The teams in this year's class of FCS independents are all getting ready to shift upward in 2014 and join new conferences, with Old Dominion on the verge of entering Conference USA on the FBS level.
That along with some very obvious additional factors makes ODU the consensus choice to top the independents this year.
The Monarchs fell to Georgia Southern in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs less last December and are not eligible to enter the postseason following this year's regular season. That won't stop record-setting quarterback Taylor Heinicke, though.
Heinicke is coming off one of the best seasons statistically in FCS history while also garnering CAA Football offensive player of the year honor and the Walter Payton Award as the outstanding player in the FCS.
Although Heinicke lost his top receiver in Nick Mayers after 2012, the Monarchs offense retains three receivers who each hauled in seven touchdown receptions last season.
Up on the schedule for ODU is a balanced mix of FBS and FCS teams. The Monarchs open the season with back-to-back road games against East Carolina and Maryland - two storied FBS programs. It will be a familiar sight for Bobby Wilder and his team come 2014.
Charlotte will eventually make the jump up to the FBS in 2015 after reinstating the football program. This will be the 49ers' first football season since 1948.
Monmouth, formerly of the Northeast Conference, will join the Big South Conference at the start of the 2014 season. But more importantly for the Hawks is getting receiver Neal Sterling healthy for this year. Sterling will be a top target for whichever young quarterback wins the starting job in preseason camp.
Incarnate Wood and Abilene Christian, up from Division II, will move to the Southland Conference before the start of next season.
Houston Baptist, not previewed, also will join the Southland next year. It is a first-year program that is playing what it considers to be a development season this year. The Huskies will consider 2014 as the first season for statistics kept in the program's record book.
Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2013 FCS Independents.
The Sports Network's predicted order of finish:
1. Old Dominion
3. Abilene Christian
5. Incarnate Word
1. OLD DOMINION MONARCHS
LOCATION: Norfolk, Va.
COACH: Bobby Wilder (38-10 in four seasons at Old Dominion)
LAST SEASON: 11-2 overall; No. 6 TSN Ranking
STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (9 offense/5 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Taylor Heinicke, Jr. (398-of-579, 5,076 yards, 44 TD, 14 INT; 126 carries, 470 yards, 11 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: LB John Darr, R-Sr. (75 TT, 2 sacks, 10 TFL, 2 PBU, 3 PD, 3 QBH, 1 INT)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Colby Goodwyn, Sr. (66 carries, 333 yards, 7 TD)
RB Taylor Harvey, So.
WR Antonio Vaughan, R-Jr. (60 receptions, 885 yards, 7 TD)
WR Blair Roberts, Jr. (56 receptions, 707 yards, 7 TD)
WR Larry Pinkard, R-Jr. (55 receptions, 830 yards, 7 TD)
LT Jack Lowney, R-Sr.
LG David Born, R-Sr.
RT D.J. Morrell, R-Sr.
DE Andrew Everett, So.
LB Richie Staton, Fr.
LB Caleb Taylor, R-So. (87 TT, 3 sacks, 13.5 TFL, 2 PBU, 2 PD, 7 QBH)
LB Paul Morant, Sr.
CB Reggie Owens, Jr. (34 TT, 2 sacks, 3 TFL, 1 PBU, 2 PD, 1 INT)
SS Fellonte Misher, So.
FS Andre Simmons, R-Jr.
PK Jarod Brown, R-Sr. (10-of-12 FG, 73-of-73 PAT, 103 points)
BIG LOSSES: RB Tyree Lee (suspended for 2013 season), WR Nick Mayers (79 receptions, 1,233 yards, 16 TD) and LB Craig Wilkins (90 TT, 6.5 sacks, 13.5 TFL, 2 PBU, 5 PD, 1 FF, 1 FR, 3 INT)
2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 154.38 (55 in FCS, 6 in CAA); Passing Offense, 393.85 (1 in FCS, 1 in CAA); Total Offense, 548.23 (1 in FCS, 1 in CAA); Scoring Offense, 45.15 (1 in FCS, 1 in CAA); Rushing Defense, 197.31 (100 in FCS, 9 in CAA); Passing Defense, 222.69 (74 in FCS, 6 in CAA); Total Defense, 420 (94 in FCS, 8 in CAA); Scoring Defense, 30.46 (89 in FCS, 9 in CAA)
OUTLOOK: One of the nation's most prolific offenses in 2012 will likely be almost as dangerous in 2013 - a truly scary thought. The Walter Payton Award winner Heinicke returns for his junior campaign after having thrown for 44 touchdowns last season, with three very talented receivers still in his arsenal. Although Mayers graduated and Lee was suspended for the 2013 season for violating team rules, Old Dominion should have a strong year as it transitions into FBS life. The Monarchs' schedule reflects the mesh of an FCS exit and an FBS emergence, with power school matchups like East Carolina, Maryland, Pittsburgh and North Carolina. With so many tough matchups for the Monarchs, it seems fair to say Heinicke likely won't duplicate his stats from a year ago. But that doesn't mean he can't try. It will be fun to watch a preview of how this former CAA team competes on a much larger level.
