The number of FCS conferences has fluctuated in recent years.
The traditional number of 13 increased to 14 in the 2021 fall when new football-playing conferences the WAC and the ASUN formed a one-year league called the AQ7. The WAC and ASUN are now separate, making the FCS a 15-conference subdivision.
It will go back down to 14 in 2023 when the Big South and OVC form a football association.
RELATED: FCS Conference Membership Guide
Who will be winning conference titles in 2022? Here are some early predictions:
The ASUN is a six-member football conference in 2022 with Austin Peay, Central Arkansas, Eastern Kentucky, FBS-transitioning Jacksonville State, Kennesaw State, and North Alabama. JSU is eligible to win the ASUN title but is not eligible for the FCS playoffs as it increases its scholarships during the transition to the FBS.
After back-to-back quarterfinal appearances as a newer FCS program in 2017 and 2018, Kennesaw State is looking for a deeper playoff run in 2022 following last season’s painful second-round loss to East Tennessee State. Some new playmakers need to emerge offensively, but the Owls have two standout QBs to lead the option offense in sophomore All-American Xavier Shepherd and Jonathan Murphy.
KSU should be a well-rounded team with a strong defense, allowing 19.5 points per game last season. The Owls return eight of their 11 top tacklers, led by LB Evan Thompson, who broke the single-season school record with 118 total tackles.
The Bobcats are coming off of a trip to the national title game. Was that due to Brent Vigen’s finishing touches on the rising program, or due to a terrific senior class willing the team to Frisco? Or a little of both?
MSU loses a ton from that squad. The Bobcats also return plenty of talent. I don’t think they will have to hit the reset button as much as some may think, and still should be viewed as the top returning squad in the Big Sky.
Tommy Mellott took the offense to another level when he stepped in as the starting QB to begin the playoff fun. His dual-threat abilities alongside one of the top FCS returning RBs in Isaiah Ifanse should result in a strong run game again. The Bobcats do have to replace two of their best offensive linemen and go-to WR Lance McCutcheon
Some stalwarts are gone defensively, but the Bobcats return six of their top 11 tacklers, highlighted by the No. 2 and 3 tacklers Callahan O’Reilly (LB) and Ty Okada (DB).
The schedule draw in the Big Sky is a big determining factor in the conference standings. MSU avoids Sac State, has to go to Eastern Washington, and gets UC Davis, Weber State, and Montana at home.
North Carolina A&T
The Big South will have six football members in 2022 – Robert Morris, Charleston Southern, Campbell, Gardner-Webb, newcomer Bryant, and North Carolina A&T before the Aggies head to the CAA in 2023.
NC A&T’s first year in the Big South did not go as planned after being a MEAC power, finishing 5-6 overall and 3-4 in the conference. With Kennesaw State off to the ASUN and Monmouth heading to the CAA, the door is open for the Aggies to be at the top.
Their offense struggled in 2021 and will need to replace productive running back Jah-Maine Martin. NC A&T always plays tough defense, though, and the Aggies can lean on that unit and its standout linebackers Jacob Roberts and Joseph Stuckey to win the Big South and reach the playoffs.
With James Madison in the FBS, the time is now for a blueblood program like Delaware to return to national prominence.
After reaching the spring semifinals, the Blue Hens finished a disappointing 5-6 last season. Standout QB Nolan Henderson getting hurt did not help matters. But Delaware, a team with high expectations, made changes at the helm and hired Ryan Carty as the new head coach. Carty is a former Delaware player who spent the last four seasons as the OC at Sam Houston.
Henderson explored the transfer portal this offseason but decided to return to the team. And the Blue Hens benefited from the portal by landing Presbyterian transfer Jalyn Witcher, who was a Freshman All-American last year with 80 catches for 1,120 yards and 12 TDs.
Defensively, they bring back their four top tacklers, including All-American safety Kedrick Whitehead.
The final three weeks will determine where Delaware finishes in the conference, playing home games against CAA newcomer Monmouth and Richmond, who loaded up offensively in the transfer portal to complement a strong defense, before playing at rival Villanova. Nova finished 7-1 in CAA play last season, beating UD 21-13 in the process. Nova loses a helluva senior class, while the Blue Hens return key veterans on both sides of the ball.
Dartmouth shared the league title with Princeton in 2021 despite beating the Tigers 31-7. Both finished 6-1 in the standings thanks to Columbia knocking off Dartmouth 19-0 for the Big Green’s only loss of the season.
Dartmouth has to replace standout QB Derek Kyler but brings back its rushing QB Nick Howard (team-high 787 yards rushing and 15 TDs) and leading WR Paxton Scott.
