Published June 14, 2012
Philadelphia, PA – Pick the top four FCS conferences out of a hat.
It almost doesn't matter who you choose.
CAA Football, the Missouri Valley Football Conference, the Big Sky Conference and the Southern Conference each has reason to consider it to be the best among FCS conferences.
It used to be easy. In recent years, the CAA held the honor, with four national champs and three national runner-up squads during an eight-year span. Before the CAA, the SoCon reigned supreme, with Appalachian State's back-to- back-to-back national championships from 2005-07 as well as Georgia Southern's historical dominance.
Those two conferences remain among the best, but the Missouri Valley, home of reigning FCS champion North Dakota State, and the Big Sky, home to 2010 champ Eastern Washington, are in the heated conversation. The Big Sky has even taken on four schools from the highly regarded, but disbanded Great West Football Conference.
There's probably no right or wrong answer about who's best, but our conference rankings still have the CAA on top:
1. CAA Football - The depth of teams at the top of the conference is still why the CAA earns the high accolades. Oh, it took a step backward last season as no team reached the national semifinals. It also has lost or will lose Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Georgia State and emerging Old Dominion to conference realignment. But in mid-October last year, nine of the 11 CAA teams were ranked in The Sports Network/Fathead.com FCS Top 25. Yeah, wow! Defending champ Towson, ODU and James Madison appear headed to banner seasons, and New Hampshire, Delaware and Maine are part of the next tier. If Villanova's young squad matures quickly, it could be a dark horse in conference play.
2. Missouri Valley Football Conference - North Dakota State lost many key seniors from its first FCS championship team, but coach Craig Bohl is confident of another deep run in the playoffs - perhaps a telling sign considering coaches usually try to downplay their team's chances. Traditional power Northern Iowa will probably have a losing record by September's end, but the Panthers and their running game will pick up steam in October and November. The top of the conference is bunched with the likes of Youngstown State, Illinois State, Indiana State and perhaps South Dakota State with its impressive sophomore quarterback Austin Sumner.
3. Big Sky - The FCS' biggest conference - 13 teams - is going to be a meat grinder. Some decent program is going to say, "Yeah, we're in 10th place." Montana State will be a national title threat if coach Rob Ash puts together any kind of an offensive line for quarterback DeNarius McGhee. Montana, which seems to own the deed to the conference, has stumbled off the field in the offseason. Now it's a matter of finding out how much it has fallen on the field since going to the national semifinals last season. Eastern Washington could move past the Grizzlies with its explosive offense. The depth of the conference is impressive with the likes of conference newcomers North Dakota, Cal Poly and Southern Utah (featuring QB Brad Sorensen) mixing with Portland State, Weber State and Northern Arizona.
4. Southern Conference - It seems sacrilegious to have the SoCon at No. 4, but the conference may have a lot of good, though not great teams. Unless the old guard comes through, that is. Few teams can stop Georgia Southern's triple option, and if quarterback Jerick McKinnon or Ezayi Youyoute can provide some kind of passing attack, the Eagles will be in the national title picture. All's seemingly quiet at Appalachian State. That should not be comforting for the Mountaineers' foes. Wofford has a lethal running game with Eric Breitenstein and Donovan Johnson. If Chattanooga, Furman or Samford plays to a higher level, the No. 4 ranking may not look so good.
5. Southland Conference - Sam Houston State, the 2011 FCS runner-up, appears to be the consensus pick for this season's national champion. Coach Willie Fritz's squad probably has two built-in losses against FBS members Baylor and Texas A&M, so the Bearcats may have to win all of their other regular-season games to have a favorable home schedule in the playoffs again. Stephen F. Austin has its passing game humming again, but faces a difficult first half of the schedule. A slip by the Lumberjacks will open the door for Central Arkansas or McNeese State to possibly make the playoffs.
6. Ohio Valley Conference - If last year's three-way championship was close, try separating Jacksonville State, Eastern Kentucky and Murray State going into the season. Each is a Top 25-worthy team with a veteran quarterback. And then there's Tennessee Tech, which earned the OVC's automatic bid to the playoffs last season. What dents the OVC's national reputation is that it hasn't had a member win an FCS playoff game since 2000.
7. Big South - OK, mark it down, Stony Brook will run all over the Big South again this season. Ah, but conference power Liberty, perhaps on its way to a future FBS move under coach Turner Gill, will have the home game when they meet on Nov. 10. It's a two-team race, although Gardner-Webb will be improved this season.
8. Patriot League - Lehigh hasn't lost a league game since 2009. It might happen this year following quarterback Chris Lum's graduation. The Mountain Hawks travel to Georgetown and Holy Cross, so the race will be interesting. Bucknell, Colgate and Lafayette could enjoy their moments this year, too.
9. Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference - Conference favorites Bethune-Cookman and South Carolina State appear to rivaling each other for the tougher September schedule, and, oh yes, they play each other on Sept. 8 in Orangeburg, S.C. This should be an improved season for the conference with the likes of Florida A&M, defending champion Norfolk State and Hampton not to be counted out.
10. Ivy League - In contrast to the MEAC, the Ancient Eight is taking a step back this season, with Harvard a heavy favorite to repeat as champion. Cornell is on the rise while traditional power Penn tries to regroup after a mediocre 5-5 campaign. What makes this an underrated league is that its national recruiting allows it to secure talented players, not just smart ones.
11. Northeast Conference - Pity the defensive coordinators, the NEC returns four rushers who went over 1,300 yards last year. Expect some crazy scores along the way. Defending co-champs Albany and Duquesne as well as Bryant and Monmouth have legitimate title candidacy.
12. Southwestern Athletic Conference - The conference with football legends such as Eddie Robinson, Walter Payton, Buck Buchanan and Jerry Rice needs to step back in time. Well, it kind of did last year when Doug Williams returned to the sideline to lead Grambling State to the conference title. Alabama A&M, Alabama State, Jackson State and Arkansas-Pine Bluff follow in a closely matched conference.
13. Pioneer Football League - The non-scholarship PFL seemingly is one year away from an automatic FCS playoff bid for its champion. League favorite San Diego, with a host of returning talent, sure wishes this was the year. The Toreros' tough road schedule - Cal Poly, Harvard, Drake and Jacksonville - could catch up to them. Drake, which shared last year's title with San Diego, Jacksonville and Dayton add depth to what should be a solid year for the league.