Surprise teams are always fun in the Football Championship Subdivision, but when the conference races get serious, few remain contenders and instead fall off as pretenders.
The most serious conference challengers among surprising teams could be Norfolk State (4-1, 2-0), which sits in first place in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference; San Diego (4-1, 2-0), which has become a title threat in the Pioneer Football League; and Prairie View A&M (3-2, 3-1), which leads the Southwestern Athletic Conference's West Conference as defending champion Texas Southern continues to struggle and Grambling State falls out of the race.
Others who hope to keep the good times rolling are Portland State (3-1, 2-0), which is tied with Montana for first place in the Big Sky Conference; Maine (3-1, 1-0 CAA Football), whose only blemish is a six-point loss to Pittsburgh; Indiana State (4-1, 2-0), which is trying to crash the Missouri Valley party with Northern Iowa and North Dakota State; Tennessee Tech (4-1, 3-0 Ohio Valley Conference), which now faces byes in two of the next three weekends; Bucknell (4-1, 1-0 Patriot League), which won only once last year; and Furman (3-1, 2-0), who has been hard to notice because it's sandwiched between Southern Conference powers Georgia Southern and Wofford.
Norfolk State was picked fifth in the MEAC's preseason poll and has already beaten perennial power South Carolina State, gets Hampton and Bethune-Cookman at home and doesn't have to play Florida A&M. It just might be a championship recipe for coach Pete Adrian's team, especially considering redshirt quarterback Chris Walley has been so efficient this season.
The PFL has so many talented quarterbacks that San Diego's Mason Mills could have been overlooked, but he isn't letting that happen, with 14 touchdown passes on a team averaging 33 points per game. Defensive end Mario Kurn leads the defense for a team which will have home games against the other two 2-0 teams in the PFL, Drake and Jacksonville.
Prairie View is one of the season's bigger surprises after it lost 25 seniors this past offseason and then opened the campaign with a 63-14 loss to Bethune- Cookman in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge. New coach Heishma Northern has steadied the team since that game. Defensive end Adrian Hamilton has wrecked havoc and the offense features a veteran offensive line. A win at Southern next weekend seems important because the schedule will get tougher.
TOP 10 BATTLE NO. 1
Third-ranked Appalachian State's run of six straight Southern Conference titles took a serious hit Saturday when the Mountaineers got run over in a 28-14 defeat at eighth-ranked Wofford.
Wofford (3-1, 2-0) racked up 388 rushing yards while holding a 17-minute advantage in time of possession. Eric Breitenstein broke loose for 173 yards on 33 carries and Donovan Johnson rushed for two touchdowns.
"It was a great win," head coach Mike Ayers said. "We worked hard for this one. You look at the season so far and it has been a growing process. We took a big step today. Our guys played unbelievably well, but we had some bonehead things as well. Somehow, someway we need to sharpen up and get better. Everybody knows that we are not where we can be."
TOP 10 BATTLE NO. 2
Ninth-ranked James Madison shook off the indefinite suspension of starting quarterback Justin Thorpe to throttle 10th-ranked Richmond, 31-7, in CAA Football.
Redshirt sophomore running back Jordan Anderson rushed for a career-high 162 yards and two touchdowns on only 13 carries, while redshirt freshman Jauan Latney added 98 yards and a touchdown on 19 rushes. The defense rose up with seven sacks.
Jack Cosgrove earned his 100th career win at Maine as the Black Bears stopped Delaware, 31-17, in CAA Football.
Pushaun Brown rushed for 193 yards and three touchdowns for Maine, which is so tough at home.
In the Missouri Valley, Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley took over the top spot in conference wins with 55 when his second-ranked Panthers beat Missouri State, 42-7, and he separated himself from Bears coach Terry Allen, who enjoyed much of his success while coaching at UNI.
McNeese State got its difficult October stretch off to a winning start with a 20-18 triumph over Northwestern State. The Cowboys had a rousing defensive effort, including Joe Narcisse's 18-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Coach Matt Viator's 18th-ranked squad has the early lead in the competitive Southland Conference, but it faces an upcoming non-conference game with surging Texas State and then the tough conference stretch of Central Arkansas (away), Sam Houston State (home) and Stephen F. Austin (away).
Viator, in his sixth season at McNeese, is 29-7 in conference games and he's led four teams to the FCS playoffs.
DON'T FORGET TALIAFERRO
While playing in a Southern Conference that has featured so many great quarterbacks like Appalachian State's Armanti Edwards and DeAndre Presley, Elon's Scott Riddle and Chattanooga's B.J. Coleman, it's been easy to overlook Samford quarterback Dustin Taliaferro.
Don't keep making that mistake.
The four-year starter is fourth among all active quarterbacks in the FCS, having thrown for 5,788 yards. He enjoyed perhaps the best game of his career Saturday when he completed 16-of-29 passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns in leading Samford past Gardner-Webb, 41-14, in non-conference action.
The Bulldogs are 2-2.
30 NOT NECESSARILY ENOUGH IN OVC
There were four Ohio Valley Conference games on Saturday and all eight teams scored in the 30s.
Jacksonville State stopped Murray State, 38-30, and Tennessee Tech beat UT Martin, 34-31, leaving them tied atop the conference race. Also, Southeast Missouri State derailed Eastern Illinois, 37-30, and Austin Peay slipped past Tennessee State, 37-34, by scoring the final 17 points.
