Philadelphia, PA – North Dakota State may be staking its claim as the Alabama of the FCS, but there's no Southeastern Conference running roughshod over the FCS.
It's fairly balanced at the top even with the Bison chasing their third straight national championship.
The big four FCS conferences match quality and quantity almost every season. But this year may be a last stand for the Southern Conference alongside the Big Sky Conference, CAA Football and the Missouri Valley Football Conference, home to NDSU.
SoCon stalwarts Georgia Southern and Appalachian State are in their final season before moving to the FBS level, and the conference won't be the same without them next year.
Yes, conference realignment is clearly having an effect on the FCS as our 2013 conference rankings indicate:
1. Missouri Valley - The conference home of the two-time reigning FCS champions was ridiculously deep last season with about seven of the 10 teams among the 30 strongest in the FCS. That includes a 5-6 Northern Iowa squad that suffered its first losing season since 2002. South Dakota State, behind 2,000-yard rusher Zach Zenner, is considered the biggest threat to North Dakota State. Illinois State, Indiana State, Southern Illinois and Youngstown State might take a small step backward this year as UNI moves forward again.
2. Big Sky - Similar to Northern Iowa in the Missouri Valley, the Big Sky will be much stronger if perennial power Montana finds its way back up the mountain after an awful season (in fact, it was the Grizzlies' first losing mark since 1985). Bitter rival Montana State has moved to the conference forefront during quarterback DeNarius McGhee's career, and Eastern Washington has a national championship and a national semifinal appearance in the last three seasons. Cal Poly and Northern Arizona figure to have banner seasons again and there is enough depth in the 13-member conference for a breakthrough team. This just might wind up being the top conference.
3. Southern Conference - Georgia Southern, which has made appearances in the last three FCS semifinals, and Appalachian State aren't eligible for either the conference championship or an FCS playoff bid, but they keep the SoCon strong this season. Their absence in the postseason will make it hard for the SoCon to make waves, however. Wofford is the team to beat, and Chattanooga thinks it can do just that this season. The Citadel and Samford really make this a strong conference - at least until next year.
4. CAA Football - Too many good teams and no great teams have brought the CAA back from the FCS lead. Villanova thinks it has a great team this year and Towson, behind running back Terrance West, is headed to a banner season. The two will try to separate themselves from the pack of New Hampshire (whose defense will be down), Richmond, James Madison, Delaware and Stony Brook, which comes aboard as Old Dominion - last year's best CAA team - departs the conference.
5. Southland Conference - In starting the second tier of FCS conferences, the Southland features Sam Houston State, which has lost to North Dakota State in each of the past two national championship games, and Central Arkansas. It's a twosome the Ohio Valley Conference - ranked sixth - can't match. The question is whether the middle tier in the Southland, though improved with McNeese State, Stephen F. Austin and likely Southeastern Louisiana, is as strong.
6. Ohio Valley Conference - Last year's surprise teams, Eastern Illinois and Tennessee State, won't sneak up on opponents this year, and both are strong enough to make the expanded 24-team playoffs. Jacksonville State is the steady power in the conference, although it has undergone a coaching change, and Eastern Kentucky and UT Martin have to overcome some big senior losses. This was the FCS' most offensive conference last year and there's a lot of returning talent.
7. Patriot League - The league will be on the rise as the scholarship classes mount, but there likely isn't a Top 15 or 20 team this year if Colgate or Lehigh take a step back. The teams behind the two powers are closing in for a tight race. Holy Cross lost some close games and should be much improved. Fordham, with the most scholarships to date, is coming on under coach Joe Moorhead, but the Rams remain ineligible for the league title until 2014.
8. Ivy League - It's still Penn and Harvard, Harvard and Penn, with a little Brown sprinkled into some title races. Princeton hopes to finally be putting it together, and Cornell has quarterback Jeff Mathews at the controls again. What can't be overlooked is a lot of players in this non-scholarship league could be playing elsewhere on scholarship. It's a quality league.
9. Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference - Bethune-Cookman has taken its program to a higher level under coach Brian Jenkins and the conference has a lot of evenly matched teams capable of beating each other. Talent-wise it was a relatively young conference last year. But to boast a high strength of conference, the MEAC needs South Carolina State, which is coming off its first losing season since 2001, to get back on track.
10. Big South - In going from a three-horse race to a two-horse race, the Big South lost its most dangerous program in Stony Brook. Coastal Carolina and Liberty will clash heads for the title. Only six teams deep - until Monmouth arrives next year - the conference has dropped considerably. Liberty is trying to step out the door to the FBS level.
11. Northeast Conference - The NEC sees its stock slip as well with Albany joining the CAA and Monmouth football not being asked back after its athletic program announced a move to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Wagner, which has the smallest enrollment (2,000) of the seven remaining programs, is the team to beat off last year's title and playoff win.
12. Southwestern Athletic Conference - After the realignment negatives, how about some positive news? OK, the SWAC should be improved. But it basically can only be that way after last year's poor season across the league. Grambling State inexplicably fell to pieces after a 2011 title season. Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Alabama State, Jackson State and Alabama A&M are a solid group of programs.
13. Pioneer Football League - It's now the second-biggest FCS conference with Mercer and Stetson raising the total to 12 programs, and the league finally has an automatic playoff bid for its champion. But there are some lumps along the way as its non-scholarship teams improve their non-conference scheduling. Butler, Drake and San Diego shared the title last season. Jacksonville has become a consistent winner as well, while Dayton wants to become a power again.