Entering the 2021 FCS season, the national championship picture appeared to be as open as it’s been in years. At the end of the year, though, the picture looked the same as North Dakota State won its ninth title in 11 seasons. The Bison dominated Montana State 38-10 to finish 14-1.
With a majority of its starters back, NDSU will be the unanimous No. 1 team heading into next season. But who are the top contenders to the Bison? Are there 10 legit title contenders in 2022? Probably not. But our way-too-early Top 10 has become a tradition, so let’s rank the 10 best teams in the playoff picture by looking at returning starters and also schedules, which will impact seeding and playoff positioning.
No. 1 is the early championship favorite, No. 2 is the projected Frisco opponent, teams 3-4 are semifinal-worthy teams, teams 5-8 are teams I think can reach the quarterfinals, and teams 9-10 have the potential to make the quarters.
After reaching the spring semifinals, the Blue Hens finished a disappointing 5-6 last season. A factor in those struggles was an injury to quarterback Nolan Henderson, who earned First Team All-CAA honors in the spring before appearing in only four fall games. Henderson explored the transfer portal this offseason but decided to return to the team.
It was Ryan Carty’s first win as the new head coach. Carty is a former Delaware player who spent the last four seasons as the OC at Sam Houston. A healthy Henderson is massive in the team’s success.
Henderson gets his top receiver back in Thyrick Pitts (43 catches for 669 yards and seven TDs in 2021) along with Presbyterian transfer Jalyn Witcher, who was a freshman All-American with 80 catches for 1,120 yards and 12 TDs. Delaware has to replace standout RB Dejoun Lee. The Blue Hens do return a few starting offensive linemen. Defensively, they bring back their four top tacklers, including All-American safety Kedrick Whitehead.
Delaware is serious about winning big in the FCS, as evident by it firing Danny Rocco after the 2021 fall season. With James Madison leaving the CAA and Villanova losing senior standouts, the Blue Hens have the pieces in place to be the top team out east. They should enter conference play with a winning record (at Navy, vs. Delaware State, vs. Morgan State).
9. Kennesaw State
Kennesaw has been a consistently good team since starting its football program in the mid-2010s. The Owls need to go from good to great to even out the competitive balance in the FCS.
They were painfully close to making the quarterfinals for the third time since 2017. The Owls held a 31-17 lead late in the fourth quarter at No. 7 seed ETSU before allowing a touchdown with 1:28 remaining, not recovering an onside kick, and then allowing a TD and two-point conversion with 35 seconds left to lose 32-31.
KSU will have some holes to fill on the o-line and at the RB and WR positions. But its option offense starts at the QB spot, and the Owls have two good ones to lead the way. Xavier Shepherd was a Sophomore All-American in the fall, rushing for 23 TDs and throwing 15. Jonathan Murphy has battled injuries but has seen important playing time in the playoffs dating back to 2019 as a freshman. He stepped in during the ETSU loss and threw two TDs while rushing for two.
KSU plays strong defense and ranked No. 18 in 2021, allowing 19.46 points per game. The Owls return eight of the 11 top tacklers, led by LB Evan Thompson, who broke the single-season school record with 118 total tackles.
They will be the favorites to win the Big South. The Owls’ chance at a playoff seed depends on how they perform in a non-conference slate featuring at FBS Cincinnati, at FBS-transitioning Jacksonville State, at playoff participant UT Martin, and at SoCon contender Samford.
8. Sacramento State
Sac State is teetering on getting the Jacksonville State treatment on social media.
Two fall seasons in a row the Hornets have been knocked out of the playoffs right away as a seed, losing 42-28 to Austin Peay in 2019 after being down 21-0 at halftime and losing 24-19 to South Dakota State last season after trailing 24-3 at the half. Credit to the Hornets for coming back late in those games, but being 0-2 as the No. 4 seed is going to result in you becoming the FCS online community’s punching bag.
The good news for Sac State is that if it gets a seed in 2022, it won’t face the “they avoided most of the good teams in the unbalanced Big Sky schedule” chatter. The Hornets go to Eastern Washington and Weber State and host UC Davis and Montana, a year after avoiding EWU, Weber, and Montana State. They also go to ranked Northern Iowa and FBS Colorado State.
