As the 2023 FCS season inches closer, HERO Sports will look at five offseason questions for the 2022 quarterfinalists.
Next up is Samford.
Samford finished 11-2 last year, losing 27-9 to North Dakota State in the quarterfinals. Here are five questions the Bulldogs face entering 2023.
RELATED: Samford Football 2023 Schedule
Can Samford continue its momentum?
Is Samford here to stay as a Top 10 team? Or was 2022 just a one-year rise?
There are some similarities between 2021 ETSU and 2022 Samford.
ETSU went from 3-9 in 2019 to 4-2 in the 2021 spring to 11-2 in 2021. Samford went from 4-7 in 2021 to 11-2 in 2022.
ETSU advanced to the 2021 quarterfinals as the No. 7 seed and played NDSU tougher in Fargo than many expected before NDSU pulled away in the second half. NDSU led 13-0 at halftime before winning 27-3. Samford advanced to the 2022 quarterfinals as the No. 6 seed and played NDSU tougher in Fargo than many expected before NDSU pulled away in the second half. NDSU led 10-0 at halftime before winning 27-9.
ETSU had a mix of players leaving and big names staying in the 2022 offseason. Samford has a mix of players leaving and big names staying this offseason.
ETSU was thought to be that SoCon team able to make a playoff run, being ranked No. 11 in the 2022 preseason media poll before falling to 3-8 on the season. Samford is highly thought of this offseason and will likely be preseason ranked in the Top 10.
Of course, there are differences as well. ETSU went through a head coaching change before the 2022 season. And a lot of its players lost were transfers. Chris Hatcher is still leading Samford, and its player losses are mostly via graduation.
Samford is more equipped than ETSU was to continue this program momentum. But the Buccaneers are proof that you can fall just as fast as you can rise.
Can transfers make another big impact?
Bringing in a lot of transfers can be hit or miss. It was a hit for Samford last season, landing about 15 D1 transfers, 10 of which came from the FBS. Its best transfer came from a lower division, though, in standout starting QB Michael Hiers (Northwest Mississippi Community College), who is back in 2023.
The Bulldogs have brought in several transfers again ahead of this season — four FBS transfers (three Power Five) and six FCS transfers. Can these guys mesh with the current roster and make positive impacts?
Samford may have this transfer portal thing figured out because the FCS transfers coming especially catch one’s eye.
WR RJ Starkey and LB Garrett Morris come from Penn after All-Ivy League 2022 seasons. RB Damonta Witherspoon was an All-OVC player at Murray State who ran for nearly 1,000 yards in 2021. And CB Kamron Smith was a 2022 Sophomore All-American and a First Team All-Big South selection at Charleston Southern.
How good can Michael Hiers be?
Hiers was an absolute gem of a JuCo transfer for Samford. He finished 353/461 passing for 3,544 yards, 36 TDs, and four interceptions. Hiers earned two different All-American accolades, was named the SoCon Offensive Player of the Year, and finished fourth in voting for the Walter Payton Award.
He is arguably the best returning FCS quarterback in 2023.
Samford will win a lot of games this fall if Hiers does what he did last year. But what if he gets even better? What if he has a Walter Payton Award-winning season? Samford then becomes a legit threat for a deeper playoff run. (Hiers fought threw a wrist injury to his throwing hand, missing most of the second-round game vs. SLU and not starting at NDSU in the quarterfinals before coming in and sparking the offense by going 22/30 for 227 yards.)
Samford’s offense has a good shot to be more explosive in 2023 after averaging 32.8 points per game.
The No. 1 and No. 3 WRs are back in Chandler Smith (100 catches, 1,071 yards, 11 TDs) and DJ Rias (51 catches, 588 yards, 6 TDs). Plus All-Ivy League WR RJ Starkey is transferring from Penn. Leading rusher Jay Stanton is back (775 yards, 5 TDs) with All-OVC RB Damonta Witherspoon transferring in from Murray State. They’ll run behind an offensive line returning three starters.
Can the defense get stronger?
While the offense isn’t facing many questions, the Samford defense needs to get stronger to contend for a national title.
The Bulldogs finished 45th in FCS scoring defense (25.5 PPG), 80th in rushing defense (173.7 YPG), and 111th in passing defense (261.5 YPG). Samford brings back just four starters on that unit — DL Joseph Mera, LB Noah Martin, LB Thomas Neville, and DB Fred Flavors. Martin led Samford last season with 92 tackles and 7.5 TFLs.
Despite its statistical rankings, the Bulldogs matched NDSU’s physicality better than expected in the quarterfinals, limiting the Bison’s rushing attack until NDSU pulled away in the second half thanks to Cam Miller’s arm. But overall, the unit needs to improve. A high-powered offense with a below-average defense is not the formula to win an FCS national championship.
Will the non-conference schedule bite them on Selection Sunday?
It’s no secret the playoff committee doesn’t have the same level of respect for the SoCon as it has for the MVFC, Big Sky, and CAA. And some of that is fair when looking at non-conference wins, playoff success, human and computer rankings, All-American teams, and who’s sending the most talent to the pros. But it’s also fair to point out that the SoCon has gotten the short end of the stick on Selection Sundays, whether it be seven-win teams not getting into the bracket or teams with great resumes not getting Top 4 seeds.
Last regular season, Samford was 10-0 vs. the FCS, had two more ranked wins than NDSU, and its Massey strength of schedule of No. 18 was three spots stronger than NDSU’s. Do a blind resume test, and you seed Samford higher than NDSU. But because the Bison were the defending champs and a dynasty, plus their only two losses were by a combined five points to P5 Arizona and No. 1 seed SDSU, and because Samford was a new name in the national picture, NDSU got a No. 3 seed and Samford was the No. 6 seed.
Heck, ETSU went 10-1 in 2021 with a P5 win over Vanderbilt and only got a No. 7 seed.
All of that is to say going 7-1 or 8-0 in the SoCon hasn’t moved the needle enough for the playoff committee. Maybe that changes in 2023 since the two teams in the 2022 playoffs (Furman and Samford) looked strong. And Chattanooga and Mercer were right there on par with those two programs, but they got left on the bubble at 7-4. Furman had close games with Chattanooga and Mercer. Elon, from the five-bid CAA, lost 31-6 to Furman in the first round.
If a 7-1 or 8-0 SoCon record continues to get glanced over in 2023, then Samford didn’t do itself any favors in its non-conference scheduling. The Bulldogs play the SEC’s Auburn and non-D1 Shorter, which is basically taking away two D1 wins on your playoff resume. Unless, of course, Samford beats Auburn as a heavy underdog. The third non-conference game is a good one vs. UT Martin in the final week of the regular season. UT Martin should be in the playoff mix out of the Big South-OVC league. But due to its scheduling, Samford may get knocked down a seed or two because it has two fewer D1 wins than other seedable teams.