The wait is over and the FCS playoff bracket is finally unveiled. While some surprises dot the first round, much of the tournament chips fell like many expected they might. From SDSU and Sacramento State retaining the top spots to teams like Idaho, Montana and North Dakota barely sneaking in, here’s what the postseason field looks like...
(You can see the bracket in its entirety here.)
#1 - South Dakota State Jackrabbits (10-1)
There’s no question about it, the #1 team in the country this year was South Dakota State. The Jacks lost their season opener (barely) to FBS Iowa then turned on the burners for 10 straight wins, including a big one over rival NDSU back in October. Quarterback Mark Gronowski has some unfinished playoff business after going down with an injury two years ago in the championship as does head coach John Stiegelmeier who’s never won it all in his 24 years in Brookings. From a tenacious defense that’s excellent at stopping the run to maybe the best tight end college football has to offer, SDSU is as equip as anyone to hoist the trophy in January.
#2 - Sacramento State Hornets (11-0)
The Hornets proved themselves to be one of the most electric teams in the country this season and have justly earned a Top 2 spot because of it. Head coach Troy Taylor has truly ushered in a new era of Sac State football as this is now the program’s third playoff appearance and third Big Sky championship. This team in particular, though, might be Taylor’s most dangerous yet. Running back Cameron Skattebo is one of the best rushers with 1,250 yards this fall. Asher O’Hara and Jake Dunniway team up to run maybe the most effective two-QB system in the land and the Hornets offense has excelled because of their play. The only real question that hovers over this team; can they win in the playoffs? So far they’ve struggled, going 0-2 in their 2019 and 2021 trips. If any group of guys can put those demons to bed, though, it’s these ones.
#3 - North Dakota State Bison (9-2)
For the first time in what seems like ages, North Dakota State is not a #1 seed and, they’re actually not even a hot pick to win the title this year. Don’t let that fool you, though, because the Bison have a knack for being unstoppable this time of year, regardless of position on the bracket. Fullback Hunter Luepke is hurt right now but this groups still has a beefy offensive line that is nearly impossible to get through and most any rusher can flourish in their system. Cam Miller pilots the run-heavy offense and James Kaczor mans the middle on the stout defense. Fargo is a house of horrors for visitors and it probably will be again this year.
#4 - Montana State Bobcats (10-1)
Lots of questions loomed after last year’s lopsided national championship loss and losing studs like Troy Andersen and Daniel Hardy to the NFL. The Bobcats, though, didn’t miss a beat in 2022 and ran the Big Sky gauntlet under second-year head coach Brent Vigen and claimed a portion of the league title for the first time in ten years. Not only is Montana State back in the dance, they have one of the top spots. Star running back Isaiah Ifanse hasn’t played yet this year due to an injury and yet MSU came out as one of the best rushing teams in the nation, averaging 325.7 yards per game. That’s thanks to guys like transfer quarterback Sean Chambers, Elijah Elliot and of course Tommy Mellott. Montana State was able to make a run to Frisco last winter so they know what it takes to get back and, in the playoffs, experience can be half the battle.
#5 - William & Mary Tribe (10-1)
The Tribe got through a very crowded CAA and came out on top thanks to a bruising ground game and smothering defense. John Pius is a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks with 9.5 sacks and 54 total tackles. On offense Bronson Yoder ran for over 1,000 yards and found the end zone 10 times. He averages almost seven yards a pop and if he’s on his game he’s really hard to stop. William & Mary reurn to the playoffs for the first time since 2015 and they will have an extra week to prepare. For only the third time in program history they receive a seed and it comes after narrowly missing the postseason cut last year. No one wants to see these guys come December.
#6 Samford Bulldogs (10-1)
One of the biggest surprise teams this season was Samford. The Bulldogs weren’t pegged to much of anything back in August but they went on to win the deep SoCon and their only loss was to Georgia. Michael Hiers can sling it with the best of them as he finsihed his 2022 run with 3,280 yards and 35 touchdowns. Hiers plays mistake-free ball, only tossing three picks this season and he’s helped greatly by standout receivers Chandler Smith and Kendall Watson. The Bulldogs can hurt thier opponents in a variety of ways and head coach Chris Hatcher has them playing outstanding ball right now.
#7 - Incarnate Word Cardinals
Only one offense in the country was more prolific than Incarnate Word’s and Lindsey Scott Jr. is likely the most talented quarterback in the entire playoff field. Scott’s 57 total touchdowns and 3,762 passing yards have him squarely in the Walter Payton Award conversation and has even garnered some talk of the Heisman. While the latter won’t happen, the former very well could and the Cardinals are as good as they’ve ever been. Taylor Grimes is one of the most talented receivers in the FCS and the offense puts up points at a truly insane clip. In 2021 the program picked up its first ever playoff win and now their sights are set much higher as they enter these playoffs with their first seed in school history.
