Potential springboard to success
By CRAIG HALEY
(STATS) - Success is measured in many ways, but in the 24-team FCS playoffs, only the national champion can end its season with a win.
Few FCS teams will enter the 2017 season with a long winning streak, although national champion James Madison has won 12 straight games, Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl champion Grambling State is at 11 and Pioneer Football League runner-up Dayton has a seven-game run.
Some teams with losing records were thrilled to gain a different outlook for the offseason by the way they ended last season in November.
While there's a long period standing between season-ending momentum and September, it would be hard to convince some teams they're not working toward something better.
Here are a half-dozen teams that each had an encouraging finish to what previously was a trying season:
East Tennessee State - Ho, hum, the Buccaneers beat NAIA program Cumberland in the second-to-last game. Ah, but they ended their second season since reviving the football program with one of the bigger surprises in the FCS - a 15-14 Southern Conference win over playoff-bound Samford. It provided a 5-6 record for coach Carl Torbush's program, which is building around rising junior linebacker Dylan Weigel and running back Jajuan Stinson. This season, the Bucs will face James Madison.
Gardner-Webb - The Runnin' Bulldogs also finished 5-6 with two season-ending wins in the Big South, the biggest coming on the road against co-champ Charleston Southern before they topped Monmouth in overtime. Dual-threat Tyrell Maxwell led all FCS quarterbacks in rushing yards per game and eight starters return on each side of the ball, but coach Carroll McCray lost some key seniors as well as standout cornerback Jaylan Foster to a transfer.
Montana State - First-year coach Jeff Choate installed true freshman Chris Murray as his starting quarterback in the second half of the season and it paid off with energizing wins over UC Davis and bitter rival Montana, which allowed the Bobcats to finish 4-7. Murray was named the Big Sky freshman of the year. The 'Cats also return senior linebacker Mac Bignell, their leading tackler, but their schedule appears difficult.
Norfolk State - The Spartans won their final two MEAC games to finish 4-7, winning at South Carolina State for the first time and then also on the road against Hampton for their third straight victory in the "Battle of the Bay." The Spartans surrendered only 10 points in each win and their always tough defense returns linebacker T.C. Livingston, their leading tackler, and defensive end Chris Lee. Coach Latrell Scott's team also will play James Madison.
Tennessee Tech - Lopsided wins at a seven-win Tennessee State squad (44-16) and over Murray State (55-19) punctuated coach Marcus Satterfield's first season at 5-6. The Golden Eagles even won their final three Ohio Valley Conference games with a loss to SEC member Tennessee in between. They have to replace quarterback Michael Birdsong, but return three second-team all-conference players in wide receiver Dontez Byrd, linebacker Josh Poplar and place-kicker Nick Madonia.
Towson - After almost making the 2015 playoffs, the Tigers started last season with losses in seven of their first eight games. But November was one to remember with three straight wins to finish 4-7. After beating Elon and William & Mary at home, they won 32-31 at Rhode Island on true freshman Aidan O'Neill's game-ending 55-yard field goal. Coach Rob Ambrose's young talent starts with running back/kick returner Shane Simpson, CAA Football's 2016 offensive rookie of the year.
Honorable Mention - South Carolina State (5-6, beat Savannah State and Bethune-Cookman) and Incarnate Word (3-8, beat Lamar and Houston Baptist)
Updated February 10, 2017