The 2022 FCS playoffs are down to the final eight. 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 eight best remaining teams in the playoffs. It is ranking their path to a national title. 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.
8. Holy Cross (#8 seed)
Holy Cross made a statement in its 35-19 win over New Hampshire. The Crusaders were physically superior, outrushing UNH 303-22 and holding the ball for more than 36 minutes. Holy Cross looked built all season to make a run to the quarterfinals, something a Patriot League program has accomplished every few seasons.
The Crusaders have a great blend of physicality, athleticism, experience, and coaching. QB Matthew Sluka has elevated his passing to another level this season, making the offense more explosive. Unfortunately, the quarterfinal matchup results in Holy Cross having the worst chance to win a national title. SDSU is loaded and looked the part of the No. 1 seed in its demolition of Delaware.
7. Samford (#6 seed)
Samford needed overtime to beat a solid Southeastern Louisiana team 48-42 in the second round. A Southeastern fumble into the end zone on the first drive of OT resulted in a touchback, and Samford quickly scored the go-ahead touchdown to advance to the quarterfinals. The Bulldogs did it without starting QB Michael Hiers, who is battling a wrist injury and who finished fourth in voting for the Walter Payton Award. But freshman Quincy Crittendon stepped up big, going 26/40 for 314 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions while also rushing for 94 yards and a score.
Samford has yet to lose to an FCS team this year. The talent is there, especially offensively. But again, this ranking is based on quarterfinal matchups. They will be double-digit underdogs this week at NDSU. Unfamiliarity with the Fargodome for a pass-happy offense, plus a defense that can’t stop the run (allowed 348 yards on the ground to Southeastern and is ranked 82nd in the FCS with 174.3 rushing yards allowed per game) typically doesn’t end well in the playoffs.
6. William & Mary (#5 seed)
W&M took it to Gardner-Webb in the second round, winning 54-14. The Tribe look the part of a team that can make a deep playoff run. The rushing attack is tough to slow down as it can attack a defense in several ways. They ran for 306 against Gardner-Webb, led by QB Darius Wilson’s 89 yards. Wilson also threw for 240 yards and three TDs. The defense is star-powered with the likes of Ryan Poole, Nate Lynn, Jalen Jones, and Top 3 Buck Buchanan Award finalist John Pius.
There’s a reason this team is 11-1 with an FBS win (Charlotte).
But there would be more favorable matchups this round for W&M rather than going to Montana State. It will be late (8:15 local time but 10:15 for W&M’s body clocks), cold (W&M played in 60 degrees in the second round compared to 14ish degrees in Bozeman by kick), a short week (Friday game), and in front of a loud crowd (MSU led the second-round attendance with 16,397 fans).
5. Incarnate Word (#7 seed)
UIW won a nail-biter against Furman in the second round, seeing its 31-17 lead disappear to a 38-34 deficit midway through the fourth quarter. But Lindsey Scott Jr. tossed a 32-yard TD dime to Kole Wilson with 1:54 left and then UIW sealed the game with an interception. With head coach G.J. Kinne accepting the Texas State head coaching job and remaining with UIW until this playoff run ends, which is a challenging dynamic, the Cardinals found a way when their back was against the wall.
Does the historic season continue? UIW can outscore anyone. And its defense is better than given credit for, ranking 18th in the FCS (20.7 points allowed per game). A trip to Sac State is a 50/50 game. UIW will have to match the Hornets physically on defense. And the offense will have to avoid turnovers, especially when they led to early points for Furman off of Scott’s interceptions.
The odds will slightly favor Sac State here. If UIW does win, it would likely result in a semifinal trip to NDSU, where UIW’s style has not resulted in success in the playoffs against teams like NDSU.
4. Sacramento State (#2 seed)
Sac State’s 38-31 win over Richmond is tough to gauge. The Hornets nearly lost right away in the second round as a Top 4 seed for the third fall season in a row. They looked tight at times when the moment seemed too big, leading to key mistakes and turnovers. Is that a sign of things to come? Or did the downpour of rain turn this into a goofy game where a solid Richmond team sold out to stop the run and Sac State made enough plays throwing the slippery ball to win? It’s hard to have an orthodox game when it is raining that hard.
We’ve seen highly-seeded teams squeak by playoff opponents before. And UIW and Samford nearly lost last week too. So I’m not ready to jump all over Sac State as some have done. Although I did move Montana State one spot ahead because I think the Bobcats have a better chance to make it deeper in the bracket.
UIW going to Sac State is a 50/50 game. The Hornets have a strong run defense, but can be gettable through the air, which is exactly what UIW wants to do. This is a game to get back to its physical running identity for Sac State behind Cameron Skattebo and Asher O’Hara to get the edge in the matchup. Rainy conditions again for later this week in Sacramento would also favor Sac State’s rushing offense over UIW’s passing offense.
