fathead.com) winner Jeremy Moses and a strong senior class. Dominating linebacker Derek Rose and quarterback Paul Harris headlined the Demons' super sophs last season. Nine players who earned a form of All-SLC honors will be returning.

Southwestern Athletic Conference - Texas Southern (9-3, 8-1): Jackson State will return dynamic quarterback Casey Therriault and Grambling State is, well, Grambling State, but in the SWAC's likely competitive race, coach Johnnie Cole's TSU squad gets the call. It is coming off its first SWAC championship in 42 years. The Tigers found their quarterback in Riko Smalls in the championship game win over Alabama State and already had their single-season rushing leader in Marcus Wright. What might set them further apart is the stout defense that gets after opposing quarterbacks. The Tigers led the FCS with 45 sacks and return key components in defensive linemen Marquis Jackson and Jonathan Hollins, and linebacker Shomari Clemons.

Sacks or scores, contact Craig Haley at
chaley@sportsnetwork.com.


Follow Craig Haley on Twitter and Facebook.

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