North Dakota State ranked No. 1 in FCS preseason poll

NEW YORK -- It may seem like nothing is changing in the FCS, but there's no shortage of potential for shake-ups.

The top of the STATS FCS Top 25 preseason poll, released Monday, was the same as it was at the end of last season: North Dakota State at No. 1, followed by second-ranked Illinois State -- the two Missouri Valley Football Conference rivals who played in last January's NCAA Division I FCS title game.

But everybody now has a fresh start, and graduation losses at North Dakota State, which has won a record four straight FCS titles, and Illinois State suggest the door is open nationally.

NDSU, which rallied past Illinois State in the final two minutes of the championship game for a 29-27 victory, was an overwhelming No. 1 in the national media poll, collecting 144 of the 147 first-place votes and 3,671 points. Illinois State gained the other three first-place votes and 3,423 points.

"Obviously, (the championship game) came down to a last possession and we were fortunate to make one more play," NDSU's second-year coach Chris Klieman said. "But that's all it was, we just found a way to make one more play.

"I've got tremendous amount of respect for Coach (Brock) Spack and his staff and his team ... they're a team that we think will be around at the end and have every opportunity to compete for a national championship."

So do a number of outstanding teams, many of which return starting quarterbacks to lead the way, including preseason No. 3 Sam Houston State, No. 4 Villanova and No. 5 Coastal Carolina.

Nine conferences placed teams in the preseason Top 25, and North Dakota State and Illinois State led the Missouri Valley Conference to the most selections with six.

What's changed at NDSU is the Bison bring back a stronger offense than defense, which returns only four starters. It's the defense that has fueled a 58-3 record since the start of the 2011 season, including 15-1 last year. Yet it's quarterback Carson Wentz, the most outstanding player of last year's national championship game, who will lead this version of the FCS juggernaut.

Wentz, however, wasn't the All-Missouri Valley quarterback last year. That nod went to Illinois State's Tre Roberson, who teamed with FCS rushing champion Marshaun Coprich to lead the Redbirds to a 13-2 record. Both return to this year's squad, although the dynamic is different to coach Spack after his team lost half its starting lineup.

"You played for the national championship a year ago, you tied for the league title, you're not going to sneak up on people," he said. "You're going to get folks' best effort every Saturday."

Third-ranked Sam Houston State, which has reached the playoff semifinals three of the past four seasons -- only to be eliminated by NDSU each time -- returns 19 starters to a team that tied for the Southland Conference title and finished 11-5. Senior quarterback Jared Johnson is among the key returnees for coach K.C. Keeler.

Fourth-ranked Villanova (11-3), which features senior quarterback John Robertson, the 2014 FCS offensive player of the year, was favored to win the CAA Football title.

Fifth-ranked Coastal Carolina (12-2) gained the preseason nod to win a fourth straight title in the Big South Conference. The Chanticleers' top returnee is senior quarterback Alex Ross.

The rest of the preseason Top 10 was No. 6 Eastern Washington (11-3), the three-time defending Big Sky Conference champion; No. 7 Jacksonville State (10-2), the Ohio Valley Conference champion; No. 8 Chattanooga (10-4), the Southern Conference champion; No. 9 New Hampshire (12-2), the CAA champion; and No. 10 Northern Iowa (9-5) from the Missouri Valley.

The next group was No. 11 Montana State (8-5); No. 12 James Madison (9-4); No. 13 Montana (9-5); No. 14 Youngstown State (7-5); No. 15 Liberty (9-5), which shared the Big South title; No. 16 South Dakota State (9-5); No. 17 Eastern Kentucky (9-4); No. 18 Richmond (9-5); No. 19 Southeastern Louisiana (9-4), which has won at least a share of the past two Southland titles; and No. 20 Fordham (11-3), the Patriot League champ.

Rounding out the poll were No. 21 Indiana State (8-6); No. 22 Idaho State (8-4); No. 23 Harvard (10-0), the two-time defending Ivy League champion and only FCS team not to lose a game last season; No. 24 Stephen F. Austin (8-5); and No. 25 McNeese State (6-6).

After the Missouri Valley, the CAA, Big Sky and Southland each had four Top 25 selections. The Big South and OVC had two each, while the SoCon, Ivy and Patriot leagues had one apiece.

A national panel of sports information and media relations directors, broadcasters, writers and other dignitaries selects the STATS FCS Top 25. In the voting, a first-place vote is worth 25 points, a second-place vote 24 points, all the way down to one point for a 25th-place vote.

The Top 25 is released every Monday afternoon during the regular season, except for Sunday morning, Nov. 22, prior to the selection of the 24-team FCS playoff field. A final Top 25 will follow the FCS championship game, which will be held Jan. 9 in Frisco, Texas.