By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Ready for some NCAA hoops?
Not so fast.
For college football fans, National Letter of Intent Day is fast approaching on Feb. 6. Spring practices are right around the corner. And before you know it, we'll be zeroing in on the 2013 season.
OK, we're talking faster than the Stephen F. Austin offense.
But while North Dakota State just earned its second straight FCS national championship, a lot of coaches and players across the nation have long been back to work preparing for next season.
NDSU, of course, has all the pieces in place to make a run at becoming only the second program to win three straight FCS titles, following Appalachian State's run from 2005-07.
Coach Craig Bohl's loaded Bison team could have some familiar company as this season's semifinalists return some of the pieces to get back to the "Final Four," although national runner-up Sam Houston State loses a lot.
So all you hoops fans, here's an early FCS Sweet 16 for the 2013 season (considering the many possible variables ahead, though, expect some changes):
16. Northern Arizona - Everybody knows about running back Zach Bauman, but the defense could carry the Lumberjacks. The returnees include defensive tackle Tim Wilkinson, cornerback Anders Battle and safety Lucky Dozier. Andy Wilder, a first-team All-America punter as well as the team's place-kicker, also will return as a senior. But the Lumberjacks have to replace quarterback Cary Grossart.
15. Tennessee State - Ohio Valley Conference teams have not won a playoff game since 2000, but Tennessee State or Eastern Illinois, maybe both, could both end the drought in 2013. Tennessee State has the stout defense with cornerback Robert Godbolt III, and the offense returns quarterback Michael German and tight end A.C. Leonard. But the Tigers expect to lose standout running back Trabis Ward to an early entry into the NFL Draft
14. James Madison - The Dukes came up short again in 2012, but coach Mickey Matthews will return a veteran starting lineup. Nobody wants to mess with speedy linebacker Stephon Robertson. Justin Thorpe is the veteran quarterback, but young Michael Birdsong may be the one to team with running back Dae'Quan Scott. The November portion of the schedule is brutal: Villanova and Stony Brook at home and New Hampshire and Towson on the road.
13. Eastern Illinois - Who's going to stop the defending OVC champ's sizzling offense? Well, they might want to get South Dakota State's blueprint. Walter Payton Award finalists Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback and Erik Lora at wide receiver are both returning for Panthers coach Dino Babers, whose team went from 2-9 in 2011 to the playoffs this season.
12. Northern Iowa - After overscheduling this past September, the Panthers will have a more manageable 2013, with home dates against Drake and Northern Colorado filling half of their non-conference games. Running back David Johnson had a superb freshman season in 2011 and quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen followed up with one this season. Tyler Sievertsen is 28-of-33 (85 percent) on field- goal attempts the last two seasons.
11. New Hampshire - Despite the losses of linebacker Matt Evans and defensive tackle Jared Smith, the Wildcats should be headed toward a 10th straight playoff appearance. The safeties, featuring veterans Manny Asam and Chris Beranger, are superb. The running game will be dominant for a couple more seasons as all of the main quarterbacks, Sean Goldrich and Andy Vailas, and running backs, Nico Steriti, Chris Setian and Jimmy Owens, will be sophomores and juniors.
10. Montana - Some of the close losses in this season's 5-6 disaster will be reversed in 2013. Linebacker Jordan Tripp and defensive end Zach Wagenmann form a game-changing 1-2 combo on a veteran defense. Tree-trunk offensive tackle Danny Kistler (6-foot-8, 325 pounds) is a quarterback's best friend, but the Grizzlies need some consistency at that spot. Potential NCAA sanctions loom for a program that has missed the FCS playoffs in two of the last three seasons.
9. Sam Houston State - Running back Timothy Flanders will be back to wreck more havoc and his sidekicks in the skills positions - quarterback Brian Bell and all-purpose threat Richard Sincere - also return for their senior seasons. Coach Willie Fritz's squad, the national runner-up each of the past two seasons, loses a lot on the other side of the ball, including two-time Southland Conference Defensive Player of the Year Darnell Taylor, his twin brother Darius and cornerback Dax Swanson.
8. South Dakota State - FCS rushing leader Zach Zenner (2,044 yards) returns to follow All-America left tackle Bryan Witzmann, and the Jackrabbits hope quarterback Austin Sumner will resemble his 2011 version instead of the 2012 version. The returnees also include linebacker T.J. Lally, the Missouri Valley Conference freshman and newcomer of the year. The schedule is favorable as well.
7. Towson - Running back Terrance West is smiling over an offensive line that could start five seniors, including All-CAA first-team tackles Eric Pike and Randall Harris, while Wisconsin transfer Joe Brennan is expected to make a smooth transition at quarterback. The defense will feature veteran linebackers and defensive backs. The schedule has New Hampshire and Villanova at home.
6. Montana State - The offensive line that was a question mark before 2012 will be a strength in 2013 as quarterback DeNarius McGhee and running back Cody Kirk go to work again. Despite the return of defensive end Brad Daly and linebacker Na'a Moeakiola, the defense faces key losses. A trip to North Dakota State is one of the highlights among FCS non-conference games.
5. Appalachian State - New coach Scott Satterfield isn't the only one stepping into some big shoes. The Southern Conference power loses some key seniors off the defense, and the Mountaineers bowed out of the playoffs at home for the third straight season. Fortunately, the Jamal Jackson-to-Sean Price combination is among the best in the FCS, highly touted running back Tysean Holloway will have his redshirt lifted and cornerback Doug Middleton will return from a season-ending ankle injury. The Mountaineers host Georgia Southern and have road games at Montana and Georgia.
4. Villanova - The Wildcats arrived early this season and are ready for the next step in 2013. Not only do they return 18 starters, including Jerry Rice Award winner John Robertson at quarterback, 1,000-yard rusher Kevin Monangai and defensive linemen Antoine Lewis and Rakim Cox, but center Dan Shirey and all-purpose back Jamal Abdur Rahman will return after missing this season.
3. Georgia Southern - The Eagles are still trying to get over the hump, having been stopped in the FCS national semifinals in each of coach Jeff Monken's first three seasons at the helm. But few teams are going to slow the FCS' top- ranked rushing offense, led by quarterback Jerick McKinnon and fullback Dominique Swope. The defense loses a handful of its top players and there will be road trips to Appalachian State, Wofford and Florida.
2. Eastern Washington - The returning talent is impressive, even after record- setting wide receiver Brandon Kaufman's decision to enter the NFL Draft as a junior-eligible prospect. Quarterback Vernon Adams, linebacker Ronnie Hamlin, cornerback T.J. Lee, a stable of running backs to follow a veteran offensive line. Still, the Eagles (FCS champions in 2010 and semifinalists this season) might have to play on the road in the postseason because their regular-season schedule is a doozy, including road games at Oregon State, Toledo, Sam Houston State, Montana and Cal Poly as well as a home game with Montana State.
1. North Dakota State - Considering this season's team was powered by its junior class, the 2013 squad will return a ridiculous amount of talent. Seriously, it's three-peat or bust. First-team All-America selections Marcus Williams (cornerback) and Billy Turner (left tackle) headline the experienced group, but there's plenty more talent with the likes of quarterback Brock Jensen, 1,000-yards backs Sam Ojuri and John Crockett, wide receiver Ryan Smith, linebacker Grant Olson, even All-Missouri Valley place-kicker Adam Keller. This remains the team to beat next season.
*Photo Courtesy of NDSU Athletics