It’s always a popular question in the FCS preseason.
“Who are the dark horse teams?”
“Who are the sleeper teams?”
We’re going to use a different term in this article and call this group “under-the-radar” teams. Because we aren’t necessarily saying these teams are going to make a surprise run to the national title game. “Under-the-radar” here means teams that probably won’t get much preseason Top 25 love but will likely surpass preseason expectations.
This is a group that will either get preseason ranked too low or not ranked at all that have a good shot to rise in the fall.
Delaware is just 365ish days removed from an FCS semifinal appearance. Although it is fair to say the path to get there in the spring playoffs was pretty smooth. After getting preseason ranked No. 5 heading into the fall 2021 season, the Blue Hens finished 5-6. Because of this, they probably will be ranked in the 20s by voters this summer, if they make the Top 25 at all.
Delaware will have a talented squad on both sides of the ball, though, and should be stronger than what its preseason ranking may indicate. Starting QB Nolan Henderson’s injury derailed last season after being named an All-CAA First Teamer in the spring. He’s back in 2022 with added weapons.
New head coach Ryan Carty looks to bring more explosiveness to the offense, returning to his alma mater after being the OC at Sam Houston. To accompany 2021 top receiver Thyrick Pitts (488 yards, six TDs), Delaware has brought in three FCS transfer WRs: VMI’s Michael Jackson Jr. (All-SoCon 2nd Team), Presbyterian’s Jalyn Witcher (Freshman All-American), and SHSU’s Chandler Harvin (No. 4 WR on the 2021 team). Defensively, the Blue Hens get their top four tacklers back, led by LB Johnny Buchanan and safety Kedrick Whitehead, after having the No. 37 scoring defense in 2021 (23.36 PPG).
The No. 1 spot in the CAA is up for grabs with James Madison’s departure, and the Blue Hens are a top candidate to take it.
UIW finished 10-3 last season and was nearly a quarterfinal team. The Cardinals lost 49-42 to No. 1 seed Sam Houston in the second round. They will likely be ranked in the preseason polls, but voters may look too far into UIW losing head coach Eric Morris and star QB Cameron Ward to Washington State.
UIW hired UCF co-OC and QBs coach G.J. Kinne as its new head man, a young but bright offensive mind. And the Cardinals landed transfer QB Lindsey Scott Jr. from former Southland Conference foe Nicholls. The 2021 fall All-Conference Honorable Mention selection threw for 2,083 yards, 16 TDs, and 11 interceptions and rushed for 990 yards and nine TDs. In the spring, Scott passed for 1,684 yards, 18 TDs, and seven interceptions in seven games. He also had 557 yards rushing and six TDs.
The offense should remain just as explosive after ranking No. 4 nationally in the fall (39.5 PPG). The No. 1 (Taylor Grimes: 1,145 yards, 15 TDs) and No. 3 (Darion Chafin: 771 yards, 11 TDs) WRs return. Scott’s running ability helps make up for losing top RB Kevin Brown, and Marcus Cooper is back after rushing for 580 yards and eight TDs.
UIW needs to get better defensively if it wants to make a deeper playoff run. Its two 100+ tacklers (Kelechi Anyalebechi and Kaleb Culp) are back to improve last year’s 26.92 points allowed per game.
Sam Houston is not eligible for the WAC‘s auto-bid this year as it transitions to the FBS. The AQ is up for grabs between Stephen F. Austin and UIW. SFA has gotten a lot of love already this offseason. But we voters should be reminded of what UIW accomplished in 2021 and what it brings back, including beating SFA 35-28 (OT) in the first round.
Richmond had a stout defense in 2021, allowing 20.0 PPG to rank 21st in the FCS. The Spiders won their final four games of the season to finish 6-5, but an average offense scoring just 24.0 PPG left them some wins short of reaching the playoffs.
The defense will be strong again despite losing standouts like LB Tyler Dressler to the NFL and Kobie Turner to Wake Forest. Richmond returns its No. 1 tackler Tristan Wheeler (114 total tackles) and No. 3 tackler Aamir Hall (60).
What makes Richmond intriguing this year is the offensive transfers it brought in. VMI All-American WR Jakob Herres is now on the roster. The 6-foot-4 target recorded 72 catches for 1,091 yards and eight TDs in 2019, 80 receptions for 978 yards and eight TDs in the spring (eight games), and 47 catches for 500 yards and five TDs last season (eight games). The Spiders also brought in QB Reece Udinski, Herres’ VMI teammate from 2018 to the 2021 spring before Udinski transferred to Maryland in the fall. Herres helped Udinski set multiple VMI passing records.
With JMU out of the CAA and Villanova losing a star-studded senior class, Richmond looks like it now has the balance to be a Top 2 team in the CAA this fall, if not the No. 1 team.
The last two seasons shouldn’t result in Weber State falling off the national radar. Let’s not forget this was one of the most consistent FCS programs in the late-2010s, reaching the quarterfinals twice and the semifinals once in 2019. The Wildcats have had two “down” years since, losing a first-round home playoff game to Southern Illinois in the spring and finishing 6-5 last season, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2015. Weber did win four of its final five games, including a win versus No. 2 Eastern Washington.
The Wildcats have to replace most of their top tacklers, but we’ve seen this program reload on the defensive side of the ball before. Weber always has one of the top defenses in the FCS, ranking No. 19 last season (19.55 PPG).
Offensively is what has held Weber back for multiple years now. The Wildcats look to get more explosive with the hiring of D2 Notre Dame College head coach Mickey Mental. QB Bronson Barron has shown positive flashes and has two seasons of starting experience. And Weber has a great backfield in Dontae McMillan and Josh Davis, who was one of the best RBs in the FCS in 2018 and 2019 but has battled injuries the last two seasons.
Weber won at least a share of the Big Sky title four straight years from 2017 to the 2021 spring. The rise of the Montana schools last fall may have put Weber’s past success in the rearview mirror for some, but the Wildcats have the roster to be a Big Sky contender again.
YSU may not get one preseason Top 25 vote. Which is fair, considering the Penguins went 3-7 last year. And rising in the MVFC standings won’t be easy with the likes of NDSU, SDSU, Missouri State, and SIU, plus recent playoff teams UND, USD, and UNI. But this team looks poised to finish above .500 in 2022 and possibly hit that seven-win mark to be on the playoff bubble.
A 3-7 record in 2021 won’t open many eyes. However, those three wins came against playoff teams (UIW, Missouri State, and SIU). YSU also had two three-point losses to WIU and UND in an inconsistent season. While the record may not show it as much, the overall improvements from the spring (1-6 overall) to the fall were visible. Now in Doug Phillips’ third season as head coach, the potential is there in 2022 to grab more voters’ attention.
QB Demeatric Crenshaw showed promise in 2021 (791 yards passing, 6 TDs, 5 INT; 599 yards rushing, 7 TDs) and was named the MVFC Freshman of the Year. Jaleel McLaughlin is a top returning RB in the FCS, rushing for 1,139 yards and 12 TDs last year. Top touchdowns (8) receiver Bryce Oliver is also back. If YSU wants to take this next step, though, revamping its defense after being one of the worst in the FCS (35.4 PPG) is a must.
YSU is one of the more storied programs in the FCS. The tradition, facilities, and internal support are there. Even though there hasn’t been momentum to get the program turned around beside one playoff appearance in the last 15 years that ended in a national championship loss, and even though the Valley is the toughest conference in the FCS, there’s no reason YSU shouldn’t be a more competitive program. This fall looks promising for the Penguins to take a step in that direction.