A new FCS champion was crowned in the 2022 season. South Dakota State emphatically dethroned North Dakota State 45-21.
With a majority of its starters back, SDSU will be the unanimous No. 1 team heading into next season. But who are the top contenders to the Jackrabbits? Are there 10 legit title contenders in 2023? Probably not. But let’s rank the 10 best teams in the playoff picture anyway by looking at returning starters and 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 quarterfinals.
Samford finished 11-2 last season, going undefeated vs. the FCS in the regular season and advancing to the quarterfinals. The Bulldogs competed well at NDSU before the Bison pulled away in the second half for a 27-9 win.
They were led by a lot of seniors in 2022, so new playmakers need to step up. But tackles leader Noah Martin and standout QB Michael Hiers were juniors, two great players to build around. Hiers was excellent in 2022 after transferring from Northwest Mississippi Community College, throwing for 3,544 yards, 36 TDs, and four interceptions. Weapons will need to emerge for Samford to maintain its explosiveness, although its offensive system allows athletes to shine.
With Hiers leading the offense, Samford will win plenty of games. Its defense played with good physicality last season, something it will need to do again for more playoff success.
Samford gets Furman and Chattanooga at home in the SoCon schedule. A non-conference game vs. Big South-OVC conference contender UT Martin will be big as well. Expect the Bulldogs to stack up enough victories and be back in the playoffs. A return to the quarterfinals is more questionable, though, until we see new contributors emerge, putting Samford outside the Top 8 on this list.
9. Weber State
Jay Hill transformed Weber State from irrelevant to a consistent playoff contender. In his last season before taking an FBS job, the Wildcats went 10-3, featuring an FBS win over Utah State and ending in a 33-25 second-round loss at Montana State. Weber had a strong argument for a playoff seed but ended up having to play in the first round, beating North Dakota 38-31. Both the first-round and second-round games were a bit more lopsided than the final scores indicate.
Under new head coach Mickey Mental, plenty of big pieces remain to be a Top 3 Big Sky team and return to the postseason.
Starting QB Bronson Barron transferred to the FBS. But Dontae McMillan and Damon Bankston were just sophomores last year and combined for more than 1,500 rushing yards and 14 TDs. Top OL Noah Atagi was a junior. Electric returner Abraham Williams was also just a sophomore, helping set the offense up for success.
Three of the top five tacklers were seniors, but tackles leader Winston Reid was a junior. Standout DT Doug Schiess and shutdown corner Maxwell Anderson were juniors as well. Weber has a mixture of standouts leaving and standouts returning, but the program has shown the ability to reload in areas before.
Weber is still looking for an 11th game and its third non-conference opponent. The non-conference is already tough, going to traditional playoff contender Northern Iowa and FBS Utah. The Wildcats start Big Sky play by hosting Montana State. It is a challenging start, although its toughest Big Sky games are all at home against MSU, UC Davis, and Idaho. Weber avoids Montana and Sac State. Weber should have a strong record to make the playoffs and reach at least the second round. A tough non-conference, a first-year HC, and key positions to replace including at QB make it more questionable if a quarterfinal run is possible, resulting in Weber being placed No. 9 on this ranking.
8. William & Mary
William & Mary had a breakthrough 2022 season, finishing 11-2 with an FBS win over Charlotte and a quarterfinal appearance. A 55-7 dud at Montana State ended the season and ended a rough postseason showing for the CAA. That will hurt the CAA’s perception in the polls and in the eyes of the playoff committee. But W&M should be strong in 2023 with a ton of returning experience. I put them No. 8 because another trip to the quarterfinals is promising. The Tribe can take another step forward next season, but the lopsided MSU loss will hold back too much hype.
W&M’s strong rushing attack brings back its top three rushers in RB Bronson Yoder (1,255 yards), RB Malachi Imoh (722 yards), and QB Darius Wilson (534 yards). Wilson also threw for 2,252 yards, 16 TDs, and seven INT. Nine of its top 11 tacklers are back, led by All-American-level players John Pius and Nate Lynn.
