Philadelphia, PA – After Charleston Southern's loss to FBS Colorado Saturday, there are just four unbeaten teams left in the FCS this season.
Maintaining an undefeated record all the way through to the end of a season is extremely difficult, but with the right pieces, that challenging puzzle can come together.
The nation's top-ranked team in North Dakota State trailed early to Southern Illinois - a team that had taken down two teams previously ranked in the Top 10 in consecutive weeks - but rebounded for a convincing 31-10 win. The Bison are 7-0 with four games remaining on their schedule against Missouri Valley Conference opponents. They have a bye week in two weeks.
The pieces of the puzzle for North Dakota State seem to fit together effotlessly. The Bison are a senior-laden team with players from back-to-back national championships. They know what it takes to reach the top.
Senior quarterback Brock Jensen hasn't blown anyone out of the water with his 2013 stats, but he doesn't have to on this team. Jensen leads his Bison by example, and has orchestrated multiple come-from-behind victories this season alone. Because if that's what his team needs, that's what he'll provide.
The other unbeaten teams are Fordham (8-0), Coastal Carolina (7-0) and Harvard (5-0).
Let's take a look at these four unbeaten teams through the first eight weeks of the regular season. Through spectacular individual efforts or team efforts, whether on offense or defense, these teams have unblemished records for a reason. The numbers in an unbeaten season never lie.
NORTH DAKOTA STATE BISON
It's not shocking in the least bit that two-time defending national champion North Dakota State is unbeaten to this point in the season, especially when you consider all the playmakers the team brought back from last year's run.
One of the key ingredients to a successful season is having a good, sturdy quarterback, and Jensen provides the Bison with that much.
But the real selling point for North Dakota State is its defense. After this weekend's slate of games, the Bison are ranked first in the country in total defense, allowing opponents just 257.9 yards per game. They're also first in the nation in scoring defense, holding opponents to 12.9 points per game. All the offense has to do is manage a few scores per game, because it's clear the defense will do the rest.
Against Southern Illinois Saturday, the Bison kept quarterback Kory Faulkner, who had been on fire offensively the past few weeks against fellow Missouri Valley Conference teams such as South Dakota State and Northern Iowa, completely at bay. Faulkner had 139 passing yards and one touchdown before he got injured and gave way to Ryan West.
North Dakota State's forte has been rendering its opponents' best player useless. Take South Dakota State's Zach Zenner for example. Zenner was among the top running backs in the nation in terms of yards per game and points accounted for prior to North Dakota State's visit to Brookings. In the 20-0 Bison blanking of the Jackrabbits, Zenner ran the ball eight times for four yards.
Northern Iowa's David Johnson had 142 rushing yards and a touchdown, which primarily came on one play. His 85-yard rushing score in the second quarter was the most damage he would do all day.
It's nothing fancy the Bison do to limit teams. They just pride themselves on a stout defense and limiting other teams offensively. North Dakota State ranks 32nd in the nation in total offense with 434 yards per game, which is enough to maintain its perfect record.
The Rams began this season like any other in recent years, knowing they were ineligible for the Patriot League championship and automatic bid into the FCS playoffs. So an at-large bid would be the only way this team could make it into the postseason, and the chances of that happening seemed, in retrospect, unlikely.
But Fordham has captured the nation's attention with a perfect 8-0 record with wins over powerful teams like Villanova, FBS Temple and fellow Patriot League squad Lehigh. The Rams downed Yale, 52-31, on Saturday.
Fordham prides itself on offense. The team has only scored fewer that 30 points in a game once this season (a 27-24 victory over Villanova), and has amassed 50 points four times. The offensive outburst can, in large part, be attributed to junior Walter Payton Award candidate Michael Nebrich at quarterback.
Nebrich is a statistical machine, ranking second in the nation with 2,587 passing yards (behind only Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo), third in the country in touchdown passes (21), sixth in passing yards per game (323.4), fourth in points responsible for per game (20.5) and tied for second with Eastern Washington's Vernon Adams in total points responsible for (164). Nebrich also leads the nation in completion percentage, coming in at 74.1 percent.
The Rams as an offensive unit are fifth in the nation in total offense, averaging 512.6 yards per game, having scored 43 touchdowns this season.
