FCS Daily Dose: An Early Look At My 2024 FCS Preseason Top 10 Teams

The FCS Daily Dose is a blog-style article series featuring an assortment of news, rumblings, quick hitters, and commentary on various topics.

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2024 FCS Preseason Top 10 

With the transfer portal closed, we now have a good idea of what 2024 FCS rosters look like.

HERO Sports’ FCS Preseason Top 25 will be published late next week, combining the ballots of Sam Herder, Daniel Steenkamer, and Zach McKinnell.

As I continue my research to form my own Top 25, here’s an early look at my Top 10 FCS teams entering 2024.

10. Central Arkansas

UCA returns more than 15 starters, including some heavy-hitting star names. ShunDerrick Powell is a fabulous running back, and Darius Hale is a standout as well to form a terrific 1-2 punch in the backfield. Will McElvain returns as a multi-year starting quarterback. In two seasons at UCA, he’s thrown for 5,069 yards, 42 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions.

Defensive back TaMuarion Wilson and defensive end David Walker are All-American-level names to lead the defense. Walker has totaled 40 TFLs and 20.5 sacks in two seasons.

The Bears finished 7-4 last fall, but two of the losses were two-point games to UAC foes Tarleton State and Austin Peay. The other two were at North Dakota State (49-31) and Oklahoma State (27-13). With its returning experience and talent, UCA can turn those close losses into wins and earn a solid seed.

The FCS typically has a team rise every year that goes on a nice playoff run after not making much noise the previous season. UCA is a prime candidate to be that team in 2024.

9. Sacramento State

Sac State will have no shortage of talent this fall. The Hornets look to get back to double-digit wins after finishing 8-5 last year with a second-round playoff loss at South Dakota.

The talented Kaiden Bennett is back at QB after throwing for 2,192 yards, 16 TDs, and eight interceptions while finishing second on the team with 577 rushing yards. Youngster Carson Conklin also showed promise when he got reps behind center. Standout WR Jared Gipson returns along with All-American OL Jackson Slater and multi-year starting lineman Nathan Mejia. Keep an eye on Elijah Tau-Tolliver as Sac State’s next stud running back.

A concern is the defense losing its top three tacklers. Will Leota, a standout transfer from Utah Tech, looks to fill some of that production. The three-time All-Conference selection totaled 213 tackles and 13 TFLs in three seasons for the Trailblazers.

8. Southern Illinois

SIU’s 8-5 season last fall was highlighted by beating down playoff participant Austin Peay 49-23 in Week 1 before knocking off FBS Northern Illinois 14-11 a week later. Three of its regular-season losses came against Top 10 teams SDSU, USD, and NDSU. The Salukis dominated Nicholls 35-0 in the first round of the playoffs before losing a 20-17 overtime heartbreaker at No. 4 seed Idaho.

The Salukis return six starters on offense, including four offensive linemen, and five starters on defense. The QB1 spot is up for battle, strengthened by the addition of Murray State transfer DJ Williams, a two-year starter and the 2021 OVC Freshman of the Year. The offense also gets a boost from Duquesne transfer Eddie Robinson, an All-NEC selection last season after totaling 662 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. SIU’s top WR Vinson Davis III and TE Aidan Quinn return to aid in the new quarterback’s development.

SIU had a great defense in 2023, finishing No. 4 in the FCS by allowing 16.2 points per game. The 2024 unit will be led by LB Colin Bohanek, safety Ubayd Steed, and CB David Miller.

7. Idaho

Idaho had a breakthrough year in 2023, finishing 9-4 with a trip to the quarterfinals as the No. 4 seed. The Vandals lost a 30-22 battle vs. No. 5 seed UAlbany. Idaho’s wins included a 33-6 beatdown of FBS Nevada, defeating No. 4 Sac State and No. 2 Montana State, and eliminating SIU in the second round.

The offense loses a lot of its top talent, but the o-line should continue to progress under head coach Jason Eck’s eye. And likely starting QB Jack Layne has a whole lot of hype behind him. 

Idaho’s defense should help carry the team to plenty of wins as the offense finds its footing. The Vandals return eight starters after allowing 22.1 PPG. DBs Tommy McCormick and Dwayne McDougle, defensive linemen Dallas Afalava and Keyshawn James-Newby, and LB Jaxton Eck are all back to field what could be a Top 10 FCS defense.

6. Villanova 

Nova finished 10-3 last year, ending in a competitive 23-12 quarterfinal loss at SDSU. The Wildcats matched up well physically with the Jacks.

