I am grateful to again have a vote in the Stats Perform FCS Top 25 media poll for the 2023 season. I’ll publish my ballot every week and provide some reasoning for my order.
Notes at the bottom.
FCS Top 25
- South Dakota State
- Montana State
- Sacramento State
- North Carolina Central
- Southern Illinois
- South Dakota
- Western Carolina
- Northern Iowa
- North Dakota
- North Dakota State
- Youngstown State
- Florida A&M
- Austin Peay
- UT Martin
- Central Arkansas
Mercer enters my Top 25 after beating media poll No. 10 Western Carolina 45-38. The Bears once led 35-14 before WCU mounted a comeback that fell short. Mercer is now 6-3 overall and 6-2 vs. the FCS. Its two losses are to Furman and Chattanooga. Harvard didn’t do anything wrong in its 17-9 win over Dartmouth, but it got booted from my No. 25 spot to make room for Mercer.
The SoCon has a shot to get four teams into the playoffs after Mercer’s win over WCU. Furman looks primed for a Top 4 playoff seed, currently 7-0 vs. the FCS. It does have to go to ranked Chattanooga on Saturday. The Mocs already have seven wins, but they play Alabama in the final week of the regular season after a bye. The Mocs could seal a playoff spot with a win over Furman. If they lose, a seven-win team featuring a victory over Mercer gives the Mocs an argument to be in the bracket. (No offense to Chattanooga … I’m projecting a loss at Alabama.) Mercer could hit eight wins if it handles business at The Citadel and vs. Samford. And WCU, who was in the playoff committee’s Top 10 last week, is now 5-3 overall and 5-2 vs. the FCS with winnable games at Wofford, vs. ETSU, and at VMI to hit eight wins. That’s four SoCon teams with at least seven wins by Selection Sunday, possibly four teams with eight wins if UTC knocks off Furman.
Western Carolina dropped several spots after its loss to Mercer, who was unranked at the time. The Catamounts are 5-3 overall, 5-2 vs. the FCS with two ranked wins over Samford and Chattanooga. South Dakota also dropped the same number of spots after its 37-3 home loss to No. 1 SDSU. The Coyotes are now 6-2 overall and 6-1 vs. the FCS featuring two ranked wins against NDSU and YSU.
I don’t particularly enjoy moving UIW back a spot again after another win. It’s partially due to teams moving up, plus UIW’s style of wins not moving the needle much. Score comparisons can be a slippery slope. But when trying to compare conference and team strengths against each other, the non-conference can tell us a lot. Yes, UIW is 7-1 overall and 6-0 vs. the FCS. Its Massey strength of schedule is 83rd, though. I get there are key injuries recently, but close games have occurred all season. There was a 27-20 win at unranked Abilene Christian. The SLU game was a 33-26 win (the Lions are now 1-7). UIW beat Texas A&M-Commerce 28-11 (Texas A&M-Commerce is 1-7 and lost 48-10 to UC Davis, who is no longer ranked). UIW beat McNeese 35-24 thanks to a huge comeback (McNeese was 0-6). And on Saturday, UIW beat Lamar 17-7 (Lamar lost to Idaho 42-17 and South Dakota 35-6).
A team that moved up several spots is Northern Iowa. I had more trepidation about UNI last week. I was uncertain about the Weber State loss earlier in the year, plus the performances vs. Indiana State and SDSU before the 27-0 win over ranked UND last weekend. But more games played paints a clearer picture for comparative data, and two of those performances don’t sound alarms like they did a week ago (Indiana State has had competitive games against USD and now UND, and SDSU just rolled Top 5 USD). UNI also just looks much improved vs. the team that took the field vs. Weber. UNI tallied another good win on Saturday, 24-21 at Illinois State, who was receiving votes and in a playoff position. The Panthers had a double-digit lead until ISU scored with under a minute to play. Where UNI is at now, the Panthers deserve to be ranked fairly high. They are 5-3 overall and 5-2 vs. the FCS, featuring ranked wins over YSU and UND. They also have the No. 1 FCS strength of schedule. And in the deep MVFC, they are currently 4-1. With games to come vs. WIU, at Missouri State, and vs. ranked NDSU (oh man is there going to be huge playoff implications here), it wouldn’t be a surprise for UNI to finish 8-3 and on a five-game winning streak. Staying in the Valley, UND dropped two spots after back-to-back flat performances. But it stays ahead of NDSU due to the dominant head-to-head win and a lack of ranked wins for the Bison. If UCA drops out of the Top 25 after its loss to Tarleton State, then NDSU will have zero ranked wins (it ends the regular season with three straight ranked opponents).
Now to the Top 6 …
Teams 2-6 can be ordered in several different ways.
Of course, SDSU is No. 1 at 8-0 and four ranked wins, all vs. Top 12 teams at the time of the game. The Jackrabbits made a statement in their 37-3 win at No. 4 South Dakota.
I put Montana No. 2. I’ve already said my spiel multiple times on different platforms about Montana dropping in the rankings in September due to its play, and how the Grizzlies have risen back up with their October play. Now? The Griz have a sound argument to be No. 2, helped by Idaho knocking off No. 2 Montana State a couple of weeks after the Griz beat Idaho in the same building. Montana is now 7-1 overall, 6-1 vs. the FCS, has two ranked wins on the road over UC Davis and Idaho, and just looks like a different ball club than the one we questioned in September. Montana’s 51st strength of schedule isn’t great, same with its loss to NAU. But its four-game winning streak and the Idaho win carry a lot of weight to ascend to No. 2.
Idaho comes in at No. 3, one spot ahead of Montana State and a spot below Montana. The Vandals secured their biggest win in quite some time, certainly in their second stint as an FCS member, beating No. 2 MSU 24-21 in a beautiful college football atmosphere. They now have a helluva resume at 6-2 overall, two Top 10 wins over Sac State and MSU, an FBS win on Nevada, and one FCS loss to Montana. If Montana wins out, which would mean beating Top 10 teams Sac State and MSU at home, the Griz have a strong case for the No. 2 playoff seed. If Montana drops one of those games, and Idaho wins out vs. three unranked opponents, the Vandals could see that No. 2 seed based on their overall body of work.
I kept Montana State ahead of Furman at the No. 4 and 5 spots. I still really like Furman and believe the Paladins are built well to win in December. I also still think MSU is a better team on the field, while the resumes could support MSU as well. Furman is 7-1 overall and 7-0 vs. the FCS, featuring two ranked wins on Mercer and WCU. MSU is 6-2 overall/vs. the FCS with two ranked wins on the road vs. Top 10 teams at the time (Weber State, Sac State). The two losses are down-to-the-wire games at Idaho and SDSU, two teams in my Top 3. MSU may have two more FCS losses than Furman, but MSU’s Massey strength of schedule is 7th while Furman’s is 56th.
Delaware comes in at No. 6, although it has an argument to be higher at 7-1 overall and 7-0 vs. the FCS. What’s lacking, though, is ranked wins. The Blue Hens beat ranked UNH, but UNH is no longer in the Top 25. And with the No. 61 strength of schedule, that prevents Delaware from hitting the Top 5.