Potential spoilers in FCS conference races

(STATS) – Few foresaw Elon and Monmouth making the FCS playoffs last season after their 2016 campaigns.

Columbia’s perennial struggling program took a bigger step than expected.

Austin Peay? The Govs weren’t even a hazy image in anyone’s crystal ball.

But there will be new spoilers in the FCS this season, someone challenging in their conference races, others hoping to make life miserable on top rivals.

Following is a potential surprise team across each conference in the subdivision. To be considered for the list, the teams could not have had a winning record last season.

Big Sky – Montana State (5-6)

Montana State’s two straight wins over archrival Montana have ruffled the Griz just a bit. The Bobcats‘ first playoff appearance since 2014 might be on the line in this year’s “Brawl of the Wild.”

Big South – None

Presbyterian, which is heading toward non-scholarship football, and Gardner-Webb are the only possibilities, and, sorry, it’s not happening this season.

CAA – Towson (5-6)

Villanova (5-6) is the ideal pick off an injury-filled season, but that would be too easy. Towson is expected to return a conference-high 20 starters plus some of its injured players. And the Tigers‘ first CAA game is against … Villanova.

Ivy – Cornell (3-7)

In what’s now a much-more crowded Ivy race, the Big Red want to make their presence felt even more after they knocked off preseason favorites Harvard and Princeton last year. Although they haven’t had a winning season since 2005, they return a solid offense for coach David Archer’s sixth season.

MEAC – Florida A&M (3-8)

The arrival of coach Willie Simmons from a successful run at Prairie View A&M will breathe energy into a proud program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2011. Quarterback Ryan Stanley is primed for a big season.

Missouri Valley – Southern Illinois (4-7)

The Salukis had a 4-3 record with quarterback Sam Straub and 0-4 when he was sidelined last season. With his return alongside strong offensive weapons, talk of a playoff season isn’t far-fetched.

Northeast – Saint Francis (5-6)

Getting Duquesne and defending NEC champ Central Connecticut State at home helps the Red Flash, who reached the playoffs just two years ago and will have a veteran-laden offense.

Ohio Valley – Eastern Kentucky (4-7)

Coach Mark Elder’s first two seasons have been subpar, but the Colonels expect to be improved with 15 returning starters. They’re playing only seven OVC games because Tennessee State is not on the schedule.

Patriot – Fordham (4-7)

The Rams and first-year coach Joe Conlin will prep for the league season with a difficult non-conference schedule. With all-time Patriot League rushing leader Chase Edmonds gone, the Rams hope to mature quickly.

Pioneer – Morehead State (4-7)

Like Villanova in the CAA, Dayton (5-6) is too strong of a program to be considered here. Morehead State would be coming from off the pace to compete for the league title. A big senior season from quarterback Lawson Page is a must.

Southern – Mercer (5-6)

Aren’t the Bears the epitome of a potential spoiler? They believe they’re ready to get over the hump in their fifth season in the SoCon.

Southland – Stephen F. Austin (4-7)

One of the conference’s more experienced lineups and the return of healthier signal-caller Foster Sawyer have the Lumberjacks ready for a bounce-back. But a three-week run of McNeese, Sam Houston State and defending champ Central Arkansas is daunting.

SWAC – Alabama State (5-6)

The Hornets were 5-1 under Donald Hill-Eley after he took over the team in October, and the offense grew with promising youth. Most of the toughest games are in the first half of the schedule, so they have to survive it.