Championship predictions for each FCS conference
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By CRAIG HALEY
(STATS) - Games against FBS or intersectional opponents fuel the early weeks of the FCS season, but when it gets down to the most intense games of the regular season, it's conference rivals knocking heads.
Conference races don't often go as planned - even national champ North Dakota State is taxed in the Missouri Valley - because everybody is used to playing each other, and determined to win.
Here are championship predictions for each FCS conference:
BIG SKY CONFERENCE
Predicted Champ - Eastern Washington: The Eagles put their (Aaron) Best foot forward after feeling snubbed of an FCS playoff bid last season.
Chief Challenger - Weber State: The Wildcats are coming off their best season ever and continue to have a leading defense in the Big Sky.
The Big Picture: There are plenty of title contenders in the largest FCS conference, including 2017 co-champ Southern Utah, Montana, Northern Arizona and an Idaho squad that returns from the FBS level.
BIG SOUTH CONFERENCE
Predicted Champ - Kennesaw State: Expect the defending champ to lead the FCS in rushing again.
Chief Challenger - Monmouth: The Kennesaw hype machine is warranted, but the Hawks - coming off their first playoff berth - return one more starter than the Owls.
Big Picture: Charleston Southern is the only other team with a realistic chance to win the conference title, but the Buccaneers appear to be a clear third to Kennesaw and Monmouth.
Predicted Champ - James Madison: The Dukes' 18-game CAA winning streak is the longest in conference history.
Chief Challenger - New Hampshire: In coach Sean McDonnell's 20th season, the Wildcats are seeking a 15th straight playoff appearance, and no doubt the CAA title.
Big Picture: There's not a lot of elbow room in a conference that had the most teams (six) in the STATS FCS Preseason Top 25: No. 2 JMU plus No. 7 New Hampshire, No. 12 Elon, No. 15 Delaware, No. 19 Villanova and No. 20 Stony Brook.
Predicted Champ - Yale: The defending champ returns a league-high 17 starters.
Chief Challenger - Princeton: The return of quarterback John Lovett to the Ivy's best offense earned the Tigers a second-place pick in the league's poll after a seventh-place finish last season.
Big Picture: Prior to a potentially strong season in the league, five of the eight teams earned at least one first-place vote in the preseason poll (Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Columbia and Penn).
MID-EASTERN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE
Predicted Champ - North Carolina A&T: No MEAC team can match the Aggies' offensive trio of quarterback Lamar Raynard, running back Marquell Cartwright and wide receiver Elijah Bell.
Chief Challenger - Howard: The Bison tied for second place last season, but ranked last in the conference in total defense.
Big Picture: The conference is improved this season and the title race includes North Carolina Central, which won three straight MEAC titles from 2014-16, and Bethune-Cookman. Both have home games against N.C. A&T.
MISSOURI VALLEY FOOTBALL CONFERENCE
Predicted Champ - North Dakota State: Seven straight MVFC titles and six FCS titles in that span say it all.
Chief Challenger - South Dakota State: Quarterback Taryn Christion must overcome the loss of favorite targets Dallas Goedert and Jake Wieneke.
Big Picture: The MVFC has produced five playoff qualifiers in three of the last four seasons. No other conference has done it once during that time.
Predicted Champ - Duquesne: The Dukes visit defending champ Central Connecticut State on the final day of the NEC regular season Nov. 17.
Chief Challenger - Central Connecticut State: Despite losing a lot on defense, the Blue Devils were favored in the NEC preseason poll.
Big Picture: It's the who knows race: Seven schools have earned the NEC's playoff berth since the conference gained one in 2010 (Sacred Heart is the only two-time playoff qualifier).
OHIO VALLEY CONFERENCE
Predicted Champ - Jacksonville State: The Gamecocks' 32-game conference winning streak is the second-longest in FCS history (the last 10 wins have been by double digits).
Chief Challenger - Austin Peay: The FCS' biggest surprise of 2017 enters the 2018 season with its first-ever national ranking (22).
Big Picture: Jacksonville State is vulnerable following key senior losses, but the Gamecocks are playing at home against the No. 2 (Austin Peay), 3 (UT Martin) and 4 (Eastern Illinois) teams in the OVC's preseason poll.
Predicted Champ - Colgate: A Patriot co-champ last year, the Raiders have only four home games this season.
Chief Challenger - Lehigh: The 2017 Patriot playoff representative despite having a sub-.500 record has a dominant offense and a suspect defense.
Big Picture: The Patriot League expects to be improved, but it's coming off a season in which Colgate was the only team to finish with a winning record.
PIONEER FOOTBALL LEAGUE
Predicted Champ - San Diego: Although 2017 PFL offensive player of the year Anthony Lawrence is a returning starter, the Toreros have only 10 of them - the fewest in the league.
Chief Challenger - Dayton: Seeking to rebound from a disappointing 2017 season, the Flyers are the last PFL team to beat San Diego (in 2015).
Big Picture: All five teams in the top half of the PFL preseason poll return their No. 1 signal caller, so the title race could open up. Still, San Diego has won 21 straight league games and 53 of its last 58.
Predicted Champ - Samford: First-team All-Americans Devlin Hodges (quarterback) and Ahmad Gooden (defensive end) lead a veteran team that is seeking its third straight playoff bid, which they've never done before.
Chief Challenger - Wofford: Under new coach Josh Conklin, the Terriers have to go on the road to face the other four teams in the top five of the SoCon preseason coaches poll (Samford, Furman, Western Carolina and Chattanooga).
Big Picture: VMI is the only easy game in the SoCon, which should be wide open because of the quality depth of teams.
Predicted Champ - Sam Houston State: The Bearkats have the second-most FCS wins in the 2010s with 86 and five semifinal-round playoff appearances.
Chief Challenger - Nicholls: September games against McNeese and Sam Houston will determine if the Colonels are championship material.
Big Picture: The Southland has never had four playoff qualifiers, but Sam Houston (4), defending champ Central Arkansas (16), McNeese (17) and Nicholls (18) were all in the preseason top 20.
SOUTHWESTERN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE
Predicted Champ - Grambling State (West champ) over Alcorn State (East champ): Alcorn has appeared in four straight conference championship games, beating Southern in 2014 and Grambling in '15. Grambling has appeared in the last three, claiming the 2016 and '17 titles over Alcorn.
Chief Challengers - Alabama State and Alabama A&M (East) and Southern and Prairie View A&M (West): The Alabama schools have to get better offensively. Southern and Prairie View are replacing last year's influential seniors.
Big Picture: The East race could turn surprising because Alcorn's seven-game SWAC schedule includes three crossover matchups with top West teams Grambling, Southern and Prairie View. Grambling faces Prairie View and Southern in "classics" at neutral sites.
Updated August 27, 2018