(Sports Network) - It's been an FCS offseason about scholarships.
Appalachian State and Georgia Southern (and Old Dominion, for that matter) suddenly have too many scholarships.
Patriot League schools still don't have enough (but they're getting there).
Pioneer League schools don't have any (although the door is now open to the playoffs).
The truth of the matter is, no matter the situation, they're all still football players. When they line up, they're there to win a game - no matter who is across the line of scrimmage.
Every down. Every day.
An FCS season will forever be a wild ride. FCS teams will beat FBS teams. Teams with a losing record the previous season will become a title contender. Conference races will turn upside down.
There are so many surprising results ahead that we're excited to kick off another season, this one to wind toward a national playoff that now goes 24 teams deep.
As we anticipate Thursday night's season-opening whistles, here are some In the FCS Huddle predictions for the 2013 campaign:
- OK, let's get it right out of the way: North Dakota State will win a third straight FCS national championship. Coach Craig Bohl has so many starters and key players returning.
- Conference champions: Big Sky, Montana State; Big South, Liberty; CAA, Villanova; Ivy, Penn; MEAC, Bethune-Cookman; Missouri Valley, North Dakota State; Northeast, Wagner; Ohio Valley, Eastern Illinois; Patriot, Colgate; Pioneer, San Diego; Southern, Chattanooga; Southland, Sam Houston State; and SWAC, Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Only the Ivy League and SWAC don't send their champions to the FCS playoffs.
- Only one defensive back has won the Buck Buchanan Award. Make way for North Dakota State senior cornerback Marcus Williams to join Bethune-Cookman great Rashean Mathis as the FCS' outstanding defensive player of the year.
- Williams will get his shot at Indiana State running back Shakir Bell before the latter wins the Walter Payton Award. For the Eddie Robinson Award, keep a close eye on Bethune-Cookman coach Brian Jenkins.
- The first-year coach who is set to make perhaps the biggest impact is Dave Brock at Delaware, where the Blue Hens will win eight or nine games and appear in an FCS playoff game for the first time since their loss in the 2010 national title game.
- New Hampshire was picked third in the CAA Football preseason poll, but it doesn't have a strong enough defense to push the FCS' longest active streak of playoff appearances to 10.
- Eastern Washington will play in the best non-conference matchup - Sept. 28 at Sam Houston State - and the best conference matchup - Nov. 9 against Montana State. The first one is a rematch of Sam Houston's 45-42 win in the national semifinals last season.
- The Big Sky Conference will have the most playoffs teams with five: Montana State, Eastern Washington, Montana, Northern Arizona and Cal Poly.
- Speaking of Eastern Washington (again), coach Beau Baldwin's squad will overcome the toughest schedule in the FCS. It includes trips to FBS members Oregon State and Toledo as well as Sam Houston State, Montana and Cal Poly, and a home date with Montana State.
- Pop goes the bubble. The best teams left out of the playoffs - aside from ineligible Georgia Southern, Appalachian State and ODU - will be the CAA Football trio of New Hampshire, James Madison and Stony Brook as well as Illinois State and Coastal Carolina.
- The playoffs will survive without the teams headed to the FBS.
- The FCS' best offense will be on display at Sam Houston State. The best defense will reside at North Dakota State again.
- Teams in the lower half of their conference preseason poll with the best chances of stealing a title are The Citadel in the Southern Conference, Princeton in the Ivy League and Norfolk State in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
- Five FCS-over-FBS upsets to anticipate: Liberty at Kent State (Aug. 29); James Madison at Akron (Sept. 7); Old Dominion at Idaho (Nov. 9); Bethune- Cookman at FIU (Sept. 14); and Chattanooga at Georgia State (Sept. 7).
- The pecking order of FCS conferences will be: 1. Missouri Valley; 2. Big Sky; 3. Southern Conference (if you count ASU and GSU); 4. CAA Football; 5. Southland; 6. Ohio Valley; 7. Patriot League; 8. Ivy League; 9. MEAC; 10. Big South; 11. Northeast; 12. SWAC; and 13. Pioneer League.
- Quarterback DeNarius McGhee and Montana State will make amends and get to the FCS national championship game ... only to lose to North Dakota State.
GAMES OF THE YEAR
Big Sky: It's only appropriate Montana State and Eastern Washington meet in November this year. The three-time defending champion Bobcats head to Cheney, Wash., on Nov. 9.
Big South: With Stony Brook gone, the title race is only two teams deep. Coastal Carolina goes to Liberty on Oct. 19.
