The Pioneer Football League begins the 2023 FCS season with an intriguing race at the top of the conference. The reigning champs St. Thomas are still not eligible for playoffs, while the battle for the postseason auto-bid behind the Tommies has heated up.
Here are the top returning players and our predicted order of finish in the Pioneer Football League.
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Teams Bringing In The Most D1 Transfers
Butler — 8 (1 FBS, 7 FCS)
Morehead State — 7 (4 FBS, 3 FCS)
Valparaiso — 6 (3 FBS, 3 FCS)
San Diego — 4 (2 FBS, 2 FCS)
Names To Know
TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Bret Bushka, Butler QB – Bushka is the reigning Pioneer Football League Offensive Player of the Year after a fantastic season. His dual-threat abilities saw him throw for 2,377 yards and 20 touchdowns and rush for 627 yards and five scores. The 5-foot-10 and 210-pounder led the PFL in pass efficiency (142.17) and completion percentage (64.7).
TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Finn Claypool, Drake DL – Claypool was a breakout star in 2022, becoming one of the more feared defensive players in the conference and a top young player in the FCS. The 6-foot-1, 240-pounder racked up 48 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, and 11 quarterback hurries. Claypool’s overall PFF defensive grade of 92.2 was the second-highest among FCS edge defenders, and his pass rush grade of 93.3 was No. 1.
HERO Sports’ Predicted Order of Finish
- St. Thomas
- San Diego
- Morehead State
St. Thomas has taken the PFL by storm as it continues its transition from D3. The Tommies are ineligible for the postseason as part of that transition, but they are eligible to win the PFL crown. Which is exactly what they did last season in just their second year in the league, going 8-0 in the standings and 10-1 overall. In 2021, they finished 6-2 vs. Pioneer opponents.
The Tommies have been strong defensively, and expect that to continue with the leadership and play of LB Jonathan Bunce and DB Yusef Leak. The offense has some weapons as well, highlighted by RB Shawn Shipman and WR Andrew McElroy.
As far as who is making the playoffs, that race may come down to Davidson and Dayton.
This league was once owned by San Diego, but Davidson has emerged as that new power outside of St. Thomas. The Wildcats have reached the postseason in three straight seasons. Davidson has owned the No. 1 FCS rushing offense with its option attack. And although big production has graduated, the system and a strong o-line will be tough to stop again.
Dayton has been consistently solid, going 6-2, 5-3, and 6-2 in the league over the last three fall seasons. Butler should also rise in the standings behind the arm of Bret Bushka. And to round out the top five, it’s unfortunately hard to know where to pencil in San Diego, where half the team is facing some level of discipline due to a hazing incident.
St. Thomas should lead the pack again. Davidson and Dayton will need some new star offensive names to emerge as those two and possibly Butler chase the playoff auto-bid.