The Tribe should go 2-0 vs. the FCS in the non-conference against Wofford and Charleston Southern. The FBS opponent is Virginia. Its CAA draw is very favorable, avoiding contenders Delaware, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. A 9-2 record with an FCS loss somewhere in conference play looks likely, resulting in a seed and a good shot at a quarterfinal appearance.
Idaho is going to be the media’s preseason darling as a team that took a big step in 2022, lost a close playoff game, and brings a lot of talent back. Sometimes being that preseason darling can be a curse (sorry, SFA). Idaho looks to live up to the hype, though.
With Weber State and Sac State losing key players and having first-year head coaches, the Vandals have an opportunity to rise in the Big Sky in Jason Eck’s second season. He took them from 4-7 in 2021 to 7-5 (7-3 vs. the FCS) in 2022 during his debut season. Idaho lost a tough 45-42 game at Southeastern Louisiana in the opening round, its first playoff appearance since returning to the FCS subdivision.
Some of Idaho’s best players were just sophomores or freshmen in 2022, including WR Hayden Hatten, DB Marcus Harris, QB Gevani McCoy, RB Anthony Woods, and OL Ayden Knapik. Woods led Idaho in rushing, Hatten was a top-tier FCS WR, and McCoy won the Jerry Rice Award as the best FCS freshman. The Vandals also bring back 1,000-yard WR Jermaine Jackson on what should be an explosive offense.
Defensively, four of Idaho’s top five tacklers were juniors or younger, including sophomore standouts Mathias Bertram and Tommy McCormick as the No. 2 and 3 tacklers.
Two FBS opponents (Nevada and Cal) again hurts the team’s chances at a playoff seed. While these could be competitive games (and a potential win at Nevada) and an FBS loss doesn’t count against you, it does take away a better opportunity for a D1 win on your resume. Idaho does have a decent draw in the Big Sky slate, though, getting tough games vs. Sac State, Montana, and Montana State all at home while having to travel to Weber State. With a young crop of talent getting one year stronger, a seedable record and a quarterfinal appearance are firmly on the radar for Idaho.
6. Holy Cross
Holy Cross had a tremendous 2022 season, finishing 12-1 with an FBS win over Buffalo and a trip to the quarterfinals. The Crusaders competed as well as anyone did in the playoffs vs. national champ SDSU, losing 42-21 in a game that was tied 21-21 heading into the fourth quarter.
The Crusaders, after facing some regular-season doubts due to its strength of schedule, showed its talent and physicality can stack up on an FCS Top 8 level. Big standouts are back in 2023 for more playoff success.
Matthew Sluka took his play to another level in 2022, rushing for more than 1,200 yards and 11 scores. He also threw for 2,498 yards, 26 TDs, and four interceptions. He is back next season, and top WR Jalen Coker was just a junior in 2022. Stud offensive lineman Luke Newman also returns to lead a physical unit that wants to establish the run.
The defense’s top five tacklers were seniors last season. Holy Cross gets a massive boost in All-American LB Jacob Dobbs returning, though, after he missed most of 2022 with an injury.
Fellow Patriot League playoff participant Fordham loses a lot, so HC can run the table in the conference again. Holy Cross faces a more challenging non-conference schedule in 2023, featuring Merrimack, Yale, Harvard, and two tough FBS opponents Boston College and Army. Is a 9-2 overall record and 9-0 mark vs. the FCS good enough for a seed? Despite going 11-0 with an FBS win last season, the Crusaders still only got the No. 8 seed. Did HC gain enough respect from the committee for its 2022 playoff showing to get a seed at 9-0 vs. weaker FCS opponents?
Playoff positioning is key for how far a team can go. HC will face questions again on its strength of FCS wins. But if it can go undefeated vs. the FCS and be competitive vs. its FBS competition, a 6-8 seed and another run to the quarterfinals (matchups-pending) appear attainable, putting HC in the 5-8 quarterfinal range on this list.
