Heads spin more than anything else when the wheels come flying off on a promising season.
Everybody’s in disbelief.
A forgettable 2017 season has a bunch of key FCS programs seeking to rebound in a big way this year. Here are nine (in alphabetical order) hoping to get it done:
2017 Record: 3-8, 3-5 Southern
What to Know: In head coach Tom Arth’s first season, the Mocs suffered as many conference losses (five) as they did in the prior four seasons combined. True freshman quarterback Cole Copeland took over as the starter and is now a building block for a team returning 15 starters. The defensive line, led by Derek Mahaffey and Isaiah Mack, is a strength.
Pivotal Game: A win against Tennessee Tech used to be a gimme, but after last season’s shocking season, the Mocs need a positive start in their Aug. 30 season opener.
The Citadel Bulldogs
2017 Record: 5-6, 3-5 Southern
What to Know: Chattanooga wasn’t alone in struggling in the SoCon. Following two straight championships, the Bulldogs slumped to sixth place in head coach Brent Thompson’s second season. Their triple-option-oriented attack still finished second in the FCS at nearly 295 rushing yards per game, but they didn’t find the end zone enough. Quarterback Jordan Black and leading rusher Grant Drakeford hope to solve that problem.
Pivotal Game: The Bulldogs have a particularly strong schedule, so the home opener against Chattanooga on Sept. 8 is a must-have win.
Eastern Kentucky Colonels
2017 Record: 4-7, 3-5 Ohio Valley
What to Know: In a program with a record 21 Ohio Valley Conference titles, head coach Mark Elder is only 7-15 overall in two seasons. But he has an experienced team for his third season – eight returning starters on offense and seven on defense plus all-conference defensive end Aaron Patrick coming back from an early season injury.
Pivotal Game: A Sept. 22 win over Southeast Missouri in the OVC opener is important with four-time defending conference champ Jacksonville State following that game.
2017 Record: 4-7, 3-3 Patriot
What to Know: The fourth- and fifth-year players in the program are under their third different head coach, former Yale assistant Joe Conlin. The Rams are asked to replace mainstays Chase Edmonds (running back) and Kevin Anderson (quarterback), but their backups gained experience last season because of injuries.
Pivotal Game: Without a win at Lehigh on Oct. 13, the Rams will struggle to compete for the Patriot League title.
2017 Record: 5-5, 3-4 Ivy
What to Know: Having gone at least 7-3 in 16 straight seasons, last season was an eye opener for head coach Tim Murphy’s Crimson. The Ivy League has tightened considerably – yes, finally – but the return of 15 starters, led by all-purpose threat Justice Shelton-Mosley, and getting left tackle Larry Allen Jr. and safety and captain Zach Miller back will make Harvard formidable again.
Pivotal Game: A win over rival Princeton on Oct. 20 should put the Crimson in serious title contention in the Ivy League.
North Dakota Fighting Hawks
2017 Record: 3-8, 2-6 Big Sky
What to Know: The Fighting Hawks had a stunning fall last season, dropping from a 9-3, FCS playoff season in 2016. Bound for the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2020, they’re considered an FCS independent for the next two seasons. Sacramento State transfer quarterback Nate Ketteringham must love the sight of running backs John Santiago, Brady Oliveira and James Johannesson in the backfield.
Pivotal Game: To be legitimate again, what better way than to beat Montana at home on Oct. 13?
South Carolina State Bulldogs
2017 Record: 3-7, 2-6 MEAC
What to Know: Despite the loss of two-time MEAC defensive player of the year Darius Leonard, the Bulldogs are still strong enough in the front seven to beat the strong teams in the conference. But head coach Buddy Pough needs quarterback Dewann Ford Jr. to take a big step forward.
Pivotal Game: Back-to-back FBS games to open the season should prepare the Bulldogs for their first conference matchup, Sept. 15 versus North Carolina Central.
2017 Record: 5-6, 3-5 CAA
What to Know: The Wildcats should be one of the more improved FCS teams simply from the return of quarterback Zach Bednarczyk, running back Matt Gudzak, wide receiver Changa Hodge and All-America safety Rob Rolle from season-ending injuries. That gives Andy Talley’s successor, Mark Ferrante, a much better chance in his second season.
Pivotal Game: A trip to Stony Brook on Sept. 29 may indicate how good the Wildcats will be in 2018.
William & Mary Tribe
2017 Record: 2-9, 0-8 CAA
What to Know: Head coach Jimmye Laycock needs five wins in his 39th season to reach 250 for his career. His Tribe slipped to the CAA basement last season, but they were missing standout wide receiver DeVonte Dedmon because of a broken wrist. This season, they return 14 players who made at least five starts.
Pivotal Game: The home opener against Elon on Sept. 15 is difficult, but the Tribe will be seeking to pull an upset.
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Photo courtesy Chattanooga Athletics)