The FCS Roundtable returns to SaturdayBlitz.com, going out on a limb with some improbable, but not impossible, projections for 2012. Last season, a Towson team that had finished in the Colonial Athletic Association cellar emerged to finish near the top of the conference. Who could have projected that in August 2011? The panel of FCS bloggers is taking a stab at projecting this season’s surprises.
We also delve into the top offensive players around the nation, capable of bringing home the Walter Payton Award.
Todd Davis, JMU Sports Blog
My “Going Out On a Limb” has a CAA response and a national response. Nationally, my surprise would be Southern Utah, a brand new member of the tough Big Sky, having an ODU-type run in their first season. Led by QB Brad Sorenson (on the Payton Watch List already), who has NFL scouts frothing already, they could shock the western powers, especially since we expect Montana to take a huge step back while dealing with all of their off-field issues. In the CAA, while everyone is busy hyping Towson, JMU, ODU, and to a lesser extent UD and UNH, there’s just no way William & Mary or Villanova stay down another year. The coaching at those programs is just too darn good and odds are agaisnt injuries (especially those at Nova last year) crushing them two straight years. When the final standings are posted, look for either WM or Nova to replace one of the preseason picks on a playoff line.
As for the Payton Award, our pick is a no-brainer, but it’s just hard to see QB DeNarius McGhee of Montana St. not continuing his reign or FCS terror. He’s a stat-producing monster and the leader of one of the best teams in the nation. And this ALWAYS seems to go to a QB or RB with big numbers (since most voters don’t really know who’s the best), so all-purpose studs like Sam Houston’s Richard Sincere, much like Villanova’s Matt Sczur in years past, sometimes get overlooked. If there’s a CAA candidate, no doubt it’s Towson RB Terrance West, and NFL ready back on an explosive offense.
Steve Suess, FCS Football Network
I’m going to put myself in a very compromising situation here, because unlike some of the other predictions in this column, my “out on a limb” moment will be proven either wrong or right on the first Saturday of the college football season.
Eastern Kentucky will beat Purdue. Boilermakers quarterback Caleb TerBush will struggle with one of the best defensive units in the entire Championship Subdivision. EKU brings four preseason all-conference defenders to the table. Cornerback Justin Bell and safety Brooklyn Fox return after combining for 131 tackles and five interceptions last season. Ironically, it’s a returning linebacker, OLB Kevin Hamlin (not selected to the preseason all-OVC team), who led the team in interceptions last season with four. Hamlin returns to a linebacking core that includes Ichiro Vance and Anthony Brown. Combined, the three superstar linebackers ate up 229 tackles and 25.5 tackles for loss in 2011.
More importantly, Purdue struggles defending the run. Last season, the Boilermakers gave up 174.9 yards and 1.9 touchdowns per game. Eastern Kentucky will march into Lafayette with Matt Denham, one of the best rushers in the FCS, and three preseason all-OVC offensive linemen – tackles Aaron Adams and Patrick Ford and center O.J. Enabosi.
I’ll also go out on a limb and predict that the Colonels will head into the quarterfinals of the playoffs without a loss. The schedule this season heavily plays into the Colonels hands. Eastern Kentucky will play their two biggest threats to the OVC championship – Murray State and Jacksonville State – in Richmond this season. Looking at EKU’s schedule, their toughest matchup outside of Purdue will likely be Tennessee Tech on the road on Oct. 22.
As far as my Payton Award favorite heading into 2012, I have to go with Sam Houston State running back Tim Flanders. While plenty of other talented players exist in the Championship Subdivision, Flanders has the luxury of playing in the Southland Conference. The SLC has made great strides in the past few years, but is still very top-heavy as a conference. The one thing that could prevent Flanders from winning the award is going up against BCS defenses twice this season. SHSU plays both Baylor and Texas A&M.
Joe Suhoski, VBR Productions
I’m going out on a limb and saying that Villanova can make the playoffs this year. Following an outstanding four-year FCS run behind quarterback Chris Whitney and do-everything Matt Szczur, the Wildcats fielded a 2011 lineup heavily dependent on underclassmen. Following a mid-season loss to Old Dominion, Coach Andy Talley discussed the lack a mix of senior leadership with young talent. They won only two games (over Penn and UMass) while young players took their lumps, learning college football on-the-job.
This season, all those underclassmen return with a full season under their belts. The CAA’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, linebacker Lucas Dillon, returns as the team’s leading tackler. Another sophomore, quarterback Chris Polony, showed improvement throughout the season. The offense also gets back WR Norman White, who sat out last year following an injury. The senior wideout has received significant interest from NFL scouts.
So, I’m going out on a limb and stating that IF Lucas and other underclassmen improved their strength and conditioning in the offseason, IF Polony and the offense can cut down on turnovers, and IF White returns to full strength, Villanova can be fighting for the playoffs in 2012. I saw Villanova in person three times last season. They actually regressed from early to mid-season, but showed drastic improvement in their finale loss to Delaware. Coach Talley has the talent in place to reach the playoffs this year.
If I only have one guess as to who will win the Walter Payton Award, I have to go with Terrance West of Towson. Last year he set the national record for most touchdowns by a freshman (29). This vote is validation of not just his immense abilities, but the returning talent that Towson has on the offensive line. They lost only one OL to graduation following last season. The amount of returning talent along the line will continue to open holes for West. One run last year against New Hampshire stands out. He ran 80 yards up the middle untouched through a hole big enough for a mack truck to get through, but he also displayed the speed to outrun defensive backs for the touchdown. His combination of power and speed, coupled with an exceptional offensive line, lead me to believe West will put up numbers to earn the Payton Award.