Furman has faced high preseason expectations before and hasn’t met them. But us FCS media loves a team that took a big step forward the previous year, lost a competitive playoff game to a good team, and returns a bunch of starters.
And that’s the case with Furman entering 2023.
The Paladins finished 10-3 last season, suffering just one FCS loss in the regular season, 34-27 to Samford (a team that advanced to the quarterfinals). Furman dominated a solid Elon team 31-6 in the first round and then lost a heartbreaker to eventual semifinalist UIW in the second round. Furman held a 38-34 lead in the final minutes before UIW scored the go-ahead TD with 1:54 left to win 41-38.
For how good UIW was last season, Furman was right on par.
Furman now looks loaded coming off of its successful season. Starting QB Tyler Huff is back as a graduate student after rushing for nearly 700 yards and eight TDs along with 2,199 yards passing and 15 TDs. Also returning on offense are 1,000-yard rusher Dominic Roberto, top WR Joshua Harris, and All-Conference OL Jacob Johanning and Pearson Toomey. The defense that ranked 10th in FCS points allowed per game (20.2) returns its 11 top tacklers, led by Braden Gilby and Bryce McCormick.
Furman has a chance to go 2-1 overall and 2-0 vs. the FCS heading into SoCon play — vs. Tennessee Tech, at South Carolina, at Kennesaw State. Furman looks like the top SoCon team heading into 2023 with its returning talent and the departures Samford has. A seed is there for the taking, and if Furman can get one year better than 2022, it looks capable to advance at least one round further, putting them in the 5-8 range on this ranking. With who they have coming back and who UIW loses, Furman could make the argument to jump the Cardinals for the No. 4 spot.
4. Incarnate Word
UIW’s program will be put to the test on if it’s here to stay as an FCS contender or if the semifinal run and near-win in Fargo was a one-year lightning-in-a-bottle season.
Clint Killough is promoted to head coach after G.J. Kinne took the Texas State HC opening. Kinne also took five UIW players with him as the Cardinals have lost nine players total to the FBS, including three all-conference offensive linemen (Nash Jones, Caleb Johnson, Jimeto Obigbo) and an all-conference DB (No. 2 tackler Kaleb Culp).
UIW also lost leading tackler Anyalebechi Kelechi, two standout DL Chris Whittaker and Olivier Charles-Pierre, Walter Payton Award-winning QB Lindsey Scott Jr., leading rusher Marcus Cooper, and its top two pass-catchers Darion Chafin and Taylor Grimes to graduation.
Those are some heavy hitters to replace.
But Killough is also taking advantage of the transfer portal, something UIW did last offseason to bulk its roster. They have brought in 10 FBS transfers and 2 FCS transfers so far this offseason. Five of the transfers are from the Power Five: Auburn QB Zach Calzada, Iowa State DB Mason Chambers, Texas Tech LB Derrick Lewis, USC OL Joe Bryson, and Michigan State DL Chase Carter.
Calzada is the biggie. The 6-foot-4, 208-pounder started 10 games at Texas A&M in 2021 before transferring to Auburn in 2022. He did not see action last season before shoulder surgery. In 2021 at Texas A&M, Calzada threw for 2,185 yards and 17 TDs, including beating Alabama by going 21-31 passing for 285 yards and three TDs.
Realistically, we don’t know what we’ll see from the 2023 UIW squad with so many roster changes. The schedule isn’t complete yet, but UIW looks capable of running through the Southland. The Cardinals will beat Northern Colorado in the non-conference, and they have a winnable FBS game at UTEP (5-7 in 2022). With respect gained from its 2022 run and a manageable schedule, UIW may have the pieces needed for a Top 4 playoff seed and another run to the semifinals, placing them No. 4 on this list.
Many wrote UIW off entering the 2022 season due to its player losses and head coach departing. On paper, it seems like the 2023 team won’t be as strong as 2022 for those same reasons. But if the transfers click, another reloading season is possible.
