fcs top 25

Week 1 is in the books, with a handful of upsets shaking up The Item’s STATS FCS Top 25 ballot — and vaulting a pair of Southland Conference teams into the top-10.

Previously unranked, Central Arkansas and Southeastern Louisiana represented the conference well in their season openers. UCA was named the STATS FCS Team of the Week after storming back on the road to stun FBS Western Kentucky 35-28. Meanwhile, the Lions shocked No. 6 Jacksonville State, cruising to a 35-14 victory in front of their home crowd.

Sam Houston State and Nicholls also remain in our Top 25 ballot after losses to FBS opponents. Both teams drop a few slots from their preseason position — but that’s due to impressive showings from teams below them, not a result of losing games they were underdogs in.

There might be some eye-raising selections, but it should be noted that this week will likely feature more Top 25 turnover than any week this season. It’s also a unique week because so many FCS schools went up against FBS programs over the weekend, making it even more difficult to judge.

I’m of the belief that preseason rankings should be largely thrown out the window once the games begin, and a team’s Top 25 position should be based on what they’ve accomplished — not potential or hype. That’s why you’ll see Jacksonville State tumble out of our Top 25 after we picked them No. 5 in the preseason ballot. A team that failed to look competitive in a 21-point loss to a non-FBS school in their only showing of the year, in my opinion, hasn’t proved they are worthy of a Top 25 pick.

So without further ado, here’s a look at some notable selections, as well as our full Top 25 ballot after Week 1:

1. North Dakota State (Last week: 2)

In one of the tougher decisions of the week, the Bison jump past James Madison into the top spot in our ballot.

While I don’t believe a loss to an FBS program should hurt a team in the rankings, I treat it similar to a bye — strong showings elsewhere can result in a team being passed. That’s particularly true with our top-two teams, for which I went back-and-forth in the preseason poll on who should take the top spot.

James Madison played a Power Five program in West Virginia close, falling 20-13 on the road. But with a dominant Week 1 win, defending national champion North Dakota State proved that it is still the team to beat in the FCS. The Bison — whose uncertainty with a first-year head coach and freshman quarterback ultimately placed them at No. 2 in our previous ballot — put to rest any preseason concerns with a 57-10 beatdown of Butler.

9. Central Arkansas (Last week: unranked)

The Bears showed why they were one of the Southland’s preseason favorites during their season-opening upset of Western Kentucky.

Central Arkansas trailed by 14 on the road entering the fourth quarter, and proceeded to score 21 unanswered points to stun the Hilltoppers. Sophomore quarterback Breylin Smith, playing in his first game since suffering a season-ending injury in Game 4 against Sam Houston State last year, passed for 324 yards and three touchdowns with zero interceptions. Senior running back Carlos Blackmon also impressed, tossing an 80-yard touchdown pass to go along a rushing score and 103 yards from scrimmage.

If the Bears can build off this performance with a convincing win at Austin Peay on Saturday, they’ll find themselves in contention for a top-five selection next week.

10. Southeastern Louisiana (Last week: unranked)

The Lions proved the doubters — myself included — wrong last week, as they shocked a Jacksonville State team that was figured to be among FCS’ top contenders entering the season.

Southeastern Louisiana jumped out to a 14-0 lead and never allowed the Gamecocks to get closer than seven points, leading by as much as 28 before allowing a garbage time touchdown in the final quarter. 

The Lions looked strong under the guidance of first-year defensive coordinator and former McNeese head coach Lance Guidry. We’ll see how they stack up this week against a Bethune-Cookman team that picked up a 21-point win of its own in Week 1.

18. Nicholls (Last week: 8)

Although the Colonels’ blowout loss to Kansas State isn’t the reason they dropped 10 spots, a more competitive showing certainly would’ve prevented so many teams from passing them. 

Nicholls was shut out in the first half and trailed 28-0 before finally finding the endzone in the third quarter. Kansas State won the game 49-14, with the Colonels’ highly-touted defense providing no answer and reigning Southland Player of the Year Chase Fourcade failing to present any real threat behind center.

Fans in Thibodaux, Louisiana shouldn’t sweat, however. Nicholls is poised to start moving back up the Top 25 next week, with a showdown against a Prairie View A&M team they should beat looming ahead.

19. Sam Houston State (Last week: 12)

When the Bearkats went up 23-22 over New Mexico early in the third quarter, it looked like they could move all the way into the top-five. That possibility slipped away, however, as the Lobos rattled off 17 straight points and a late Sam Houston State comeback attempt fell short.

Much like Nicholls, the Kats’ drop in our ballot is mostly a result of surprise wins from teams like Central Arkansas and Southeastern Louisiana — and they still remain four spots ahead of where the STATS FCS preseason poll had them. 

It’ll be tough for Sam Houston State to make significant moves up the poll this week, as NAIA opponent Oklahoma Panhandle State comes to town. But the Bearkats will have a chance to start climbing toward the top-10 the following week when they head on the road to North Dakota.

The Item's STATS FCS Top 25 ballot:

1. North Dakota State

2. James Madison

3. South Dakota State

4. Eastern Washington

5. UC Davis

6. Maine

7. Kennesaw State

8. Weber State

9. Central Arkansas

10. Southeastern Louisiana

11. Towson

12. South Carolina State

13. Indiana State

14. Montana State

15. Southeast Missouri State

16. Northern Iowa

17. North Carolina A&T

18. Nicholls

19. Sam Houston State

20. Furman

21. Villanova

22. Illinois State

23. Delaware

24. Montana

25. Stony Brook

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