Veteran QB Connor Watkins returns after throwing for 2,681 yards, 20 TDs, and 10 interceptions in 2023. He leads an offense that brings back six starters, including three on the o-line. 716-yard WR Jaylan Sanchez is back along with the addition of two-time All-MEAC receiver Devin Smith from NC Central. Nova also landed All-PFL offensive lineman Gilbert Deglau from Davidson. The program has done a good job in recent years leveraging the portal to plug some holes.

The Wildcats play tough, gritty defense, allowing 18.8 PPG to rank 13th in the FCS last season. This year’s unit will need some defensive linemen to step up. But there are some dudes behind them in returning All-CAA selections LB Brendan Bell, LB Shane Hartzell, CB Isas Waxter, and safety Ty Trinh.


5. South Dakota

USD went from 3-8 in 2022 to 10-3 last year, advancing to the quarterfinals before losing 45-17 to NDSU. The Bison were on a heater by then, and even though it was a dud of a performance for the Coyotes, it shouldn’t overshadow their terrific regular season. They defeated four ranked opponents, three that were ranked in the Top 10 at the time of the game, including at NDSU.

The Yotes bring back a bulk of their offense. Aidan Bouman leads the unit again after throwing for 2,551 yards, 15 TDs, and six interceptions a season ago. His top three targets return in WR Carter Bell, TE JJ Galbreath, and WR Jack Martens along with the two leading rushers Travis Theis and Charles Pierre. The OL returns four starters, led by Joey Lombard.

There are more holes to fill defensively as three of the top five tacklers are gone. Dennis Shorter returns after finishing second on the team with 97 tackles. Nick Gaes and Mosai Newsom are returning impact guys on the defensive line, while Shahid Barros and Josiah Ganues are returning starters in the secondary. USD also added LB Jonathan Bunce from St. Thomas, a First Team All-PFL selection.

The pieces are in place for USD to build off of last season.

4. Montana State

Montana State had championship expectations last year, but the Bobcats finished a disappointing 8-4. There was a 20-16 loss at No. 1 SDSU, a 24-21 loss at Top 10 Idaho, and then the heartbreaking 35-34 overtime loss at home to NDSU in the second round where the Bison blocked a PAT to win it. 

A play goes differently for MSU on a few different occasions against NDSU, and the Bobcats likely would have been a semifinal team. Instead, they face a narrative from some that they’re regressing. After reaching the 2021 national title game and the 2022 semifinals, a second-round exit was stunning. Although if the 2023 bracket was seeded 1-16 like this fall will be, MSU would have been at least a quarterfinalist. A No. 6 seed vs. what would have been the No. 9 seed won’t happen in the second round anymore.

Expect a big rebound for the Cats.

2024 was pointed at as the prime year for MSU due to its number of freshmen and sophomores making impacts on the 2022 semifinal squad. The Bobcats certainly have the roster to push for a national title.

MSU should own a top FCS rushing offense again this fall despite a few offensive line losses to the portal. The o-line still returns five players with significant starting experience, led by PFF’s highest-graded offensive tackle Marcus Wehr. The running back room is loaded with Jared White, Elijah Elliott, Scottre Humphrey, and the exceptional Julius Davis, plus the running ability of veteran QB Tommy Mellott.

Mellott is coming off his best throwing performance against NDSU, something that needs to continue for MSU to reach another level. Leading pass-catcher Ty McCullouch is back to help a more vertical passing attack. Not to mention 6-foot-3 WR Lonyatta Alexander Jr. finally getting to suit up after sitting out last year due to transfer rules. Alexander, who arrived from Washington, was said to be MSU’s best WR on last year’s roster. He could be in store for an All-Conference season if he wins 1-on-1 battles. Mellott’s back-shoulder throws are his passing strength.

The defense going from good to great is also needed to reach the national championship stage.

MSU’s defense has plenty of experience coming back. The DE duo of Kenneth Eiden IV and All-American Brody Grebe is strong. Danny Uluilakepa is a multi-year starter at linebacker. And there are a lot of combined starts/reps coming back in the secondary with safeties Dru Polidore and Rylan Ortt and cornerbacks Jon Johnson, Miles Jackson, and Simeon Woodard.

3. Montana

The Grizzlies are coming off a memorable run to the national title game, finishing 13-2. Expectations are to return to Frisco, but Montana has one big question to answer first: How good is the quarterback play?

The Griz are otherwise loaded.

Montana brings back four offensive linemen with starting experience, led by All-Big Sky First Team selection Brandon Casey. The dynamic wide receiver trio of Junior Bergen, Aaron Fontes, and Keelan White are back, plus All-American TE Cole Grossman after missing all of 2023 due to surgery. RB Eli Gillman returns after winning the Jerry Rice Award along with a productive Nick Ostmo in the backfield.