The team looks to reload at numerous spots, losing seven starters on both offense and defense. But 2021 was an indication that Dartmouth has won a record 20 Ivy League titles for a reason. Dartmouth had just four total starters returning in 2021 and still won a share of the championship.
South Carolina State
Despite the SWAC getting a lot of attention in 2021, from grabbing MEAC programs like Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman or getting games on ESPN networks, the MEAC has plenty of bragging rights. North Carolina Central beat Alcorn State 23-14 in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge, and SC State beat Jackson State 31-10 in the Celebration Bowl.
SC State is the favorite to represent the MEAC in the Celebration Bowl again. The Bulldogs were certainly young last season. Starting QB Corey Fields Jr., top WR Shaq Davis, and top RB Kendrell Flowers were sophomores or younger.
The Bulldogs also return three all-conference offensive linemen who were freshmen in 2021 (Nick Taiste, Eric Brown, and Cam Johnson) and bring back nine starters on defense.
North Dakota State
NDSU returns 4/5 of its starting offensive linemen and its next five guys as part of its rotation, the entire RB stable led by All-American Hunter Luepke, its NFL Draft prospect TE Noah Gindorff, starting QB Cam Miller and running QB Quincy Patterson, two LBs with starting experience, and its entire starting secondary led by All-American safety Michael Tutsie.
That’s quite alarming for the FCS after the Bison walloped Montana State 38-10 in the national title game.
This may not be one of NDSU’s better teams during its run of endless national titles. The Bison don’t have All-American QB play, have to replace their entire starting defensive line (although the unit rotates and Spencer Waege is back from injury), and need to find a reliable go-to WR target. But it’s no doubt the best preseason team in the FCS with a question on who is No. 2. The Bison may slip up sometime in conference play, and it could very well be against a talented SDSU team again. Yet the Jacks can’t get over the hump of winning a conference championship outright despite beating the Bison four times since 2016.
NDSU avoids playoff teams Northern Iowa and Missouri State on its 2022 schedule and gets SDSU and North Dakota at home. Its toughest FCS road trip will be at Southern Illinois.
Coming off of a 6-1 campaign in the NEC last season, the Pioneers will be favorites again to earn the auto-bid into the FCS playoffs.
Malik Grant is one of the best returning FCS running backs after rushing for 1,347 yards and nine TDs last year. The offense will want to get more balanced if it wants to knock off an opponent in the first round of the playoffs. Sacred Heart lost 13-10 at Holy Cross in 2021.
The defense will be legit again. The unit allowed just 13.9 points per game last season. Standouts like LB DeAndre Byrd, CB Frank Alfano, and DE Kevin Peprah are back.
The OVC has seven members in 2022 – UT Martin, SEMO, Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech, Eastern Illinois, D2 newcomer Lindenwood, and Murray State, who is leaving for the MVFC in 2023.
UT Martin won the league last year, finishing 5-1 and 10-3 overall with a first-round playoff win at Missouri State before losing 26-7 at Montana State.
The Skyhawks will be favorites again, returning a veteran team. Dresser Winn is back at QB. He has starting experience at UT Martin in 2017 and 2018, and he spent 2021 as the backup before stepping in due to injury and leading UT Martin to the playoff win at Missouri State. Half of the dynamic 1-2 punch at RB is back in Zak Wallace, who rushed for 807 yards and 15 TDs.
There is plenty of defensive production to replace, though, as UT Martin loses seven of its top 11 tacklers.
Every few years, the Patriot League has a team that wins a couple of games in the bracket. Holy Cross is a candidate to do so in 2022.
The Crusaders went 10-3 last year with an FBS win at UConn before losing 21-16 at Villanova (who finished 7-1 in the CAA) in the second round.
Holy Cross returns 16 All-Patriot League selections from last year’s squad that didn’t lose a conference game, including starting QB and leading rusher Matthew Sluka, All-American LB Jacob Dobbs, and Sophomore All-American WR Jalen Coker. This program has stood out in recent recruiting classes too, so keep an eye on what Holy Cross can do in November and December.
St. Thomas is not eligible for the FCS playoffs as it makes the unprecedented transition from D3 to D1. It is eligible to win the PFL championship.
For those that don’t know, St. Thomas (located in St. Paul, MN) was “involuntarily removed” from the MIAC due to concerns of “athletic competitive parity.” In other words, the Tommies won too much and by too much. So they then made the jump to D1 and in its first season in the PFL last year, the Tommies went 7-3 overall and 6-2 in conference play.
They played great defense in 2021, allowing 17.8 points per game. The unit returns its top six tacklers, led by Luke Glenna and Jonathan Bunce. RB Hope Adebayo, who was the most productive offensive player with 693 rushing yards and 12 rushing TDs, returns as well.
