The 2022 FCS playoffs are here. Who are the top contenders to win the national title? Who are the long-shots?
Every week, I will rank my favorites to win the championship out of the remaining teams in the field. This list will get knocked down from 24 to 16 to eight to four, and then it’s national title time.
NOTE: This is NOT a ranking of the 16 best teams in the playoffs. The postseason is all about matchups. Just because a team is listed higher than another team doesn’t necessarily mean they are better, it just means they have a better opportunity to advance further.
Gardner-Webb proved many people wrong in the first round, winning 52-41 at Eastern Kentucky. The Runnin’ Bulldogs ran for 405 yards, led by Narii Gaither’s 245. They will face doubts again this weekend playing at #5 seed William & Mary. W&M allows just 20.4 points per game and 139.4 rushing yards per game.
The Blue Hens dominated Saint Francis 56-17 in the opening round. It was an impressive showing in a game expected to be more competitive. Delaware gets a trip to #1 seed South Dakota State now, a matchup of Top 4 FCS scoring defenses — SDSU No. 3 (15.5 PPG); Delaware No. 4 (16.2 PPG). The Blue Hens look to be in a groove offensively as well. SDSU will go three weeks between game action due to back-to-back byes. This could be a hard-nosed, physical battle, but the odds will favor SDSU.
Twitter was shoveling dirt on Montana’s season as SEMO extended its lead to 24-3 midway through the third quarter. But the Griz came roaring back, sparked by two special teams returns for touchdowns by Malik Flowers and Junior Bergen to help Montana win 34-24. Can Montana bottle that momentum and bring it to Fargo and #3 seed North Dakota State? QB Lucas Johnson will have to be accurate, and Montana’s run defense will need its best game of the year to have a chance.
Richmond cruised through its first-round matchup vs. Davidson, winning 41-0. Now comes a cross-country trip to #2 seed Sac State. The Hornets are 0-2 in the last two fall playoffs, so this is an intriguing game to watch. Richmond plays sound defense and its passing attack is among the best in the FCS. This could go down to the wire, but the Hornets do look more built to win games in the bracket compared to past teams.
12. Southeastern Louisiana University
The Lions showed a lot of heart in its 45-42 first-round victory over Idaho. They battled back from a 21-10 second-quarter deficit and made some big plays in the fourth quarter. Idaho missed a field goal in the final seconds. We should see a similar high-scoring game as Southeastern takes on #6 seed Samford. This looks to be another competitive second-round matchup. It seems too early in the bracket for Samford to lose its first FCS game of the season, though.
Furman looked damn good in its 31-6 win vs. Elon. The defense going up against the high-powered offense of #7 seed UIW is going to be a blast to watch. Furman is more tested than UIW over the course of the season, plus UIW has off-field distractions as its head coach G.J. Kinne is reportedly a candidate for a couple of FBS head coaching openings. The Paladins will be underdogs, but not by much.
10. Holy Cross (#8 seed)
Holy Cross will likely be the most popular pick for a seeded team to lose this week. The Crusaders take on New Hampshire, who just beat Fordham 52-42. UNH led 28-7 at one point. Holy Cross faced Fordham earlier this season, needing overtime and a 2-point conversion to win 53-52. Expect a 50/50 game here. Even if Holy Cross gets a win, going to No. 1 seed SDSU is a tough quarterfinal matchup to advance further in the bracket.
9. Weber State
Weber is the strongest unseeded team in the bracket. It held on for a 38-31 win vs. UND in the opening round after leading 24-0. Weber now goes to #4 seed Montana State, a rematch of a 43-38 MSU win earlier this season. Weber had a lot of reasons to win that game but ultimately didn’t make enough plays at the end. This is a heavyweight bout this early in the bracket. With it being in Bozeman and how MSU is rolling, the Wildcats will be underdogs. If they do win, a semifinal run isn’t out of the question when looking ahead at a likely road trip to #5 seed William & Mary. Playing at red-hot MSU prevents Weber from cracking the Top 8.
