While we all love the FCS level around here, most of us are self-aware enough to know it has a lot of basketball-first schools that also want to sponsor D1 football. Stephen F. Austin is known for basketball. But it damn sure wants to be known for football too. Of course, every school wants to be good in football. But SFA wants to be good in football.
It’s evident this program is building something special. Why else would a team that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2009 be preseason ranked in the Top 10? The Lumberjacks have the momentum, coach, and internal support in place to be a consistent presence deep in the playoffs.
Are they ready to do so in 2022? Let’s dive into the No. 10 squad in the Stats Perform Preseason Top 25 media poll and discuss.
The Lumberjacks finished 8-4 overall and 4-2 in the AQ7 standings, including a 28-22 loss to FBS P5 Texas Tech and a 21-20 loss to FCS No. 1 Sam Houston. SFA ended the regular season on a five-game winning streak, reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2014. It lost 35-28 in overtime to UIW in the first round.
SFA ranked No. 12 in FCS scoring offense (34.2 PPG) and No. 17 in scoring defense (19.3 PPG).
Balance is a word I keep saying when talking about SFA this preseason. Not only offensively in how it can attack a defense, but also defensively as a unit that can clamp down instead of hold on for dear life in 45-42 shootouts.
SFA brings back a bulk of last season’s production, including 12 returning All-Conference players. The offense is highlighted by arguably the top QB-WR duo in Trae Self and Xavier Gipson. Self is second among active FCS quarterbacks in career passing yards (7,752) and career passing touchdowns (55). Gipson, coming off a season when he led the FCS with 1,367 receiving yards, leads active FCS wide receivers in career receiving yards (3,158) and career receiving TDs (30). Gipson is a HERO Sports Preseason First Team All-American and our No. 1 returning wide receiver, while Self is a Stats Perform Preseason Third Team All-American.
SFA also returns its top rusher from last season in RB Miles Reed. Reed ran for 678 yards and three TDs in 2021. The Lumberjacks bring back four offensive linemen with good starting experience, led by All-Conference performers Clint Lapic and Keegan Holm.
The defense will be rock solid on all three levels. SFA returns eight of its top 11 tacklers from last season’s Top 20 defense. Myles Heard leads the secondary and had a team-high 69 tackles. Brevin Randle (63 tackles) was the No. 2 tackler and a leader in the middle of the defense. BJ Thompson gets it all going on the line of scrimmage, though. The 6-foot-6, 210-pound defensive end has NFL scouts drooling with what he can bring to the next level. A 247Sports 4-star recruit who began his career at Baylor, Thompson totaled 12.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks in 2021.
Thompson is No. 10 on Josh Buchanan’s 2023 Top 100 Small School Prospects.
And in the third phase of the game, SFA is equally impressive on special teams. Punter Max Quick is a HERO Sports Preseason Second Team All-American (45.98 yards per punt last season), and kicker Chris Campos is a Stats Perform Preseason Third Team All-American (20-of-24 field goals last year with a long of 53 yards and made all 49 extra points).
- vs. Jacksonville State (Montgomery, Ala.)
- @ Alcorn State
- @ FBS Louisiana Tech
- vs. non-D1 Warner
- vs. Sam Houston (Houston, TX)
- vs. Abilene Christian
- vs. Tarleton State
- @ Southern Utah
- vs. Utah Tech
- vs. Central Arkansas
- @ Abilene Christian
This schedule is by no means daunting with zero preseason Top 25 opponents. Although SHSU certainly would have been ranked and Jacksonville State possibly would have been too if they were eligible in the polls. Even Louisiana Tech (3-9 last year with a near loss to FCS SLU) is a winnable FBS game. The Week 0 JSU matchup is a big one. SFA can realistically be 3-0 to start, but it could also easily be 1-2. A loss to JSU could zap some early buzz around the team. And to position yourself as a solid seed if SFA does finish with a good record but a bad strength of schedule, maintaining that national buzz and strong reputation in the polls is important to win over playoff committee members.
The FCS needs a southern and eastern power to emerge or else it will be the Big Sky-MVFC Invitational deep in the playoffs. With Sam Houston leaving, I look at SFA, Kennesaw State, and eventually Tarleton as teams with legit potential in the south. But hell, these three could be C-USA’s next targets. Anyway, SFA has a lot of hype around it in 2022. And it’s deserved when you look at the returning talent and the program trajectory.
Under head coach Colby Carthel, SFA has gone from 3-9 to 6-4 to 8-4. The program has seen an 89% increase in football ticket sales during his three seasons. Its fans are also getting more and more engaged in national FCS conversation online, another thing the subdivision needs more of. This all seems to be building toward a breakthrough season.
I would be surprised if SFA has fewer than nine wins in the regular season. A 9-2 mark, even a 10-1 record, looks very realistic. The Lumberjacks will be favored in most of their games. They will be slight underdogs against Louisiana Tech, and the JSU and SHSU games are 50/50 contests that they should at least split.
The dilemma is this … How is a 9-2 or 10-1 SFA team with no ranked FCS wins and a non-counter victory against Warner (?) viewed by the playoff committee? Beating SHSU will be the biggie. It may not be a ranked win on their resume, but committee members should still treat that as a quality win against a team with more than 63 scholarships (assuming the Bearkats have a strong record). And an FBS win at LA Tech is an obvious big boost on the resume and could make up for the lack of ranked wins. We’ll see how good JSU is, but beating decent but not great teams like UCA, JSU, or Alcorn are not big needle-movers.
Positioning yourself in the bracket, early-round matchups, and what the 1-8 seed order is all play a factor in this, but I think SFA is a quarterfinal team. With the right quarterfinal matchup, a trip to the semifinals isn’t out of the question, but it’s not my expectation. The Lumberjacks have the defensive strength and offensive firepower to accomplish big things in 2022 and set a foundation for continued growth into being a legit national title contender.
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