Keep an eye on this program, as it has the location and the financial support to be an FCS contender one day. At some point down the road, St. Thomas will likely be in a position for athletic scholarship football and an invite to the MVFC.
East Tennessee State
The SoCon title race will be tight once again, as it is every year. That can be fun, but also a curse as teams have beaten each other up too much to not get enough at-large love from the playoff committee.
ETSU is coming off of a breakout season, finishing 11-2 with an SEC win at Vanderbilt and a trip to the quarterfinals. The program is building itself the right way after restarting football in the mid-2010s. With star power to replace and a new head coach in George Quarles, can ETSU continue this upward trajectory?
Walter Payton Award finalist RB Quay Holmes has entered the NFL Draft. All-Americans Tre’mond Shorts (OL) and Donovan Manuel (LB) are transferring to FBS schools. But the Bucs otherwise bring back four starters on the o-line and RB Jacob Saylors, who rushed for 1,019 yards and 10 TDs. The defense loses its top two tacklers but does return six of the top 11.
QB Tyler Riddell and DB Alijah Huzzie were Freshman All-Americans, and WR Will Huzzie and OL Tavon Matthews were Sophomore All-Americans. The Bucs also return a top SoCon tight end in Nate Adkins.
ETSU gets Chattanooga at home, a worthy contender for the SoCon championship.
Southeastern Louisiana University
The Southland will have six members in 2022 after UIW departs for the WAC – SLU, Nicholls, McNeese, Northwestern State, Houston Baptist, and new member transitioning from D2 Texas A&M-Commerce.
The conference loses three of the more explosive quarterbacks in the FCS in 2021 as SLU’s Cole Kelley is an NFL Draft prospect, UIW’s Cameron Ward transferred to Washington State, and Nicholls’ Lindsey Scott Jr. transferred to departing member UIW.
SLU is developing into a solid and consistent program, reaching the second round of the playoffs in 2019 and 2021. Its next step is to become a national contender after losing 73-28 to Montana two years ago and 59-20 to JMU last season. The pieces are in place to reach the postseason and gauge itself against top competition again.
Replacing Kelley, the All-American QB who also led the Lions in rushing, will be a challenge. Six-foot-5 Cephus Johnson III looks to be the favorite to take the reins. He began his career at FBS South Alabama (where he threw for 900 yards and five TDs in 2019) before transferring to SLU for the 2020-21 season. He’ll have weapons like WRs Gage Larvadain and CJ Turner to work with.
Jackson State saw a breakout season in the fall of 2021, finishing 11-2 with a narrow loss to FBS Louisiana-Monroe and a disappointing 31-10 loss to SC State in the Celebration Bowl.
The Tigers reload an already experienced returning team by adding a dozen FBS transfers and signing the No. 1 overall recruit in the country Travis Hunter (CB) and the No. 53 overall recruit Kevin Coleman (WR). Deion Sanders and his staff have built a helluva roster. They will be the most talented team in the SWAC and will likely be the highest-ranked HBCU in the preseason polls.
Led by 2021 Freshman All-American QB Shedeur Sanders and with a non-conference slate of Tennesee State, Grambling State, and Campbell, an 11-0 regular season should be an expectation.
Stephen F. Austin
In its first season back as a football-playing conference, the eight-member WAC features Abilene Christian, Dixie State (soon to be Utah Tech), Lamar, Stephen F. Austin, Tarleton State, Southern Utah, Incarnate Word, and FBS-transitioning Sam Houston. I reached out to the WAC on if SHSU, who is ineligible for the playoffs as it transitions to the FBS, is still eligible to win the WAC. As of last week, a decision had yet to be made.
Regardless of SHSU’s conference title eligibility, I still like SFA based on what the Lumberjacks bring back and what SHSU loses.
UIW is a team to keep an eye on, though, despite losing its head coach and star QB Cameron Ward to Washington State. The Cardinals still bring back a lot of offensive firepower and landed playmaking transfer QB Lindsey Scott Jr. from former Southland foe Nicholls.
But SFA, who UIW beat 35-28 in overtime during the first round of last year’s postseason, appears ready to take a big step onto the national radar. The Lumberjacks were a balanced squad, ranking No. 17 in scoring defense (19.33 PPG) and No. 12 in scoring offense (34.2 PPG).
Just three of the 17 All-WAC selections were seniors, and 10 of the All-Conference selections were freshmen and sophomores. SFA returns its starting QB Trae Self, star WR Xavier Gipson, and No. 1 RB Miles Reed. The Lumberjacks are loaded coming back on defense as well, returning nine of its top 11 tacklers.