It’s a tougher schedule for the Hornets, but they have the talent in place to get a seed.
The two QB system was a success and both guys return. Jake Dunniway threw for 2,576 yards, 12 TDs, and five interceptions while Asher O’Hara was the team’s leading rusher with 662 yards and nine scores. Sac State also returns its top RB Cameron Skattebo (520 yards, six TDs), First Team All-Big Sky WR Pierre Williams (50 catches for 764 yards and three TDs), and Sophomore All-American TE Marshel Martin (53 catches for 649 yards and six TDs). Three starters are back on the o-line.
Sac State was solid on defense in 2021, ranking No. 15 with 19.08 points allowed per game. Four of its top five tacklers were seniors, but six of the top 11 are back. Expect the Hornets to get a playoff win in 2022.
7. Stephen F. Austin
SFA is building something, and 2021 may prove to be a key stepping stone to becoming a national contender. The Lumberjacks were a balanced squad, ranking No. 17 in scoring defense (19.33 PPG) and No. 12 in scoring offense (34.2 PPG). They finished 8-4 and made the playoffs for the first time since 2014, losing 35-28 in OT to UIW in the first round.
Only three of the 17 All-WAC selections were seniors, and 10 of the All-Conference selections were freshmen and sophomores. This was a young team that saw a breakthrough season.
SFA gets its starting QB, star WR, and top RB back. Trae Self threw for 3,201 yards, 28 TDs, and nine interceptions. All-American WR Xavier Gipson led the FCS in receiving yards (1,377) to go along with 14 TDs. Miles Reed ran for 678 yards and three scores. The Lumberjacks are loaded coming back on defense, returning nine of its top 11 tacklers.
We’ll get a good first glimpse of the 2022 squad in Week 0 when SFA plays FBS-transitioning Jacksonville State in the Montgomery Kickoff. The next three games are also solid tests, all on the road — SWAC contender Alcorn State, FBS Louisiana Tech, and Southland contender Nicholls.
Keep an eye on SFA. The program has the potential and the want to be in the FCS title discussion.
6. Missouri State
The Bears have made significant progress in Bobby Petrino’s first two seasons as head coach. They made the playoffs in the spring for the first time in 30 years, then returned to the bracket again in the fall. An 0-2 record makes you pause a bit, but the progress and the overhaul in talent give you optimism on what this team can accomplish nationally in 2022.
Jason Shelley will be a top QB in the subdivision after being named the 2021 MVFC Offensive Player of the Year, throwing for 3,347 yards, 22 TDs, and nine interceptions while rushing for 313 yards and 10 more scores. He gets his No. 1 WR back in Sophomore All-American Tyrone Scott (66 catches for 1,110 yards and eight TDs). Expect the Bears to add more transfers at the skilled position and potentially the offensive line. They return a majority of the starters up front, but the Bears ranked No. 119 with 3.92 sacks allowed per game. Mo State had 33 transfers on its 2021 roster.
The defense has to make improvements too after allowing 26.17 points a game. Nine of the top 11 tacklers are back, led by two-time All-MVFC selection Tylar Wiltz at LB. Montrae Braswell was a Sophomore All-American at both cornerback and return specialist.
The MVFC slate is favorable after finishing 6-2 in conference play last season. Mo State avoids NDSU and gets its two toughest opponents (SDSU and SIU) at home. The three non-conference games will tell us plenty about this team — at playoff-contender Central Arkansas, vs. UT Martin (who beat the Bears in the first round of the fall playoffs), and at FBS Arkansas (who Petrino has some history with).
5. East Tennessee State
ETSU had a historic season in 2021, finishing 11-2 with an SEC win at Vanderbilt and a trip to the quarterfinals. The Bucs lost 27-3 at NDSU but physically matched up better on defense with the Bison compared to Montana State in the title game.
The program is building itself the right way after restarting football in the mid-2010s. The Bucs were able to run the ball and play strong defense in 2021. After the surprising retirement of Randy Sanders following the season, George Quarles takes over as head coach. He served as Furman’s associate head coach for the last five seasons.
ETSU brings back an experienced team overall but has some star power to replace.
