In the FCS Huddle: Top 10 stories of the 2013 FCS season

12:00 PM, Dec 24, 2013   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - If it seems the FCS has been dominated this year by North Dakota State's back-to-back national championships and a quest for a three-peat, then remember Towson has other plans in mind for next week.

The right two teams will meet for the national title on Jan. 4 - unbeaten NDSU has been No. 1 all along and Towson has knocked off the No. 2 and 3 seeds on the road during the playoffs - in what will be a spill-over from a thrilling 2013 on the FCS level.

OK, it's hard to deny the Bison as the FCS story of the year considering it's really been going on for three seasons (with two straight wins over Sam Houston State in the 2011 and '12 title games), but there are plenty of other stories that grabbed the spotlight as well in 2013. And Towson was a big part of it.

Here's a Top 10 countdown of yet another memorable year across the FCS:

10. Subpar SoCon - The Southern Conference usually challenges to be the best on the FCS level, but the year was forgettable on most levels. Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, who have combined for nine FCS national titles, both announced moves up to the FBS and the Sun Belt Conference next year, and then had hard-luck seasons in their final go around the FCS (a combined 11-12). The conference's other recent staple, Wofford, had a losing season, while Furman, Chattanooga and Samford were simply good but not great teams, causing the conference to take a hit on the national scale.

9. Roar of the Grizzlies - After suffering through its first losing season in 27 years in 2012, and then receiving NCAA sanctions this past summer, the University of Montana rebounded nicely with a 10-3 campaign which included a win over arch-rival Montana State and the No. 8 seed in the FCS playoffs, although the Grizzlies lost their second-round playoff game at home to Coastal Carolina. Incredibly, all 24 starters for coach Mick Delaney (including the kicker and punter) earned a form of All-Big Sky Conference honors.

8. Playoff expansion makes it better - The Pioneer Football League benefited the most when the postseason grew from 20 teams to 24, with Butler becoming the first automatic qualifier from the non-scholarship league (as San Diego withdrew its candidacy late in the season). But three more at-large bids meant three more deserving teams got into the field, the first round increased to 16 teams in action with eight getting byes (instead of the funky eight in action with 12 byes) and the matchups became more geographically aligned.

7. CAA, OVC answer the call - Fans across the nation were quick to discredit CAA Football in 2011 and last season after its big run of top teams slowed considerably, but the conference has come back strong this year, with Towson advancing to the national title game and New Hampshire reaching the semifinals for the first time before its run ended against North Dakota State. The playoffs were just as glorious for the Ohio Valley Conference. Its teams had lost 19 straight playoffs since 2000, but all three of its postseason qualifiers - regular-season champion Eastern Illinois, Jacksonville State and Tennessee State - won games.

6. Coaching merry-go-round spins and spins - It was known all season that Bob Ford would be stepping down as Albany's head coach after 44 years and Joe Walton would be retiring as Robert Morris' only head coach after 20 seasons. But the list of coaching changes has swelled throughout the last four months. There have been changes or openings at 25 programs, or one-fifth of the entire FCS. There's been some big names, too, with two-time Eddie Robinson Award winner Craig Bohl set to leave North Dakota State for Wyoming, Dino Babers departing Eastern Illinois for Bowling Green, Jeff Monken leaving Georgia Southern for his own FBS gig at Army, Dick Biddle stepping down at Colgate, Mickey Matthews' firing at James Madison and Clint Conque switching from Central Arkansas to Stephen F. Austin in the Southland Conference.

5. Surprise, surprise - Take your pick for which team exceeded expectations the most this season: Maine (10-3), which won the CAA Football title after being picked eighth in the conference's preseason poll; Sacred Heart (10-3), which posted the nation's biggest increase in wins from a year ago with eight while winning the Northeast Conference title and making its first FCS playoff appearance; Princeton (8-2), which earned a share of its first Ivy League title since 2006; Mercer (10-2), which posted the most wins ever for an NCAA start-up program; Southeastern Louisiana (11-3), which won its first Southland Conference title and reached the FCS quarterfinals in its first playoff appearance; Furman (8-6), which rallied to a share of the Southern Conference title and the automatic playoff bid; Charleston Southern (10-3), which ran off seven straight wins to open the season; Lafayette (5-7), which won the Patriot League title while becoming the first team to qualify for the playoffs with a losing record; or Southern Utah (8-5), which reached the FCS playoffs for the first time after being picked ninth in the Big Sky Conference. None of these teams finished with a winning record a year ago.

4. Amazing trio decide the Walter Payton Award - The most impressive number for the top three finishers in the voting for the FCS outstanding player honor is their teams' combined record. Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams and Towson running back Terrance West have pushed their teams to 37-7, with West hoping to tack on more win in the national championship game. But there is no denying their individual numbers as well. Garoppolo, who won the 27th annual Payton Award, just missed the FCS record for passing yards in a season with 5,050, got a national mark with 375 completions and fired 53 touchdowns. Adams, the runner-up, was just six yards shy of becoming the third QB to reach the 5,000-yard mark and he led the FCS with 55 touchdown passes (only one shy of the national single-season record). West, who finished third in the voting, has taken his game to another level in the playoffs, as he's up to 2,416 rushing yards and 41 total touchdowns - both FCS single-season records.

3. Grumbling at Grambling - The historically-black program with the most national visibility remains Grambling State, but this year the attention was for all the wrong reasons. Favorite son Doug Williams was fired as the head coach after two games, a second straight one-win season followed and, worst of all, the players grabbed national headlines with a six-day walkout as they protested long bus rides to games and the conditions of their training facilities. During the walkout, enough players refused to travel to a Southwestern Athletic Conference game at Jackson State that Grambling was forced into a forfeit. Alum Broderick Fobbs' hiring on Dec. 4 gave the Tigers four head coaches within a three-month period, but the hope is he will bring stability to the program.

2. Record win total over the FBS - Eastern Washington's 49-46 road win over nationally ranked Oregon State highlighted the first weekend of the season and the ball kept rolling, or bouncing right, for the FCS. Eight conferences and independent Old Dominion combined on a record 16 FCS-over-FBS wins. Five in the group (North Dakota State, Towson, Eastern Washington, Eastern Illinois and Jacksonville State) went on to reach the FCS quarterfinals. The Southern Conference, despite its down year, had its highlight days with a national-best three wins, including Georgia Southern over Florida in its final game as an FCS program.

1. We're all living in a Bison Nation - Frisco, Texas, is about to turn yellow and green again as North Dakota State fans make a pilgrimage there for the third straight January. The top-ranked Bison (14-0) are trying to become only the second program to win three straight FCS national titles and the first unbeaten national champion since Marshall finished 15-0 in 1996. Behind Bohl's veteran lineup, the Bison have met every challenge to date in their national- championship-or-bust campaign. They have the nation's best defense, a quarterback (Brock Jensen) who has won an FCS-record 47 career games and all the necessary pieces to make it a national championship three-peat.

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