The 2022 FCS season is just around the corner after a welcomed normal offseason. We look ahead to the upcoming year with our preseason Top 25.
The FCS landscape has changed in 2022 with growth to 15 total conferences, some new members, and some departing members. We decided Sam Houston and Jacksonville State were eligible to be ranked in our Top 25 if we deemed one or both of them worthy. The two programs are transitioning to the FBS with their first season in Conference USA coming in 2023. They are not eligible for the FCS playoffs, but they are playing full FCS schedules as part of the WAC (Sam Houston) and ASUN (Jacksonville State) conferences. In our opinion, the players and coaches still deserve to be recognized with individual accolades and team rankings.
How was this Top 25 ranking formed?
Preseason Top 25
T25. UC Davis
The Aggies are coming off of an 8-4 season highlighted by an FBS win over Tulsa and a ranked win at Weber State. The season ended with a decisive loss at South Dakota State in the first round, UC Davis’ second playoff appearance in four years after making the quarterfinals in 2018. The 2022 squad will be in the playoff hunt again, though last year’s postseason exit may impact how it’s viewed this offseason. Some standout talent remains, including RB Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. and TE McCallan Castles. The Aggies need to find a replacement for starting QB Hunter Rodrigues, though. Defensively, they bring back three of their top five tacklers, led by LB Teddye Buchanan and DB Chris Venable.
Richmond head coach Russ Huesman is looking to guide the Spiders to their first FCS playoff appearance since 2016’s run to the quarterfinals, though it should be noted that spring 2021 was a raw deal for a UR team with postseason potential, as it was stuck in the makeshift, miniature CAA South division owned by then-top-ranked James Madison. Fall 2021 (6-5 overall) was a step back, but the loss of QB Joe Mancuso to injury just in time for key conference games against Elon and JMU (both losses) one week after dropping a CAA-opening shootout at Villanova did not help matters. Although the Spiders lose All-CAA LB Tyler Dressler, returning is a counterpart at the position in 2021 HERO Sports FCS Third Team All-American Tristan Wheeler. The story here, however, is on offense, where newly installed offensive coordinator Billy Cosh reunites with two monsters from his VMI days in QB Reece Udinski (Maryland transfer and former VMI standout) and All-American WR Jakob Herres (VMI grad transfer).
24. Northern Iowa
UNI has been a consistent playoff team, making the bracket in each of the last four fall seasons. Last year saw a 6-6 record ending in a first-round loss at Eastern Washington. UNI has a great tradition of success, reaching the D1-AA/FCS postseason 22 times. The Panthers haven’t made the semifinals since 2008, though, with quarterfinal appearances in 2011, 2015, and 2019. It always seems to be on the cusp of making a deeper run with its returning talent, and UNI will have to combat a tough schedule once again to position itself for further postseason success in 2022. The defense, per usual, looks like a terrific unit, led by Spencer Cuvelier (LB), Bryce Flater (LB), and Benny Sapp III (DB). The offense is what’s held the Panthers back from contending at a higher national level. Starting QB Theo Day and leading rusher Dom Williams return to improve UNI’s 24.92 points per game.
As the Ivy League resumed competition in fall 2021, the Big Green (9-1 overall) turned in another standout season for head coach Buddy Teevens, who enters his 22nd season at Dartmouth in a career comprising two stints at the helm in Hanover. Dartmouth has finished 9-1 in three straight seasons and has notched at least eight victories in six of its last seven campaigns. Notably, its latest 9-1 finish included a sweep of fellow Ivy powers Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, plus a convincing defeat of in-state CAA foe New Hampshire on the road in the Granite Bowl game. The blemish was a 19-0 dud vs. Columbia, and Buck Buchanan Award finalist LB Jalen Mackie grad-transferred to UMass for his remaining year of eligibility. Fortunately for the Big Green, it boasts numerous All-Ivy returnees to assist in righting that rare wrong for the rolling program, a shutout loss that dashed a would-be perfect season.
Harvard looks to be a big threat to its Ivy League rivals in 2022. The Crimson are coming off an impressive 2021 resume (8-2 overall) that features lone losses to Princeton (in quintuple overtime) and to Dartmouth in consecutive weeks by a combined five points. In a scheduling quirk caused by Fenway Park’s hosting duties in 2018 and 2020’s cancellation, the storied “The Game” rivalry of Harvard and Yale returns to Harvard Stadium this fall for the first time since 2016. Depending on the performance of Dartmouth and Princeton, The Game could conceivably decide the Ivy championship outright. Harvard gets the nod as preseason favorite here, but it should be an ultra-competitive upper half of the conference in a league that, with said upper echelon, could challenge the neighboring new-look CAA.