CAA Football: There's great depth in this conference, but there's no overlooking preseason favorite Villanova at Towson on Oct. 12.
Ivy: Penn and Harvard have won at least a share of the last six league titles and 13 of the last 16. They meet at Harvard on Nov. 16.
Independents: Hey, let's play two. In a future Southland Conference rivalry, Incarnate Word will travel to Abilene Christian on Oct. 19 and host the Wildcats three weeks later on Nov. 9.
MEAC: Bethune-Cookman at North Carolina Central on Nov. 2. But only if the host Eagles are in one piece at that point.
Missouri Valley: North Dakota State knows how to slow South Dakota State's 2,000-yard rusher Zach Zenner, but this time their Sept. 28 matchup is in Brookings, S.D.
Northeast: The Steel City Showdown will not only have a say in the conference title race, but Robert Morris' retiring Joe Walton will coach in it for the final time when the Colonials host Duquesne on Oct. 19.
Ohio Valley: After not meeting last season, defending champion Eastern Illinois and Tennessee State will square off Oct. 26 in Nashville.
Patriot: Lafayette-Lehigh is still a year away from turning 150, so the big game is one week earlier when Lehigh visits defending champion Colgate on Nov. 16.
Pioneer: Butler will be in it, but will it be the Bulldogs' visit to Jacksonville on Sept. 28 or San Diego on Oct. 26?
Southern: Georgia Southern at Appalachian State on Oct. 26 still feels bigger than Wofford at Chattanooga on Nov. 9 even if the first pair can't win the SoCon's automatic playoff bid or the league title.
Southland: The whole season seems to lead up to Sam Houston State at Central Arkansas on Nov. 23. Quarterback Wynrick Smothers and UCA rallied to a win in last year's early season meeting.
SWAC: The only FCS conference with a championship game, the SWAC takes it to Houston's Reliant Stadium on Dec. 7. The SWAC preseason poll predicts Alabama State and Arkansas-Pine Bluff will be there.
SEAT GETTING WARM?
FCS coaches feeling some pressure to pick up the results:
Mick Delaney, Montana (5-6 in one season) - Hired on a two-year contract, Delaney has been trying to hold the boat steady during a rough period in Grizzlies history. But Montana may want a fresh start if Delaney doesn't reverse last year's disaster.
Mike Kramer, Idaho State (3-19 in two seasons) - Kramer's first two seasons have been as embarrassing to ISU off the field as on.
Harold Nichols, Presbyterian (6-36 in four seasons) - Last season's last-place finish in the Big South was a step backward. Two wins in 2011 were vacated for use of an ineligible player.
Joe Trainer, Rhode Island (9-35 in four seasons) - The Rams were the only winless team in the FCS last season.
Donovan Rose, Hampton (21-22 in four seasons) - Considering the subpar results in recent seasons, Hampton actually felt it had to announce last December that Rose would return to the Pirates' sideline this year.
Dale Lennon, Southern Illinois (35-23 in five seasons) - The Salukis surely would have to go in the tank for Lennon to be out of a job, but his program isn't getting the results it needs to fill its three-year-old stadium.
Dale Carlson, Valparaiso (2-31 in three seasons) - Although the Crusaders are getting more competitive with an improved nucleus, 2-31 is still 2-31.
CONFERENCE BY CONFERENCE
The Sports Network FCS conference preview package: http://tinyurl.com/mqb2ged.
WHAT WE KNOW, WHAT WE THINK WE KNOW
The Sports Network FCS Top 25 can be found at http://tinyurl.com/88q2k7t.
Also, once again this season, In the FCS Huddle is projecting the potential FCS playoff field. The projections are a long-range look at the season - not based off current records or rankings - and can be found at http://www.sportsnetwork.com/fcs/FCS_Bracket.pdf.
WEEK 1 PICKS
Last Year's Record: 580-187 (.756)
X - Predicted Winner
Thursday, Aug. 29
X-Liberty at Kent State, 6 p.m.
Presbyterian at X-Wake Forest, 6:30 p.m.
Rhode Island at X-Fordham, 7 p.m.
Northwestern State at X-Missouri State, 7 p.m.
No. 13 Illinois State at X-Ball State, 7 p.m.
Indiana State at X-Indiana, 7 p.m.
Hampton at X-Western Illinois, 7 p.m.
Robert Morris at X-Eastern Kentucky, 7 p.m.
Pikeville (Ky.) at X-Morehead State, 7:07 p.m.
