Missouri Valley still atop FCS conference rankings
(STATS) – Dreams of FBS riches not only have taken national champions away from the FCS this decade, but programs on the rise as well.
The moves of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern from the Southern Conference – they won a combined nine FCS national titles – are the most celebrated (or scorned), but others like Old Dominion from CAA Football and Coastal Carolina from the Big South (to the FBS next year) have thinned out the upper tier.
That has helped the Missouri Valley Football Conference. While other FCS conferences have regrouped, the home of five-time reigning national champion North Dakota State is only getting stronger.
It's no surprise the Missouri Valley, followed by the CAA and Big Sky, lead the way in a ranking of FCS conferences:
13. Pioneer Football League=
The good – Not having scholarships makes it hard for the PFL to compete against scholarship programs, but some of its teams haven't shied away from playing good competition out of conference. Plus there's promise for a terrific title race with defending co-champs Dayton and San Diego, Jacksonville and Morehead State.
The bad and the ugly – Despite coaching changes, Davidson and Valparaiso continue to have struggling programs. Davidson has had eight straight losing seasons and Valpo is up to 12.
12. Southwestern Athletic Conference=
The good – Two-time defending conference champ Alcorn State and Alabama State in the East Division and rivals Grambling State and Southern in the West form a nice mix of upper-tier teams.
The bad and the ugly – Mississippi Valley State, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Texas Southern didn't win a conference game at home last season as SWAC teams went a puzzling 16-26 in such matchups.
11. Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference=
The good – The MEAC has a clear lead over its SWAC brethren, including North Carolina A&T's win in the inaugural Celebration Bowl. A&T comes back strong, as does rival North Carolina Central. Bethune-Cookman, which has won at least a share of five of the last six titles, and South Carolina State always figure to be there in the end as well.
The bad and the ugly – The MEAC also had four one-win teams a year ago: Delaware State, Howard, Florida A&M and Savannah State.
10. Northeast Conference=
The good – The conference's stature has risen as football scholarship amounts have gone up (in 2014, the NEC went 5-2 against CAA Football teams). Duquesne is favored to defend its title and the return of key quarterbacks in the conference could mean this ranking is too low.
The bad and the ugly – Road games out of conference are a good thing. Duquesne's home attendance average was the lowest in the FCS with Robert Morris, Saint Francis and Wagner also among the five smallest.
9. Ivy League=
The good – How impressive is this?: Over the last 15 seasons, Harvard's worst record is 7-3. All the Crimson do is reload.
The bad and the ugly – While it was a huge season for the three league champions last season, Penn lost a lot (11 starters), Harvard lost even more (13) and Dartmouth lost too much (17).
8. Patriot League=
The good – Colgate announced its return to prominence with road playoff wins against New Hampshire and James Madison. Take your pick for a league favorite between the Raiders and their veteran squad and Fordham and its star running back, Chase Edmonds.
The bad and the ugly – The league powers, including Lehigh, still don't play enough defense. Despite going 9-5, Colgate was outscored by 45 points last season.
7. Big South Conference=
The good – Charleston Southern has grown up quickly under fourth-year coach Jamey Chadwell. Liberty is the longtime power and emerging Kennesaw State doesn't resemble a second-year program.
The bad and the ugly – With Coastal Carolina departed for its transition toward the FBS, the conference has taken a huge hit. With six teams, it's the smallest conference in the FCS.
6. Ohio Valley Conference=
The good – National runner-up Jacksonville State hasn't lost a conference game in the last two seasons and the gap to the other teams might be bigger this year. Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Illinois have the best chance to end the Gamecocks' run.
The bad and the ugly – Eastern Illinois hasn't beaten a team outside the OVC in coach Kim Dameron's first two seasons. Austin Peay has only one win over the last three seasons.
5. Southland Conference=
The good – Sam Houston State has been the best FCS program outside North Dakota State this decade. The Bearkats, who have been to the national final or semifinal in four of the last five seasons, have built up a lot of knowledge about taking the next step. McNeese State, not Sam Houston, is the defending conference champ.
The bad and the ugly – Only four of the 11 teams finished with winning records last season and only Sam Houston and McNeese had a winning record against non-Southland opponents.
4. Southern Conference=
The good – The quantity of good teams has brought the SoCon back following the defections of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern. Some believe last year's co-champs, Chattanooga and The Citadel, may drop a little, but that may not be the case. Add in Samford, Western Carolina, Wofford, Furman and Mercer, and the title race could be terrific.
The bad and the ugly – Behind three straight conference titles, Chattanooga has become a top-15 staple. But it's not what App State or Georgia Southern were – national title threats.
3. Big Sky Conference=
The good – There's no shortage of good teams in the nation's largest FCS conference (13 teams). Power programs Eastern Washington and Montana will be part of the title race and Portland State, Northern Arizona, North Dakota and Weber State are factors as well. And that's not even mentioning last year's champion, Southern Utah, which graduated a lot, or Montana State, which is coming off its first losing season since 2001.
The bad and the ugly – Last season was incredible for the Big Sky with a surprising title race, Portland State beating two FBS teams and the conference dominating the national awards. But none of the teams reached the national quarterfinals, and that can't happen again.
2. CAA Football=
The good – The nation's dominant FCS conference during the 2000s has been terrific the last two seasons and always seems to have a different team step up to national prominence. Richmond is the one to beat after going to the national semifinals, but last year's other two tri-champs, William & Mary and James Madison, aren't far behind. Plus, New Hampshire (12 straight playoff appearances), Villanova, Towson and even Delaware – if it rebounds – are playoff candidates.
The bad and the ugly – All 12 CAA teams are playing FBS opponents, but among the seven teams listed above, only Richmond is playing a non-conference FCS opponent (Patriot League champ Colgate) that likely will be in the preseason Top 25.
1. Missouri Valley Football Conference=
The good – The depth is incredible, starting with North Dakota State, whose veteran team is favored to capture a sixth straight national title. Northern Iowa, South Dakota State, Illinois State, Western Illinois and Youngstown State have realistic shots to make the playoffs. While no conference has had six qualifiers before, consider none had two national finalists until 2014 (NDSU and Illinois State) and none had a 6-5 at-large team until last season (Western Illinois), so who knows what's next.
The bad and the ugly – The 2013 season is fresh in the memory. The Valley had only two playoff qualifiers because overall records declined too much in conference play. The nation's premier conference is vulnerable to that again.