As the 2023 FCS season inches closer, HERO Sports will look at five offseason questions for the 2022 quarterfinalists.
Next up is Holy Cross.
Holy Cross finished 12-1 last year, losing 42-21 to South Dakota State in the quarterfinals. Here are five questions the Crusaders face entering 2023.
RELATED: Holy Cross Football 2023 Schedule
Just how good was Holy Cross in 2022?
Because we put a lot of stock into what happens in the playoffs to set preseason expectations, one could make two arguments for an experienced Holy Cross team coming off of a quarterfinal appearance.
1) No one pushed national champs SDSU harder in the playoffs than Holy Cross. Delaware lost 42-6, Montana State lost 39-18 (it was 36-9 midway through the third), and North Dakota State lost 45-21 (it hit 28-7 at one point in the first half). Holy Cross lost to SDSU 42-21 in the quarterfinals, but it was 21-21 heading into the fourth. Plus, the Jacks scored a TD with 39 seconds left to inflate the lead. If we’re basing things on the playoffs, Holy Cross should be viewed very highly this offseason.
But if you aren’t a believer in Holy Cross, you can easily take this argument…
2) SDSU played sloppy, the Jacks were looking ahead to the semifinals, they were playing with their food, and once it hit go time, they overwhelmed Holy Cross in the fourth quarter. Just because a quarterfinal team played the national champion tougher than the semifinalist or the national runner-up doesn’t always mean they were a better team. In fact, there are recent instances of the national champion ho-humming its way to a quarterfinal win. East Tennessee State played NDSU tougher in the quarters than Montana State did in the title game during the 2021 playoffs. But was ETSU really better than Montana State that year? Most FCS followers would say no. Illinois State played NDSU just as tough in the quarters than James Madison did in the title game during the 2019 playoffs. But was Illinois State really just as good as JMU that year? Most FCS followers would say no. Just because Holy Cross played SDSU the toughest in the 2022 playoffs doesn’t necessarily mean they were the second-best FCS team.
Holy Cross certainly moved the needle in FCS conversation last year due to its undefeated record (with an FBS win) but a poor strength of schedule. Just how good was Holy Cross in 2022? I thought the Crusaders put a statement on that debate with their performance at SDSU, proving they were indeed at least a Top 8 team in the FCS when some believed they shouldn’t have been a seed at all. But they’ll still have some doubters heading into this fall.
What can Holy Cross do to prove it’s a Top 4 team?
Playing off of the first question … so what can Holy Cross do to prove it is a Top 4 team?
The Crusaders will likely be in the 4-8 range on preseason ballots. But more importantly than the weekly polls, what can they do to earn a Top 4 seed from the playoff committee to get home-field advantage through at least the quarterfinals?
Remember, Holy Cross finished 11-0 (11 D1 wins) last year with an FBS win over Buffalo and a ranked win over No. 21 Fordham. Yet it still only received the No. 8 seed. A major reason for that was its strength of schedule ranked in the upper-70s.
Their FCS schedule doesn’t improve much this season with non-conference games against Merrimack, Yale, and Harvard, plus going undefeated through the Patriot League may not move the needle enough. There are two FBS opponents this year, though, at Boston College and Army. Holy Cross probably needs to snag at least one FBS win to rise in the seeding discussion. Or is a 9-0 FCS record (9-2 overall) and its SDSU performance last year enough for the playoff committee to give them the benefit of the doubt? Sam Houston’s SOS in 2021 wasn’t great, but it got big-time benefit of the doubt all season as the No. 1 team/seed due to its spring national championship.
Another knock on Holy Cross last year in the seeding debate was it played some close games. If you’re competing for high seeds with teams that have Top 10 strength of schedules and you’re in the 70s, you need to dominate your lesser competition. Single-digit wins over teams like Harvard, Lafayette, and Bryant didn’t help the Crusaders in 2022. “Wins are wins” doesn’t apply when trying to weigh playoff resumes.
Holy Cross’ ranking/seeding will be debated weekly this fall. Its SOS is its SOS. The team itself can’t control that now. But it can control how it wins those games. An FBS win will carry a lot of weight, but so too will dominating inferior opponents.
Can the d-line build depth?
As mentioned above, SDSU just eventually wore down Holy Cross up front, pulling away in the fourth quarter. Building more depth across the d-line will be key to contend deep in the playoffs vs. rushing attacks like SDSU, NDSU, and Montana State.
Holy Cross finished 20th in FCS rushing defense last year (119.6 YPG), but allowed 216 rushing yards and 6.2 yards per carry at SDSU. The Crusaders lose some key players like Jake Reichwein and All-Conference First Teamer Dan Kuznetsov. Replacing those guys and being able to rotate without much dropoff in play with the 2s is what separates great teams vs. elite teams.
What does the return of Jacob Dobbs mean for an already-strong defense?
Dobbs is a top-tier middle linebacker, ranking No. 4 on HERO Sports’ best returning 2022 FCS LBs. In 2021, he racked up 137 tackles, 17.5 TFLs, and 9.5 sacks. Last year, Dobbs played in only four games before an injury, and he was granted an extra season for 2023.
Holy Cross already had a strong defense in 2022 despite the loss of Dobbs, ranking No. 22 in FCS scoring D (21.5 PPG). The Crusaders bring back plenty of experience at linebacker alongside Dobbs with Dante Bolden and Frankie Monte. They will have to find new leaders to emerge at safety, but cornerbacks Devin Haskins (First Team All-Conference) and Terrence Spence can man the outside.
The potential is there for Holy Cross to have a terrific defensive unit in 2023.
What other weapons step up on offense?
The offense took a big step forward in 2022, mostly from Matthew Sluka elevating his passing. Holy Cross scored 37.38 PPG last season, up from 32.23 in 2021. Two years ago, Sluka completed 56.25% of his passes for 1,512 yards, 11 TDs, and five interceptions. Last season, he completed 57.52% of his passes for 2,489 yards, 26 TDs, and four interceptions while leading the team in rushing with 1,234 yards and 11 scores.
Holy Cross had a balanced attack in 2022, rushing for 245.1 YPG and passing for 204.3. It was the Sluka show in the quarterfinals, though, almost single-handedly keeping Holy Cross in the game through the first three quarters with his legs, rushing 26 times for 213 yards and a score while throwing for 125 yards.
Sluka is back in 2023 as one of the top FCS QBs. He’ll lead an offense that should be even better.
The offensive line stays mostly intact, returning First Team All-Conference selections Luke Newman, Eric Schon, and C.J. Hanson, plus Pat McMurtrie, who missed a majority of last season with an injury after being an All-Patriot League Second Team pick in 2021. Second Team All-Conference TE Sean Morris is also back as a big part of the running game.
The No. 1 and 3 WRs return in First Team All-Conference selection Jalen Coker (50 receptions, 912 yards, 11 TDs) and Justin Shorter (32 receptions, 431 yards, 4 TDs). Thousand-yard rusher Peter Oliver is gone, but Second Team All-Conference RB Jordan Fuller returns after rushing for 536 yards and a team-high 13 TDs.
A high-level question for the offensive unit is who else besides Sluka can be a game-breaker for Holy Cross to accomplish its high postseason goals. Like the defense, the potential is there on paper to go from good to great.