The other OVC team, Eastern Kentucky, was on a bye. The Colonels probably had an intra-squad scrimmage that ended 35-34.
AROUND THE NATION
If nine Top 25 teams falling last weekend wasn't enough, 10 lost games this weekend ... Injury-riddled Eastern Washington won for the first time this season, 27-21 over Big Sky rival Weber State, as senior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell threw for 281 yards and three touchdowns. "So many guys stepped up," EWU coach Beau Baldwin said. "Not just out here today, but during the week. Obviously, we have a lot of stuff going on. Our players came together with a lot of new faces playing, and they just kept going. They earned this victory during the week by not hanging their heads and by not having a bad attitude. They just came out with a great attitude all week and that's what ends up earning you a victory like this." ... Portland State had two 200-yard rushers - running back Cory McCaffrey with 218 yards and two touchdowns and quarterback Connor Kavanaugh with 212 yards and four touchdowns on only 12 carries - in its 42-35 road win over Idaho State. Rodrick Rumble caught 11 receptions in the Bengals' loss, giving him five straight games in double figures ... New Southland member Lamar won its first conference game, beating Southeastern Louisiana, 48-38, as wide receiver Marcus Jackson caught two touchdowns and threw for one. Linebacker Asim Hicks had 13 tackles, all solos. "I would like to say it was good coaching and good schemes, but it wasn't," coach Ray Woodard said. "These players played their butts off, and they deserved it." ... Adrian Mora's two field goals in top-ranked Georgia Southern's 41-14 win at Elon broke the Southern Conference career record. Mora has 51 field goals ... All-America running back Nate Eachus returned to Colgate's lineup after missing two games (abdominal pull), rushing for 228 yards and a touchdown in a 38-14 whipping of Fordham. He also caught four passes for 55 yards ... Coach Ed Meierkort moved into a tie for third all-time in wins at South Dakota as the Coyotes shut out Lindenwood, 30-0 ... Daryl Brown's interception of Brad Sorensen in the end zone with 11 seconds to play preserved North Dakota's 26-20 Great West upset at Southern Utah ... Appalachian State linebacker/defensive end Lanston Tanyi and cornerback Ed Gainey were effective against Wofford in returning from three-week suspensions ... The Citadel stunned Chattanooga, 28-27, by rallying from a 27-0 third- quarter deficit ... Drake beat Campbell, 31-14, as quarterback Mike Piatkowski set career highs with 342 passing yards and a 91-percent completion percentage (30-for-33). He tied a career high with three touchdown passes ... A potential interception went off the hands of Southern Illinois safety Boo Rodgers and Western Illinois wide receiver Terrian Crump caught the ball in stride before going untouched for a 77-yard touchdown with 26 seconds left, giving the Fighting Leathernecks a 27-21 win in the Missouri Valley. Crump caught five passes for 163 yards and two TDs ... Duquesne (4-1, 2-0) took over the Northeast Conference lead with a 31-28 win over Bryant. Sean Patterson connected on three touchdowns passes with Connor Dixon ... Brown beat neighboring rival Rhode Island, 35-21, to win the Governor's Cup. Dan Smithwick made seven tackles, including six solo hits, intercepted a pass and recovered a fumble, and fellow linebacker Matt O'Donnell had eight tackles and recovered a fumble as the Bears forced five turnovers ... Some nerves were calmed around Penn as the two-time defending Ivy League champion Quakers earned their first win, beating Dartmouth, 22-20, on Billy Ragone's 3-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Calvert with 17 seconds left ... Redshirt senior quarterback Kevin Decker had his third straight outstanding game (23 of 31 for 352 yards and four touchdowns) as seventh-ranked New Hampshire won another barnburner, 39-32 over Holy Cross ... Mike Mayhew's 233 rushing yards fueled North Carolina A&T past Morgan State, 24-3, in the MEAC ... Grambling State legend Doug Williams fell to 1-4 in his second stint as the Tigers' head coach when they fell to Prairie View A&M, 31-23, at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
A LOOK AHEAD
It's a year too late for Dayton and Jacksonville, which didn't play each other last year when both teams finished 10-1 overall and 8-0 in the Pioneer Football League, sharing the title.
But next Saturday's match-up at Jacksonville will go a long way in deciding this year's league champion. They will meet for the first time since 2008.
Plenty of big conference games will be on tap, including Chattanooga at No. 1- ranked Georgia Southern in the Southern Conference, William & Mary at Delaware and Maine at James Madison in CAA Football, and North Dakota State at Southern Illinois and Indiana State at Northern Iowa in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
The schedule also includes: Big Sky - Montana State at Portland State; CAA - Villanova at New Hampshire, Old Dominion at Rhode Island and Richmond at Towson; Great West - Southern Utah at South Dakota; Ivy League - Dartmouth at Yale; Northeast Conference - Duquesne at Albany; Ohio Valley Conference - Eastern Kentucky at Eastern Illinois; Patriot League - Lehigh at Bucknell; Southland Conference - Sam Houston State at Stephen F. Austin; and SWAC, Alabama State at Texas Southern and Arkansas-Pine Bluff at Jackson State.
In non-conference action, Holy Cross visits Brown.