Published August 31, 2011
| Sports Network
Philadelphia, PA – Football, like most sports, is a black and white game.
You win or you lose, it's that simple.
However, while records are the barometer of success, a team in reality is sometimes better than its win-loss mark, and a tough start to the schedule can often leave a team below expectations.
Just ask South Dakota State.
Last season, the Jackrabbits entered the season ranked in the Top 10, but four losses to start the season doomed any chance of reaching preseason expectations - even after going 5-2 over the final seven games of the season.
This season teams, like Montana, UC Davis and Stony Brook are all respectable programs which have the talent to make the FCS playoffs, but with tough September schedules all three teams might be gasping for air by Oct. 1.
The following 10 teams - in no particular order - are those that will have a tough first month schedule to match their preseason potential and may have the difficult task of compensating for September's struggles in October and November:
No. 12 Montana Grizzlies (at Tennessee, Cal Poly, No. 1 Eastern Washington, at No. 24 Sacramento State)
Last season, it was considered a failure when the Grizzlies missed the playoffs for the first time in 18 years, adding pressure to coach Robin Pflugrad, who is entering his second season. This year, the playoff plans could be derailed early, as Montana plays the most difficult September schedule in the Big Sky. It's starts with a trip to Knoxville to open the season is a more-than-likely loss to Tennessee - the Grizzlies' last trip to an FBS school was a 41-7 setback. Cal Poly in the second week is an enticing match-up, especially after the Mustangs upset the then top-ranked Grizzlies, 35-33, last season. Defending national champ Eastern Washington comes to Missoula on Sept. 17, another tough contest that the Grizzlies - who have considerable losses at the skill positions - could lose as well. The September finale may be the most important on the Grizzlies' schedule, as the head-to- head matchup with Sacramento State (in California) could determine which team is going to get the Big Sky's likely third FCS playoff berth. While it certainly is possible for the Grizzlies to turn it around, Montana probably will be limping in to October with a single win.
Best-case scenario: 3-1 (loss at Tennessee)
Worst-case scenario: 0-4
Most likely: 1-3 (win against Cal Poly)
UC Davis Aggies (at Arizona State, at No. 6 Montana State, San Diego, at Hawaii)
The Aggies started the season at 1-3 last year and will likely have to do so again. Trips to Arizona State and Hawaii are both almost certain losses, even though UC Davis has a pair of upsets over FBS schools (2005 against Stanford, '10 San Jose State). The second week of the season looks like another loss as the Aggies' defense is likely to spend the afternoon chasing around Montana State quarterback DeNarious McGhee. San Diego is the cupcake of the group, but the Toreros are led by the very dangerous defensive end Mario Kurn, an All- America who had an NCAA-leading 17 sacks last season. While it may even itself out over the course of the season, it's likely this good UC Davis team will find itself in a three- to four-loss hole entering its bye week on Oct. 1.
Best-case scenario: 2-2 (loss to both FBS schools, upset Montana State)
Worst-case scenario: 0-4
Most likely: 1-3 (win against San Diego)
Stony Brook Seawolves (at UTEP, at Buffalo, Brown, Lafayette)
A 54-28 loss to Liberty in the season finale cost the Seawolves an undisputed Big South title and a trip to the FCS playoffs last year. That losing streak is likely to extend to three straight as Stony Brook opens the season with a pair of FBS opponents in UTEP and Buffalo. While Buffalo is a weaker FBS school (2-10, tied for last in the MAC), the Seawolves get the Bulls a week after a likely whipping by Pittsburgh, and expect them to try and take out those frustrations on Stony Brook. The rest of September gets a bit easier, as Brown is a test but one that Stony Brook could pass at home. Lafayette should be a win and Stony Brook should finish the opening month 2-2, despite what could be a pair of shellackings to open the season.
Best-case scenario: 3-1 (loss to UTEP, upset Buffalo)
Worst-case scenario: 1-3 (win against Lafayette)
Most likely: 2-2 (losses to both FBS schools)
Georgia State Panthers (Clark Atlanta, Old Dominion, at No. 9 Jacksonville State, at Houston)
Preparing to make the move to the CAA - the toughest conference in the FCS - Georgia State beefed up the schedule this season and is likely to feel the growing pains associated with that transition. Opening the season with Clark Atlanta, a Division II team, Georgia State should win the season opener as long as its quarterback-turned-wide receiver-turned-punter-turned-quarterback sophomore Bo Schlecter can complete that long, and certainly confusing, transition smoothly. However, after that first contest the road gets very tough for the Panthers, as they play future CAA-opponent Old Dominion, a team that is a couple steps ahead on the same curve Georgia State hopes to follow. Following that game - likely a loss - the Panthers go to No. 9-ranked Jacksonville State for an even tougher contest. The path takes another step up the next week, when a battle at Houston will force Georgia State to try and contain Case Keenum, who could be the NCAA's all-time passing leader by the end of the season.
Best-case scenario: 2-2 (upset Old Dominion, defeat Clark Atlanta)
Worst-case scenario: 0-4 (upset by Clark Atlanta)
Most likely: 1-3 (win against Clark Atlanta)
No. 23 South Carolina State Bulldogs (at Central Michigan, at Bethune-Cookman, at Indiana, Delaware State)
South Carolina State only lost three games last season - Georgia Tech, Bethune-Cookman and Georgia Southern in the FCS playoffs - but the Bulldogs could reach that same loss mark in the first month of the season this year. Trips to Central Michigan and Indiana can already be penciled in as losses (the Bulldogs have never beaten a FBS team) and the game at Bethune-Cookman has MEAC title implications written all over it. Last season, the Wildcats- Bulldogs game ended in a 14-0 shutout in favor of Bethune-Cookman, and with many of the Wildcats' defensive stars back from that victory, South Carolina State could be fighting an uphill battle. However, it is a revenge game for the Bulldogs, which could add extra motivation to defeat Bethune-Cookman. No matter the result of that contest, the Bulldogs should beat Delaware State the next weekend.