Walter Payton Award finalist RB Quay Holmes has entered the NFL Draft. All-Americans Tre’mond Shorts (OL) and Donovan Manuel (LB) are transferring to FBS schools. The Bucs otherwise bring back four starters on the o-line and RB Jacob Saylors, who rushed for 1,019 yards and 10 TDs as part of ETSU’s elite 1-2 punch in the backfield. They lose their top two tacklers but return six of the top 11.
QB Tyler Riddell and DB Alijah Huzzie were Freshman All-Americans, and WR Will Huzzie and OL Tavon Matthews were Sophomore All-Americans. The Bucs also return a top SoCon tight end in Nate Adkins.
This upcoming season will be a testament to where ETSU is at as a program. Was 2021 a culmination of experience and talent all clicking together? Can the Bucs maintain that success with a new head coach and some top players gone? The core of the roster and foundation of the program appears to be in place for another run to the quarterfinals and just on the outside of a semifinal appearance.
The Griz are moving up the FCS ladder toward the top where they belong. Back-to-back trips to the quarterfinals has the program heading in the right direction, but the 28-6 loss at JMU to end the 2021 season, despite the in-game injuries to QB Cam Humphrey and standout WR Samuel Akem, showed there still is a talent gap Montana needs to close to legitimately threaten for a national title.
Montana will be one year better in 2022, returning a lot of its production. Humphrey and Akem are gone, but the Griz bring back most of their pass-catchers, including receptions leader Mitch Roberts and Freshman All-American TE Cole Grossman. They also landed transfer QB Lucas Johnson, who started his college career at Georgia Tech before going to San Diego State. In 2021, he threw for 1,424 yards, 12 TDs, and four interceptions, highlighted by 333 yards passing and four total TDs in a Frisco Bowl win.
The top three rushers in 2021 were freshmen, and Montana gets 2019 All-American Marcus Knight back from injury. The o-line needs to keep improving, and a few starting spots are open.
Montana will have one of the most disruptive defenses again, returning its top two tacklers in All-Americans Patrick O’Connell and Robby Hauck, its All-American CB Justin Ford, four of its top five tacklers, and seven of its top 11 tacklers.
The schedule sets up for the Griz to be a highly-ranked team for most of the season. They should go 3-0 in the non-conference against Northwestern State and South Dakota and at Indiana State. Their four toughest games come in the final five weeks, though — at Sac State, at Weber State, vs. EWU, and at Montana State.
Montana will likely start 6-0. But we won’t know how elite this team is until late October into early November. The Griz look loaded for a trip to the semifinals. We’ll have to be patient and wait and see late in the regular season if they are ready for a date in Frisco, Texas.
3. Montana State
Yes, MSU lost to Montana 29-10 to end the regular season. The Bobcats were also a different team when Tommy Mellott took over as the starting QB to start the playoff run en route to a national championship appearance.
The memorable run ended in sobering fashion as they lost 38-10 to NDSU in Frisco. Mellott getting rolled up on and suffering an ankle injury on the first possession didn’t help, but the game and the trenches proved the gap to reach NDSU’s level is still wide. Can MSU close that gap more in 2022, or will the departure of a superb senior class set the Bobcats back a little?
Mellott is reportedly having surgery on that ankle. His timetable and how that impacts early next season are unknown. MSU is set to bring in transfer QB Sean Chambers from Wyoming. He played for former Wyoming OC and current MSU HC Brent Vigen. In 2021, he started the first seven games, including against the Bobcats, finishing the season with 1,125 yards, six TDs, and seven interceptions.
MSU will have a great rushing attack again, led by All-American Isaiah Ifanse (1,623 yards and 10 TDs) and Mellott’s dual-threat abilities. The o-line returns three starters, but the top two were seniors. New weapons on the outside will need to step up as the Bobcats lose two of their top three WRs, including 1,110-yard receiver Lance McCutcheon.
The Bobcats owned the No. 2 scoring defense entering the title game. They return six of their top 11 tacklers, highlighted by the No. 2 and 3 tacklers Callahan O’Reilly (LB) and Ty Okada (DB). All-Americans Troy Andersen (LB), Daniel Hardy (DE), and Chase Benson (DT) are big holes to fill.