Aug. 31 - at East Carolina
Sept. 7 - at Maryland
Sept. 14 - vs. Howard
Sept. 21 - vs. The Citadel
Sept. 28 - vs. Albany
Oct. 5 - vs. Liberty
Oct. 19 - at Pittsburgh
Oct. 26 - at Norfolk State
Nov 2 - vs. Rhode Island
Nov. 9 - at Idaho
Nov. 16 - Campbell
Nov. 23 - at North Carolina
2. MONMOUTH HAWKS
LOCATION: West Long Branch, N.J.
COACH: Kevin Callahan (114-91 in 20 seasons at Monmouth)
LAST SEASON: 5-5 overall
STARTERS RETURNING: 11 (6 offense/5 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: WR Neal Sterling, Sr. (33 receptions, 386 yards, 5 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DB Pat Gray, Jr. (62 TT, 1 TFL, 1 PBU, 3 PD, 2 INT)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Brandon Hill, Jr. (UMass transfer)
RB Julian Hayes, Jr. (159 carries, 659 yards, 11 TD)
RB Kwabena Asante, Sr. (97 carries, 469 yards, 4 TD)
RB/KR Lavon Chaney, Fr.
WR Lamar Davenport, Sr. (37 receptions, 347 yards, 2 TD)
WR Eric Sumlin, Jr.
TE Mike McLafferty, Sr. (23 receptions, 228 yards, 1 TD)
OL Mike Hunchak, Sr.
OL Brandon Maxwell, Sr.
OL Josh Patterson, Sr.
DL Eric Macik, Jr. (14 TT, 4.5 sacks, 6.5 TFL, 3 PBU, 3 PD, 4 QBH, 1 FF, 1 FR)
LB Dave Damirgian, Sr. (36 TT, 3 TFL, 3 PBU, 3 PD)
DB Tervin Brandon, Sr. (UConn transfer)
DB Andrew Sutton, Sr.
BIG LOSSES: QB Kyle Frazier (246-of-365, 2,431 yards, 17 TD, 10 INT), DB Reggie Hildebrandt Jr. (38 TT, 1 TFL, 6 PBU, 7 PD, 1 FF, 1 INT) and LB Dan Sullivan, Sr. (suspended for 2013 season)
2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 158.40 (52 in FCS, 5 in NEC); Passing Offense, 249.60 (27 in FCS, 1 in NEC); Total Offense, 408 (35 in FCS, 1 in NEC); Scoring Offense, 29.40 (38 in FCS, 2 in NEC); Rushing Defense, 127.70 (26 in FCS, 2 in NEC); Passing Defense, 257.90 (107 in FCS, 9 in NEC); Total Defense, 385.60 (69 in FCS, 6 in NEC); Scoring Defense, 28 (65 in FCS, 6 in NEC)
OUTLOOK: Realistically, the Hawks could have listed every quarterback they have on a two-deep depth chart right about now because the competition for the starting spot was as open as it gets after they lost both Frazier and backup Craig Peterson to graduation. The job went to Hill, the UMass transfer, but he's untested heading into the season. Monmouth left the Northeast Conference after the 2012 season and will join the Big South Conference starting in 2014. Until that time, the team will be listed as an FCS independent, though the Hawks will still see many familiar foes from the NEC this season. Monmouth opens on the road against the preseason No. 2-ranked Montana State Bobcats, and faces tough tests from the Patriot League in the following weeks. With a completely healthy Sterling at receiver, whoever ends up at quarterback will already have a top-notch target. The Hawks won't have MLB Sullivan (137 career tackles), who was declared ineligible for the 2013 season due to a violation of team policy.
Aug. 29 - at Montana State
Sept. 7 - at Liberty
Sept. 14 - vs. Lehigh
Sept. 21 - at Holy Cross
Sept. 28 - at Columbia
Oct. 5 - vs. Robert Morris
Oct. 12 - at St. Francis (Pa.)
