Craig Haley - FCS Executive Director Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
If you have ever noticed discussions of the "Game of the Year" come along multiple times during a college football season, then you know a thing or two about hype.
We think we know all the big games way before they happen, but they don't always pan out. Upstarts emerge. Favorites disappoint. What happens in weeks 1 or 2 can alter that anticipated "Game of the Year" in Week 8 or at season's end.
Basically, many great games take place.
But the crystal ball is still tantalizing at this time of the year. In the FCS, you probably aren't far off the track if you're thinking a North Dakota State- Montana season opener is a doozy or a Coastal Carolina-Liberty matchup to end the regular season will have title implications.
So as we look ahead toward what should be another terrific season, we try to pick the best matchups in each FCS conference - a conference matchup, a team going outside the conference, a game against an FBS opponent and a notable rivalry matchup.
Conference: Cal Poly at Eastern Washington (Oct. 10). OK, this isn't the obvious choice among a number of top Big Sky matchups. But if the Mustangs can arrive to the red turf in one piece during a brutal first half of the schedule, this run-versus-pass matchup could turn scary for EWU's three-time defending conference champions.
Non-Conference: North Dakota State at Montana (Aug. 29). The FCS Kickoff has the college football stage to itself. New Montana coach Bob Stitt will unveil his fast-paced offense and the Bison are the four-time defending FCS champions.
FBS Matchup: Eastern Washington at Oregon (Sept. 5). If former EWU quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. wins the starting job at Oregon, oh will the Eagles be motivated for his debut.
Rivalry: Montana at Montana State (Nov. 21). A conference title and a playoff spot may matter to both teams, but there also is no underplaying the importance of bragging rights within the state.
Conference: Coastal Carolina at Liberty (Nov. 21). If it seems like the Big South title always comes down to these two teams, well, it basically does. Two years ago, they played to double overtime in Lynchburg, Virginia. Last year, they tied for the conference title because of a game-ending blocked field goal on the final day of the regular season.
Non-Conference: Kennesaw State at East Tennessee State (Sept. 3). Hey, why not? Kennesaw State is playing the first game in program history and ETSU is returning to football for the first time since 2003.
FBS Matchup: Liberty at West Virginia (Sept. 12). The visiting Flames took their program to a higher level in reaching the FCS playoffs for the first time, and winning there, last year. Speaking of a higher level, coach Turner Gill's crew aspires to play on the FBS level.
Rivalry: Coastal Carolina at Charleston Southern (Oct. 31). Take note that Coastal-Liberty has come to be the conference's most important game. But CSU beat Coastal in 2013 and Liberty last year, so the visiting Chanticleers won't have it easy going down the South Carolina coast on Halloween.
Conference: Villanova at James Madison (Nov. 21). The John Robertson-Vad Lee showdown at quarterback didn't disappoint last year. This meeting comes on the last day of the regular season and neither team expects it to be their final game of 2015.
Non-Conference: Lehigh at James Madison (Sept. 12). These two teams played a highly entertaining game a year ago before JMU escaped with a 31-28 win.
FBS Matchup: New Hampshire at San Jose State (Sept. 3). The fact that it'll be 10 years to the day UNH played its only other game in California is both cool and ironic. Don't forget, coach Sean McDonnell and his CAA championship program used to be really good at beating FBS opposition.
Rivalry: William & Mary at Richmond (Nov. 21). Last year's season finale basically was a play-in game to the FCS playoffs. The "South's Oldest Rivalry" dates to 1898, with William & Mary holding a 61-58-5 series lead.
Conference: Dartmouth at Harvard (Oct. 31). Dartmouth has the most Ivy titles (17), but none since 1997. Since then, Harvard has won seven titles to close within one of the Big Green at 16 overall. Dartmouth was the league runner-up to Harvard last year, but quarterback Dalyn Williams hopes to put the Big Green over the top this time.
