By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - There are always teams that look like locks on paper.
You know, like France and Italy advancing to the knockout phase of the World Cup.
And that's the point. There are no sure things in sports.
The older we get, the more we realize that we should not be overly surprised by upsets and when favored teams fail to do what we expect of them - like win a championship.
Half of the FCS' 14 conferences appear to have definitive favorites this season, while the other half appear to be more up for grabs. The seven consensus picks would be Montana in the Big Sky Conference, Liberty in the Big South Conference, South Carolina State in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Colgate in the Patriot League, Appalachian State in the Southern Conference, Stephen F. Austin in the Southland Conference and Prairie View A&M in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. All but Colgate is a defending champion.
There's a reason, however, why teams play the games. None of the other teams considered below those seven wants to hear it doesn't have a chance within its conference.
Below we list a potential spoiler or two from those seven conference that aren't planning to be second-best:
Montana (14-1, 8-0 in 2009) has won at least a share of the conference title in 12 straight seasons, but lost a number of key players. Eastern Washington (8-4, 6-2) banks its hope on the conference's best defensive player (linebacker J.C. Sherritt), perhaps the conference's best offensive player (running back Taiwan Jones) and the conference's most influential transfer (quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell from SMU). The Eagles host Montana on their new red turf Sept. 18. Montana State (7-4, 5-3) ends the regular season on Nov. 20 at Montana. The Bobcats' offensive and defensive lines are experienced, and they have excellent special teams, including place-kicker Jason Cunningham.
Liberty (8-3, 5-1) averaged 36.4 points per game to lead the FCS last year. But Charleston Southern (6-5, 4-2) has a defense led by defensive end Joel Walton and cornerback Chris Kuzdale, a balanced offense and experience in its special teams. The Buccaneers played nail-biters in their conference losses to Gardner-Webb and Liberty last season. They visit Liberty on Oct. 9.
South Carolina State (10-2, 8-0) is probably the nation's biggest favorite for a conference title because it won every MEAC game by double-digits last season and returns a veteran team. But Florida A&M (8-3, 6-2) should be strong offensively with a solid line, two potential quarterbacks in Eddie Battle and Martin Ukpai, and running back Philip Sylvester. The Rattlers host South Carolina State on Oct. 2. One week later, the favored Bulldogs host Norfolk State (7-4, 5-3), which won its final four games and have the conference's most productive returning back, DeAngelo Branche, who will operate behind an experienced line. Either Chris Walley or Jake Strickler, a pair of junior college transfers, figures to be the starting quarterback.
Some team will have to slow Colgate (9-2, 4-2) and its high-powered offense. For a change, defending champion Holy Cross (9-3, 5-1) is strongest on defense with the return of defensive end Mude Ohimor and safety Anthony DiMichele. However, the Crusaders, who visit Colgate on Oct. 23, have lost four-year starting quarterback Dominic Randolph. Lehigh (4-7, 4-2) wants to win for struggling coach Andy Coen (20-24 in four seasons) and has an excellent quarterback in J.B. Clark, who works behind a line that features standout tackle Will Rackley. After hosting Colgate on Oct. 30, the Mountain Hawks play their final three league games on the road.
Appalachian State (11-3, 8-0) reached the FCS semifinals last season and has one of the more talent-laden rosters in the nation. Elon (9-3, 7-1) will likely have to win in Boone, N.C., to make it a race. The Phoenix have a quarterback, senior Scott Riddle, who also has thrown for 10,003 yards and 78 touchdowns in his career. Middle linebacker Joshua Jones fuels the defense.
Stephen F. Austin (10-3, 6-1) has all the pieces in place for another banner season, but McNeese State (9-3, 6-1) has the type of defense that can stand up to the Lumberjacks, including defensive tackle Desmund Lighten and free safety Malcolm Bronson. The Cowboys host SFA on Oct. 9. Texas State (7-4, 5-2) has a defense that already has stood up to SFA, winning 28-7 last season. The Bobcats are still waiting to see if two-time 1,000-yard rusher Karrington Bush will be eligible this season, but they definitely will have standout wide receiver Da'Marcus Griggs and linebacker Marcus Clark. They visit SFA on Oct. 30.
Prairie View A&M (9-1, 7-0) came within three points of FBS New Mexico State, and a perfect season, last fall. But the Panthers can't forget that until their three-point win over Grambling State (7-4, 5-2), they hadn't beaten the Tigers since 1986. The Tigers have perhaps the most intimidating defensive player in the FCS in defensive end Christian Anthony. They're still awaiting word on whether quarterback Greg Dillon will be granted a sixth year of eligibility, but will have two quality returning backs in Frank Warren and Cornelius Walker. Their all-important meeting with Prairie View is Sept. 25 in Dallas.