8. New Hampshire
UNH was dominating Fordham 28-7 early in the first round before allowing them to climb back into it. The end result was a 52-42 UNH win. It advances and gets a second straight game against a Patriot League team in #8 seed Holy Cross. Holy Cross beat Fordham 53-52 earlier this season, needing overtime and a 2-point conversion for the W. HC plays much tougher defense than Fordham, but UNH has an athletic advantage, led by the playmaking abilities of Dylan Laube. UNH has the most favorable path for a quarterfinal appearance as an unseeded team, which is why I put them No. 8 on this list.
7. Samford (#6 seed)
The status of QB Michael Hiers will be something to monitor. He left the Week 12 game with a wrist injury suffered in OT in a 50-44 double-overtime win vs. Mercer. Hiers has thrown for 3,290 yards, 35 TDs, and three interceptions. Samford has a tough opponent in the second round vs. Southeastern. A shootout is in store, and anything can happen in the fourth quarter in those types of games. Samford has yet to lose to an FCS team this season, so you have to favor the Bulldogs. After that? It’s hard to see Samford advancing past the quarterfinals with a likely trip to No. 3 seed NDSU.
6. Incarnate Word (#7 seed)
UIW will face its toughest defense of the season when it hosts Furman. How will the No. 1 FCS scoring offense (52.9 PPG) look against Furman? And will the team be distracted by the reports of G.J. Kinne being a candidate for a couple of FBS head coach openings?
The Cardinals will be pushed by Furman. Lindsey Scott Jr. is having a special year as the Walter Payton Award frontrunner (3,791 yards, 50 TDs, 4 INT, 7 rushing TDs). Yet we’ve seen WP Award candidates for high-flying Southland offenses hit a wall in past playoffs.
UIW’s postseason could end this weekend, or it could make a run to the semis by beating No. 2 seed Sac State or Richmond in the quarters. Neither would be more surprising than the other. The most realistic path is a quarterfinal appearance.
5. William & Mary (#5 seed)
W&M has the recipe to win games in the bracket — it can run the ball (274.0 YPG) and play sound defense (20.4 PPG). The Tribe should like the second-round matchup vs. Gardner-Webb. And hey, it may not be the last home game if Weber knocks off #4 seed Montana State.
However, a W&M at Montana State quarterfinal game looks most likely to happen. It would pit two powerful rushing attacks against each other. W&M has the talent and team balance to make a legit run. But with it being in Bozeman, I’d project an MSU win here to end the Tribe’s season in the quarters.
4. Montana State (#4 seed)
The Bobcats are arguably the hottest team in the FCS. Its road to return to Frisco, which would mean a Top 2 ranking on this list, is not easy, though. MSU has a rematch against Big Sky foe Weber State this weekend. The first meeting earlier this season saw a wild game that the Bobcats won 43-38, but Weber had plenty of opportunities to win.
The Bobcats need to tighten up on defense to make a deep run, and they will be without defensive coordinator Willie Mack Garza on Saturday, who is serving a one-game suspension for reasons unknown.
How MSU rolled Montana with its rushing attack led by QBs Tommy Mellott and Sean Chambers, it’s hard to see this team losing right away in the bracket, especially at home. It also gets a huge boost via the return of All-American RB Isaiah Ifanse. If the Bobcats get past Weber, they should be favored in the quarters too, likely facing W&M at home. The semis would probably see a trip to No. 1 seed SDSU, who owns the No. 1 FCS rushing defense.
MSU lost a ton of talent from last year, but it’s a fair argument to say this year’s team is better. A run to Frisco is realistic, but it would be more realistic if MSU was on Sac State’s side of the bracket and not SDSU’s side.
3. Sacramento State (#2 seed)
As I wrote last week, the Hornets have already flipped two of three narratives about them.
1) “They haven’t beaten anyone good in the Big Sky.” While this was already a false narrative when looking through their 2019 and 2021 schedules, it became even more false this year after Sac State beat ranked Montana, Idaho, Weber State, and UC Davis.
2). “No one cares or goes to their games.” I don’t know why people still say this. Maybe it’s the camera angles where it doesn’t show the home side often. But Sac State averaged 15,502 fans during the regular season, No. 11 in the FCS.
3) “They can’t get it done in the playoffs.” Sac State will face this doubt (due to its 0-2 record as the No. 4 seed in 2019 and 2021) until it erases this doubt.