And there is something to be said about clutch plays in big moments. Sac State has now beaten five ranked opponents this season by one score.
If Sac State wins and advances to the semifinals, it will likely be against NDSU at home. That could be another tight game, and the Hornets have the rushing offense and rushing defense to go toe-to-toe with the Bison. Right now, though, the Bison seem to be steamrolling its way to a title game appearance.
3. Montana State (#4 seed)
The Bobcats jump Sac State for the No. 3 spot because I think they are one of the hottest FCS teams right now and have better chances than the Hornets to win this week and next week.
I think it’s a no-brainer to put MSU in the tier of teams legit enough to win a national title. And that is currently a three-team tier.
The Bobcats are running the hell out of the ball for the most prolific rushing attack in the FCS averaging 330.9 yards per game. They ran for 439 yards against Montana in Week 12 and then rushed for 388 yards in the second round on a good Weber defense. The Bobcats held an eye-opening 33-10 lead vs. Weber, a team many thought should have been a seed. Weber did score twice in the fourth quarter to make it a 33-25 final.
The QB run game of Tommy Mellott and Sean Chambers behind an athletic offensive line is scary. Plus, MSU got the subdivision’s top RB Isaiah Ifanse back from injury for the first time this season, and he ran for 91 yards on just 10 carries. While the defense has been shaky this year, it has played two of its better games in the last two contests.
A late kick, in the cold, on a shorter week against a team traveling from across the country, and in front of a rocking home crowd favors MSU this week vs. W&M. A potential semifinal rematch vs. SDSU, this time in Brookings, would be a slobberknocker. The Bobcats are better than last season. And so are the Jacks. SDSU’s No. 1 run defense and being at home could give the Jacks a slight edge to advance to Frisco, which is why MSU is slotted No. 3 here.
2. North Dakota State (#3 seed)
The Bison will be without one of the most dominant weapons in the FCS as All-American FB/RB/TE Hunter Luepke’s shoulder injury requires surgery. Luepke was a difference-maker last year in the playoff run, and one could argue NDSU wouldn’t have beaten James Madison in the semifinals if he wasn’t on the field.
Yet NDSU’s ground game is still rolling despite Luepke being out, two starting offensive linemen out injured, and NFL prospect TE Noah Gindorff (an extension of the o-line) sidelined with an injury. NDSU ran for 363 yards in the regular-season finale against North Dakota, a playoff team. And the Bison rushed for 453 yards on Montana in the second round. Kobe Johnson and TaMerik Williams are a good RB duo, while QB Cam Miller has been dangerous with his legs too.
This week’s opponent is the high-flying offensive attack of Samford, who allowed 348 yards on the ground vs. Southeastern in the second round and is ranked 82nd in the FCS with 174.3 rushing yards allowed per game. This clash of styles has favored NDSU in the postseason. The Bison would then either host UIW or go to Sac State in the semifinals. At this point, it’d be hard to pick against the Bison in either of those matchups, although Sac State is stronger against the run and has its own physical run game. But a Big Sky team has historically struggled against NDSU’s o-line.
The path to Frisco is not easy, but there also isn’t a James Madison standing in the way like last year. NDSU is down a lot of key players it had at the start of the season, whether through injuries or transfers. Yet the Bison are starting to play their best football on offense and on the younger defense. SDSU, though, is getting healthier and has the front seven to stop NDSU in what could potentially be a terrific championship matchup.
1. South Dakota State (#1 seed)
To win an FCS national title, you need to be able to stop the run. And that’s especially the case this year with six of these quarterfinalists being run-first teams.
No FCS team is better at stopping the run than SDSU. The Jackrabbits are No. 1 in the subdivision with 70.8 rushing yards allowed per game. Reece Winkelman and Caleb Sanders lead a stout defensive line, while the linebackers are deep, talented, and getting healthier. All-American MLB Adam Bock is close to returning.
QB Mark Gronowski is 19-1 vs. FCS opponents, not including the 23-21 spring national championship loss to Sam Houston where he got injured on the first drive, which also kept him out of the entire 2021 fall season. He has a good offensive line in front of him and an array of weapons around him. SDSU just put up 42 points on a Top 4 FCS scoring defense, plowing through Delaware 42-6. Although Delaware starting QB Nolan Henderson left the game early with an injury, it was impressive domination by the Jacks.
If SDSU plays a clean game again this week, it will beat Holy Cross. A semifinal matchup would see a great running opponent come to town in either William & Mary or Montana State. The Jacks are built to stop a run-first team, which will be key in the semis and in this predicted championship bout against NDSU.
SDSU has the experience, the talent at the skilled positions, the depth, and the play in the trenches to win what has been an elusive FCS title.