10 storylines that defined FCS 2017

By CRAIG HALEY

STATS FCS Senior Editor

(STATS) - Coaches, players and teams on the move have been defining the FCS in 2017.

But it's all come back to the two rocks that have stood their ground to create one of the more anticipated championship games in the history of the subdivision.

When you look at the 10 storylines that defined the year, former Liberty running back Rashad Jennings' win on ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" doesn't quite make the cut. There were even better moves and cutbacks at FCS stadiums across the nation in 2017.

Happy holidays.

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A program worthy of "GameDay" - With apologies to Fargo, North Dakota, the FCS capital in 2017 has been Harrisonburg, Virginia. Having reigned all year as the national champion, James Madison has been No. 1-ranked since the preseason, is in the midst of a 26-game winning streak (second-longest in FCS history), beat an FBS opponent (East Carolina), had the second-highest home attendance average in the FCS (21,724) and drew ESPN's iconic "College GameDay" preview show back to campus for the second time in three seasons. Coach Mike Houston and his program will seek to go back-to-back against North Dakota State in the FCS title game on Jan. 6 in Frisco, Texas.

Coaching changes - The coaching carousel has gone off the tracks with 21 schools already having a head coaching change since the start of the 2017 season - more specifically, since October. It started with Alabama State, where Donald Hill-Eley has replaced Brian Jenkins, and has included one of the biggest national programs, Montana, where Bobby Hauck has replaced Bob Stitt for a second stint with the Griz. Wofford's legendary Mike Ayers, one of the winningest coaches in the FCS, retired after guiding the Southern Conference program to the FCS quarterfinals.

Big changes in the Big South - Like coaches, FCS conferences keep changing, and, oh, was a lot centered around the Big South. Liberty, a 10-time Big South champ, announced in February that the 2017 season would be its last in the subdivision before becoming an FBS independent. It was known already that Campbell (2018) and North Alabama (2019) would be joining the Big South, but then in surprises, Hampton announced it would leave the MEAC for the Big South (in 2018 or 2019), and Presbyterian said it would leave the Big South after the 2019 season to drop football scholarships and join the Pioneer Football League in 2021.

FCS Awards winners - The year opened with five claiming the STATS FCS Awards for the 2016 season - Sam Houston State quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe (Walter Payton), Northern Iowa defensive end Karter Schult (Buck Buchanan), Duquesne running back A.J. Hines (Jerry Rice), Sam Houston coach K.C. Keeler (Eddie Robinson) and Eastern Kentucky quarterback Tyler Swafford (Doris Robinson Scholar-Athlete). The 2017 banquet is approaching on Jan. 5. Among the finalists, Briscoe will be back in Frisco, seeking to become the second two-time Payton winner, and Kennesaw State linebacker Bryson Armstrong is the first defensive player to win the Rice Award.

NFL talent - Former FCS players continue to fill NFL rosters, with 15 more drafted this year and others going the undrafted free agent's route. The Kansas City Chiefs made Villanova defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon the first selection from the FCS (second round, 59th overall), and others such as Eastern Washington wide receiver Cooper Kupp (Los Angeles Rams), North Carolina A&T running back Tarik Cohen (Chicago Bears), San Diego cornerback/returner Jamal Agnew (Detroit Lions) and Bucknell left tackle Julie'n Davenport (Houston Texans) followed along the pipeline of talent.

FC-yes! to beating the FBS - As a 45-point underdog, MEAC member Howard kicked off a banner season with a 43-40 victory at UNLV. Eight other FCS teams joined in the fun of beating the upper echelon of Division I: Tennessee State (17-10 over Georgia State), James Madison (34-14 over East Carolina), Liberty (48-45 over Baylor), New Hampshire (22-12 over Georgia Southern), South Dakota (35-27 over Bowling Green), North Carolina A&T (35-31 over Charlotte), Idaho State (30-28 over Nevada) and Western Illinois (52-10 over Coastal Carolina).

Injuries, injuries and more injuries - The good news for 2018 is the FCS will have an even higher level of talent because of returning medical redshirts. But the injury bug that hit All-Americans in the offseason/preseason with the likes of North Dakota cornerback Deion Harris, Princeton running back John Lovett, North Dakota State defensive end Greg Menard and Central Arkansas left tackle Stockton Mallett never slowed down. Fordham running back Chase Edmonds' pursuit of the FCS career rushing record was sabotaged by leg injuries, while running backs Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks of Albany, Cardon Johnson of James Madison and Joe Protheroe of Cal Poly, wide receivers Emmanuel Butler of Northern Arizona and DeVonte Dedmon of William & Mary and safeties Cole Reyes of North Dakota and Rob Rolle of Villanova were among the many who barely played this season.

Turnarounds and titles - Austin Peay coach Will Healy is the 2017 STATS FCS Eddie Robinson Award winner for a good reason. The Governors were 0-2, mired in a 29-game losing streak and had lost 46 of 47 when they turned around their program with a stunning 8-4 season. It was a year for the surprise teams as the likes of Northeast Conference champ Central Connecticut State, Columbia, Elon, Furman, Howard, Monmouth and Sacramento State enjoyed turnarounds. But shout out to the other teams that joined Central Connecticut State as conference champs: Southern Utah and Weber State (Big Sky), Kennesaw State (Big South), James Madison (CAA), Yale (Ivy), North Carolina A&T (MEAC), North Dakota State (Missouri Valley), Jacksonville State (Ohio Valley), Lehigh and Colgate (Patriot), San Diego (Pioneer), Wofford (Southern), Central Arkansas (Southland) and Grambling State (SWAC).

Impossible playoff bubble - Everybody seemed to be in agreement the number of candidates for at-large playoff spots was bigger than most years. Many of them lost on the final full weekend of the regular season, causing even more uncertainty. The scenarios made for a lot of negative talk surrounding teams that didn't qualify, including Austin Peay (8-4) and Delaware (7-4), which selection committee chair Richard Johnson said were the last two left out of the field, as well as Eastern Washington and McNeese. New Hampshire's inclusion on a 14th straight bid drew a lot of ire, yet the CAA power went on to win two playoff games.

Championship game so many wanted - In the 40th year of the FCS playoffs, there's no doubt the two best programs have reached the national championship game. Many people had tasted another meeting between No. 1 seed James Madison (14-0) and No. 2 seed North Dakota State (13-1) since the Dukes stopped NDSU's five-year reign as national champ on the way to their second FCS title last year (the first was in 2003). They punched their tickets to the title game with blowout wins in the semifinals and enter the title showdown with talent-laden and battle-tested lineups.

Updated December 22, 2017

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