Best-case scenario: 2-2 (losses to both FBS schools)
Worst-case scenario: 1-3 (win against Delaware State)
Most likely: 2-2
No. 15 James Madison Dukes (at North Carolina, Central Connecticut State, at No. 22 Liberty, at No. 3 William & Mary)
September is a demolition derby of a month for James Madison, but if any team is built to escape the chaos in decent shape it's the Dukes. Opening the season at North Carolina, it will be difficult for the Dukes to stun a second straight FBS opponent, but don't forget what they did to Virginia Tech last season. Central Connecticut is second on the schedule, a team that is respectable but not on the level of the Dukes. The real test - and a telling stretch for the rest of the season - is how well James Madison deals with back-to-back trips to ranked opponents against Liberty and William & Mary. At Liberty, the Dukes should be favored, but after a close 10-3 game last season, this game is anything but a certain victory. James Madison opens its CAA schedule, and closes September, one week later as they visit No. 3 William & Mary, which could be ranked No. 1 in the nation at the time. A team likely to reach the playoffs once again, James Madison should make it out of the difficult stretch with at least a pair of victories.
Best-case scenario: 3-1 (loss at North Carolina)
Worst-case scenario: 1-3 (win at Central Connecticut State)
Most likely: 2-2 (loss at North Carolina and William & Mary)
Alabama State Hornets (at Mississippi Valley State, at Eastern Michigan, Grambling State, at Jackson State)
The opener is as close to a sure-win as the Hornets will get this season when they head to Mississippi Valley State, a team that struggled to an 0-10 season last year. However, after the Week 1 victory, the rest of September turns into a dogfight, as Alabama State will lose at Eastern Michigan in Week 2, before facing massive conference tests against Grambling State and Jackson State. Grambling State, which just missed out on the SWAC title game last season, is coached by Doug Williams, who is making his return to the program he once inherited from legendary coach Eddie Robinson. The next week against Jackson State could turn into high-flying offensive game when the Tigers' Casey Therriault and the Hornets' Davin Dominguez could trade scoring drives until one team is left standing. In a normal season, Alabama State would likely be left looking up to Jackson State for the rest of the season, but the Tigers are ineligible for the SWAC title game, so the Hornets' 2-2 record come Oct. 1 shouldn't be an issue.
Best-case scenario: 3-1 (loss at Eastern Michigan)
Worst-case scenario: 1-3 (win at Mississippi Valley State)
Most likely: 2-2 (win at Mississippi Valley State and Grambling State)
Western Illinois Leathernecks (at Sam Houston State, Jacksonville, at Missouri, at No. 7 Northern Iowa)
Last season, it was a surprise that the Matt Barr-led Leathernecks made the playoffs. This season, it will take another surprise season to reach the playoffs and that all starts with September. In addition to the sure loss at Missouri, the Leathernecks have questionable games at Sam Houston State and Northern Iowa, both teams that have legitimate championship aspirations in their respective conferences. Western Illinois should be favored against Jacksonville, but the Dolphins are the defending Pioneer League co-champions and posted 10 wins last season. Can Western Illinois rekindle that magic that it spun last year? Maybe, and September certainly will give us the answer to whether or not the Leathernecks are for real.
Best-case scenario: 3-1 (loss to Missouri)
Worst-case scenario: 0-4
Most likely: 1-3 (win against Jacksonville)
Texas State Bobcats (at Texas Tech, at Wyoming, Tarleton State, at No. 17 Stephen F. Austin)
With the exception of the Sept. 17 game against Division II Tarleton State, September is certainly going to help prepare the Bobcats for the jump to the FBS and the Western Athletic Conference next season. Texas Tech, with its high-powered offense, could hang upwards of 60 points on the Bobcats just like Houston did last year when they thrashed Texas State for 68 points. Wyoming probably won't flirt with nearly as many points, but an underrated Cowboys team could bag back-to-back easy wins as they play Weber State the week before. Stephen F. Austin will be another tough game, as the Lumberjacks - like all Southland teams - will want to send a final message to the Bobcats before they leave for the higher level. While they have nothing to play for when it comes to the playoffs, the Bobcats could struggle record-wise and leave some serious questions before going to the WAC next season.
Best-case scenario: 3-1 (loss at Texas Tech)
Worst-case scenario: 1-3 (win against Tarleton State)
Most likely: 1-3
No. 21 Chattanooga Mocs (at No. 10 (AP) Nebraska, No. 9 Jacksonville State, at Eastern Kentucky, at No. 2 Appalachian State)
Earlier this season, In the FCS Huddle talked about the Mocs being a team which could reach the next level this season. With that being said, it will be difficult for Chattanooga to top six wins (its total in each of the last two seasons) and perhaps reach the playoffs if it can't make it out of September with out a pair of victories. The season opener at Nebraska - which tends to obliterate lower-level opponents - will be a loss, but perhaps a learning experience for the Mocs. Jacksonville State provides an easier opponent, but the Gamecocks are a Top 10 team. Eastern Kentucky is another good team, but the Mocs should be favored. That is not the case for a visit to Appalachian State, where the Mountaineers are one of the best in the country. The Mocs should be a better team than last season, but their record might not reflect it if they can't survive September.
Best-case scenario: 2-2 (loss to Nebraska and Appalachian State)
Worst-case scenario: 0-4
Most likely: 1-3 (win against Eastern Kentucky)