The non-conference schedule features home games against McNeese State and Morehead State and an FBS road trip to Oregon State. MSU has to go to EWU in conference play and gets UC Davis, Weber State, and Montana at home.
Only two non-NDSU teams have made it to back-to-back title games in the last decade — SHSU 2011-12 and JMU 2016-17. MSU should be an annual top contender moving forward under Vigen. That senior class will be hard to replace in one year, though, which could result in falling one game short.
2. South Dakota State
SDSU lost 31-17 to Montana State in the semifinals. But based on who SDSU brings back and who MSU loses, one can lean toward the Jackrabbits on a neutral field in 2022.
The Jacks should be strong offensively and defensive next season.
While the secondary needs to improve after some postseason struggles, SDSU does bring back eight of its top 11 tacklers, led by the top two in All-American LB Adam Bock and safety Isaiah Stalbird. The d-line will be one of the better units in the FCS with the likes of Reece Winkelman and Caleb Sanders.
The offense has a chance to be special. The biggest question mark is replacing a few starting offensive linemen. The skilled positions are set, though. Spring Freshman All-American and fall Sophomore All-American RB Isaiah Davis will fill the void of losing multi-time All-American Pierre Strong Jr. The top four pass-catchers are all back. Twins Jaxon and Jadon Janke lead the WRs. Jaxon had 72 catches for 1,165 yards and five TDs while Jadon added 641 yards and nine TDs. TE Tucker Kraft was a First Team All-American after catching 65 passes for 780 yards and six TDs. TE Zach Heins added six TD receptions.
Returning from a knee injury suffered in the spring national title game to lead the offense is QB Mark Gronowski. The Freshman All-American was also named the MVFC Offensive Player of the Year during the spring.
The Jacks did lose their OC and co-DC this offseason, but the returning talent should help navigate those changes.
SDSU has the players in place to reach Frisco for the first time in a fall season. Week-to-week consistency will be key. The Jacks open the year going to FBS Iowa before hosting playoff-contender UC Davis, who they dominated in the playoffs. They have to go to Mo State, NDSU, UND, and UNI in Valley play. SDSU can go anywhere from a Top 2 playoff seed to being unseeded again with multiple road losses. But at its best, the Jacks look like the top challenger to NDSU in 2022. They’ve done it in the regular season, just not the postseason.
1. North Dakota State
If the upside-down spring season provided any glimmer of hope the NDSU dynasty was getting off its tracks, the Bison blew the candle out on that with their 38-10 dismantling of Montana State in the title game. They ho-hummed their way through the regular season and still finished 10-1. The first two playoff games were won with ease. JMU nearly beat the Bison in the semifinals, but the Dukes are off to the FBS now. And an expected physical battle in Frisco turned into a demoralizing blowout.
The 2022 Bison are getting 2013 and 2018 Bison vibes. Not necessarily because they will be as strong as those two squads that will go down as some of the best in subdivision history, but because there is no clear No. 2 team to knock them off.
NDSU returns four starting offensive linemen and its next five guys in the rotation, all of the RBs led by All-American Hunter Luepke, its NFL Draft prospect TE Noah Gindorff, two LBs with starting experience, and the whole secondary led by All-American safety Michael Tutsie.
Cam Miller, who started the last eight games and threw for 14 TDs to three interceptions, is back. So is Quincy Patterson, who started the first seven games before getting replaced by Miller. NDSU still utilized Patterson as a running QB, and he rushed for 98 yards in the title game. Also in the QB mix will be redshirt freshman Cole Payton, who is viewed as the next great Bison quarterback.
The Bison do have to replace their four starting d-linemen, although they rotate and bring back plenty of experience, including All-American-level DE Spencer Waege from injury. And finding a consistent go-to WR with the departure of All-American Christian Watson is the No. 1 question mark. Watson had 801 yards in the fall, and the No. 2 pass-catcher was Phoenix Sproles with 284 yards.
NDSU plays Drake and NC A&T in the non-conference. It also gets a shot at a P5 school for the first time since 2016, going to Arizona (1-11 in 2021). The Bison get SDSU at home and avoids Mo State, two teams on this list.
It looks like an 11-0 or 10-1 regular season, which will result in home-field playoff advantage, which likely results in another run to “Fargo South.”