Sac State does look better built to make a deeper playoff run and flip that last narrative. It is playing stronger defensively (21.8 PPG and 126.7 rushing yards allowed per game). And the offense has a more physical rushing presence (Cameron Skattebo has 1,251 rushing yards and running QB Asher O’Hara has 19 TDs) than airing it out through the air.
The Hornets are in a challenging quarter of the bracket. Richmond this weekend is a tough out, and Furman or UIW next week could present problems as well.
A semifinal run looks promising. But a potential home game vs. No. 3 seed NDSU will be a battle. Maybe we base things too much on past precedent, but I often say history repeats itself in the bracket. That rings true more often than not. I need to see a Big Sky team beat NDSU before I call it happening.
2. North Dakota State (#3 seed)
As noted in last week’s article, NDSU has lost several key players to injury: starting center Jalen Sundell, starting RT Mason Miller, NFL Draft prospect TE Noah Gindorff, All-American FB and draft prospect Hunter Luepke (whose timetable to return, if he does, is unknown), and All-American DT Eli Mostaert (who could be returning at some point in the playoffs). There are a few other injuries too that have hampered depth. The Bison also recently lost three contributors to the transfer portal: CB Marques Sigle (emerging as a Sophomore All-American and a top corner for NDSU), WR DJ Hart (NDSU’s fourth-leading pass-catcher), and RB Dominic Gonnella (depth running back).
Does that, coupled with NDSU not looking as dominant in the regular season, make the title race wide open? Or is this just deja vu from last year?
NDSU starts to roll in December. The offensive line is still elite. And QB Cam Miller is playing at a high level. Montana will be an underdog this Saturday in Fargo. So will Samford or Southeastern next week in the quarterfinals. A potential road trip to Sac State in the semis will be a 50/50 game, especially with Sac State’s run game and the middle of NDSU’s defense being gettable at times. But we also need to see Sac State get past its playoff hurdles first to even host that semifinal game. And Big Sky teams have not matched up well with NDSU.
To repeat from last week, this Bison team may not have the same firepower as the 2018 or 2019 squads, but we said that last year too at this time and they still won the natty. Maybe it’s because the FCS nationally would like to see a new champion to make things more interesting, but we do seem to find any reason to say the field is wide open:
- 2018 – “NDSU will be too distracted with Chris Klieman and staff members accepting new jobs mid-playoffs.” Result: natty
- 2019 – “The Bison lost too many players and have a new coaching staff.” Result: 16-0
- 2021 – “The Bison look vulnerable this year and don’t look like past years.” Result: natty
- 2022 – “The Bison look vulnerable this year and don’t look like past years. They have a lot of injuries. Is there unrest with players transferring???” Result: ?
1. South Dakota State (#1 seed)
The Jacks are rested, healthy, loaded with talent, and built roster-wise to win the program’s first FCS title. SDSU can run the ball with Isaiah Davis and Amar Johnson, which will be needed in cold-weather games in Brookings. Mark Gronowski is efficient (2,247 yards, 18 TDs, 5 INT.), and he has next-level targets in TE Tucker Kraft, TE Zach Heins, and WRs Jaxon and Jadon Janke.
SDSU is third in FCS scoring defense (15.5 PPG) and first in run defense (71.4 YPG). Again, you’re going to have to run the ball and stop the run to win December games in Brookings. The Jacks look to get All-American middle linebacker Adam Bock back from injury to make the unit even stronger.
The Jacks have a favorable path to the semis, although they shouldn’t look past Delaware this week. A potential semifinal game vs. #4 seed Montana State would be a rematch of last year’s semis when the Bobcats beat SDSU in Bozeman. SDSU has the run defense, the home-field advantage, and the lack of travel fatigue to beat MSU this time around.
And once in Frisco? Can SDSU knock off NDSU in the postseason? The Jacks have yet to do that. And picking against NDSU in Frisco is always a risk. Or will it be Sac State, a more favorable matchup for SDSU since the Hornets haven’t experienced Frisco yet? Regardless of the opponent, this SDSU squad looks built physically and mentally to hoist the trophy for the first time.