Southern Utah at X-South Alabama, 7:30 p.m.
Dayton at X-Youngstown State, 7:30 p.m.
No. 11 Towson at X-Connecticut, 7:30 p.m.
Western Carolina at X-Middle Tennessee, 7:30 p.m.
Jacksonville at X-Delaware, 7:30 p.m.
UT Martin at X-No. 24 Chattanooga, 7:30 p.m.
Cumberland (Tenn.) at X-Tennessee Tech, 8 p.m.
Grand View at X-Drake, 8 p.m.
Valparaiso at X-North Dakota, 8 p.m.
Southeast Missouri State at X-Southeastern Louisiana, 8 p.m.
Incarnate Word at X-No. 7 Central Arkansas, 8 p.m.
Monmouth at X-No. 2 Montana State, 9:05 p.m.
Sacramento State at X-San Jose State, 10 p.m.
Eastern Oregon at X-Portland State, 10:05 p.m.
Friday, Aug. 30
X-Samford at Georgia State, 7 p.m.
Morgan State at X-Army, 7 p.m.
Southern at X-Houston, 8:30 p.m.
No. 1 North Dakota State at X-Kansas State, 8:30 p.m.
No. 18 Northern Arizona at X-Arizona, 10 p.m.
Saturday, Aug. 31
William & Mary at X-West Virginia, noon
Campbell at X-Charlotte, noon
X-No. 5 Villanova at Boston College, noon
Southern Illinois at X-Illinois, noon
Elon at X-Georgia Tech, noon
X-Albany at Duquesne, 12:10 p.m.
X-Georgetown at Wagner, 1 p.m.
X-UC Davis at South Dakota, 3 p.m.
Colgate at X-Air Force, 3 p.m.
X-Holy Cross at Bryant, 3 p.m.
Langston at X-Northern Colorado, 3:35 p.m.
North Carolina Central at X-Duke, 4 p.m.
Nicholls at X-Oregon, 4 p.m.
Edward Waters at X-Alcorn State, 5 p.m.
Charleston Southern at X-The Citadel, 6 p.m.
X-Furman at Gardner-Webb, 6 p.m.
Savannah State at X-No. 9 Georgia Southern, 6 p.m.
Howard at X-Eastern Michigan, 6 p.m.
X-No. 25 Coastal Carolina at South Carolina State, 6 p.m.
X-Jacksonville State at Alabama State, 6 p.m.
Sacred Heart at X-Marist, 6 p.m.
Austin Peay at X-Tennessee, 6 p.m.
Central Connecticut State at X-No. 19 James Madison, 6 p.m.
No. 4 Eastern Washington at X-Oregon State, 6 p.m.
VMI at X-No. 15 Richmond, 6 p.m.
Reinhardt at X-Mercer, 6 p.m.
X-Maine at Norfolk State, 6 p.m.
Warner at X-Stetson, 7 p.m.
Butler at X-No. 6 South Dakota State, 7 p.m.
Houston Baptist at X-No. 3 Sam Houston State, 7 p.m.
X-Alabama A&M at Grambling State, 7 p.m.
X-Old Dominion at East Carolina, 7 p.m.
Murray State at X-Missouri, 7 p.m.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff at X-Arkansas State, 7 p.m.
McNeese State at X-South Florida, 7 p.m.
San Diego at X-No. 14 Cal Poly, 7:05 p.m.
No. 8 Wofford at X-Baylor, 7:30 p.m.
Panhandle State at X-Lamar, 8 p.m.
No. 17 Northern Iowa at X-Iowa State, 8 p.m.
Stephen F. Austin at X-Weber State, 8 p.m.
X-Prairie View A&M at Texas Southern, 8 p.m.
Jackson State at X-Tulane, 8 p.m.
No. 21 Eastern Illinois at X-San Diego State, 8 p.m.
Concordia (Ala.) at X-Abilene Christian, 8 p.m.
No. 12 Appalachian State at X-No. 20 Montana, 9 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 1
Mississippi Valley State vs. X-Florida A&M at Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium in Orlando, Fla., 11:45 a.m.
GAME OF THE WEEK: X-No. 23 Bethune-Cookman at Tennessee State, 8 p.m. It's hard to trump Appalachian State-Montana, but the John Merritt Classic at LP Field is a statement game for these two HBCU programs. With TSU quarterback Michael German serving a team suspension, Bethune catches a huge break. TSU won last year's meeting on the road, 21-14.