By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — North Dakota State has become like one of those horror-film villains — think Freddie Kruger from Nightmare on Elm Street, Jason from Friday the 13th, or Michael Myers from Halloween.
Just when you think the Bison are dead, they come back to life and win another national championship.
They ran their Football-Championship-Subdivision-record winning streak to 33 games before being stopped by Northern Iowa, 20-3, 10 games into the 2014 regular season and they’ve won a record four national titles in a row.
And the question for the other teams in FCS is just what it will take to finally kill off North Dakota State.
Even the loss of much of the nucleus from the 2011-13 Bison teams and the replacement of Craig Bohl (who moved to Wyoming after the 2013 season) with Craig Klieman last year didn’t slow them down.
NDSU had its toughest run in the playoffs last season, surviving for a second-round, 27-24 victory over South Dakota State and outlasting Coastal Carolina, 39-32, in the quarterfinals before an even more thrilling comeback in the championship game against Illinois State.
When Illinois State quarterback Tre Roberson raced 58 yards on a read-option TD run with 1:35 remaining to give the Redbirds a 27-22 lead, it looked like the Bison’ championship run might be over.
But NDSU junior quarterback Carson Wentz completed three consecutive passes to move the Bison from their own 17 to the ISU five and then scampered into the end zone on a designed quarterback keeper with 37 seconds left to lift North Dakota State to an FCS-record fourth consecutive national crown.
If the Bison are nothing else, they are resilient.
North Dakota State (15-1 last season) has some graduation holes to patch on its aggressive, hard-hitting defense, starting with Buck-Buchanan-Award-winning defensive end Kyle Emanuel, but the Bison have enough depth and enough playmakers on offense to again be considered as the team to beat in FCS.
Wentz, the most outstanding player of last year’s playoffs, took over the reins of the Bison offense from four-year starter Brock Jensen last season and quickly established himself as a leader and another big-play performer. As a senior, Wentz returns as one of the top quarterbacks in FCS, having opened up the NDSU passing game and also sowing ability as a hard-nosed runner.
Speedy running back John Crockett has graduated, but the Bison running game should not miss a beat with Nebraska transfer King Frazier getting the bulk of the carries.
Protecting Wentz, Frazier and others is the usual stalwart NDSU offensive line, led by All-American tackle Joe Haeg and Zack Johnson, who returns after missing 2014 with a knee injury. Fullback Andrew Bonnet is another key blocker for the Bison.
Receivers Zach Vraa and RJ Urzendowski — one of the heroes from that last drive in the championship game — will be among the most important targets for Wentz in the passing game.
On defense, the Bison will build around cornerbacks Jordan Champion and CJ Smith and one of the top defensive tackles in the subdivision, Nate Tanguay.
NDSU should also excel on special teams, with All-American punter Ben LeCompte and long snapper James Fisher among the standouts.
Trying the knock off the Bison as king of the mountain will be teams such as Illinois State, Villanova, Sam Houston State, Eastern Washington, Coastal Carolina, New Hampshire, Jacksonville State, Chattanooga, Liberty, Youngstown State, Northern Iowa, Montana State and James Madison.
Illinois State (13-2) returns the bulk of a squad that came within a play, or two of winning its first national title. Roberson, who had 318 yards of total offense and was responsible for four touchdowns in the championship game, returns for his senior year as a duel-threat quarterback and is balanced by the presence of running back Marshaun Coprich (FCS-best 2,274 yards).
The athletic Redbird defense is keyed by ends Teddy Corwin and David Perkins and linebacker Pat Meehan. Oddly enough, for the second year in a row, Illinois State and North Dakota State, who shared first place in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, do not meet in the regular season.
Villanova (11-3) was ousted in the FCS quarterfinals, 34-31, by Sam Houston State, but the Wildcats might have made a deeper playoff run if they had a healthy quarterback, John Robertson, in the lineup. Robertson was easily the best player in FCS last year as a junior, piling up 3,924 yards and 46 touchdowns on the way to becoming VU’s first Walter Payton Award winner since Brian Westbrook.
The Wildcats also have a dominant force on defense, with linebacker Don Cherry the early favorite for the Buchanan Award after finishing as runner-up last season to Emanuel. The high-pressure Villanova defense and spread offense has plenty of other talent around Cherry and Robertson.
Sam Houston State (11-5) made a surprising run to the semifinals last season under first-year coach K.C. Keeler, finishing strong after a slow start and is athletic on both sides of the ball. Jared Johnson passed for 3,054 yards and rushed for 999 yards with 27 touchdowns as a sophomore.
P.J. Hall is one of the top pass rushers in FCS at defensive end, but the Bearkats need to continue improving on the defensive side of the ball to find more consistency.
Eastern Washington (11-3) has won 11 or more games in four of the past five years under coach Beau Baldwin, but must replace record-setting setting quarterback Vernon Adams, who has transferred to Oregon to take over for Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.
