Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Unless you're the Kentucky men or the UConn women, you don't have to win your final game in the NCAA basketball tournament for the season to be considered successful.
So much emphasis is put on the postseason that we've come to forget what a good season can look like.
There are so many different ways to judge a season. A conference title is primary to many. Improvement, a winning record, even laying the foundation for success in the future also are big to many programs.
For every North Dakota State or Eastern Washington or Sam Houston State smack dab in the FCS national title picture, there are even more teams toiling farther down their conference standings working toward achieving their goals.
And the goals are forever changing.
For some, a little national attention appears within reach in the 2015 season even if few are paying attention leading up to it.
Among the FCS teams hoping to break out:
Abilene Christian (6-6, 4-4 Southland) - The former Division II program's .500 record in its first season in the Southland Conference was commendable. The Wildcats posted some impressive wins (FBS member Troy, Central Arkansas and Stephen F. Austin) and have a lot returning on offense. Junior quarterback, Parker McKenzie threw for over 3,000 yards last season and there are plenty of returning weapons, including a running back, De'Andre Brown, who gained seven yards a pop in finishing second in the conference in rushing yards per game (96.2). The defense lost a number of leaders, none bigger than defensive end Nick Richardson, but coach Ken Collums played a lot of players, so there are experienced players ready for larger roles. Pivotal Game: The Wildcats' big season-ending win last year was against playoff-bound Stephen F. Austin, and a Sept. 26 home game against the Lumberjacks will be huge in a tough stretch of conference matchups.
Duquesne (6-6, 2-4 Northeast) - In an NEC on the rise, is it finally the Dukes' turn to advance to the playoffs? They have shared the conference title twice in the last four seasons without earning the automatic bid. Injured linebackers Christian Kuntz and Aaron Reed, who tied for the team lead in tackles in 2013, return to what already was a solid defense, which last year featured 325-pound tackle Zach Zidian plugging the middle and NEC defensive rookie of the year Nathan Stone patrolling at linebacker. On offense, a healthier Dillon Buechel will keep targeting wideout Chris King, who caught 14 touchdowns last season. Pivotal Game: For coach Jerry Schmidt's squad to secure the NEC's auto bid, an Oct. 17 visit to Bryant is a must-have win.
North Dakota (5-7, 3-5 Big Sky) - In the largest FCS conference (13 teams), nobody is paying attention to UND, but they should. Coach Bubba Schweigert had a strong defense in his first season and returns eight starters to the unit, including senior linebacker Will Ratelle after he posted the program's first 100-tackle season since 2004. The big factor is whether UND can improve an offense that averaged only 15.9 points per game. Three quarterbacks - Joe Mollberg, Ryan Bartels and Keaton Studsrud - started at least two games each. Running back Ja'Won Arrington (UAB transfer) and wide receiver Clives Georges (Arizona transfer) should be important additions to the offense. Pivotal Game: North Dakota's defense has a chance to make a statement on Oct. 10 when it hosts high-scoring Idaho State.
Southeast Missouri (5-7, 3-5 Ohio Valley) - The Redhawks snuck into the Top 25 a year ago after an impressive stretch of wins over Southeastern Louisiana, UT Martin and Tennessee State, but it didn't last long as their 4-2 start was followed by five losses in their final six OVC games. Still, second-year mentor Tom Matukewicz appears to be a coach on the rise. One of the big keys for his team is consistency at quarterback from either Alex Niznak, last year's backup, or Tay Bender, a transfer from JUCO powerhouse Iowa Western. Whoever wins the top job will have terrific senior playmakers in wide receiver Paul McRoberts and running back DeMichael Jackson. An experienced defense and a long-range kicker in Ryan McCrum also return. Pivotal Game: If the Redhawks want to be taken seriously, then an Oct. 10 road trip to Eastern Illinois offers that opportunity. EIU ran all over the Redhawks last season.
Western Carolina (7-5, 5-2 Southern) - Coming off their winningest season since 2001, the Catamounts believe they can capture the Southern Conference's automatic bid to the playoffs. Coach Mark Speir's team has solid depth and returns 20 starters, including all 11 on offense. Dynamic quarterback Troy Mitchell set the school's single-season record for total offense (3,096 yards) and has plenty of playmakers. Cornerback Trey Morgan and linebacker Sertonuse Harris headline the defensive returnees. Pivotal Game: With two SEC opponents (Tennessee and Texas A&M) and a sub-Division I opponent (Mars Hill) on the schedule, the Catamounts could find it hard to secure an at-large bid to the playoffs. So to win the SoCon, they likely need to beat Samford on Oct. 24 to set up a big visit to Chattanooga on Halloween.
Western Illinois (5-7, 3-5 Missouri Valley) - After being outscored 99-54 in the fourth quarter of games and letting potential wins slip away against FCS national finalists North Dakota State and Illinois State, third-year coach Bob Nielson's squad needs a finishing touch. The terrific passing combination of Trenton Norvell-to-Lance Lenoir Jr. and five returning starters on the offensive line make it possible. The Leathernecks have to replace last year's co-MVPs, running back J.C. Baker and linebacker Kevin Kintzel, and the defense lost all but linebacker J.J. Raffelson among their top seven in tackles. Pivotal Game: A rugged schedule doesn't offer the prospect of huge gains in the win column unless the Leathernecks steal a win at FCS power Coastal Carolina on Sept. 19. The Leathernecks won a 2010 playoff game at Coastal in the only previous meeting.