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Spoilers and upstarts

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - If Southeast Missouri State's struggling football program had accepted its spot in the Ohio Valley Conference preseason poll (tied for seventh) last season, the Redhawks would not have gone on to win their first title.

If Villanova had not gotten tripped up at Rhode Island, then the 2009 FCS champion Wildcats could have earned a share of the CAA Football title. And URI followers might not be singing the Rams' praises heading into the 2011 season.

A season often doesn't play out as planned because teams are a lot closer in talent on the field than we might think on paper. A favored team can flop because a slew of spoiler and upstart teams line up behind it.

There won't be many overwhelming favorites in the 14 FCS conferences this season, although Lehigh in the Patriot League, Jacksonville in the Pioneer Football League and Jacksonville State of the Ohio Valley Conference are the closest to them.

Dig a little deeper and some spoilers and upstarts are sitting there, ready to announce their secret come September.

Here's one for each FCS conference:

Sam Houston State RB Tim Flanders led the Southland Conference in rushing yards (948) and rushing TDs (13) last season.
Big Sky: Defending FCS champion Eastern Washington and Montana State are the favorites. Sacramento State, seeking its first playoff appearance, is capable of making waves this season and could be nationally ranked. But if you want a true sleeper, take an extra long look at Portland State, which led the conference in rushing (203.3 ypg) and played hard for rookie head coach Nigel Burton last season. The Vikings (2-9, 1-7) must turn around some of the close losses to become a spoiler.

Big South: Liberty and Stony Brook are the favorites over last year's FCS playoff qualifier, Coastal Carolina. Gardner-Webb gets back standout linebacker Marty Patterson, who was the conference's 2010 preseason defensive player of the year, from a season-ending and severe hip injury during training camp. Ron Dickerson Jr. has come aboard, hoping to breathe energy into the team, after long-time head coach Steve Patton was let go following a 4-7 overall and 2-4 conference season.

CAA Football: William & Mary is the favorite, followed by Delaware and New Hampshire. Rhode Island (5-6, 4-4) built momentum last season by winning three of its final four games, including the upset of Villanova. The Rams, who are particularly tough at home, will feature quarterback Steve Probst as they seek their first winning season since 2001.

Great West: In a potentially balanced race, Cal Poly seems to rate as a slight favorite over defending champ Southern Utah and UC Davis. But how about South Dakota, with its offensive weapons, putting it all together? The Coyotes won at the University of Minnesota, then finished only 4-7 overall and 1-3 in conference play. Chris Ganious will run behind All-America left tackle Tom Compton.

Ivy: Penn and Harvard always seem to be the favorites; Take your pick for a breakthrough team: Brown, Yale or Dartmouth. We'll play it safe with Brown (6-4, 5-2), which could win the league title behind the return of fifth-year quarterback Kyle Newhall-Caballero from a broken wrist. Coach Phil Estes should have an explosive offense.

MEAC: Bethune-Cookman, South Carolina State and Florida A&M headline the conference again. Hampton (6-5, 5-3) hopes to snap out of four straight mediocre seasons. With the MEAC expanding to 11 teams, the Pirates don't have South Carolina State on their schedule and play some of the weaker opponents toward the end of the season. Coach Donovan Rose's squad hopes to be in title contention at that point.

Missouri Valley: Northern Iowa and North Dakota State are the favorites, but Indiana State will try to take the next step in their turnaround under coach Trent Miles. They had won only two of their previous 62 games heading into last season, then came out of nowhere to go 6-5 last season. Quarterback Ronnie Fouch, breakaway running back Shakir Bell and junior defensive end Ben Obaseki are among the 17 returning starters.

NEC: Central Connecticut State and Robert Morris were the conference's top teams last season. Albany, which slumped to 6-5 overall and 4-4 in conference games, won its final three games behind redshirt freshman quarterback Buddy Leathley. Bob Ford is the FCS's longest-tenured head coach - entering his 42nd season at Albany - and knows he has a solid team.

Ohio Valley Conference: Jacksonville State is the favorite, with Eastern Kentucky and Southeast Missouri State giving chase. Murray State (6-5, 5-3) is coming off its first winning season since 2004 and second-year coach Chris Hatcher has the spread offense humming behind quarterback Casey Brockman and running back Mike Harris.

Patriot: It's hard to find a possible champion behind Lehigh and Nate Eachus- led Colgate, but Holy Cross (6-5, 3-2) might play the spoiler for one of the two. The Crusaders host Colgate, but have to visit Lehigh, the defending champion. Returning quarterback Ryan Taggert works behind big left tackle Mike McCabe, while senior linebacker Ricky Otis led the league in tackles last season.

Pioneer: Although it will be tough to derail Jacksonville's offensive express, Morehead State (5-6, 4-4) has seasoned skill position players, led by quarterback Zach Lewis, and defensive linemen, and should factor into the title race. The Eagles return seven players who earned a form of All-PFL honors.

Southern: Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Wofford form the top trio for any conference this season - all likely Top 10 teams. Chattanooga wants to crash the party after going 6-5 in each of the last two seasons for its first back-to-back winning records since 1990 and '91. Quarterback B.J. Coleman is the real deal, but the first half of the schedule, including games at Nebraska, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, and a home game against Jacksonville State, might take too big of a toll on the Mocs.

Southland: It's a wide-open race and Stephen F. Austin figures to be voted the favorite in the conference's preseason poll. Don't overlook Sam Houston State (6-5, 4-3), whose three conference losses last season were by a combined 11 points. Kansas State transfer Tim Flanders joined the team in August just before the season opener and went on to lead the conference in rushing yards (948) and rushing touchdowns (13).

SWAC: After the conference's offseason of head coaching defections and APR penalties, defending champion Texas Southern remains the favorite over Grambling State's storied program. Arkansas-Pine Bluff gets last year's SWAC finalists, Alabama State and Texas Southern, as well as Grambling State at home. Can the Golden Lions do something with it?

FCS Independent: Texas State (4-7) has a brutally tough road schedule, including visits to FBS members Texas Tech and Wyoming to open the season, but the Bobcats would love to leave the Southland Conference by beating some of their rivals (they aren't eligible for the conference title). Former New Mexico, TCU, Alabama and Texas A&M head coach Dennis Franchione has returned for his second tour in San Marcos.

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


Follow Craig Haley on Twitter and Facebook.

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