The Gardner-Webb University Runnin’ Bulldogs have made three postseason runs in their senior college football history. Those appearances are in the 1973 NAIA Poultry Bowl, the 1987 NAIA Playoffs, and the 1992 NAIA national championship, the Champion Bowl.
Since joining NCAA Division I–AA/FCS in 2000, Gardner-Webb has earned a pair of Big South Conference championships, but those rings came in 2002 and 2003. Neither season finished with an FCS playoff berth, as GWU has never qualified in program history.
Fast-forward to 2022, and one sees a much different trajectory for the team that calls Boiling Springs, NC home. Saturday, the Runnin’ Bulldogs are a win away from the FCS playoffs as they square off with North Carolina A&T for the Big South’s automatic qualifier. How G-W got to this point, on the verge of an historic league title with only its conference’s (outgoing) leader standing in its way, is the most underrated storyline in the FCS this fall.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs have positioned themselves with an elusive opportunity to sprint into the FCS dance by enduring Massey’s 10th-ranked strength of schedule. (This placement is upon removing Big Sky and Missouri Valley schools whose conference games among themselves can inflate SoS for comparison purposes with that of a non-FCS-power-conference squad such as G-W.) Consider Gardner-Webb’s schedule to be top-10 in the east, in short.
Gardner-Webb’s fierce slate has been highlighted by an unprecedented three FBS games at Coastal Carolina, Marshall, and Liberty. This trio of trips to “play up” in 2022 virtually guaranteed from the season’s outset that the Runnin’ Bulldogs would have to be perfect in Big South play to give themselves a chance at history. They have achieved just that feat entering Week 12 (4-0 vs. the Big S, 4-2 vs. the FCS with setbacks to Elon and Mercer in consecutive weeks), but they also more than acquitted themselves in the Bowl Subdivision contests. Despite defeat, G-W held Marshall to 28 points, which is within one score of the Thundering Herd’s scoring average to date, in a game that was tied at the end of the first quarter. More notably, The Webb recorded competitive losses to Coastal (31-27) and Liberty (21-20), both of which are bowl-eligible.
Though the notion of “quality losses” is often debated for its merits for FCS playoff resumes, and 5-5 overall Gardner-Webb still has no path to an at-large bid in the one-bid Big South, enlarging the stakes for its winner-take-all game against NC A&T, the Runnin’ Bulldogs proved in their trifecta of FBS bouts that they can hang in there in underdog trials. In fact, the fall 2021 season opener saw GWU push FBS Georgia Southern wire-to-wire in a 30-25 loss. Later in that campaign, The Webb made then-No. 10 Kennesaw State squirm before falling late in a 34-30 final.
In ’22, one more such regular-season test awaits in the form of the visiting Aggies, but G-W needs to finish a win this time around to extend its season. North Carolina A&T is CAA Football-bound in 2023 and is looking to demonstrate that it’s ready to take steps toward being a regularly viable playoff participant post its dominant Celebration Bowl era. A&T’s active seven-game win streak is top-10 in the FCS and it sports a defense that rates top-10 nationally in total defense (9th), rushing defense (10th), and first-down defense (T-2nd with FBS-transitioning Sam Houston).
Gardner-Webb will attack the Aggie defense with Preseason Big South Offensive Player of the Year running back Narii Gaither. Gaither, regarded as one of the nation’s top all-purpose backs, was absent for four games this season with an injury but has four 100-yard rushing games on the year. His 82.6 rushing yards per game check in at second in the Big South, trailing only NC A&T’s Bhayshul Tuten (125.5).
Handing things off to Gaither is Runnin’ Bulldogs quarterback Bailey Fisher, who accounts for healthy sums of yardage in his own right. The redshirt senior is a four-time Big South Offensive Player of the Week and passed for 403 yards at Coastal Carolina. Fisher has tied for the most 300-yard passing games in Gardner-Webb’s Division I era (7).
Leading Gaither, Fisher, and the rest of the Runnin’ Bulldogs is the second-youngest head coach in the FCS, Tre Lamb. Senior only to Austin Peay’s Scotty Walden, the third-season head man Lamb, 33, is one victory away from overseeing a continuation of the FCS’s least-heralded feel-good story–right into the FCS playoffs for the first time ever.