FCS review: Separate ways to success

(STATS) - The most successful new coaches in the FCS this year coached together for the last six years.

It's no surprise The Citadel's Brent Thompson and James Madison's Mike Houston are leading the way considering their championship-winning ability.

Besides them going separate ways last offseason, the difference is that Thompson kept the triple option offense that he and Houston utilized together at The Citadel and previously at Division II Lenoir-Rhyne, while Houston wisely kept the spread attack that was in place among the great talent at James Madison.

After beating Samford on Saturday, fifth-ranked The Citadel (9-0) has clinched at least a share of its first back-to-back Southern Conference titles and secured an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs. James Madison (8-1) sits in first place in CAA Football and will move up to the No. 6 ranking following a great win over rival Richmond, and it can clinch the conference title and a playoff bid with a victory at Villanova next Saturday.

Houston and Thompson first coached together as assistants on the Lenoir-Rhyne staff in 2010, with Houston coordinating the defense and Thompson the offense under head coach Fred Goldsmith. When Goldsmith retired after the season, Houston was elevated to head coach and Thompson remained on with the Paul Johnson/Fisher DeBerry form of the triple option, which took Lenoir-Rhyne to the 2013 D-II national championship game and set an NCAA record for rushing yards in a season.

Houston left for The Citadel before the 2014 season and named Thompson as his offensive coordinator. Last year, they led the Bulldogs to their first SoCon title since 1992.

When Houston took over at James Madison after last season, Thompson remained at The Citadel to become its 25th head coach.

They're both winning with high-powered offenses this season. James Madison, which has lost only to North Carolina, ranks second in the FCS in scoring offense and third in total offense behind quarterback Bryan Schor and running back Khalid Abdullah. The Citadel leads the nation in rushing offense behind fullback Tyler Renew and four of the top 10 rushers in the SoCon.

Six of the 19 FCS teams with new coaches are enjoying winning seasons. The others are Fordham (Andrew Breiner), Maine (Joe Harasymiak), Southern Utah (Demario Warren) and Western Illinois (Charlie Fisher).



Ten more observations from the FCS weekend:

1.) James Madison's 47-43 win over Richmond in a Top 10 matchup was among the games of the season. It was two interstate rivals and defending champions in CAA Football playing for first place again and going back and forth at each other (the lead changed five times, including three times in the fourth quarter). Quarterbacks Schor and Richmond's Kyle Lauletta combined for 10 total touchdowns and no turnovers. "It's a shame there has to be a winner and loser in this ball game, considering the way these two teams competed," Houston said, "but for us, it's certainly a huge win."

2.) Gardner-Webb is the team of the week after stunning No. 8 Charleston Southern 17-10 on the road in the Big South. The Runnin' Bulldogs (4-6), though inconsistent, make it a habit of beating ranked teams, this time behind quarterback Tyrell Maxwell, who amassed 360 total yards (195 passing, 165 rushing) and two total touchdowns. They capped a game-winning, 85-yard touchdown drive with Maxwell's 1-yard TD pass to tight end Mike Estes with 27 seconds remaining.

3.) The Citadel and Lehigh are the first qualifiers to the FCS playoffs, so who's next? Next weekend, Liberty (Big South), James Madison (CAA), Saint Francis (Northeast) and San Diego (Pioneer Football League) can clinch automatic bids with wins.

4.) Can the MEAC runner-up earn an at-large bid to the playoffs? Don't forget the team not headed to the Celebration Bowl is eligible, and it's looking more possible for No. 11 North Carolina A&T (8-1) or North Carolina Central (7-2). They are both 6-0 in the conference and on a collision course for a Nov. 19 matchup at Central. Their three combined losses are against FBS teams and A&T owns a win over MAC member Kent State. The MEAC has had at-large qualifiers in the past.

5.) Speaking of the selection committee, chair Brian Hutchinson was forthcoming in an interview with Bison 1660 in Fargo, North Dakota, about the initial rankings last week. His revealing that the committee will look deeper into the data as it advances toward the release of the Nov. 20 pairings brings into question why that wasn't done prior to the first rankings. After Jacksonville State's 17-10 struggle past Southeast Missouri, the Gamecocks could fall from the No. 1 ranking. Their 101st schedule ranking, according to NCAA statistics, is the lowest of the 10 teams in the first committee rankings.

6.) If any team is going to get an at-large bid with a 6-5 record, it would likely come from the toughest conference, the Missouri Valley, where Western Illinois was the first team to accomplish the feat a year ago. Northern Iowa (4-5) and Illinois State (5-5) were Top 10 teams entering the season, but both have been frustrated by close losses this season. Illinois State figures to beat Missouri State next weekend and get to 6-5 with impressive wins over Northwestern, South Dakota State and Western Illinois. UNI also would have wins over SDSU and WIU if it wins out and an FBS win (Iowa State). Ironically, they are not playing each other in the MVFC's unbalanced schedule.

7.) Teams won't lose if they're not giving up points. The top 13 FCS teams in fewest points allowed are a combined 93-21, with none worse than 6-3. San Diego (7-1) leads the way at 11.6 points per game.

8.) It's getting overlooked because of Eastern Washington's weekly offensive firepower, but the Eagles' defense is progressing down the stretch - more bend than break. Second-year defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding's defense has allowed its three-lowest point totals of the season in the last three games, including the No. 3 Eagles' 42-21 win at No. 14 Cal Poly in the Big Sky on Saturday night. The Eagles are seeking their fourth conference title in five years.

9.) Junior quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe set the Sam Houston State record for touchdown passes in a season when he reached 40 in a 56-43 win over McNeese. With two more regular season games and a potentially deep playoff run ahead, the FCS record of 56 - held by Mississippi Valley State's Willie Totten (1984) and Grambling State's Bruce Eugene (2005) - appears within Briscoe's reach.

10.) Texas Southern (3-6, 3-4) sits 3 1/2 games out of first place in the SWAC's West Division. It would be tied for first place in the East, where none of the five teams has a winning record. Alcorn State (3-5, 3-4) and Jackson State (3-6, 3-4) are expected to play for the East Division spot in the SWAC championship game on Nov. 19. Grambling State (6-1, 6-0) and Southern (6-2, 6-0) have an edge over Prairie View A&M (6-3, 6-1) in the West Division standings.



Next weekend's action kicks off Friday night with a big matchup in the Ivy League - Harvard at Penn. With a win, the visiting Crimson would clinch at least a share of their fourth straight title.

On Saturday, James Madison will have its second straight Top 10 matchup in the CAA when it goes to Villanova.

Other pivotal conference matchups include: Big Sky, Northern Arizona at North Dakota, Cal Poly at Weber State and Montana at Northern Colorado; Big South, Charleston Southern at Liberty; Ivy, Princeton at Yale; Missouri Valley, Northern Iowa at Western Illinois and South Dakota at South Dakota State; NEC, Sacred Heart at Duquesne; OVC, Southeast Missouri State at UT Martin; Southern, Wofford at Chattanooga; Southland, Nicholls at Central Arkansas; and SWAC, Southern at Prairie View A&M and Alabama State at Grambling State.

Southern Utah will go to Provo to take on BYU.