The Jacksonville State Gamecocks will be able to measure their FCS playoff capability right away this year when they take on the Chattanooga Mocs at 5 p.m. CDT Saturday at Chattanooga's Finley Stadium.
Both teams won 10 games last season and made it to the FCS playoffs. JSU lost in the opening round to Sam Houston, while Chattanooga advanced to the second round. And the teams are considered to be among the best in FCS again this season, with the Gamecocks ranked No. 7 in the preseason poll and the Mocs one spot behind them at No. 8.
"It is going to be like a playoff-caliber game," JSU coach John Grass said. "These are two really good teams going at it. There is a lot at stake in this game. It is not going to make the season or kill the season for either team, but you get to see where you are as a football team because you are playing such a quality opponent."
JSU won last season's matchup in overtime when Eli Jenkins rushed for a 13-yard touchdown to give the Gamecocks a 26-23 victory. That was the beginning of a 10-game winning streak for JSU, while the Mocs rebounded from that loss to win 10 of their next 11.
"I think this thing is going to come down to the wire again," Chattanooga coach Russ Huesman said. "To get two top-10 teams in Finley Stadium to open a season is huge. It could be one of those epic battles."
While JSU looks to replace leading rusher DaMarcus James, who ran for 1,151 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, the Gamecocks do return Jenkins for his third season as the starting quarterback.
Defensively, Grass said he expects the Gamecocks' strength to be along the line. Chattanooga managed only 1.8 yards per rush and was 2-for-15 on third-down conversion attempts last year.
"We couldn't get any push up front on those guys," Huesman said. "They're athletic, they're long and they're big. We're going to have to execute better offensively to move the ball on them."
Samford vs. Central Arkansas, 6 p.m.
This game marks the debut of Chris Hatcher as the Samford head coach. Hatcher replaces Pat Sullivan, who retired last year after eight seasons with the team.
Hatcher compiled a record of 121-57 in 15 years as a head coach at Valdosta State, Georgia Southern and Murray State. He takes over a team that went 7-4 last year, the Bulldogs' fourth consecutive winning season.
Central Arkansas has 25 seniors on this year's team, with 12 of them expected to be in the starting lineup. The Bears began last season 1-3, including a seven-point loss to Texas Tech, before going 5-3 the rest of the way to finish 6-6.
Stillman at West Alabama, 6 p.m.
Stillman and West Alabama both enter the 2015 season with uncertainty at quarterback.
Stillman will be without preseason Division II All-American Josh Straughan, who recently had shoulder surgery for a torn rotator cuff. Straughan passed for 2,223 yards and 26 touchdowns last season.
Meanwhile, UWA is seeking to replace Kyle Caldwell, who threw for 2,383 and 21 TDs last year as a senior. Caldwell finished with school records for career passing yards (7,731) and touchdowns passes (72).
West Alabama recently added former Oklahoma State running back Ty Hill to the team, and he is expected to be in uniform against Stillman.
Hill was dismissed from Oklahoma State's football and track teams last December following his arrest on domestic violence charges. He pleaded guilty on Aug. 21 and received three years probation.
Hill had 534 rushing yards and 281 receiving yards last season, and his 996 total return yards ranked second in the nation.
Tuskegee vs. Clark Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Defending SIAC champion Tuskegee begins its season against a Clark Atlanta team that went 3-7 last year.
Tuskegee was 9-3 last season and 7-0 in the SIAC, but lost by three points in the opening round of the Division II playoffs for the second consecutive year.
The Golden Tigers have four players who were named to the preseason All-SIAC first-team: wide receiver Marquel Gardner, offensive tackle Kelvin Shelton, defensive end Julian Morgan and linebacker Jewell Ratliff.