21. South Dakota
USD reached the playoffs for the second time in its relatively young D1 history, losing in the first round to Southern Illinois to finish 7-5. The season was highlighted by three ranked wins against North Dakota, Northern Iowa, and South Dakota State. Carson Camp is a talented QB with a strong arm, and he has his top target Carter Bell back. USD had great production from two young RBs last year in Nate Thomas and Travis Theis. It’s a good-looking offense to complement a defense that continued to show improvements in 2021, ranking No. 23 with 20.67 points allowed a game. Brock Mogensen leads that unit as a returning standout LB.
20. Southeastern Louisiana University
How does one replace Cole Kelley? It is perhaps best if that remains a rhetorical question, as SLU will be hard-pressed to fill the prolific QB’s shoes right away. The Lions led the FCS in first-down offense in 2021, edged Eastern Washington in scoring offense nationally (45.1 PPG), and ranked second in the country in third-down conversion percentage (.521). In a seemingly balanced-at-the-top, open-for-the-taking Southland Conference that does have Nicholls and McNeese lurking, SLU is looking to prove that its success on offense can continue reasonably without its renowned ringleader. Head coach Frank Scelfo has earned the FCS public’s trust in his squad to find a way in the SLC, though the path to national success deeper in the postseason hinges on defensive development.
19. Jackson State
The Tigers fully arrived on the scene in Deion Sanders’ second season as head coach after a 4-3 campaign in the spring. They finished 11-2 with a close loss to FBS Louisiana-Monroe and a 31-10 loss to SC State in the Celebration Bowl. That last loss hasn’t sat well this offseason as JSU has massive program expectations. Between the returning talent like HERO Sports Freshman All-American QB Shedeur Sanders, an incredible recruiting class highlighted by the No. 1 overall recruit in the country Travis Hunter (CB) and the No. 53 overall recruit Kevin Coleman (WR), and around 15 FBS transfers, the Tigers are the favorite to win the Celebration Bowl and will have many FCS followers wondering how well they could compete in the playoff bracket.
18. Eastern Washington
We’ll see how EWU adjusts to life without All-American QB Eric Barriere. The lineage of great signal-callers and finding new replacements over the years, plus the overall talent on the roster should result in the Eagles being in the playoff mix again. They have appeared in the bracket seven times in the last 10 years, most recently reaching the second round in the 2021 fall. EWU loses its top two receivers, but as always, the Eagles are deep at that position and have younger guys ready to step up and become nationally known. Efton Chism III was a HERO Sports Freshman All-American and Freddie Roberson was a Sophomore All-American last season.
17. Holy Cross
Holy Cross sails into 2022 on the heels of its historic 2021 crusade, one that saw a third consecutive Patriot League title and an FCS playoff win secured in dramatic fashion hosting NEC leader Sacred Heart. Head coach Bob Chesney interviewed for the same position at Delaware after the Crusaders fell shy at seeded Villanova 21-16, a source told HERO Sports, but in keeping and extending Chesney, Holy Cross can focus on keeping its train moving through the PL. Whether it can move beyond that realm into the greater national spotlight, a la 2018 Colgate, is the next question. Holy Cross brings back the horses to reach greater heights, including one of the best-returning FCS linebackers in Jacob Dobbs. But a seed (once again, like ’18 ‘Gate) is only attainable if nonconference challenges vs. Yale, Harvard, and Big South newcomer Bryant are handled.
The Mocs haven’t made the playoffs since 2016, yet they have gotten summer love in the past. This season looks like the year they can live up to preseason expectations and make the postseason. Chattanooga has one of the more talented squads in the SoCon after finishing 6-5. Ty Boeck is an excellent linebacker to build a defense around, and Devonnsha Maxwell is a standout on the defensive line. Offensively, the Mocs have to improve their passing game to become more balanced. Their rushing attack should be stellar, though. RB Ailym Ford and OL McClendon Curtis are two top returning players in the FCS at their position groups.
Delaware is in a fascinating, pressure-packed position in the aforementioned reconfigured CAA Football. With JMU exiting, the Blue Hens rise to the mantle of top athletic budget among FCS schools. After what was a middling decade by the previously feared program’s standards aside from 2018 and spring 2021 playoff showings under Danny Rocco, the Hens are still chasing (or are back to chasing) archrival Villanova. But new head coach and UD alumnus Ryan Carty’s retention of portal entrants QB Nolan Henderson and WR Thyrick Pitts marks a good start long before Carty head-coaches his first game at Navy. Delaware’s ceiling will be defined by its revolving-door offensive line tasked with keeping Henderson upright, healthy, and mobile. It is a front that loses All-American David Kroll to the expiration of eligibility but gains much-needed transfers in Joshua Stevens (Georgetown) and Cole Snyder (Montana State).