Shaun Bummer, Griz Nation Blog
While the Idaho State Bengals are way off the radar to most, I believe they are not getting the respect they deserve, and while they are still not a likely FCS playoff, they have the talent to make things interesting in the Big Sky this season especially with a workable schedule. I really like the talent the Bengals have on an offense that returns, especially in the passing game with one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the FCS in Kevin Yost who passed for 2,973 yards last season along with FCS preseason All-American WR Rodrick Rumble who hauled in 1,348 yards and 9 touchdowns last season. The Bengals do lose running back Jarrod Daniels, but the offensive line should be vastly improved from 2011.
While the Bengals face a difficult non-conference schedule with road trips to Air Force and Nebraska, the Bengals’ conference schedule shapes up nicely. The only likely non-winnable game for Idaho State is a road to Missoula to face Montana. Besides that however, the Bengals have some very winnable home games against Sacramento State and UC Davis along with a road trip to Northern Colorado. If the Bengals can win those games along with an upset or two against Weber State and Northern Arizona at home or Portland State on the road, the Bengals will be at or above .500 in conference play.
Looking for a surprising FBS vs. FCS upset, I’m calling for Sam Houston State to beat Baylor in week 3 of the season. While Baylor won’t fall off the college football map completely after its outstanding 2011 season, not only to the Bears lose Heisman winner Robert Griffin III but they also lose RB Terrance Ganaway and WR Kendall Wright. Sam Houston State is the obvious #1 team heading into 2012 for me, andw ith 8 returning starters including size up front in DT JT Cleveland and a great secondary led by FS Kenneth Jenkins, the Bearkat defense should at least be able to keep up with Baylor’s unproven quarterback in Nick Florence. Additionally, Baylor has some major question marks on the defensive line which should allow RB Tim Flanders, WR/RB Richard Sincere, and QB Brian Bell to put up decent numbers.
My pick for the Walter Payton Award in 2012 is Southern Utah’s Brad Sorensen. While Towson RB Terrance West, Indiana State RB Shakir Bell, and Elon WR Aaron Mellette will be strong candidates for the award, eight of the last Payton awards have gone to quarterbacks, and there isn’t a better quarterback in the FCS than Sorensen. Last season Sorensen passed for an outstanding 3,163 yards and 17 touchdowns.
One positional group that can help Sorensen match or exceed the numbers from last season would be the offensive line led by LG Zach Brackus and C Gavin Farr. However, there could be a few setbacks separating Sorensen from the award. First, the Thunderbirds lose a decent crop of receivers from last season, but they should still be as good as last season with a group led by former Utah transfer Fatu Moala. Additionally, Southern Utah will face its toughest schedule in school history as a result of a move to the Big Sky Conference, including two straight FBS match ups against Utah State and Cal to open the season along with a road trip to Montana and home games against Eastern Washington and Montana State. If Sorensen can just match his 2011 numbers with a tougher schedule, the 2012 Walter Payton Award should be his.
Kyle McGough, Yosef’s Cabin
Going out on a limb: I’m not sure if this is going out far enough or not – but I’m predicting Montana misses the playoffs altogether. With the problems the myriad of problems they had in the off-season and the coaching changes, I think it’s entirely possible for a team with this much talent to find themselves on the outside looking in. Some may this isn’t really going out on a limb, but when you look at Montana from top to bottom, it’s hard to write them out of the playoffs when they are a perennial power.
Walter Payton Award: Andrew Pierce out of Delaware. He has a fantastic season as a junior RB and continues to keep the Hens excited on route to a deep run in the playoffs. His vision and desire to be the best will continue to shine in the CAA.
Russell Varner, SouthernPigskin.com
Going out on a limb: The SoCon gets four teams in the playoffs this year. Georgia Southern is as strong as last year’s squad, despite the loss of QB Jaybo Shaw. Appalachian State may not be as strong as they once were, but they are still one of the best teams in the nation. It’ll be a major upset if they miss the playoffs. Wofford, the forgotten powerhouse of the SoCon, still have Eric Breitenstein, Donovan Johnson and a strong defense – no reason for them to miss out of the postseason. And – here is where it gets bold – Chattanooga finally gets over the hump and makes the playoffs thanks to the strong play of QB Terrell Robinson and LB Wes Dothard.
Walter Payton Award winner: Elon’s Aaron Mellette is not just the best wide receiver in the nation, but could very well be the best FCS player period. If he can approach his numbers from last year (113 catches, 1,639 yards and 12 touchdowns), there’s no reason that we couldn’t see the Phoenix receiver taking home the coveted award.
Ben Moore, PantherTalk.com
So very close to typing an 8 win season for Georgia State but I will refrain.
I’m going out on a limb and saying Old Dominion wins the FCS title. Their program is ticketed for FBS and they would love nothing more to go out with a national title. Talking to ODU fans, they will as far as their defense takes them. They simply could not slow Georgia Southern last season in the FCS Playoffs. Look for another huge year from Sophomore QB Taylor Heinicke.
My Walter Payton favorite is Terrance West of Towson. He went nuts as a true Freshman rushing for nearly 1300 yards and scoring 29 TDs carrying the Tigers to the CAA Title and the FCS Playoffs. Towson returns 4 of their starting offensive lineman and their starting tight end. West could have an even better season this year.