The Eagles have enough offensive talent, including junior receiver and former Jerry Rice Award winner Kooper Kupp and new starting QB Jordan West to score plenty of points, but EWU needs to improve a defense that ranked 95th in total defense national in 2014. Defensive end Samson Ebukam should lead that group.
Coastal Carolina (12-2) has won more games (24) than any team other than North Dakota State in the past two years as coach and investment expert Joe Moglia has taken the Chanticleers to a new level.
There is plenty of talent left in the cupboard with Alex Ross at quarterback, running back De’Angelo Henderson (1,823 all-purpose yards) back and receiver Bruce Mapp on offense, but CCU must replace three-time All-Big South defensive player of the year Quinn Backus, though Roderick Holder and Calvin Hollenhurst return on the defensive line.
New Hampshire (12-2) has the longest active streak of playoff appearances in FCS at 11 seasons and finally broke through to back-to-back semifinals in 2013-14. But the Sean McDonnell-coached Wildcats will have to rebuild from significant graduation losses, including outstanding receiver R.J. Harris. But UNH still has talent like quarterback Sean Goldrich, linebacker Akil Anderson and safety Casey DeAdrade.
Jacksonville State (10-2) has won 21 games in the past two years and coach John Grass is ready to take the Gamecocks to more national prominence with the likes of Ohio Valley Conference defensive player of the year Devaunte Sigler, LaMichael Fanning and Chris Landrum forming a dynamic front. Eli Jenkins is the leader of an improving attack.
Chattanooga (10-4) finally broke a more-than 30-year curse of losing big games to win the Southern Conference outright and advance to the FCS quarterfinals, losing a tough game on the road at snowy New Hampshire, 35-30.
The Mocs should sustain that success this season with SoCon offensive player of the year Jacob Huesman (the son of the coach, Russ Huesman) leading a potent offense and a sterling defense, directed by Cedric Nettles, Des Virgin and Lucas Webb in the secondary.
Liberty (9-5) had a landmark season, beating FBS opponent Appalachian State in overtime, sharing the Big South title with a win at the end of the season over Coastal Carolina to reach the playoffs for the first time, a win on the road against James Madison for its first postseason victory and a near-upset a week later at Villanova.
Turner Gill’s Flames have the chance to soar even higher in 2015 with a high-powered attack that features senior quarterback Josh Woodrum, one of the top receivers in FCS with Darrin Peterson, the running back duo of D.J. Abner and Desmond Rice and maybe the best place kicker around in John Lunsford. But LU must improve on defense to take a step into the elite. Defensive lineman Chima Uzowihe and linebacker Nick Newman should help in that regard.
Youngstown State (7-5) fans have not been happy with several near misses for playoff in the past decade, but there is renewed hope with the hiring of former Nebraska coach Bo Pellini. He will build around some formidable talent that includes sophomore quarterback Hunter Wells, running back Martin Ruiz and defensive ends Derek Rivers and Terrell Williams, who combined for a total of 24 sacks last season.
Northern Iowa (9-5) can compete for MVFC and FCS titles, if the Panthers can survive a typically brutal schedule. UNI has been fortified with transfers like quarterback Aaron Bailey from Illinois and running back Savon Huggins from Rutgers, who will add to a group that includes QB Sawyer Kollmorgan, RB Darrian Miller, linebacker Brett McMakin, safety Tim Kolfoy and kicker Michael Schmadeke.
Montana State (8-5) seemed to be soaring towards a long playoff run before the Bobcats had their season derailed by quarterback Dakota Prukop’s knee injury. With Prukop healthy and All-American tackle J.P. Flynn among those protecting him, MSU is the favorite of many to win the tough Big Sky championship, but is looking to improve on defense behind defensive end Taylor Sheridan and linebacker Mac Bignall.
James Madison (9-4) bring fans out in droves, but the Dukes have been frustrated by the fact that top-flight talent hasn’t equated to FCS titles since JMU won it all in 2004. The Dukes hope that can change with the presence of talented QB Vad Lee, the FCS total offense leader with 4,288 yards last season and other talent that includes running back Khalid Abdullah, cornerback Taylor Reynolds and linebackers Kyre Hawkins and Rhakeem Stallings.
Cal Poly (7-5) is another team that opens the season with a brutal schedule, but the Mustangs have one of the most potent offenses in the country, with quarterback Chris Brown (1,265 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns) and slotback Kori Garcia leading the triple-option.
The veteran squad includes Marcus Paige-Allen and Josh Letuligasenoa on the defensive line and Chris Fletcher and Karlton Dennis in the secondary.
Other teams to keep on the radar include Alcorn State, Bryant, Bucknell, Eastern Illinois, Eastern Kentucky, Fordham, Harvard, Idaho State, Indiana State, Jacksonville, Maine, McNeese State, Montana, Richmond, South Carolina State, South Dakota State, Towson, Western Carolina, William & Mary and Yale.
David Coulson is a veteran of nearly 40 years of covering college football and is executive editor of College Sports Journal. He previously served as FCS executive director for The Sports Network, running the national awards program for FCS.