14. UT Martin
The Skyhawks soared to new heights last season, making waves with an Ohio Valley Conference title and not stopping there, knocking off Missouri State 32-31 to spring a first-round playoff win. Interestingly, UT Martin is set for a regular-season date with Missouri State in Springfield the week of Sept. 10 and must also hit the road for its top OVC challenger in Murray State (Oct. 8). With Murray on the way to Missouri Valley membership effective 2023 and Austin Peay already off to the ASUN alongside Eastern Kentucky and soon-to-be-FBS-departing Jacksonville State, UTM can assert itself as the next face of the Ohio Valley with an encore in 2022.
T12. Southern Illinois
SIU has elevated its football program over the last few seasons, winning a first-round game in both the spring and fall 2021 seasons. The returning experience suggests they will be right back in the playoffs this fall. To take another step forward in December, SIU needs to improve on its 25.85 points allowed per game. Its offense will be able to put plenty of points on the board with the likes of RB Javon Williams Jr., WR Avante Cox, and QB Nic Baker.
T12. Incarnate Word
How does one replace Cameron Ward? How about doing so with Nicholls transfer Lindsey Scott Jr.? UIW aims to avoid missing a beat with Ward now at Washington State, as Scott brings more than ample experience into the Cardinals’ QB room as well as a comparable style of play. The Word flashed some as it ran the Piney Woods gamut in the fall 2021 playoffs, taking down Stephen F. Austin by a touchdown in overtime before falling in a thriller at No. 1 seed Sam Houston. Though Ward engineered a great deal of UIW’s points, including in the case of an FBS win at Texas State, first-year Cards head coach G.J. Kinne knows how to run an offense, as demonstrated in his time as UCF co-offensive coordinator.
11. Stephen F. Austin
SFA returns a good chunk of its team after reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2014. The Lumberjacks lost in OT to UIW in the opening round. The rise of this program over the last few years suggests this will be a breakout season. SFA has the team balance to make a run, ranking No. 17 in scoring defense (19.33 PPG) and No. 12 in scoring offense (34.2 PPG) last season. Nine of the top 11 tacklers return. And QB Trae Self and WR Xavier Gipson are a top connection in the FCS.
10. Sacramento State
Sac State’s turnaround under Troy Taylor has been impressive. Yet after losing right away as a high playoff seed for a second fall season in a row, the Hornets are facing national doubts about how good they really are. The 2022 squad looks more than capable to get over that hump. The creative offense has several weapons to work with, starting with the two QB system of Jake Dunniway and Asher O’Hara, who led Sac State in rushing. WR Pierre Williams and Sophomore All-American TE Marshel Martin are two of the better targets in the Big Sky Conference.
Villanova has enjoyed a run of above-average-to-great QB play in the past several recruiting classes or cycles (think as far back as John Robertson), but with Daniel Smith moving on, there are some unknowns at the position. Connor Watkins is a possibility to step in after multiple years of backup duties. However, VU is deep elsewhere regardless, including at the accompanying skill positions of tailback (DeeWil Barlee and Jalen Jackson) and wide receiver (Rayjoun Pringle and Jaaron Hayek). Grad transfer LB Danny Damico comes aboard in an intraconference move from UAlbany that is sure to aid chances of compensating for the hole generated by tackling machine Forrest Rhyne’s college career concluding.
8. Kennesaw State
Kennesaw State is widely pegged as a candidate to rise in the FCS annual conversation amid James Madison, Sam Houston, and Jacksonville State’s FBS reclassifications. The Owls can ascend with QB Xavier Shepherd, whose 23 rushing touchdowns led the FCS last season and whose 15 passing scores clocked a single-season school record for the triple-option outfit. Head coach Brian Bohannon’s squad steps up in competition depth-wise in the ASUN. It is not a large league, but it can tout familiar suspects in Central Arkansas, Austin Peay, JSU, and EKU. Having acknowledged that, KSU is the rightful favorite and will desire a bevy of Turnover Plank appearances to get the ball in the hands of Shepherd as frequently as possible.
7. Sam Houston
Georgia Tech grad transfer QB Jordan Yates figures to be in the mix with Keegan Shoemaker to succeed Eric Schmid, one of the winningest signal-callers to come through Huntsville. Despite the monumental loss that is Jequez Ezzard to the Washington Commanders minicamp, the Bearkats stay stacked at wideout with 2020-21 national-championship-clincher hero Ife Adeyi and Cody Chrest returning. RB Ramon Jefferson transferring to Colorado stings, but the orange and white cupboard is far from bare in terms of candidates to become the next featured back in an offense getting new direction from John Perry after offensive coordinator Carty’s bolt for Delaware, a shared alma mater with Kats head coach KC Keeler. On defense, it is worth watching how SHSU adjusts to life after CB Zyon McCollum, a draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and some standout losses across the d-line. The Bearkats are not eligible for the FCS playoffs this season as it heads to the FBS in 2023. They are playing a full FCS schedule, though, as a member of the WAC.
