It’s that time of year again … the ol’ FCS preseason media darling team/teams are starting to get their hype.
We in the FCS media/poll voters love to project one or two teams in the preseason as programs that are ready to break into being a Top 10 or even a Top 5 team.
These types of teams all have some or all of these things in common:
- They had a breakthrough year the previous season, increasing their win total by several victories
- They made the playoffs for the first time in a while
- They suffered a heartbreaking loss early in the bracket
- They return a majority of the team
FCS voters jump all over teams like this and shoot them high up on their preseason ballots, projecting them to take another big step forward as a program.
Most of the time, voters are on the same page as far as which team/teams are getting that preseason darling treatment.
And most of the time we’re wrong.
2023 Preseason Media Darlings
This year, those preseason media darlings are Furman and Idaho.
And it’s actually not too hard of an argument for them to be ranked that high when you combine what they did last year + who they have coming back + what other teams lose.
Furman finished 10-3 last season, losing 41-38 to a really good UIW team in the second round after dominating a solid Elon squad 31-6. The Paladins were 6-5 in 2021, they last appeared in the postseason in 2019, and they hadn’t won a playoff game since 2017. Furman brings back 38 players from its 44-man 2-deep with 10 defensive starters and eight offensive starters returning. QB Tyler Huff, RB Dominic Roberto, top WR Joshua Harris, and All-Conference linemen Jacob Johanning and Pearson Toomey lead the offense. The top 11 tacklers are all back led by Braden Gilby Hugh Ryan, and Bryce McCormick.
Reasonable expectations would say this team can go at least one round further in 2023, putting the Paladins in the 5-8 ranking range.
Idaho finished 7-5 last season in Jason Eck’s first season as head coach. The Vandals had two competitive losses to Power Five teams, making the overall record not stand out as much. They lost 45-42 at Southeastern Louisiana University in the opening round of the playoffs, missing a game-tying field goal in the final seconds. Since returning to the Big Sky from the FBS in 2018, Idaho has gone 4-7, 5-7, 2-4, and 4-7 in 2021, resulting in a coaching change. Twelve All-Big Sky players are back from last year’s breakout team, including some of the best skilled players in the FCS in QB Gevani McCoy (2022 Jerry Rice Award winner), two 1,000-yard WRs Hayden Hatten and Jermaine Jackson, and the team’s top RB Anthony Woods.
Idaho does have question marks in the trenches and at linebacker, but the secondary is strong with CB Marcus Harris and safety Tommy McCormick. With the overall star power back and the instant success in Year 1 under Eck, though, it isn’t unreasonable to think Idaho can reach the quarterfinals, putting the Vandals in the 5-8 ranking range.
Well-reasoned high rankings for teams like Furman and Idaho don’t always go as expected once games begin.
In fact, poll voters have a terrible track record when it comes to these kinds of preseason darling. Four come to mind in the last three fall seasons.
And poll voters whiffed on all four.
A Bad History of Preseason Media Darlings
These four teams fall under the same category as the 2023 Furman and Idaho squads: They are coming off breakthrough seasons, suffered close playoff losses, returned most of their team, and were hyped in the preseason.
Last preseason, the media darlings were Missouri State and Stephen F. Austin.
Missouri State went 8-4 in 2021 and lost a one-point game to UT Martin in the first round. This marked back-to-back playoff appearances for the Bears after a 30-year drought. They returned major offensive firepower in 2022 and were preseason ranked No. 5 in the media poll. They finished 5-6.
SFA went 8-4 in 2021 and lost an overtime game to UIW in the first round. This was its first playoff appearance since 2014. The Lumberjacks returned most of their defensive production and some standout skilled players, getting ranked No. 10 in the preseason media poll. They finished 6-5.
Trying to preseason rank the 2021 fall season was tough due to the goofy spring season with a reduced playoff bracket, some teams not playing, and other teams opting out mid-season. This preseason darling isn’t to the level of others, but Monmouth got a decent amount of hype.
The Hawks returned a same-look team in the fall after nearly beating the eventual national champs Sam Houston in the first round. Monmouth had been in the playoffs before, but its performance against SHSU and the returning talent led many voters to believe the team could do damage in the fall playoffs. The Hawks were preseason ranked No. 13 in the media poll. They finished 7-4 and missed the playoffs.
UC Davis appeared in its first-ever FCS bracket in 2018, going from 5-6 in 2017 to 10-3. The Aggies advanced to the quarterfinals and nearly beat eventual national runner-up Eastern Washington. UC Davis returned a majority of its offensive starting lineup and had six defensive starters back in 2019. The preseason media poll ranked the Aggies No. 5. They finished 5-7.
All four of these teams had valid reasons to be preseason ranked as high as they were. But maybe poll voters jumped the gun too much, eager to identify a team that can go from good to great.
There are plenty of reasons to think Furman and Idaho can go from good to great in 2023.
Blessing Or A Curse?
Preseason rankings set the tone for your upcoming season.
That can be a great thing. It juices up the fan base, helps sell more season tickets, generates buzz on the recruiting trail, and gets the locker room amped up.
It can also be a bad thing, setting a level of expectation your program hasn’t met in years. If Furman and Idaho lose in the first two rounds this fall, their seasons will be considered big disappointments and other fan bases will call them overrated. If they lost in the first two rounds and were preseason ranked in the teens, then they met the expectations voters had for them.
It’s been interesting seeing the online reaction from Furman fans and Idaho fans on their preseason rankings. Of course, there is a ton of excitement. There is also some trepidation. Both feelings are understandable. The hype shows just how special of a year their team can have and the level of talent returning. But is living up to Top 5 expectations too much for teams that didn’t even reach the 2022 quarterfinals?
Preseason polls are rarely accurate. That’s especially the case for the FCS outside of the teams 1-3, where it’s usually been easy to project three of the four semifinal teams.
For Furman’s and Idaho’s sake, they better hope we voters are smarter this summer. Because we’ve sucked at projecting which teams will go from good to great.