There isn’t much time to unwind from a wild FCS spring season. We are well under 100 days until Week 0 games on Aug. 28.
The offseason, no matter how short, is all about predictions. So let’s take a stab at predicting every conference champion for the upcoming season.
The subdivision increases from 13 conferences to 14 with the WAC-ASUN Challenge. There will be 15 FCS conferences in 2022 when the WAC and ASUN split into their own leagues.
The two new conferences in the FCS — the WAC and the ASUN — are doing a one-year partnership as both build to having postseason automatic qualifier status. The three teams joining the ASUN Conference (Jacksonville State, Eastern Kentucky, and Central Arkansas) along with the four teams joining the WAC (Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston, Abilene Christian, and Lamar) will play a single round-robin schedule with each team having three home and three road contests. The team with the highest winning percentage will earn an AQ in the fall 2021 FCS playoffs.
It’s an intriguing and strong group of teams, boosted by having the spring national champions SHSU. UCA looks capable of making a deep playoff run while JSU is a postseason regular.
SHSU’s starting lineup looks like it is staying intact after winning its first FCS title in program history. The Bearkats are the favorite to win the AQ7 and should be considered the favorite to repeat as national champions.
With 13 teams playing eight conference games, the Big Sky is likely to have co-champions again this fall, as it did from 2016-2019. When analyzing who the favorite is to win the conference title, you have to take schedules into consideration. Montana may be the team built to make the deepest playoff run, but the Griz play at Eastern Washington, vs. Sacramento State, at Idaho, and vs. Montana State.
Weber State, who has won at least a share of the conference title every season since 2017, avoids Montana, Sac State, and Idaho. The Wildcats host UC Davis and Montana State and go to EWU. They will be tested beforehand with a non-conference slate featuring FBS Utah and James Madison.
True freshman Bronson Barron got solid experience this spring, which will carry over to the fall for the promising quarterback. And the defense is loaded with experience and talent, led by LB Conner Mortensen and DL Jared Schiess.
The Big South adds some muscle this fall before Kennesaw State and North Alabama leave for the ASUN Conference in 2022. North Carolina A&T, winners of four of the five Celebration Bowls, is coming in looking to make noise immediately on the FCS national level.
But Monmouth is coming off another conference championship season this spring, including dominating highly-ranked Kennesaw State again and nearly knocking off eventual national champion Sam Houston in the first round. Led by QB Tony Muskett (freshman) and RB Juwon Farri (sophomore), the future is bright for the Hawks. They will have to win on the road at NC A&T and Kennesaw to capture the Big South crown.
With QB Cole Johnson coming back for a sixth season, along with All-American offensive tackle Liam Fornadel and some defensive players returning from injury, the Dukes are loaded for a national championship run. JMU held a 24-3 halftime lead in the semifinals before losing 38-35 to SHSU, who narrowly won the national title a week later. The Dukes were good enough to win the spring national championship and should be even stronger in the fall.
After a slow start to the spring, things started to click down the stretch. That should carry over to the fall, which will be key as the Dukes face a daunting five-game stretch starting with Game 3 — at Weber State, at New Hampshire, vs. Villanova, at Richmond, at Delaware. JMU has the best overall roster in the CAA, but it’s going to be a battle at the top of the standings.
The Ivy League will go nearly two years without playing any games, and rosters have changed drastically since November of 2019. After going 10-0 overall and 7-0 in the Ivy League standings in 2018, Princeton finished 8-2 overall and 5-2 in 2019 to finish third behind Dartmouth and Yale (both 6-1).
Dartmouth and Yale lose a number of their top players. Princeton needs to find a new starting quarterback, which the program hasn’t had an issue sending its past QBs to the next level. The Tigers do have their standout RB Collin Eaddy returning along with their two leaders in receiving yards Jacob Birmelin and Dylan Classi. Princeton gets its top three tacklers and four of its top five back as well, led by James Johnson.
South Carolina State
It’s been a tough year for the MEAC, losing Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M to the SWAC and North Carolina A&T to the Big South. Those three teams were set to play one last season in the MEAC, but the conference suspended its spring football season due to six of the nine teams opting out. Three MEAC teams decided to play games this spring — Delaware State, Howard, and South Carolina State.
SC State went 3-1 this spring. In 2019, the Bulldogs finished 8-3 overall and 6-2 in the MEAC with narrow losses to FAMU and NC A&T. They were co-champs with NC A&T in 2019 and arguably should have been an at-large for the FCS playoffs. Now they are the favorites to win the MEAC title outright.
South Dakota State
All-American freshman quarterback Mark Gronowski suffering a knee injury early in the narrow national championship loss, which will also hold him out this fall, is a brutal two-part blow for the Jackrabbits. But SDSU got some positive news when former three-star recruit Chris Oladokun announced he’ll transfer to the Jacks.
