There's little doubt. Until another team proves otherwise, the North Dakota State Bison are the best FCS team in the country.
With two straight national championships in their pocket and a historical three-peat as their goal, the Bison enter the 2013 season as the clear No. 1 in The Sports Network FCS Top 25.
The poll's national panel of sports information and media relations directors, broadcasters, writers and other dignitaries confirmed North Dakota State as the preseason No. 1 on Tuesday by giving the Bison 127 of the 134 first-place votes and 3,340 points.
Coach Craig Bohl's squad returns 18 starters from a squad that won its second straight FCS title this past January. The Bison will try to join the 2005-07 teams at Appalachian State as the second program to win three FCS national titles in a row.
NDSU has finished with a 14-1 record in each of the past two seasons. The two- time reigning Missouri Valley Football Conference champion will feature a superb senior class, including quarterback Brock Jensen, a Walter Payton Award nominee, and linebacker Grant Olson and cornerback Marcus Williams, who are both nominees for the Buck Buchanan Award.
"We recognize the big challenges that are ahead of us," said Bohl, whose team kicks off its season on Aug. 30 at defending Big 12 co-champion Kansas State. "Certainly our experience has been helpful, but experience without productivity is not going to get you very far."
The preseason Top 25 had a familiar look with a number of teams setting their sights on conference titles and beyond.
Montana State (11-2 last season), which has won a share of the last three Big Sky championships under coach Rob Ash, earned the No. 2 preseason ranking. No returning FCS player has gained more total yards over the last three years than Bobcats quarterback DeNarius McGhee, who returns for his senior season.
Sam Houston State (11-4), the two-time defending Southland Conference champion, had the No. 3 ranking despite having more first-place votes (five) than Montana State (one). Coach Willie Fritz's Bearkats also have eliminated Montana State in the FCS quarterfinals the last two seasons on their way to back-to-back championship game appearances. They return one of the more dangerous offenses in the FCS, led by senior running back Timothy Flanders.
Eastern Washington (11-3) also fell victim to Sam Houston State in last year's national semifinals. But the No. 4 Eagles, who won the 2010 FCS national championship and were part of a three-way tie for the Big Sky title last season, have reloaded with another talented squad, including dual-threat quarterback Vernon Adams.
Villanova (8-4) preceded Eastern Washington with the 2009 national title. Poll voters foresee the Wildcats having another deep run in the playoffs, installing them at No. 5. Coach Andy Talley's squad also has a young standout at quarterback, John Robertson, who won the Jerry Rice Award as the FCS freshman of the year last year.
The poll had an interesting twist because voters varied on their assessment of perennial powers Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, who aren't eligible for the FCS playoffs as they spend their final season in the Southern Conference before rising to the FBS level next year. One voter installed Georgia Southern, which has been to the national semifinals in three straight seasons, as the preseason No. 1, but other voters left both teams off their ballots.
Thus, the rest of the Top 10 consisted of No. 6 South Dakota State (9-4), which features 2012 FCS rushing leader Zach Zenner; No. 7 Central Arkansas (9-3), the defending Southland Conference co-champion; No. 8 Wofford (9-4), a reigning Southern Conference tri-champion; No. 9 Georgia Southern (10-4), which shared the SoCon title with Wofford and Appalachian State; and No. 10 New Hampshire (8-4), whose nine straight playoff appearances is the longest active streak in the FCS.
Up next were No. 11 Towson (7-4); No. 12 Appalachian State (8-4); No. 13 Illinois State (9-4); No. 14 Cal Poly (9-3), a Big Sky tri-champion last year; No. 15 Richmond (8-3), which earned a share of the CAA title; No. 16 Stony Brook (10-3), which has earned at least a share of the last four Big South Conference titles but has switched conferences to the CAA this year; No. 17 Northern Iowa (5-6); No. 18 Northern Arizona (8-3); No. 19 James Madison (7-4); and No. 20 Montana (5-6), which will try to rebound from its first losing season since 1985.
Rounding out the Top 25 were No. 21 Eastern Illinois (7-5), the defending Ohio Valley Conference champion; No. 22 Lehigh (10-1); No. 23 Bethune-Cookman (9-3), which is coming off the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title; No. 24 Chattanooga (6-5); and No. 25 Coastal Carolina (8-5), which earned a share of the Big South championship.
CAA Football had the most teams in the preseason Top 25 with six, followed by the Big Sky with five and the Missouri Valley and Southern conferences with four each. The Southland Conference had two teams, and the OVC, Big South, MEAC and Patriot League each had one.
In the Top 25 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.
During the regular season, the Top 25 will be released every Monday afternoon, except for the final weekend of the regular season, when it will be released Sunday morning, Nov. 17, prior to the selection of the FCS playoff field.
The Sports Network will release a final Top 25 following the FCS championship game, which will be held Jan. 4 in Frisco, Texas.