Non-Conference: Columbia at Fordham (Sept. 19). The Ivy and Patriot leagues measure themselves in their meetings. This year's Liberty Cup matchup, which honors those lost on 9/11, has a newcomer in Al Bagnoli, who makes his Columbia coaching debut.
FBS Matchup: No matchups.
Rivalry: Harvard at Yale (Nov. 21). It doesn't get any bigger than "The Game," but Harvard has won the last eight meetings and 12 of the last 13. A crowd of over 50,000 figures to be at the Yale Bowl.
Conference: South Carolina State at Bethune-Cookman (Oct. 10). In a conference that had five teams earn a share of last year's title, it might be hard to narrow down the best game. But these two rivals have had a say in six of the last seven titles.
Non-Conference: Coastal Carolina at South Carolina State (Sept. 12). An early season upset of a Top 10 power would boost SCSU as it comes off the MEAC-SWAC Challenge.
FBS Matchup: Norfolk State at Old Dominion (Sept. 12). It's a five-mile trip across town for Norfolk State and first-year coach Latrell Scott. ODU no longer has Taylor Heinicke, the 2012 Walter Payton Award winner.
Rivalry: Hampton vs. Howard (Sept. 18). "The Battle for the Real HU" will be played under Friday Night Lights at RFK Stadium. Apologies to rivals Bethune- Cookman and Florida A&M, the Florida Classic is really big, too.
Conference: Northern Iowa at North Dakota State (Oct. 9). The Bison want revenge for the way their FCS-record 33-game winning streak ended last season - a 23-3 pounding by UNI.
Non-Conference: Eastern Washington at Northern Iowa (Sept. 12). The host Panthers have reloaded this offseason. Even without Vernon Adams, EWU knows how to put up points.
FBS Matchup: Youngstown State at Pittsburgh (Sept. 5). Bo Pelini makes his YSU coaching debut against a Pitt program that lost to the Penguins in 2012.
Rivalry: North Dakota at North Dakota State (Sept. 19). OK, UND isn't part of the Valley, but here's an exception as these two will meet for the first time since 2003 as well as the first time as Division I programs. The series dates to 1894 and UND holds a 62-45-3 advantage (with three straight wins) over the preeminent power in the FCS.
Conference: Duquesne at Bryant (Oct. 17). Neither program has been to the FCS playoffs, but this might be the year considering the sides' returning talent and the graduation losses at defending co-champs Sacred Heart and Wagner.
Non-Conference: Bryant at Coastal Carolina (Sept. 26). The Bulldogs went after Liberty last season, losing 38-21. This season, they take on the other top dog in the Big South Conference.
FBS Matchup: Wagner at BYU (Oct. 24). In a meeting in late October, the host Cougars just may overlook Wagner. The defending NEC co-champion must take advantage of such an opportunity.
Rivalry: Duquesne at Robert Morris (Oct. 24). There's always a buzz, and hard hitting, with the Steel City Showdown.
Conference: Jacksonville State at Eastern Illinois (Nov. 7). There shouldn't be a shortage of points from the last two OVC champions.
Non-Conference: Illinois State at Eastern Illinois (Sept. 19). It's the 103rd meeting in the oldest rivalry within Illinois. The home team has won the last six meetings.
FBS Matchup: Eastern Kentucky at Kentucky (Oct. 3). Some offseason scuffles between players have fueled this intrastate matchup to a higher level.
Rivalry: Eastern Kentucky at Jacksonville State (Oct. 31). The EKU-JSU rivalry has grown up quickly. This meeting will break a 6-6 tie in the series record.
Conference: Bucknell at Colgate (Nov. 21). In a likely tight Patriot race, it would be fun if the title came down to a snowy day in Upstate New York.
Non-Conference: New Hampshire at Colgate (Sept. 12). With UNH coming off its trip to San Jose State a week earlier, the Raiders hope to make their home opener memorable.
