College football is just around the corner -- we’re nine weeks away from the Gophers’ season opener against New Mexico State on Aug. 30. So, with that in mind, I’ll be examining some story lines, players and trends to watch over the next few weeks. Here’s today’s installment:
The best chances for FCS over FBS upsets this season
When teams at the Football Championship Subdivision level (formerly Division I-AA) take on Football Bowl Subdivision teams (formerly Division I-A), the result usually is a win for the big boys. Of course, that doesn't always happen. North Dakota State has been a big exception, with six consecutive wins over FBS teams. The Bison don’t play an FBS team this year, but there are several FCS candidates to pull off an upset. Here are some matchups to watch:
South Dakota State at Iowa State, Sept. 1: The Jackrabbits made it to the FCS semifinals last year and are likely a preseason top-five team this season. They lost standout tight end Dallas Goedert (second-round draft pick by the Eagles) and receiver Jake Wieneke (Vikings free-agent signee), but senior quarterback Taryn Christion (3,515 yards, 35 TD passes) is one of the best in FCS. Iowa State had a breakthrough 8-5 season that included wins over Oklahoma and TCU. This will be a tough hill to climb for the Jackrabbits, but it’s not impossible.
James Madison at North Carolina State, Sept. 1: The Dukes, who lost to NDSU in last year’s FCS championship game after winning the national title in 2016, won’t be as experienced as they were in 2017 but still are an FCS title threat. They must break in a new quarterback but have a solid defensive core returning. N.C. State went 9-4 last year and has a standout quarterback in Ryan Finley. To pull off an upset, James Madison must exploit a rebuilding Wolfpack defense. Stranger things have happened in season openers.
New Hampshire at Colorado, Sept. 15: The Wildcats advanced to the FCS quarterfinals last year, return 18 starters and could be a top-five team in the preseason polls. Quarterback Trevor Knight passed for 3,433 yards and 26 TDs last year, so the offense is in good hands. Colorado, 5-7 last year after its 10-4 season in 2016, has holes to fill and opens the season against Colorado State and Nebraska before playing UNH.
McNeese at Brigham Young, Sept. 22: The Cowboys went 9-2 last year but didn’t receive an FCS playoff bid. They’re projected to be a top-25 FCS team, and they play BYU at an opportune time – after the Cougars open the season with games at Arizona, vs. California and at Wisconsin.
Northern Iowa at Iowa, Sept. 15: It’ll be tough for the Panthers to upset the Hawkeyes, who are 16-1 all-time against UNI. But the Panthers have a history of playing tight games against Iowa, losing by a point in 2009 and by eight in 2014. Northern Iowa should be a Missouri Valley Conference contender, and maybe the Panthers can catch the Hawkeyes looking ahead to the following week’s game against Wisconsin.
Northern Arizona at UTEP, Sept. 1: Should the Lumberjacks beat the Miners, it might not be a surprise. UTEP was 0-12 last year and scored only 11.8 points per game, worst in FBS. Northern Arizona was an FCS playoff team last year and returns 16 starters.
North Carolina A&T at East Carolina, Sept. 1: This is another case of an FCS team facing a downtrodden FBS squad. The Aggies were 12-0 last year, won the MEAC title and capped the season with a Celebration Bowl win. The Pirates gave up 45 points per game, worst in FBS, and struggled to a 3-9 season, which included a 20-point loss to James Madison in the opener.
South Dakota at Kansas State, Sept. 1: The Coyotes will have to retool without prolific quarterback Chris Streveler, the transfer from Minnesota who’s now starting for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Canadian Football League. South Dakota, which made its first FCS playoff appearance last season, returns nine starters on defense. That will help against K-State, which has a solid run game but hasn’t settled on a starter at quarterback. The Wildcats know not to take FCS teams lightly. North Dakota State won in Manhattan in 2013.