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In the FCS Huddle: Ranking the FCS conferences

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director/Senior Editor

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - When the North Dakota State Bison last looked into their rear-view mirror, they were leaving New Hampshire and Towson in the distance during the FCS playoffs.

The Missouri Valley Football Conference doesn't figure to do the same to CAA Football this year.

The two conferences remain the top ones in the FCS, but it's debatable which one is No. 1, as the CAA was always building toward this season and may have arrived a year early as the only conference to have two national semifinalists last season.

North Dakota State's expected ability to reload and not rebuild, and the national title aspirations of Northern Iowa, keep the Missouri Valley in front, but it's not the distance the Bison saw a season ago when they completed a trifecta of consecutive FCS championships.

Following is In the FCS Huddle's annual preseason ranking of FCS conferences:

1. Missouri Valley Football Conference (10 football programs) - Last year's top ranking was driven by North Dakota State and its national title three-peat. The Bison aren't nearly as strong after losing 24 seniors, so a step back would hurt the conference's stature. That's where Northern Iowa comes into the picture. The Panthers are a strong contender for the conference title, although they have been vulnerable in recent seasons. South Dakota State, behind two-time 2,000-yard rusher Zach Zenner, can't seem to get over the NDSU hump, but that's still three programs in the Top 10-15. Plus, Southern Illinois should be strong again. It's enough to keep the Missouri Valley at No. 1 over the CAA.

2. CAA Football (11 programs) - Depth is always the name of the game in the Colonial Athletic Association, which rebounded quite well last season with the national runner-up (Towson) and a semifinalist (New Hampshire). The CAA had young talent last season, so it could very well be the FCS' strongest conference this season. It's so strong that Maine, last year's champ, is getting lost amid talk of the many playoff contenders, which in addition to UNH and Towson should include Villanova, William & Mary, Delaware, James Madison and Richmond - or at least until they start knocking each other off. A return to elite status by Villanova could propel the CAA to the top perch.

3. Big Sky Conference (13 programs) - The biggest FCS conference was down last season, but this year it features a star-laden Eastern Washington squad that seemingly is the preseason favorite for the national title. The Eagles have advanced to the national semifinals in three of the past four seasons, winning the 2010 title. But is there enough depth after the Eagles? Montana is a good start, of course, clearly a Top-10 program. Montana State took an unexpected downturn last year and runner-up Northern Arizona and fellow playoff participant Southern Utah face a similar prospect this season. Cal Poly hopes to be better than last year's 6-6.

4. Ohio Valley Conference (nine programs) - It will be hard to top last season considering Eastern Illinois was No. 2-ranked for much of the season and three teams (EIU, Jacksonville State and Tennessee State) stopped the conference's playoff drought since 2000 by each winning at least one game. There may not be a great team among them, but it's a trio of three really good teams. It's also a high-scoring conference with potential upsets as UT Martin, Eastern Kentucky and Murray State lurk behind the top three.

5. Southland Conference (11 programs) - The addition of Abilene Christian, Houston Baptist and Incarnate Word will drag down the conference's overall ranking while the three get their feet wet, but there's a national title contender in Southeastern Louisiana, and McNeese State is a Top 10 team again. The teams that follow, including Sam Houston State and Central Arkansas, provide excellent depth. Last year's breakout year for the conference should continue this season.

6. Southern Conference (eight programs) - The conference race retooled a year early in 2013 with Chattanooga, Furman and Samford sharing the title while Appalachian State and Georgia Southern stepped backward in their final SoCon season. Chattanooga rates a slight favorite this season despite not appearing in the playoffs for 30 years. A return to prominence by Wofford would do a lot for the conference, and that's not out of the question.

7. Big South Conference (six programs) - Despite being the smallest FCS conference, the Big South hopes to keep making waves in non-conference matchups. It has a national player in Coastal Carolina (playoff win over Montana last year) and three other programs - Liberty, Charleston Southern and Gardner-Webb - that are legitimate Big South contenders. There's little margin for error in the conference race.

8. Ivy League (eight programs) - Always better than advertised, the Ivy League isn't the usual Harvard-Penn logjam anymore. Princeton is sitting on a potential powerhouse after letting an outright title slip away last season. Harvard is still the Tigers' biggest threat, but Dartmouth - yes, the Big Green - is lurking. Penn doesn't want coach Al Bagnoli to retire without one more title run.

9. Patriot League (seven programs) - Fordham should find itself in the Top 10 again this season and is finally eligible for the Patriot title again. League teams are getting stronger while they head into a second season of football scholarships, with Lafayette coming off the league title and Bucknell its second winning season in three years. What the league needs is for perennial powers Lehigh and Colgate, which has a new head coach in Dan Hunt, to not slip backward.

10. Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (11 programs) - Bethune-Cookman and South Carolina State both made the playoffs last season and figure to battle it out for the MEAC title again, but they lost some key talent. There's been plenty of head coaching changes in recent years, so some programs are still steadying themselves. North Carolina A&T is primed for a strong season. Florida A&M and Savannah State received NCAA postseason bans for poor Academic Progress Rate scores.

11. Northeast Conference (seven programs) - Defending co-champions Sacred Heart and Duquesne are the only NEC teams which finished with winning records last season, although the conference title race was terrific, with all seven teams bunched within two games of each other. Sacred Heart is a heavy favorite this season, with Saint Francis (Pa.), an unlikely title contender anyway, under an APR postseason ban. NEC teams may struggle against their Division I non-conference opponents.

12. Southwestern Athletic Conference (10 programs) - APR penalties have left 40 percent of the teams - Alabama State, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Mississippi Valley State and Prairie View A&M - banned from the postseason, hampering the conference's effort to try to move in a positive direction. Four teams have new head coaches and defending champion Southern appears to be the one to beat again. From a prestige standpoint, it would be good for the SWAC if Grambling State makes progress under new coach Broderick Fobbs.

13. Pioneer Football League (11 programs) - The non-scholarship PFL is right there with the SWAC in trying to avoid being the lowest-ranked FCS conference. There's enough changes among starting quarterbacks to consider the league down slightly. The title race is really wide open with San Diego, Drake, Jacksonville and Dayton trying to unseat defending co-champions Butler and Marist. The PFL's bottom teams have been slightly worse than the SWAC's bottom teams, although plenty of recent coaching changes could signal improvement.

06/18 12:29:52 ET

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