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10 burning questions for FCS 2018

By CRAIG HALEY

STATS FCS Senior Editor

(STATS) - With nearly 6 million fans set to attend FCS college football games in the 2018 season, anticipation is overflowing across the nation.

The fun kicks off with everybody starting even in the race for conference titles and then ultimately a national championship that's currently held by FCS dynasty North Dakota State.

In looking ahead to what promises to be a wild ride, here are answers to 10 burning questions across the FCS:

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Can anybody take down North Dakota State?

The popular thought is only 2016 champ James Madison can prevent the Bison from winning a record seventh FCS title in eight seasons. But remember, a team only has to be beaten once to be eliminated from the 24-team playoffs. Sam Houston State has been the other dominating power this decade, but it's been routed by NDSU and JMU in the postseason. If the Bearkats can't stand in the Bison's way, then South Dakota State, Kennesaw State and New Hampshire - three teams coming off deep playoff runs - and Eastern Washington draw the most conversation. But NDSU is an overwhelming preseason No. 1 and James Madison is the chief challenger.

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Who will upset FBS programs?

Since FCS teams combined on a record 16 wins over FBS opponents in 2013, the subdivision has combined for 36 wins from 10 different conferences in the last four seasons. This year, there are 111 more opportunities. Some Week 1 matchups to keep a close eye on: Kennesaw State at Georgia State; Villanova at Temple; Northern Arizona at UTEP; James Madison at North Carolina State; Nicholls at Kansas; and South Dakota State at Iowa State. In mid-September, Eastern Washington will try to do what it did two years ago - upset Washington State.

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What are the new rules?

The offseason brought a small handful of rules changes. On special teams, a fair catch made inside the 25-yard line on kickoffs will result in the receiving team awarded a touchback at its 25, while a personal foul or unsportsmanlike conduct against the defense can be enforced on a kickoff if the offensive team elects to keep the three points from a successful field goal. Offensive players who are more than five yards from the line of scrimmage will not be allowed to block below the waist, and blocks must occur in the front side except those done by interior offensive linemen. To expedite play, a 40-second play clock will be used after touchdowns and after kickoffs and there will be a 10-second runoff when instant replay overturns an on-field ruling in the final minute of each half. Also, there are uniform adjustments made for safety reasons. Plus, off the field the NCAA changed the redshirt rule, now allowing players to participate in up to four games and still use a redshirt that season.

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How will Idaho do in its drop-down season?

Idaho's 28-6 win over a 7-4 Sacramento State team last season suggests the Vandals' return to the Big Sky after 22 seasons on the FBS level will go well. While Coach Paul Petrino's squad is considered in the title mix, it's replacing 12 starters, including four-year quarterback Matt Linehan. The non-conference schedule (Fresno State and Florida from the FBS and Western New Mexico from Division II) may not be helpful for a playoff resume. Without an FBS upset, it might take seven Big Sky wins to reach the playoffs.

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Who are the potential surprise teams?

Kennesaw State's troubling triple option offense, breakout 2017 season (FCS quarterfinals and a 12-game winning streak) and experienced roster have all the makings for national title contention. But the defending Big South champ is ranked fifth in the preseason, so it's not as though the Owls will sneak up on anybody. Looking outside the Top 10, a healthier Villanova squad (5-6 last season) and re-emerging Delaware are expecting banner seasons. Looking outside the Top 25, Patriot League power Colgate and its physical running game and defense, CAA power Richmond (but picked seventh in the CAA preseason poll) and Mercer from the Southern Conference deserve deep looks.

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Is the CAA or Missouri Valley better?

Nine of the last 10 FCS champions have come from CAA Football or the Missouri Valley Football Conference, and the two conferences have had at least one finalist since 2002. The MVFC has been ahead in the 2010s, but 2018 could tilt back to the CAA. The Valley has the best team in North Dakota State; the CAA has stronger overall depth with the likes of James Madison, New Hampshire, Elon, Delaware, Stony Brook, Richmond and Villanova.

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How will the new head coaches do?

Well, there are plenty of them - 25 programs with a new head coach since the start of last season - so there will be great success along with the growing pains. Teams in the preseason Top 25 with new coaches include No. 10 Wofford (Josh Conklin), No. 14 North Carolina A&T (Sam Washington) and No. 16 Central Arkansas (Nathan Brown). But none is in the spotlight as much as Bobby Hauck of No. 24 Montana. His first stint with the Griz from 2003-09 included seven straight Big Sky titles and three national runner-up finishes, but also controversy and player arrests off the field.

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Who are the top quarterbacks?

It's a big season for FCS signal callers. Samford's Devlin Hodges (11,005 career yards of total offense), North Dakota State's Easton Stick (34-3 career record; most outstanding player of the 2017 FCS championship game), Eastern Washington's Gage Gubrud (FCS single-season record 5,160 passing yards in 2016), South Dakota State's Taryn Christion (9,697 career yards of total offense) and Northern Arizona's Case Cookus (72 career touchdown passes) warrant strong consideration for All-America honors. San Diego's Anthony Lawrence, Kennesaw State's Chandler Burks and North Carolina A&T's Lamar Raynard are big-time winners as well.

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Which players are the NFL studying closely?

UC Davis wide receiver Keelan Doss (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) enters the season as the leading FCS prospect for the 2019 NFL Draft. The depth is good on defense, including Delaware strong safety Nasir Adderley (6-0, 190), cornerbacks Rashad Robinson (5-11, 182) of James Madison and Jordan Brown (6-1, 200) of South Dakota State, Western Illinois defensive tackle Khalen Saunders (6-2, 310) and Montana linebacker Josh Buss (6-2, 220).

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Who will win the FCS Awards?

The awards races are wide open, of course. A quarterback has won the STATS FCS Walter Payton Award (national offensive player of the year) in 13 of the last 14 years. Samford defensive end Ahmad Gooden, Elon linebacker Warren Messer and Jacksonville State safety Marlon Bridges are the top returning vote-getters from last year's STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award (national defensive player of the year). The likes of James Madison's Mike Houston and North Dakota State's Chris Klieman surely are strong candidates for the STATS FCS Eddie Robinson Award (national coach of the year). The STATS FCS Jerry Rice Award (national freshman player of the year) will come into focus during the season.

Updated August 28, 2018

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