Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The North Dakota State dynasty came "Back 4 More." Or was it "4-peat in '14"?
Any of the unofficial slogans boasting the NDSU's extraordinary success remains appropriate with the Bison being fitted for FCS national championship rings for an unprecedented fourth straight season.
What's next for 2015, "One For the Thumb"?
While it was tough enough for the Bison to win bragging rights from national runner-up Illinois State just within the Missouri Valley Football Conference, both programs figure to be near the forefront of the national scene again next season.
FBS transfers, like what Illinois State gained in quarterback Tre Roberson after he came aboard last June, can change the direction of teams considerably, so a lot is subject to change in the coming months. But many of the familiar national powers will be among the FCS elite again in 2015 as the regular schedule drops back to 11 games after two seasons with a maximum of 12.
For our early 2015 rankings, we were all set to go with a Sweet 16 to honor the college basketball season in full flight, but let's add in a plus-one to honor the FBS' four-team playoff system, ahem, which just wrapped up.
17. McNeese State (2014 record: 6-5; 2014 final ranking: unranked) - Coach Matt Viator has never had a losing season with the Cowboys, but three straight losses to end a 6-5 campaign left a bad taste in everybody's mouth. Quarterbacks Daniel Sams and Tyler Bolfing will come back a year stronger and running back Ryan Ross should be a breakout star. The defense returns three of its top four tacklers, junior safety Brent Spikes and junior linebackers Wallace Scott and Bo Brown, who were All-Southland second-team selections.
16. Idaho State (8-4; No. 25) - The big question is, can the Bengals replace quarterback Justin Arias after he led the FCS in passing yards with a school- record 38 touchdown passes in 2014? Otherwise coach Mike Kramer has the returning talent to keep the momentum of this past season going. On offense, running back Xavier Finney and wide receiver Madison Mangum will continue to pile up yards and touchdowns. On defense, linebacker Mario Jenkins will continue to be all over the field. The Bengals didn't lose at Holt Arena in 2014, and in 2015 they get traditional Big Sky powers Eastern Washington, Montana and Montana State at home. They also will pay a visit to Boise State.
15. Eastern Illinois (5-7; unranked) - After Kentucky transfer Jalen Whitlow got acclimated at quarterback following the Panthers' rough start to this past season, he became quite dangerous in their potent offense. His return along with a healthier Shepard Little at running back will have the Panthers challenging Jacksonville State in the OVC, and this time they will host the Gamecocks in Charleston. Coach Kim Dameron will have key players returning on defense in all-conference linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill and safety Jourdan Wickliffe as well as defensive tackle Dino Fanti.
14. James Madison (9-4; No. 18) - It might sound strange but Walter Payton Award winner John Robertson of Villanova isn't a sure thing for the All-CAA first team. That's how strong Dukes signal caller Vad Lee played during the second half of the conference schedule this past season. But with the Dukes losing a lot of key seniors, they will need some of the young talent, like Khalid Abdullah, linebackers Rhakeem Stallings and Gage Steele and cornerback Jimmy Moreland, to rise to a higher level of play.
13. Liberty (9-5; No. 17) - The returning list of seniors on offense is impressive, including the likes of quarterback Josh Woodrum, running back D.J. Abnar, wide receiver Darrin Peterson, lineman Jonathan Burgess and long-range place-kicker John Lunsford. Coach Turner Gill's squad will need it for a schedule that includes two FBS opponents - West Virginia and Georgia State - and three likely Top 25 teams coming to Lynchburg in Montana, James Madison and Coastal Carolina. The defense must regroup after plenty of key losses, but defensive tackle Chima Uzowihe is a good start.
12. Northern Iowa (9-5; No. 10) - Perhaps like 2012, UNI may not overcome a brutal early season schedule, this time with trips to Iowa State, Cal Poly, Illinois State and North Dakota State and a home game against Eastern Washington all packed within the first five games. Coach Mark Farley better hope some new leaders will raise their play, perhaps running back Darrian Miller for All-American David Johnson. There's still the choice of talented quarterbacks in Brion Carnes and Sawyer Kollmorgen, and place-kicker Michael Schmadeke is automatic within the UNI-Dome. The defense will feature linebacker Brett McMakin as well as Tim Kilfoy and Deiondre' Hall in the secondary
11. Montana State (8-5; No. 20) - Dual-threat quarterback Dakota Prukop was sensational before he suffered a late-season knee injury. Much of the junior-to-be's offensive line will be back, as are some versatile playmakers, including Gunnar Brekke. But the Bobcats must get better on defense or coach Rob Ash's Big Sky squad won't have much of a chance to go far in the postseason. The regular-season finale versus rival Montana will be at home in Bozeman.
10. Chattanooga (10-4; No. 8) - The Mocs will end the season at Florida State, and they hope to land a third straight Southern Conference title leading into the matchup. Quarterback Jacob Huesman will chase a third straight conference offensive player of the year award while opponents chase after him. Despite the loss of defensive end Davis Tull, who won three consecutive defensive player of the year awards in the SoCon, the defense will be strong with a lock-down secondary featuring Cedric Nettles, Dee Virgin and Lucas Webb.
