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Conference bull's-eye sits here

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Yes, smell the roses.

Then cough over the chalk.

As most FCS programs make their way toward spring practices, they can cling to championship dreams like they're the New York Yankees or the Philadelphia Phillies.

Optimism reigns supreme.

But the harsh reality is that there are plenty of Pittsburgh Pirates across the conference landscape.

Dream now while you can.

A lot of the FCS' defending conference champions appear primed for title repeats this season. If that happens, it will be a lot different than a year ago.

Out of 14 conferences, only one outright champion from 2010 - Lehigh in the Patriot League - repeated as an outright champion. Stony Brook, a 2010 co- champion in the Big South, won an outright title last season, while 2010 Missouri Valley champ Northern Iowa shared the 2011 title and Montana State shared its second straight Big Sky title.

Other than that, there was change at the top in the majority of conferences.

With All-America wide receiver Ryan Spadola in a lead role, Lehigh is seeking its third straight Patriot League championship.
This year, look for the opposite. The defending champion will wear the bull's- eye that will be targeted by all of their conference brethren and more will answer the challenge.

Following are the teams to beat in the FCS conference races (the Great West has disbanded for football, leaving only 13 conferences):

Big Sky: Montana, Montana State. Montana State, Montana. Yeah, you know the story, the title again will likely come down to their Nov. 17 showdown at Montana. That home game would seem to make the Grizzlies the favorite, but the pick here for the favorite's role is Montana State, and not just because the Bobcats return a bushel of talent led by quarterback DeNarius McGhee, running back Cody Kirk, defensive tackle Zach Minter and linebacker Jody Owens. It has more to do with the Grizzlies needing to replace nine starters on defense. Yikes.

Big South: Stony Brook. Miguel Maysonet to the left. Miguel Maysonet to the right. Oh, yes, Marcus Coker up the middle. Coach Chuck Priore's Seawolves are a prohibitive favorite to roll through conference play like they did last year when they didn't go below 41 points and averaged nearly 49 points per Big South outing.

CAA Football: Towson. While James Madison is expected to come on strong after getting to the FCS playoffs last season, Towson returns many key starters off last year's conference championship squad, which accomplished so much with such little expectations. Jerry Rice Award winner Terrance West, who led the FCS with 29 touchdowns, gets most of the offensive line back. The defense features All-CAA standouts Frank Beltre at defensive end and Jordan Dangerfield at safety.

Ivy League: Harvard. The Crimson went unbeaten in the league while winning the title by three games last year. The offense will keep rolling behind quarterback Colton Chapple, running back Treavor Scales, tight end Kyle Juszczyk and a veteran line. Their high production will give the defense time to overcome some key losses.

MEAC: Bethune-Cookman. Last year's six-game season-ending winning streak has fueled the Wildcats throughout the offseason. They were the only MEAC team to beat champion Norfolk State and did so on the road. The big question is, can coach Brian Jenkins' squad rebuild its defense - with some key transfers - while running back Isidore Jackson and the offense continue last year's late- season excellence.

Missouri Valley: North Dakota State. All hail the national champ. Coach Craig Bohl has to replace 11 seniors who started in the title game, but the defense will remain one of the nation's best, led by All-America cornerback Marcus Williams. The running game, behind 1,000-yard rusher Sam Ojuri, has depth, and quarterback Brock Jensen keeps getting better. The Bison shared last year's conference title with Northern Iowa, which has to survive a brutally tough schedule in September.

Northeast Conference: Duquesne. It's easy to forget the Dukes shared last year's title because Albany went to the playoffs as a result of its easy win in the head-to-head meeting. In a conference of outstanding running backs, Duquesne has one in Larry McCoy (3,479 career rushing yards). The Dukes also return their starting quarterback, Sean Patterson, and standout safety, Serge Kona. The Dukes have home games against Albany and Monmouth, another major title factor, but start off the conference schedule with a huge game at another rough customer Bryant. It's a wide-open race.

Quarterback Marques Ivory will return to the Jacksonville State lineup after missing last season with a broken leg.
Ohio Valley Conference: Jacksonville State. Somehow the Gamecocks usually find a way to come up short. They shared the conference title with Tennessee Tech and Eastern Kentucky last season, but those two teams went to the playoffs and the Gamecocks stayed home. The return of quarterback Marques Ivory from a broken leg suffered in the opener will help make the offense great. In his absence, former Georgia running back Washaun Ealey became the focal point of the offense.

Patriot League: Lehigh. Quarterback Michael Colvin is a seasoned veteran who will cushion the loss of Walter Payton Award finalist Chris Lum. Everybody knows All-America wide receiver Ryan Spadola, but some others need to move into bigger roles. Zach Barket needs a return to form from a late-season ankle injury. Including games against Fordham, coach Andy Coen's squad has beaten 14 straight Patriot opponents.

Pioneer League: San Diego. Will four cross-country trips - to Harvard, Jacksonville, Marist and Davidson - catch up to the Toreros, the defending co- champion with Drake? Little else may slow quarterback Mason Mills, running back Kenny James and wide receiver Brandon White. And if you want speed on the edge, defensive end Blake Oliaro is in jeopardy of getting a ticket or two from some state trooper.

Southern Conference: Georgia Southern. The Eagles have fallen flat in the national semifinals in each of the last two seasons. Another big run appears certain, although it will be hard for junior Jerick McKinnon or whoever takes over as the starting quarterback to duplicate Jaybo Shaw's precision. All of the other main skills position players are back, including Dominique Swope and Robert Brown in the backfield. On defense, nose tackle Brent Russell is a beast and one of the top challengers for Buck Buchanan Award honors. Not to be overlooked is the loss of two dominant kickers.

Southland Conference: Sam Houston State. Barring something unforeseen, this conference race appears to be a no-contest. The Bearkats return the bulk of their roster, including the dynamic duo of conference player of the year Timothy Flanders at tailback and conference offensive player of the year Richard Sincere at wide receiver and out of the Wild Bearkat. For good measure, Southland defensive player of the year Darnell Taylor is part of perhaps the best secondary in the nation.

SWAC: Grambling State. This race doesn't have a definitive favorite, but the defending champion Tigers get the nod over the likes of last year's East Division stalwarts, Alabama A&M, Alabama State and Jackson State, the latter which may be starting true freshman quarterback Lamontiez Ivy. Coach Doug Williams' Tigers got a lift from Dawrence Roberts developing into a dominant running back, but they have lost touchdown-maker Mario Louis at wide receiver. Offensive linemen Sanford Banks and Clint Marsh and defensive tackle Jomarcus Savage give the Tigers an advantage in the trenches.

That makes the team to beat a defending champion in 12 of the 13 conferences.

Yes, expect more stability at the top this season.

Sacks or scores, contact Craig Haley at
chaley@sportsnetwork.com.


Follow Craig Haley on Twitter and Facebook.

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