FBS Matchup: Bucknell at Army West Point (Oct. 17). The Bison have an experienced team to take into their first FBS matchup since 2001.
Rivalry: Lafayette at Lehigh (Nov. 21). OK, this year's game isn't the same as last year's 150th meeting at Yankee Stadium. But this is still the most-played rivalry in college football.
Conference: Jacksonville at Drake (Oct. 24). JU has one of the tougher road schedules within league play. If the league favorite is going to be picked off, this is one of the opportunities.
Non-Conference: Jacksonville at Delaware (Sept. 4). The Dolphins keep playing tough competition outside the PFL. They are due to upset one of those better teams.
FBS Matchup: San Diego at San Diego State (Sept. 5). USD is meeting the FBS program in town for the first time since 1961. OK, calling for a sunny, 75- degree day and a San Diego State victory would not be bold predictions.
Rivalry: Valparaiso at Butler (Nov. 7). While struggling Valpo tries to raise its program, a date with Butler for the Hoosier Helmet Trophy brings extra motivation.
Conference: Western Carolina at Chattanooga (Oct. 31). Take two on last year's highly anticipated game, which was a 51-0 dud (with Chattanooga pounding a conference upstart).
Non-Conference: Jacksonville State at Chattanooga (Sept. 5). These rivals slugged it out last season - JSU won 26-23 in overtime - and went on to post unbeaten records within their respective conferences.
FBS Matchup: Chattanooga at Florida State (Nov. 21). Does Mocs QB Jacob Huesman eat crab legs? They're free to the winning team.
Rivalry: VMI at The Citadel (Nov. 7). The Citadel has won the last eight meetings of the "The Military Classic of the South," but the atmosphere surrounding the game is still top-notch.
Conference: Sam Houston State at McNeese State (Nov. 7). It's a long way off to say a conference title will be decided between these two teams, but FCS power Sam Houston should be in the mix and McNeese State seems to have enough talent to be there as well even after a subpar season.
Non-Conference: Central Arkansas at Samford (Sept. 3). Don't be mistaken, this is one of the better FCS intersectional games of opening weekend. UCA led the offensive-laden Southland and was fourth in the FCS in scoring average last season.
FBS Matchup: Sam Houston State at Texas Tech (Sept. 5). No doubt coach K.C. Keeler has the Bearkats thinking upset.
Rivalry: Stephen F. Austin at Northwestern State (Nov. 21). When you play for the largest trophy in college football - the 7-foot-plus, 320-pound Chief Caddo Trophy - you know you have something a little different. SFA won, 27-24, last year.
Conference: Grambling State vs. Southern (Nov. 28). The Bayou Classic was re- energized last season at the Mercedes Benz Superdome. Southern's 52-45 win produced the West Division title.
Non-Conference: Alabama State at Tennessee State (Sept. 6). Former Bethune- Cookman coach Brian Jenkins makes his Alabama State debut at an LP Stadium he won at two years ago on the night before Labor Day.
FBS Matchup: Grambling State at California (Sept. 5). Grambling is the last SWAC team to beat an FBS opponent and that was with Eddie Robinson on the sideline in 1985.
Rivalry: Jackson State at Southern (Sept. 19). No boombox needed, these two teams provide plenty of noise when they face each other.
FIVE MOST INTRIGUING GAMES
5. Jacksonville State at Chattanooga (Sept. 5) - The fact both were unbeaten in conference play last season raises this rivalry even more. 4. Eastern Washington at Oregon (Sept. 5) - Too bad Vernon Adams Jr. can't stay on the field and lead both offenses. 3. Northern Iowa at North Dakota State (Oct. 9) - UNI has reloaded quite nicely this offseason, and this one is circled on the Bison's calendar. 2. Coastal Carolina at Liberty (Nov. 21) - Feels like a steel cage matchup on the final day of the regular season. 1. North Dakota State at Montana (Aug. 29) - The FCS Kickoff is a great way to open the college football season.