9. Villanova (11-3; No. 7) - There isn't much more individual hardware for quarterback John Robertson (2014 Walter Payton Award, 2014 CAA Offensive Player of the Year, 2012 Jerry Rice Award) to win as a senior, so his goal will be to lead the Wildcats to the CAA title. Kevin Gulyas returns as his big-play wide receiver. On defense, Don Cherry gives the Wildcats the best linebacker in the conference, and Dillon Lucas is a nice complement. Once again, the Wildcats aren't scheduled to play New Hampshire, the 2014 CAA champion. But they will take on Connecticut in non-conference action.
8. New Hampshire (12-2; No. 3) - Coming off back-to-back appearances in the national semifinals, the CAA Football champion must replace an outstanding senior class, led by wide receiver R.J. Harris. Still, coach Sean McDonnell will get back some terrific players in quarterback Sean Goldrich, linebacker Akil Anderson and cornerback/returner Casey DeAndre. The Wildcats will go all the way to San Jose State to open their season and figure to be more vulnerable than they were while reaching a No. 1 ranking this past season.
7. Youngstown State (7-5; No. 22) - Bo Pelini didn't win enough to satisfy everybody at Nebraska, but he steps into a ready-to-win situation at Youngstown State as the Penguins go after their first playoff appearance since 2006. Many of the team's best players will be back, including quarterback Hunter Wells, running backs Martin Ruiz and Jody Webb, wide receiver Andrew Williams, defensive ends Derek Rivers and Terrell Williams (who combined for 24 sacks), and linebacker Dubem Nwadiogbu. The Penguins beat Pittsburgh in 2012 and will take another shot at the Panthers to open the '15 season.
6. Coastal Carolina (12-2; No. 5) - Monumental success in the last two seasons (back-to-back 12-win campaigns) is making it harder for coach Joe Moglia's Big South power to fill non-conference dates. Few opponents are anxious to face dual-threat quarterback Alex Ross and 1,500-yard running back De'Angelo Henderson. The defense will have to adjust to not having linebacker Quinn Backus, who won the last three Big South defensive player of the year awards, but the front four, led by end Roderick Holder, will be outstanding. No doubt, the Chanticleers' biggest game will be at Liberty to close the regular season.
5. Jacksonville State (10-2; No. 9) - This season's early playoff exit as the No. 3 seed should motivate the Ohio Valley Conference champion Gamecocks throughout the offseason. They will return many key players despite the loss of running back DaMarcus James. Troymaine Pope and Miles Jones saw plenty of action behind James, and quarterback Eli Jenkins will keep developing behind what will be a veteran offensive line. OVC defensive player of the year Devaunte Sigler, LaMichael Fanning and Chris Landrum form an intimidating defensive line, and Jermaine Hough is a standout cornerback. Coach John Grass' squad will test itself in opening the season at Chattanooga and Auburn.
4. Sam Houston State (11-5; No. 6) - The Bearkats started only four seniors in the national semifinals, so coach K.C. Keeler will have a tremendous returning roster for his second season in Huntsville. If he adds a few FBS transfers, which is usually the case, a Southland Conference crown may not be the only title they win in 2015. Dual-threat quarterback Jared Johnson kept getter better this past season, and so did some of his favorite receivers (Yedidiah Louis and LaDarius Brown). Defensive end P.J. Hall, who finished with 30 tackles for loss as a freshman, scared all of the opponents. Even season- opening opponent Texas Tech will be leery of him.
3. Eastern Washington (11-3; No. 4) - What quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. can accomplish as a senior is a scary thought. But the two-time runner-up for the Walter Payton Award and All-American wide receiver Cooper Kupp are going to have to keep scoring in bunches until the Eagles defense proves it is much improved. Allowing 59 points to Illinois State in the national quarterfinals left some doubt. The schedule is as difficult as ever for the three-time defending Big Sky champions, including Oregon, Northern Iowa, Idaho State and Montana on the road, and Montana State (as a non-conference matchup again) and Cal Poly at home.
2. Illinois State (13-2; No. 2) - The FCS runner-up will return the nation's best 1-2 offensive punch in quarterback Tre Roberson and national rushing leader Marshaun Coprich, but the rest of the offense was senior-laden this past season, so the Redbirds will need to fill some holes (three of the five starters on the offensive line depart). An athletic defense gets back ends Teddy Corwin and David Perkins and leading tackler Pat Meehan at linebacker. Coach Brock Spack's team will have road games against Iowa and Eastern Illinois, but the Redbirds haven't lost at home since 2012. They will be in the mix for both the Missouri Valley Conference and national titles again. And guess who with ...
1. North Dakota State (15-1; No. 1) - Sure, the senior losses (expected to be 15) are significant again this offseason, including running back John Crockett and a host of top defensive players led by Buck Buchanan Award winner Kyle Emanuel, but didn't it appear this time a year ago that another team would be on top at the end the 2014 season? For a change, the Bison offense might be better than the defense. The power running game will be there with quarterback Carson Wentz and running back King Frazier working behind an outstanding offensive line, and wide receivers Zach Vraa and RJ Urzendowski will form a dynamite duo. Starting cornerbacks Jordan Champion and C.J. Smith will allow some new leaders, including defensive tackle Nate Tanguay and linebacker Nick DeLuca, to emerge into the defensive spotlight. The Bison open at Montana and won't play an FBS opponent as well as Illinois State in the regular season once again, but considering coach Chris Klieman's squad will be less experienced defensively, a softer schedule might be beneficial.
Five others to consider: Harvard (10-0; No. 15), Montana (9-5; No. 13), South Dakota State (9-5; No. 12), Stephen F. Austin (8-5; unranked), Western Carolina (7-5; unranked).