3. North Dakota State
NDSU has several question marks on the field after getting stomped 45-21 by SDSU in the title game and some question marks off the field as well after more portal departures from key contributors.
Cam Miller has won a lot of games at QB, including a 2021 national title. But can his play, which was good at times and bad at times last season, win a championship in 2023? What pass-catcher currently on the roster scares a defense? Is there RB depth behind 700-yard rusher TaMerik Williams after the graduation of Hunter Luepke and leading rusher Kobe Johnson entered the portal? Who steps up on the o-line after the graduation of NDSU’s top two linemen in LT Cody Mauch and LG Nash Jensen?
On defense, a majority of the DL and LBs are back, but can the front seven take a step forward after being average in 2022 and lacking game-changing players? And what’s the secondary going to look like after it’s been depleted? Star safety tandem Michael Tutsie and Dawson Weber graduated, as did starting CB Destin Talbert. Marques Sigle, NDSU’s highest-graded CB on PFF, entered the portal before the playoffs. And after Frisco, starting CB Courtney Eubanks and would-be starting safety Dom Jones entered the portal.
If NDSU returns to Frisco, it will be the best coaching job by Matt Entz since the program started winning FCS titles. Right now, the odds seem to be going against the Bison for a title game appearance. NDSU had multiple competitive games in 2022, including in the semifinals vs. UIW. Do those few close wins turn to losses in 2023 due to the roster departures? Does NDSU need to win multiple playoff games on the road next season?
Then again, the Bison may not drop off as far as some think. Despite all the question marks, NDSU is still recruiting at a high level, has an elite developmental program, returns most of its guys in the trenches, and has more resources to succeed than 99% of the FCS. NDSU will still have a strong run game behind a great o-line, its front seven will at least be better than in 2022, and Miller has won a lot of games. The cupboard isn’t bare. The schedule isn’t too daunting either. NDSU should go 3-0 in the non-conference vs. EWU, Maine, and Central Arkansas. The Bison have to go to UND, SDSU, and UNI in Valley play, three tough places to play. A 9-2 record seems likely, with losses to SDSU and somewhere else in the MVFC schedule. An 8-3 record wouldn’t be surprising, but neither would 10-1 depending on how the young talent steps up.
The over/under on how far NDSU goes is the semifinals, which is why the Bison are No. 3 here. It’s tough to confidently put that many teams ahead of NDSU right now. SDSU, of course, is the easy one. And Montana State looks poised to take a giant step forward in 2023, although I don’t know if either defense could stop the other team’s run game if they were to play. The Bison were “vulnerable” in 2022, yet only SDSU took advantage of that. They will be even more vulnerable in 2023. A big question is how much does NDSU take a step back, but the bigger question may be how many teams are ready to step up and enter the conversation of who can challenge for a spot across from SDSU in Frisco.
2. Montana State
MSU showed something last season that few FCS programs can do: Lose a huge and talented senior class and remain a national contender. After reaching the 2021 title game, the Bobcats started plenty of new faces in 2022 and finished 12-2, going undefeated vs. the FCS until a 39-18 semifinal loss to SDSU.
It was arguably a more impressive coaching job for Brent Vigen in 2022 than in 2021.
Now MSU brings back a bulk of its starters. Most of its best players were sophomores last season. Led by standouts like QB Tommy Mellott, OL Rush Reimer, OL JT Reed, OL Justus Perkins, and DT DL Sebastian Valdez, the Bobcats started 10 sophomores in the semis. The entire starting offensive line, which led the way for a top FCS rushing attack, and the entire starting d-line are back. MSU will need to continue getting stronger in the trenches to compete at a national championship level, though, as will the defense after allowing 26.6 points per game while the offense scored 42.93.