6. Missouri State
After a 30-year playoff drought, Missouri State is 2-for-2 on making the bracket in Bobby Petrino’s first years as head coach. But with two disappointing postseason losses, the Bears eye making a big step in 2022. The talent is there. Jason Shelley has an argument to be the best returning FCS QB. Top WR and Sophomore All-American Tyrone Scott is back as well. Getting better on the offensive line is needed, and the experienced defense needs to improve overall after allowing 26.17 points a game. Like it’s done the last couple of offseasons, Missouri State has brought in several FBS transfers as the talent level on the roster has improved considerably under Petrino and his staff.
5. East Tennessee State
ETSU heads a crowded Southern Conference playoff picture. The Buccaneers made their mark on playoff memories for years to come with their frenetic triumph over Kennesaw at home to advance to the quarterfinals. The reward was a classic Fargodome learning experience on national television, but the overall momentum is there for ETSU entering the 2022 season. New head coach George Quarles inherits former head man Randy Sanders’ (retirement) QB Tyler Riddell, while Riddell’s backfield mate and Walter Payton Award candidate RB Quay Holmes declared for the NFL Draft in December. RB Jacob Saylors looks to take on a more featured role after also rushing for 1,000+ yards last season.
The Griz took another step forward last season, knocking off P5 Washington to start a 10-3 campaign that ended in the quarterfinals. With recent FCS-to-FBS departures, a semifinal appearance should be the floor for expectations in Missoula. The key for Montana to hit another level is to go from pretty good to really good on the offensive line and to get game-changing QB play. The OL has a few starting spots open, an important position group to improve and open holes for All-American RB Marcus Knight, who missed last year with a knee injury. San Diego State transfer Lucas Johnson looks to take the reins at QB as eyes from FCS observers will be dialed in to see how his play is early in the season. Defensively, the Griz will be one of the scarier units in the FCS. They are deep and talented on that side of the ball, led by All-Americans Patrick O’Connell (LB) Robby Hauck (safety), and Justin Ford (CB).
3. Montana State
Coming off of a trip to the national title game, MSU looks to maintain its program trajectory. Despite losing a lot of star power on defense, most of its starting experience on the offensive line, and their go-to WR, the Bobcats have the pieces in place for another deep playoff run. Brent Vigen’s touches on an already-talented roster showed in his first season. The depth developed through recruiting by the previous staff and Vigen’s double-dep practice system will show on defense this year. New starters still have a lot of playing experience, plus studs Callahan O’Reilly (LB) and Ty Okada (safety) are back to lead that side of the ball. MSU will be inexperienced on the o-line, but its rushing attack should still be strong with elite RB Isaiah Ifanse alongside the dual-threat abilities of freshman phenom QB Tommy Mellott.
2. South Dakota State
This is arguably SDSU’s most talented team it’s ever had coming off of a trip to the semifinals. The front seven will be loaded, starting with one of the best returning FCS linebackers in Adam Bock. Reece Winkelman and Caleb Sanders are veterans on a deep d-line, one of the more underrated position groups for a team to make a deep playoff run. SDSU’s secondary needs to get better if it wants to return to Frisco, though. The offense has a chance to be special. The spring’s MVFC Offensive Player of the Year Mark Gronowski is back at QB after missing last season with a knee injury suffered early in the spring national title game. He has his two top WRs returning in Jaxon and Jadon Janke along with TE Tucker Kraft, who is an NFL Draft prospect. SDSU has developed its o-line to be one of the better units in the FCS, and they’ll be blocking for All-American RB Isaiah Davis.
1. North Dakota State
The Bison look loaded for another FCS title run after reclaiming its throne last fall. A dominant rushing attack displayed in Frisco will be back in full force with nine of their top 10 offensive linemen returning as they have the luxury to rotate, plus the entire stable of running backs led by All-American Hunter Luepke. Championship-winning starting QB Cam Miller also returns as an efficient operator of the offense. Defensively, NDSU should be one of the top units in the FCS again despite several starting holes to fill in the front seven. The unit will be led by safety Michael Tutsie and defensive linemen Eli Mostaert and Spencer Waege, who are All-American-level players at their positions. As the FCS playoff picture looks different in 2022 without James Madison, Sam Houston, and Jacksonville State, it’s NDSU vs. everybody else now more than ever.
Received votes (alphabetical order): Eastern Kentucky, Mercer, Weber State