Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The ink is barely dry on the 2013 FCS season in which North Dakota State claimed a third straight national championship, but it's time to look ahead to next season.
With all the influential seniors as well as head coach Craig Bohl departing the Bison roster, it's easy to look elsewhere for the next FCS championship contender.
Just keep an eye on Fargo, however, because the Bison don't plan to stray too far from the national title picture.
The Frisco (Texas) Chamber of Commerce sure would love to see Bison Nation come a callin' next January. The fan support has been extraordinary at the last three championship games.
Still, the national title picture will be a little more wide open in 2014 with Eastern Washington, which was the most recent national champion before North Dakota State in 2010, appearing to be the team to beat next season.
Here's an early look at the top teams for 2014. Let's make it a baker's dozen (with 2013 record and season-ending ranking).
13. Coastal Carolina (12-3; 7) - Quarterback Alex Ross can no longer get the ball to running back Lorenzo Taliaferro and wide receiver Matt Hazel, but running back De'Angelo Henderson is the next star on the high-scoring offense. Quinn Backus is among the top linebackers in the nation and the special teams will be strong. Coach Joe Moglia's squad will be helped in the Big South by playing home games against Liberty and Charleston Southern, but Gardner-Webb will be strong, too.
12. McNeese State (10-3; 11) - Coach Matt Viator might find it impossible to replace the leadership and production of quarterback Cody Stroud. His Cowboys played a lot of young players, and running back Kelvin Bennett and tight end Nic Jacobs will be the offensive stars. Southeastern Louisiana will stand in their way in the Southland Conference, and out of conference they will have a trip to Nebraska.
11. Chattanooga (8-4; 23) - A breakthrough 2013 still didn't land a playoff berth under coach Russ Huesman, but his Mocs will return Southern Conference players of the year in his son Jacob at quarterback and Davis Tull at defensive end. Sixth-year defensive tackle Derrick Lott and running back Keon Williams are highly talented players coming off injuries. The Mocs will have trips to two FBS opponents, Central Michigan and Tennessee, and face Jacksonville State's standout team.
10. Towson (13-3; 2) - The national runner-up Tigers will find it hard to replace 2,500-yard running back Terrance West as he heads off early to the 2014 NFL Draft. Coach Rob Ambrose has built up the Tigers' talent base, but West's understudy, Darius Victor, is not quite at the same level, and the offense loses starting quarterback Peter Athens and much of the offensive line. The defense, to be led by defensive end Ryan Delaire, already is suffering key losses at linebacker.
9. South Dakota State (9-5; 13) - Running back Zach Zenner will chase a third straight 2,000-yard season (fortunately for him, only one of the games will be against North Dakota State). Quarterback Austin Sumner and wide receiver Jason Schneider will team up again, but coach John Stiegelmeier has to fill some big holes on the offensive and defensive lines. There won't be an easy transition period because the non-conference schedule includes trips to Missouri and Southern Utah and a home date against Cal Poly.
8. Montana (10-3; 8) - The Grizzlies will face Bohl in his debut at Wyoming and later face his old team at North Dakota State. Coach Mick Delaney's team will be really strong in the skills positions with quarterback Jordan Johnson, all- purpose Ellis Henderson and running backs Jordan Canada and Travon Van back. Defensive end Zack Wagenmann returns, but the losses at linebacker are huge.
7. Northern Iowa (7-5; Not Ranked) - The Panthers will be much improved with a healthier David Johnson and Sawyer Kollmorgen at running back and quarterback, respectively. The defense will get back linebacker Jake Farley, coach Mark Farley's son, from injury, and 6-foot-4, 311-pound Xavier Williams is a beast at defensive tackle. The Panthers will play two FBS opponents, Iowa and Hawaii.
6. Jacksonville State (11-4; 10) - No defender should be anxious to tackle big running back DaMarcus James and the offense got even better when redshirt freshman quarterback Eli Jenkins blossomed in the playoffs. Coach Bill Clark was the right tonic for this past season's team. His second squad will return 17 starters and it has added some SEC transfers, including defensive end LaMichael Fanning from Alabama The Gamecocks will replace Eastern Illinois as the Ohio Valley Conference favorite, and they have Michigan State and Chattanooga on their non-conference schedule.
5. Villanova (6-5; Not Ranked) - After going belly-up as the CAA Football favorite, the Wildcats have to come back strong behind dual-threat quarterback John Robertson and running back Kevin Monangai. The biggest holes are on the defensive line, but coach Andy Talley has stocked the overall talent with recent recruiting classes. In non-conference action, the Wildcats will head to Syracuse and look for revenge against Fordham.
4. New Hampshire (10-5; 5) - After a surprising run to the FCS semifinals, the Wildcats will return a superb offense and a fast-improving defense. Two has been better than one at quarterback with Sean Goldrich and Andy Vailas, and the pair will benefit from a 1,000-yard rusher (Nico Steriti) and two 1,000-yard wide receivers (R.J. Harris and Justin Mello). The defense boasts leading tacklers Akil Anderson and Shane McNeely at linebacker as well as fast-rising safety Casey DeAndrade. Coach Sean McDonnell's squad will visit Toledo and host Lehigh.
3. Southeastern Louisiana (11-3; 6) - Coach Ron Roberts has rebuilt quickly with transfers like do-everything quarterback Bryan Bennett from Oregon. Rasheed Harrell and Xavier Roberson are exciting players offensively, while many of the standouts on defense, including pass-rushing linebacker Isiah Corbett, also are back. A trip to Tulane will highlight the Lions' non- conference schedule.
2. North Dakota State (15-0; 1) - The aura surrounding the Bison will depart with a senior class that won 52 games as well as the three national titles over the last four seasons. New coach Chris Klieman will still have a strong defense with the likes of linebacker Carlton Littlejohn and safety Colten Heagle, but it will not be nearly as dominant. Junior-to-be quarterback Carson Wentz could take over the lead role from Brock Jensen and will have go- to weapons in wide receiver Zach Vraa and running back John Crockett. Opponents will play even harder knowing the Bison are vulnerable. In addition to the Montana game, the Bison will play Iowa State in non-conference action.
1. Eastern Washington (12-3; 3) - Opposing defenses must pick their poison in defending Walter Payton Award runner-up Vernon Adams and his favorite weapons, wide receiver Cooper Kupp and running back Quincy Forte. As the offense scores in bunches, linebacker Ronnie Hamlin is expected to be back to lead the defense, which must improve. Of course, coach Beau Baldwin doesn't take it easy with his schedule, and the non-conference games include Washington, Sam Houston State, and, yes, Montana State in a game that won't count toward the Big Sky Conference standings.