The two-headed QB monster of Mellott and Sean Chambers (the top two rushers) return, and top RB Elijah Elliott is also back. All-American RB Isaiah Ifanse transferred to the FBS, although MSU found plenty of success on the ground before he returned to action last season in the playoffs. A more balanced offense will be needed for a title run, and MSU added outside weapons to help from the portal in FBS transfers Ty McCullouch (Colorado State), Garrett Walchli (Utah State), and Lonyatta Alexander Jr. (Washington).
SDSU is the clear title favorite heading into the 2023 season. Who the Jacks face depends on the bracket. But the Bobcats have as good a chance to return to Frisco as anyone. The schedule isn’t easy to set itself up for a high playoff seed and home-field advantage, where Vigen has yet to lose a game in Bozeman. MSU travels to SDSU in September, which will again be a big challenge, but it should win its other two non-conference games vs. Utah Tech and Stetson. Conference road trips to Weber State, Sac State, Idaho, and Montana make for a tough Big Sky draw. If MSU can run the table like it did last year, a 10-1 record could see a No. 2 seed.
Vigen got the Bobcats over the hump and into the championship game in his debut season. MSU was just as good in 2022 despite losing so much star power. While MSU’s semifinal performance at SDSU was a buzzkill, the Jacks also throttled its championship game opponent. One could reasonably argue the Bobcats should have been the No. 3 seed and not No. 4, which would have seen them host UIW in the semifinals and have a much better opportunity to reach the title game.
Now in Year 3 under Vigen, a majority of its starters back, and several young contributors now being veterans, 2023 looks to be a very promising year for the Bobcats. It’ll be a key offseason in the strength and conditioning department to get better in the trenches, but the pieces are already in place to go from good to great.
1. South Dakota State
The Jacks are absolutely loaded coming off of their first FCS title. While some teams are dealing with standout players entering the portal, the opposite is happening at SDSU. Not only have the Jacks avoided the portal (only one entry by a depth WR), they have had five All-American/All-Conference-level players that were honored on Senior Day who have since decided to use their extra year of eligibility in 2023: WR Jadon Janke, WR Jaxon Janke, TE Zach Heins, OT Garret Greenfield, and OG Mason McCormick.
SDSU loses one starter on offense, a big one in NFL Draft prospect TE Tucker Kraft. And it loses just three starters on defense: its best two DL in Reece Winkelman and Caleb Sanders and CB Malik Lofton. But the Jacks rotated a ton on the d-line, and First Team All-MVFC CB DyShawn Gales returns.
A majority of the championship pieces are back, which makes the retirement of longtime head coach John Stiegelmeier less of a factor in the outlook of SDSU’s season. Former player and most previously defensive coordinator Jimmy Rogers takes over as head man. He has been groomed as the heir apparent to Stig in SDSU’s succession plan, and he’ll bring plenty of passion and motivation for SDSU to repeat.
Mark Gronowski was just a sophomore in a fabulous 2022 season (2,744 yards passing, 23 TDs, 5 INT, 11 rushing TDs). The Janke twins were the two leading receivers. The dynamic RB duo of Isaiah Davis and Amar Johnson return behind the entire starting o-line. The defensive front seven will remain the best in the FCS, led by depth across the DL, leading tackler LB Jason Freeman, and All-American LB Adam Bock, who missed some time in 2022.
SDSU is still searching for a third non-conference game. It already has a Top 5 showdown at home vs. Montana State and another home game vs. Drake. The game against the Bobcats will be a premier FCS non-conference game after SDSU beat MSU 39-18 in the semifinals. It’s a great test to see what the 2023 Jacks look like on a big stage again. The MVFC slate is favorable with SDSU’s toughest games being at home, including vs. UND, UNI, and NDSU. After going undefeated vs. the FCS in 2022, an 11-0 regular season is in the cards in 2023. Week-to-week consistency and avoiding complacency will be important for the Jacks as they are favored to win every game.
It’s SDSU vs. the field in 2023. It’ll be interesting to see how the Jacks play as the hunted instead of the hunter. With so much starting experience back and players returning for one last run, plus perhaps added motivation to up their play even more for the first-year head coach Rogers, SDSU looks poised to run the table.