Oct. 19 - vs. Cornell
Nov. 2 - at Sacred Heart
Nov. 9 - at Wagner
Nov. 16 - at Bryant
Nov. 23 - vs. Duquesne
3. ABILENE CHRISTIAN WILDCATS
LOCATION: Abilene, Texas
COACH: Ken Collums (7-4 in one season at Abilene Christian)
LAST SEASON: 7-4 overall (Division II)
STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (9 offense/7 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: WR/RB/RS Darrell Cantu-Harkless, Jr. (56 receptions, 651 yards, 2 TD; 39 carries, 175 yards, 2 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DE Nick Richardson, So. (50 TT, 9.5 sacks, 14.5 TFL, 2 PBU, 2 PD, 3 QBH, 1 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB John David Baker, Jr.
RB Charcandrick West, Jr. (98 carries, 422 yards, 6 TD; 18 receptions, 234 yards, 3 TD)
RB Marcel Threat, R-So.
WR Taylor Gabriel, Jr. (52 receptions, 684 yards, 7 TD)
WR Demarcus Thompson, So.
OT Blake Spears, Jr.
OT Will Latu, Jr.
OG Josh Perez, Jr.
DE Kolby Rowe, So. (31 TT, 3.5 sacks, 4 TFL, 1 FF)
LB Thor Woerner, Jr. (77 TT, 5 TFL, 4 PBU, 5 PD, 2 QBH, 1 INT, 1 BLK)
LB Justin Stephens, So. (88 TT, 2 sacks, 6.5 TFL, 2 PBU, 3 PD, 1 FF, 1 INT)
CB Justin Stewart, So.
DB Keith Barnett, So.
DB Tyler Chapa, So.
BIG LOSSES: QB Mitchell Gale (228-of-380, 2,982 yards, 21 TD, 7 INT), CB L.B. Suggs (98 TT, 3.5 TFL, 2 PBU, 2 FF, 1 FR) and PK Morgan Lineberry (7- of-12 FG, 27-of-30 PAT)
2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 81.91 (142 in Division II, 8 in Lone Star); Passing Offense, 272.45 (30 in Division II, 3 in Lone Star); Total Offense, 354.36 (103 in Division II, 6 in Lone Star); Scoring Offense, 28.64 (68 in Division II, 4 in Lone Star); Rushing Defense, 159 (81 in Division II, 6 in Lone Star); Passing Defense, 254.91 (130 in Division II, 9 in Lone Star); Total Defense, 413.91 (118 in Division II, 8 in Lone Star); Scoring Defense, 21.45 (32 in Division II, 1 in Lone Star)
OUTLOOK: Over the past eight years, Abilene Christian's offense has been the focal point of the program's bragging rights and the foundation of the school's winning campaigns. This will be the first year the Wildcats are not led by a proven elite quarterback after Gale's departure. Gale finished his career as the school's second all-time leading passer behind only Billy Malone (2005-08) with over 12,000 yards. Enter Baker, who completed his only two attempts last season, to fill the very large shoes of two monumentally successful Wildcats quarterbacks. The good news is that Baker, a junior, will have a year of relatively light competition before ACU moves into the Southland Conference. Prior to moving into the FCS, the Wildcats were members of Division II's Lone Star Conference. Unfortunately for Abilene Christian, the team will not see any Southland action this season, and will have to wait until 2014 to get a shot at its new conference.
Aug. 31 - vs. Concordia (Ala.)
Sept. 7 - vs. McMurry
Sept. 14 - vs. New Mexico Highlands
Sept. 21 - at Illinois State
Sept. 28 - at Tarleton State (at Frisco, Texas)
Oct. 5 - at Pittsburg State
Oct. 12 - at Houston Baptist (at BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston)
Oct. 19 - vs. Incarnate Word
Oct. 26 - at New Mexico State
Nov. 9 - at Incarnate Word
Nov. 16 - at Prairie View A&M
4. CHARLOTTE 49ERS
LOCATION: Charlotte, N.C.
COACH: Brad Lambert (first season at Charlotte)
LAST SEASON: No record
STARTERS RETURNING: None
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Alan Barnwell, R-Fr.
DEFENSIVE STAR: FS Desmond Cooper, R-Jr. (Wake Forest transfer)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Matt Johnson, R-Fr.
RB C.J. Crawford, Sr. (Marshall transfer)
WR Mikel Hunter, R-Sr. (Air Force transfer)
WR Luke Sonricker, R-Jr. (Campbell transfer)
OT Daniel Blitch, R-Jr. (Wake Forest transfer)
OL Daniel Book, R-So. (Albany transfer)
NT Larry Ogunjobi, R-Fr.
LB Mark Hogan, Sr. (Georgia State transfer)
SS Martay Mattox, Jr.