Some big names are gone defensively, but Montana consistently reloads on defense with a strong returning nucleus to build around. Back for another year are All-Big Sky performers Trevin Gradney at CB and Riley Wilson at LB. Safety Ryder Meyer (last year’s No. 2 tackler) and LB Ryan Tirrell (No. 4 tackler) also return along with starting defensive end Hayden Harris, who had big moments in the playoffs.

Montana reloaded its roster with three FCS transfers and seven FBS transfers. Spring ball suggests some of these mid-year transfers will make big-time impacts, including Monmouth DL Patrick Hayden, Arizona RB Stevie Rocker, Fresno State DB Chrishawn Gordon, Utah DB Kenzel Lawler, and San Diego State LB Vai Kaho.

Montana has a good-looking depth chart entering 2023. But QB play is the key to taking them to the mountaintop. 

Last year’s starter Clifton McDowell entered the portal and ended up at McNeese. Montana is very high on Keali’i Ah Yat as the future signal-caller. The redshirt freshman is the son of Griz Hall of Fame quarterback Brian Ah Yat. Ah Yat has a higher ceiling than McDowell, but a lower floor in 2024 due to his inexperience. If he or someone else can take the reins and just deliver as an All-Conference Honorable Mention type of player, Montana is in store for another special season.

2. North Dakota State

NDSU’s “down” season last year was a casual run to the semifinals and a play away in Missoula from reaching the title game.

A majority of the stars now return when FBS NIL offers could have enticed them to leave. That storyline writes itself of a team sticking together for a championship run under first-year head coach Tim Polasek.

The Bison bring back their two standout quarterbacks Cam Miller and Cole Payton. Miller looks set for an All-American-level season after his gutsy performances down the stretch last fall. However, NDSU does need to replace three starting offensive linemen, its leading rusher, and its top two pass-catchers after Eli Green recently entered the transfer portal. Green was going to be a top-tier WR in the FCS this fall. Joe Stoffel is a talented tight end to take on more targets. NDSU does have younger receivers and running backs with all the potential. That potential will need to turn into production this season.

Defensively, the question is can the Bison go from a pretty good defense to a great defense?

It’ll be mostly the same-look unit as last year, but can the players around the star names go from pretty good players to great players? Dylan Hendricks and Eli Mostaert are studs on the d-line. Logan Kopp is an excellent linebacker. Cole Wisniewski is the best safety in the FCS. But if the Bison want to be back on the Frisco stage, the defense as a whole needs to elevate its play. And the returning experience suggests an improvement is in store.

1. South Dakota State

The two-time defending champs lose plenty of household names. Yet the Jacks still return a lot of standouts and experience, led by nearly 30 seniors.

Quarterback Mark Gronowski officially announced he’d be back this fall after transfer portal speculation. Gronowski, who still has two seasons of eligibility remaining if he wants to return to SDSU in 2025 or play elsewhere, is 37-3 as a starter. (Or 37-2 if you discount the 2021 spring Sam Houston loss when he got hurt early.) The back-to-back national championship game Most Outstanding Player and the 2023 Walter Payton Award winner is 13 victories away from breaking the FCS record for QB victories, which is currently held by NDSU’s Easton Stick (49-3 record).

The offense has big shoes to fill as several NFL-level talent departs. The offensive line returns two starters in All-Conference selections Evan Beerntsen and Gus Miller, last year’s Rimington Award winner as the best FCS center. SDSU did just add transfer Sam Hagen, who started all 12 games at guard last season on a good UND o-line. 

Amar Johnson is a capable 1,000-yard rusher now that he’ll get more carries, and Angel Johnson has big-time potential. Griffin Wilde looks primed to be the next big thing at wide receiver for the Jacks. Plus, 6-foot-4 and 230-pound backup QB Chase Mason will be part of the offense as one of the top athletes on the team.

After fielding a historic defense last season, SDSU has a chance to remain the No. 1 unit in the FCS. The depth of the defensive line will be on display again, although a consistent pass-rusher on the edge is a question mark. Multi-time All-American Adam Bock leads the linebackers, while Graham Spalding, Caleb Francl, and Daeton Mcgaughy have played a lot of reps.

In the secondary, SDSU had the best group of FCS safeties last fall, a group that remains intact. Tucker Large is an All-American-level talent, and Colby Huerter and Cale Reeder are high-level players as well. Dalys Beanum is set to be one of the top cornerbacks in the FCS.

The 2023 SDSU squad is somewhere in the Top 10, maybe Top 5, of all-time great FCS teams, backed by statistics, scores, and NFL talent. The 2024 Jacks may take a step back relative to last year’s team. But behind an elite defense, the best returning QB in the FCS, and talented offensive playmakers ready for All-Conference roles, SDSU is the favorite to make it a three-peat in Frisco.

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