Editor's note: A version of this article originally was published earlier this summer by the Southern Sports Journal.
By David Coulson
Executive Editor/Managing Partner
College Sporting News
PHILADELPHIA — If the 2010 season showed the parity in the Football Championship Subdivision, with Eastern Washington making a surprise run to the national championship, expect more of the same during 2011.
While some of the traditional FCS powers will be in the fight for a national championship this season, the battle for the top prize should once again be wide open.
1. Appalachian State
The Mountaineers return Payton Award finalist DeAndre Presley at QB and sparkling WR Brian Quick, but must adapt to a new defensive scheme while replacing All-Americans Mark LeGree, D.J. Smith and Jabari Fletcher at safety, linebacker and defensive end.
The Blue Hens were young, despite their trek to the FCS title game and a stout defense and the return of RB Andrew Pierce will offset the loss of All-American Pat Devlin at QB. Blowing a 19-0 third-quarter lead in the 20-19 national championship game loss could fuel another deep run by Delaware.
3. Georgia Southern
Coach Jeff Monken reintroduced the triple option and took the Eagles to the national semifinals in his first year. GSU won't sneak up on anyone this time around, but have a strong enough defense — led by DT Brent Russell — and enough on offense to make a charge for a record-setting seventh national title.
4. Montana State
Coach Rob Ash's rebuilding campaign brought the Bobcats a win over eventual national champion Eastern Washington and a share of the Big Sky title last year. This year, sophomore QB DeNarius McGhee and a physical defense, paced by LB Aleksei Grosulak, could guide MSU to a title run.
5. Eastern Washington
It's easy to pick defending champs to repeat, but the Eagles are not likely to have the same magical ride that led to their first title. EWU does return one of the top receiving groups in FCS, QB Bo Levi Mitchell and a strong defense led by DT Renard Williams and twin brothers Matt and Zach Johnson, which will make it a threat.
6. Northern Iowa
The Panthers were somewhat of surprise winners in the Missouri Valley Football Conference last season and return 10 starters on their traditionally-strong defense to go with playmaking QB Tirrell Rennie. UNI should also be motivated by a shocking first-round playoff ouster to Lehigh last season.
7. New Hampshire
The Wildcats have led all of FCS with seven consecutive playoff berths, but still are looking for their first trip past the playoff quarterfinals. Senior Kevin Decker takes over the controls of a hard-to-slow-down attack, while DE Brian McNally and LB Matt Evans head up a defensive unit that has shown massive improvement in the past two years.
No team in FCS is better coached than Mike Ayers' squad and the wingbone offense is in good hands with FB Eric Breitenstein back. If the Terriers can find some other playmakers to take some of the burden off Breitenstein and DE Ameet Pall has another All-American year to lead the defense, this is a team that could make some playoff noise.
9. William & Mary
The Tribe had a great regular season, earning a share of the CAA title and nearly beating North Carolina before being crushed by Georgia Southern in the playoffs. If RB Jonathan Grimes stays healthy, QB Mike Paulus overcomes last year's shoulder injury and the defense adjusts to a new coordinator, Coach Jimmye Laycock's club has the talent to challenge for a national title.
The greatest senior class in Wildcat history, led by OT and College Sporting News player of the year Ben Ijalana, all-purpose back Matt Szczur and QB Chris Whitney, has graduated after a 2009 national title and three consecutive playoff berths. Villanova should be able to reload with its athletic 3-3-5 defense, if redshirt freshman QB Dustin Thomas develops and a brand new linebacking group plays up to potential.
11. North Dakota State
No one will be overlooking the Bison after this tough squad almost knocked out Eastern Washington in the quarterfinals last season. RB D.J. McNorton leads a bone-bruising ground attack and most of a defense that allowed only 180 yards per game returns.
12. McNeese State
The Cowboys should get back on track offensively with the addition of transfer QB Riley Dodge from North Texas and RB Andre Anderson, a second-year transfer from Michigan State, returning. Normally tough on defense, McNeese State returns 10 starters, including DE Champlain Babin.
13. James Madison
The Dukes made more noise than any other FCS team early last season with the upset of Virginia Tech, but the rest of the campaign slipped into a black hole of offensive woes and injury problems. If healthy, JMU has probably the fastest defense in FCS and could be the surprise team of the subdivision if Kansas State transfer Billy Cosh can spark the attack.
