10. Michigan (Michigan State Spartans/FBS)
The Wolverines finished with a losing record that got head coach Brady Hoke and athletic director Dave Brandon canned. Central Michigan and Western Michigan went bowling, but none of the state’s three MAC schools serious challenged for their conference’s title. Meanwhile, Michigan State continued a sustained run of success with another 11-win season in East Lansing. The Spartans didn’t reach the Big Ten championship game this year, but their only two losses came against Oregon and Ohio State — the two schools that squared off for the national title in the sport’s top tier. They actually finished worse than usual in scoring defense, which meant they were still a top-25 crew, but they made up for it with the seventh-best scoring offense. Mark Dantonio’s crew showed its best yet again in a major bowl game, following last year’s Rose Bowl victory with a come-from-behind Cotton Bowl win over a prolific Baylor squad that split the Big 12 title with TCU.
9. Georgia (Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets/FBS)
I nearly went with Georgia Southern here, after the Eagles won the Sun Belt with a perfect 8-0 conference record in their first season of FBS play. But their transitional status meant the NCAA prevented them from playing in a bowl game, making it harder to justify them the best after just a dozen games against mostly mid-major competition. Instead, it’s tough not to reward one of the best Georgia Tech seasons in ages. The Yellow Jackets upset the rest of the ACC Coastal to play Florida State in the conference championship, and then nearly knocked off the Seminoles in Charlotte. As a reward, Paul Johnson — who formerly coached the Eagles to two FCS national championships — and his squad were rewarded with a matchup against Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl. Once there, the Yellow Jackets pulled off a decisive two-touchdown upset of the Bulldogs for their first major bowl win since the 1955 Sugar Bowl.
8. West Virginia (Marshall Thundering Herd/FBS)
It was the best season in Huntington since Chad Pennington led the 1999 crew to a perfect 13-0 record, but things didn’t quite end for the Thundering Herd as they had hoped. For most of the season, Marshall was the only undefeated team from the Group of Five conferences… but an overtime loss to Western Kentucky ended the dreams of another perfect season and an Access Bowl bid. Doc Holliday’s team rebounded to win Conference USA, and then routed MAC champion Northern Illinois in the Boca Raton Bowl to finish the year 13-1. Few teams were as prolific as the Herd, which featured a top-20 passing attack, a top-10 rushing attack, the third-best scoring offense, and a top-20 scoring defense. Quarterback Rakeem Cato set a new NCAA record for most consecutive games with a touchdown pass, throwing 40 on the season, and tailback Devon Johnson was one of the 10 best rushers in the country.
7. North Dakota (North Dakota State Bison/FCS)
No Craig Bohl, no problem… after winning three FCS national championships with the Bison, their head coach moved on to take over the Wyoming gig last season. In stepped Chris Klieman, and North Dakota State just kept rolling on its way to a fourth consecutive national title. They knocked off Iowa State by 20 at Jack Trice Stadium to open the season, extending their FCS-record winning streak to 33 games before a visit to Northern Iowa ended the dream of another perfect season. NDSU rebounded after that loss, though, winning its last two regular-season games to share the Missouri Valley title with Illinois State. The Bison then squeaked through the playoffs to square off against their conference co-champs in the national title game. The Redbirds staged a late comeback to take a fourth-quarter lead, but Carson Wentz engineered a game-winning drive to maintain NDSU’s position as the dominant force in FCS football.
6. Idaho (Boise State Broncos/FBS)
Question marks clung to Boise State as they entered the post-Petersen era. That didn’t mean any other team from the Gem State was going to be capable of knocking off the Broncos. Idaho finished 1-10 in the Sun Belt in a season where the postseason was never an option thanks to inadequate APR scores. Idaho State had an Sisyphean task trying to get past the top teams of the Big Sky in FCS play. None of that mattered, as new coach Bryan Harsin guided the Broncos through an early stumble against Ole Miss to win the Mountain West title with relative ease. Jay Ajayi finished fifth nationally in rushing yardage, and Grant Hedrick was one of the 10 most efficient passers in college football. Their reward was a third trip to the Fiesta Bowl in the past nine years as the best team among mid-majors. Once in Glendale, the Broncos built an early lead and then fended off an Arizona comeback to end the year with a dozen wins and a third elite bowl win in the past decade.