With multiple trips to the FCS quarterfinals and semifinals, and a national championship game appearance in the spring, South Dakota State sets out for that elusive title game win.
Ranked No. 2 in the Stats Perform Preseason Top 25 media poll, the uber-talented squad believes this is its best team to win that championship.
The Jackrabbits finished 11-4 overall and 5-3 in the MVFC, highlighted by a 42-23 win at FBS Colorado State and a 27-19 win against North Dakota State, a game that saw the Jacks up 27-7. SDSU was an unseeded playoff team, beating UC Davis 56-24 in the first round, No. 4 seed Sac State 24-19 in the second round, No. 5 seed Villanova 35-21 in the quarterfinals, and then losing 31-17 at No. 8 seed Montana State in the semifinals.
SDSU ranked No. 10 in FCS scoring offense (36.1 PPG) and No. 20 in scoring defense (19.7 PPG).
Head coach John Stiegelmeier says this is the best offense he’s had at SDSU. That’s saying something, considering the Jacks had two NFL Draft picks at QB (Chris Oladokun) and RB (Pierre Strong Jr.) last season, plus the trio of QB Taryn Christion, WR Jake Wieneke, and TE Dallas Goedert from a few years ago.
But the talent level of this 2022 offense is eye-opening. SDSU has six HERO Sports Preseason All-Americans on offense, five of which are on the First Team: RB Isaiah Davis, WR Jaxon Janke, TE Tucker Kraft, OL Mason McCormick, and OL Garret Greenfield. TE Zach Heins is on our Third Team.
These aren’t just good FCS players. These are guys that will all sign NFL contracts, whether it’s next year or 2024 as draft picks or undrafted free agents. Draft Scout’s 2023 NFL Draft Top 150 has Kraft as the No. 79 overall prospect with a 2nd-3rd round projection. On Josh Buchanan’s 2023 Top 100 Small School Prospects, Heins is No. 6, Janke is No. 8, Greenfield is No. 14, and WR Jadon Janke is No. 36. (Kraft is not on Buchanan’s list because he is only a junior and not officially declared.)
QB Mark Gronowski has a ton of weapons to work with returning from his knee injury suffered in the spring national title game. The true freshman was the MVFC Offensive Player of the Year, but not everything from the spring carried over to the fall. Gronowski looks to prove there was nothing fluky about his play. Between the Janke twins and arguably the best TE duo in college football, that’s four great options. But also keep an eye on slot WR Landon Wolf. Wolf transferred from Oklahoma State and got rave reviews in the 2021 fall camp. But he suffered a season-ending injury in the opener. Wolf is back as yet another target for Gronowski.
The OL will have a couple of new starters, and the RB depth behind Davis is also a question. Although Amar Johnson showed promise last year as a freshman when called upon, including some big runs in the playoff game at Villanova. Finally, Jason Eck brought so much swagger to the program as the OL coach and offensive coordinator. He’s now the Idaho head coach. Zach Lujan takes over as a young play-caller.
So it’s not like the loaded SDSU offense is without some questions, but the potential is massive to be very, very good.
On defense, the front seven should be stout while the secondary needs to improve. The Jacks had the No. 14 rushing defense last fall (109.9 YPG) and the No. 85 passing defense (241.0 YPG). SDSU gave up too many big plays down the field, whether it was breakdowns in the secondary or simply not winning on 50/50 balls. The cornerbacks are experienced enough to improve, though, with DyShawn Gales and Malik Lofton.
The run defense will again be the strength. Depth after the starting four defensive linemen will need to step up after the Jacks lost some guys in the rotation. Caleb Sanders is a HERO Sports Third Team All-American at DT. And defensive ends Reece Winkelman and Quinton Hicks have played a ton of snaps.
SDSU’s defense is manned by Adam Bock at middle linebacker, a First Team HERO Sports All-American. He totaled 125 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and eight passes defended in 15 games. Graham Spalding and Isaiah Stalbird both started games last season, making the linebackers a very experienced group.
Starting punter Hunter Dustman is back (42.4 yards per punt last season). SDSU will have a new kicker, and Dustman is a candidate to handle those duties.
- @ FBS Iowa
- vs. No. 25 UC Davis
- vs. Butler
- @ No. 5 Missouri State
- vs. Western Illinois
- vs. South Dakota
- @ No. 1 North Dakota State
- @ North Dakota
- vs. Indiana State
- @ No. 21 Northern Iowa
- vs. Illinois State
What a brutal road schedule. A part of making a run to the national championship game is setting yourself up for playoff success with a high seed. The Jacks will certainly earn a high seed if they make it through this schedule with a 9-2 record or better. At P5 Iowa, at No. 5 Missouri State, at No. 1 NDSU, a trap game the next week at UND, and at No. 21 Northern Iowa. Week-to-week consistency will be key for SDSU.
I get using the word “talent” can sometimes be a lazy default term used too much in the preseason. “This team is really talented.” “This team has a lot of returning talent.”
But when it comes to the 2022 SDSU roster, the first word that comes to mind is talent.
I think SDSU’s top 10 players are better than any other FCS team’s top 10 players. But before anyone in NDSU colors gets mad, football success obviously goes beyond top-end talent — depth, coaching, making big plays in big moments, etc.
The Bison should be everyone’s favorite to win the FCS title this year with their decade of dominance and returning … talent. But boy, this SDSU team is looking really good. Let’s remember the Jacks dominated NDSU for a 27-7 lead last season. NDSU scored some points late to make it a one-possession loss.
SDSU can match NDSU talent for talent and more importantly, match NDSU in the trenches. The Jacks have beaten NDSU four times in the last six regular-season matchups. But … the difference between the two is that NDSU plays its best football in the playoffs, and SDSU comes up short in big moments. From just a pure roster perspective, though, it’s NDSU 1a and SDSU 1b in the FCS.
If Gronowski plays at a high level again, and if SDSU plays with more week-to-week consistency to set themselves up for a high seed, we should absolutely see these two teams meet in Frisco (bracket-pending). And what a matchup that would be.
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