About the only thing that the Flames haven't done during Danny Rocco's tenure as coach is make the playoffs. After sharing in four consecutive Big South titles, Liberty should change that this season behind one of the top pass-catching combinations in the country with QB Mike Brown and WR Chris Summers and a strong running game.
15. Stephen F. Austin
The Lumberjacks lost Payton Award-winning QB Jeremy Moses, but most of his playmakers on offense return, including receivers Grayln Crawford and Cordell Roberson. Dalton Williams and Brady Attaway are battling to pick up for Moses, while SFA must also find replacements for the likes of LB Jabara Williams on defense.
16. Southern Illinois
The Salukis were stunned to finish 5-6 last season and miss the playoffs following seven straight appearances after being ranked as a title contender in the preseason. Injuries were a big part of that slide, but SIU returns 17 starters, including safety Mike McElroy and QB Paul McIntosh, who is being pushed by Northern Illinois transfer A.J. Hill.
The Grizzlies made a shocking fall last season, failing to win at least a share of the Big Sky title for the first time since 1996 and missing the playoffs for the first time in 18 years. The pressure is on second-year coach Robin Pflugrad, who will build around a tough defense, led by CB Trumaine Johnson, and will hope that QB Jordan Johnson or Notre Dame transfer Nate Montana (Joe Montana's son) can spark the offense.
The Quakers are seeking their third straight Ivy League title and are heavy favorites with one of the top defenses — led by LB Erik Rask — in FCS returning, along with QB Billy Ragone guiding an efficient offense that doesn't make many mistakes. It's too bad that the Al Bagnoli-coached squad is allowed to go to the playoffs, where the Quakers would be a tough out for any team.
19. Jacksonville State
The Gamecocks started the season with a stunning upset of Mississippi in a double-overtime classic and were ranked as high as No. 2 nationally, but were wildly inconsistent and suffered some startling losses. If JSU can find its bearing this year, it has the experience to win the Ohio Valley's Conference's first playoff game in over a decade.
The Engineers earned crucial experience last season by winning the Patriot League title and advancing to the second round of the playoffs. They will need it this year as they encounter a tough schedule, but QB Chris Lum will be throwing to a good receiving group that includes Ryan Spadola and the defense should be strong again.
21. Florida A&M
Coach Joe Taylor has been slowly rebuilding the Rattlers' program back to glory and this could be the year where his efforts pay off. There is depth and experience all over the roster for a team that earn a share of the MEAC crown with Bethune-Cookman and South Carolina State last season, with Dernarius Folsom leading the defense and a lot of weapons on offense.
22. Murray State
There will be little doubt that the Chris Hatcher-coached offense will move the ball and score points behind QB Casey Brockman. But the question that must be answered for the Racers to move into the playoff picture is if they can improve on defense behind JC transfers Sam Small at LB, CB Victor Daniels and safety Darius Buck.
23. Central Connecticut State
The Blue Devils have grabbed a share of the conference title for four consecutive years, but the Jeff McInerney-coached team is looking to earn a playoff berth this season. Improving the defense will be the key to that equation, with DE Charles Williams and LB Lorenzo Baker the key performers, while QB Gunnar Jesperson guides the offense.
24. Southern Utah
If the Thunderbirds can survive a brutal schedule, QB Brad Sorenson could lift them to lofty heights in the final season of Great West Conference play. Sorenson has quietly become one of the top passers in FCS, but needs to see some of his young receivers step up after losing Tysson Pouts and Fesi Sitake to graduation. The defense is led by DE Tyler Osborne and safety Erron Vonner.
The Tigers will be looking to shine up their swagger with the return of former QB and coach Doug Williams to the Grambling fold. The Tiger defense should be outstanding with the likes of LB Cliff Exama and DL Jomarcus Savage back and the offense might overcome the loss of RB Frank Warren with a new QB, Williams' son D.J.
Best of the Rest
Bethune-Cookman, Cal Poly, Colgate, Dayton, Harvard, Illinois State, Jacksonville, Jackson State, Northwestern State, Sacramento State, Sam Houston State, South Carolina State, Southeast Missouri, Stoney Brook, UC Davis