CB Ardy Holmes, R-So. (Marshall transfer)
BIG LOSS: None
2012 TEAM RANKINGS: None
OUTLOOK: Charlotte football returns from a 65-year hiatus with its sights set on transitioning to the FBS, which is the plan for the start of the 2015 season. The 49ers' first season back on the football field will be a test run. Lambert did a great job of bringing in a healthy group of experienced players, like Cooper and Blitch, who transferred from Wake Forest, to help out the numerous redshirt freshmen on the squad playing their first collegiate season. Start-up programs are required to play at least two years of FCS football before they can move up, if so desired, to the FBS level. The move up will help Lambert in the recruiting process next season. But for now, Barnwell, a workhorse back, will get a good opportunity to play as a redshirt freshman, while Crawford provides leadership and a solid amount of carries. The 49ers will face some tough competition in their first year back with James Madison and Coastal Carolina to shock their system. With the large amount of experience for a start-up program, don't count Charlotte out as an FCS spoiler.
Aug. 31 - vs. Campbell
Sept. 7 - vs. Chowan
Sept. 14 - vs. North Carolina Central
Sept, 21 - at James Madison
Sept. 28 - at Presbyterian
Oct. 5 - vs. Gardner-Webb
Oct. 12 - vs. UNC-Pembroke
Oct. 26 - at Charleston Southern
Nov. 2 - at Coastal Carolina
Nov. 9 - vs. Wesley
Nov. 23 - at Morehead State
5. INCARNATE WORD CARDINALS
LOCATION: San Antonio
COACH: Larry Kennan (2-9 in one season at Incarnate Word; 15-26-3 overall)
LAST SEASON: 2-9 overall (Division II)
STARTERS RETURNING: 10 (4 offense/6 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: WR Casey Jennings, Jr. (Chabot College transfer)
DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Padyn Giebler, So. (43 TT, 1 sack, 3 TFL, 1 PD, 1 FF, 1 INT)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Trent Brittain, Fr.
QB Taylor Woods, So. (95-of-163, 782 yards, 5 TD)
RB Sean Flannel, R-Fr.
FB Matt Bass, Sr. (10 carries, 28 yards)
WR Brandon Yates, So. (17 receptions, 191 yards, 2 TD)
WR Gabriel Taylor, So.
WR Clint Killough, So.
OL Devin Threat, Jr.
OL Albert Miranda, Jr.
OL Horace Hayes, So.
DL Robby Horton, Sr. (35 TT, 3 sacks, 6 TFL, 6 PBU, 6 PD, 2 QBH)
DL Johnny Sanders, Jr.
LB Juan Asencio, Sr. (59 TT, 4.5 sacks, 6.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 2 PD, 1 INT)
CB Devin Haywood, Sr. (60 TT, .5 sacks, 1.5 TFL, 2 PBU, 3 PD, 2 FR, 1 INT)
PK Jake Wilcox, So. (3-of-5 FG, 12-of-14 PAT)
P Manny Nunez, Sr. (40 punts, 42.8 average, 65 long)
BIG LOSSES: QB Zach Rhodes (91-of-168, 894 yards, 6 TD) and RB Trent Rios (106 carries, 489 yards, 3 TD)
2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 116.27 (123 in Division II, 7 in Lone Star); Passing Offense, 156.55 (133 in Division II, 7 in Lone Star); Total Offense, 272.82 (145 in Division II, 8 in Lone Star); Scoring Offense, 16.18 (146 in Division II, 8 in Lone Star); Rushing Defense, 163.64 (90 in Division II, 7 in Lone Star); Passing Defense, 216 (74 in Division II, 4 in Lone Star); Total Defense, 379.64 (92 in Division II, 7 in Lone Star); Scoring Defense, 29.27 (94 in Division II, 7 in Lone Star)
OUTLOOK: The Cardinals are getting their first taste of Division I football as an FCS independent before making the leap to the Southland Conference in 2014. A member of the Division II Lone Star Conference prior to this season, UIW's schedule in 2013 reflects a blend of Southland programs and a healthy dose of other independents. Incarnate Word opens with a bang as the Cardinals travel to Central Arkansas, one of the top teams in the Southland and a ranked team nationally. Later in the year, they have Sam Houston State (a back-to-back national runner-up) and Southeastern Louisiana. This absolutely will be a learning year for UIW, as the team settles on a starting quarterback, a running back (sophomore Joseph Sadler is academically ineligible to play in 2013) and key defensive positions. Hey, it's better to ease into an FCS power conference rather than dive right in before next season, right?
Aug. 29 - at Central Arkansas
Sept. 7 - vs. Texas College
Sept. 14 - vs. Langston
Sept. 21 - at Sam Houston State
Sept. 28 - vs. Eastern New Mexico
Oct. 5 - at Southeastern Louisiana
Oct. 19 - at Abilene Christian
Oct. 26 - vs. Houston Baptist
Nov. 2 - at McMurry
Nov. 9 - vs. Abilene Christian
Nov. 16 - vs. Angelo State