Nebrich wasn't even the focal point of the offense entering the season. Senior running back Carlton Koonce is a threat out of the backfield, ranking eighth in the nation with 879 yards and six rushing touchdowns. Receiver Sam Ajala is third in the country in receiving yards per game with 118.9.
Taking a look at Fordham's schedule for the remainder of the season, it doesn't appear to be daunting. Holy Cross, Bucknell, Lafayette and Colgate have a combined nine wins at this point in the season (compared to Fordham's eight), and remain ahead for the Rams.
COASTAL CAROLINA CHANTICLEERS
The Chanticleers won for just the second time in Lynchburg, Va., Saturday against Big South rival Liberty in a double overtime matchup that saw a total of 107 points scored.
The Chants now own a 6-5 series lead over Liberty, and appear to be on the fast track to the Big South championship in 2013. Typically this regular-season matchup between Liberty and Coastal Carolina is an indicator as to which team gets the Big South's automatic bid. One of these two teams has won at least a share of the conference championship in eight of the past nine seasons.
Coastal Carolina has relied heavily on its superior running game this season, led by standout senior back Lorenzo Taliaferro. The Chants are undefeated and have survived games with South Carolina State, Gardner-Webb and Liberty using an explosive offensive attack.
The double-overtime game against Liberty was the first time since Week 2 of this season the Chants didn't defeated their opponent by more than a touchdown. For a team that has scored over 50 points in a game four times this year, Saturday's 55-point showing was a season high.
Taliaferro rushed for 151 yards and four touchdowns against the Flames, including the game-tying score in the first overtime period.
Taliaferro is second in the nation behind only Towson's Terrance West with 17 rushing touchdowns this season. West has 19, playing one more game.
Taliaferro also ranks fifth in rushing yards (986), fourth in rushing yards per game (140.9) and is first in the nation in scoring, accounting for 15.4 points per game for the Chanticleers. He's the leader of a team ranked seventh in the country in rushing offense (267.1 yards per game), and eighth in total offense (495.9 yards per game).
Though the Chanticleers defense allows 26.3 points per game to their opponents, it's hard to outdo what Taliaferro, quarterback Alex Ross and the rest of the Coastal Carolina offense provides week in and week out.
It hasn't mattered much which quarterback has been under center for the Crimson this season, because the team still puts up a "W" week after week.
Conner Hempel and Michael Pruneau have both been successful for Harvard in the five games the team has played, each recording at least two wins as the starter. Pruneau got the start against Cornell a week ago and against Lafayette Saturday, when he accounted for 263 passing yards and three touchdowns.
The Crimson were picked to finish second in the Ivy League preseason poll, but have outperformed that expectation through the first five weeks of the Ivy League schedule. With a 42-20 opening weekend win over San Diego, the Crimson set the tone for the rest of the year. And the train has kept right on rolling.
Harvard's defense kept San Diego quarterback Mason Mills - last year's FCS leader in completion percentage - quiet in the season-opening win. Mills completed 27-of-46 pass attempts for 293 yards and one touchdown, also throwing an interception. Hempel outdueled him with 345 passing yards and four touchdowns.
Harvard's offense, no matter which quarterback is playing, is ranked 13th in the country in scoring, averaging 38.6 points per game. That mark is second in the Ivy League to Princeton - the team Harvard will tangle with next weekend.
Defensive end Zach Hodges has been the Crimson player to watch. The junior leads the nation with a 0.6 forced fumbles per game, notching three in the five games he's played. He's also second in the nation with a 2.1-tackles-for-loss- per-game average. In five contests, Hodges has 10.5 total tackles for loss. The nation's leader - Montana State's Brad Daly - has 15 in seven games. Hodges is fourth in the FCS in averaging 1.1 sacks per game.
The Crimson have only played one team this season that had more than one win at the time of their meeting (Holy Cross had two wins when the teams met on Oct. 5), and the bulk of the team's schedule is still ahead with matchups against Princeton, Dartmouth, Penn and Yale.
So the road gets tougher for Harvard, but the Crimson have proved capable of outscoring any opponent. The two highest-scoring Ivy League offenses will square off on Saturday at Harvard Stadium, with Princeton trying to gain the league's top spot and spoil the Crimson's perfect record.