He’ll battle for the QB1 spot as he adds play-making abilities to the offense. SDSU’s roster remains loaded everywhere else on the two-deep as it gears up for another run at a national title. The schedule sets up nicely with a winnable FBS game at Colorado State, and the Jacks get their four toughest MVFC opponents all in Brookings — SIU, UNI, NDSU, and UND.
Central Connecticut State
The 2019 NEC champs, who went 11-2 overall and 7-0 in the conference standings, decided not to play this spring. That left the door open for Sacred Heart to earn the NEC’s auto-bid and give eventual semifinalist Delaware a scare in the first round, losing 19-10.
Expect the Blue Devils to be right back at the top this fall. CCSU, who beat Sacred Heart 28-3 in 2019, plays tough defense and has most of its top players coming back on that side of the ball. Replacing QB and leading rusher Aaron Winchester will be key, but 6-foot-3 wide receiver Tyshaun James is as good as it gets in the FCS.
The Governors started to get rolling late in the spring, winning their last two games against the top two teams in the standings — JSU and Murray State. A couple of bad losses early in the spring slate cost them a chance at the playoffs, though.
Draylen Ellis has a bright future, throwing for 1,270 yards, 14 touchdowns, and four interceptions in seven games as a freshman. APSU did lose All-American wide receiver DeAngelo Wilson to the transfer portal, though. With Jacksonville State, who won six of the last seven OVC titles, leaving the conference, the Govs look to fully take over that top spot like they did in 2019 when they shared the league championship with SEMO and advanced to the quarterfinals.
The 2019 and 2021 spring Patriot League champs don’t appear to be slowing down. Holy Cross is bringing in great recruiting classes and had some young players making big plays this spring. Top pass-catcher Jalen Coker and dual-threat QB Matthew Sluka were freshmen while leading tackler Jacob Dobbs was a HERO Sports Sophomore All-American.
The Crusaders will be challenged before the conference slate hits, playing teams like FBS UConn, defending Big South champs Monmouth, and strong Ivy League programs Yale and Harvard. That will prepare them to defend their conference title and be more competitive in the playoffs.
Weird stuff happened this spring. NDSU didn’t make the semifinals for the first time since 2010. San Diego lost its first conference game since 2015, losing 31-25 to Davidson. Then the Toreros lost its second conference game to end the spring season, 20-19 at Valparaiso.
Davidson went on to win the Pioneer’s auto-bid despite losing its last conference game, 29-24 to Presbyterian (Davidson’s final game scheduled against Stetson was canceled). The Wildcats lost 49-14 to Jacksonville State in the first round.
USD’s defense was strong in the spring, but the offense lacked the explosiveness it had in previous years, especially in the passing attack. There is still a ton of talent on this team, though, and I think the Toreros right the ship and get back to the postseason this fall.
With Wofford having a down year due, in part, to some big offensive linemen transferring and with Chattanooga opting out midseason, VMI took full advantage by winning its first SoCon championship since 1977 and making its first-ever FCS playoff appearance. The Keydets proved there was nothing fluky about their breakout season, though, battling James Madison in the first round before losing 31-24.
VMI is here to stay and looks poised to repeat as champs. It gets Wofford and Chattanooga at home. And keep an eye on the Sept. 11 game against Kent State for a potential FBS upset to boost its playoff resume. With standouts like WR Jakob Herres, QB Seth Morgan, and LB Stone Snyder returning, the Keydets are the team to beat in the SoCon.
The Southland loses five teams to the WAC and ASUN, leaving six teams remaining in the conference. It’s a tough hit to the league, but strong programs remain. Nicholls, Southeastern Louisiana, and Incarnate Word have made the playoffs recently, and McNeese has a strong tradition.
Southeastern Louisiana ended the spring season 4-3. One of those losses was a 43-38 result against future national champs SHSU, and the second was a 55-48 battle at Southern Illinois. Had the Lions pulled off that win, they would have made the playoffs. With All-American quarterback Cole Kelley leading the charge, they are the favorites to win the Southland’s auto-bid.
Expect plenty of shootouts in what should still be an entertaining conference. This spring, UIW beat SLU 56-45, SLU beat Nicholls 52-45, and Nicholls beat UIW 75-45.
There are several directions to go here. Is it the talented Alabama A&M squad that won the spring conference championship game over an improving Arkansas-Pine Bluff program? Is it Jackson State, who is bringing in eye-opening talent through its recruiting classes and the transfer portal? Is it 2018 and 2019 conference champ Alcorn State, who opted out of the spring season?
Or is it one of the newcomers — Florida A&M, who went 9-2 overall in 2019 and would have won the MEAC if it wasn’t ineligible for the postseason, or Bethune-Cookman, who finished third with a 5-3 conference record?
The SWAC is just loaded this fall. It will be highly entertaining with a spice of pettiness. How going nearly two years without playing a game will impact FCS teams like Alcorn State is to-be-determined. But it’s hard to ignore the returning star power on the roster, led by the big three of RB Niko Duffey, WR LeCharles Pringle, and All-American QB Felix Harper.