#8 - Holy Cross Crusaders (11-0)
Holy Cross just experienced the best season in program history and they’re rewarded with a top spot in this year’s bracket. Bob Chesney’s Crusaders ripped through the Patriot League this fall out to an unblemished 11-0 record. Matthew Sluka is one of the more dynamic signal callers in the playoffs with 2,303 passing yards and 918 more rushing. He’s complimented by Peter Oliver in the backfield and All-American Jacob Dobbs. This Crusaders team is maybe the best and most well-rounded one the program has ever had. Last year’s playoff trip ended in the second round but this year feels much different now that Holy Cross is the one with the week off.
THE OPENING ROUND
St. Francis Red Flash (9-2) at Delaware Blue Hens (7-4)
The Red Flash are the lone representatives from the NEC and they’ll kick things off with a road trip to Newark for a date with the Blue Hens. Ryan Carty’s first season with Delaware was an up and down one. After winning five in a row (inlcuding one over FBS Navy) to start their campaign, the Hens lost four of thier last six but still made it in. Quarterback Nolan Henderson has dealt with some injury issues but on the defensive side, linebacker Johnny Buchanan is one of the best in the business with 120 tackles this season. St. Francis will counter with signal-caller Cole Doyle who has 21 touchdowns and just three interceptions. The winner heads to Brookings to take on South Dakota State in the second round.
Fordham Rams (9-2) at New Hampshire Wildcats (8-3)
Tim DeMorat is one of the most explosive QBs in the nation and he’ll get a chance to lead the potent Rams offense into the postseason to take on New Hampshire in the opening round. DeMorat led the FCS by a mile in yards (4,561) and touchdiowns (53). Fordham’s offense averages over 410 yards through the air per game and UNH will need to be ready. The Wildcats, though, also have a pretty good quarterback on their side with Max Brosmer who finished with 2,564 yards and 22 touchdowns. They’ll also be playing in their own building, a place they only lost once this year. Whoever survives gets a shot at Holy Cross.
Gardner-Webb Bulldogs (6-5) at Eastern Kentucky Colonels (7-4)
The Bulldogs beat North Carolina A&T last Saturday to claim the Big South title and earn their first ever trip to the playoffs and they’ll see he Colonels, who are making their first playoff appearance since 2014 after securing the AQ7’s auto bid on the final weekend. EKU’s Parker McKinney will command the pass-heavy offense that put up 3,502 yards on opposing defenses this season. Gardner-Webb has dynamic receiver T.J. Luther on its side. Luther caught 57 passes this year for 1,072 yards and seven touchdowns. This one could be a fireworks show and the winner gets William & Mary.
North Dakota Hawks (7-4) at Weber State Wildcats (9-2)
Last year was an unusually down year for Jay Hill’s Wildcats but this season they got back on track and were once again a problem in the Big Sky. Weber State only lost twice all season and both those losses came to the league co-champions. If there’s one thing the Wildcats are really good at, it’s stopping the pass. Defensive back Maxwell Anderson intercepted five passes this fall and, as a unit, WSU was the only Big Sky team that gave up fewer than 2,000 passing yards all year. They’ll take on North Dakota who snuck in out of the Missouri Valley. The Hawks have electric playmakers on their offense in running back Tyler Hoosman and receiver Bo Belquist. Montana State is awaiting the winner here.
Southeast Missouri State Redhawks (9-2) at Montana Grizzlies (7-4)
It took a coin flip but the Redhawks are the 2022 OVC champs and are back in the postseason but they probably would have received an at-large bid regardless. SEMO running back Geno Hess is a beast on the ground and knows how to run around and through opposing defenses. Hess rolled for 1,569 yards and 19 touchdowns this fall and he could have a big day against a Montana team that just got gashed on the ground in the “Brawl of the Wild” finale. Washington-Grizzly is one of the tougest venues in the country though and head coach Bobby Hauck is as experienced as they come when it comes to the playoffs. Whoever prevailes here gets a trip to Fargo to take on the Bison.
Idaho Vandals (7-4) at Southeastern Louisiana Lions (8-3)
The Lions lost one of the most effective passers in school history last year with the departure of Cole Kelley but they still found a way to win the Southland title this fall with Cephus Johnson and Eli Sawyer filling in those shoes. Frank Scelfo’s SLU team strung together eight wins after a rough start to reach the postseason again and they’ll be paired up with Idaho to kick things off. Jason Eck rebuilt the Vandals into a contender and freshman quarterback Gevani McCoy is electrifying. He and receiver Hayden Hatten know how to light up a scoreboard. This one could be fun and Samford will be watching closely.
Elon Phoenix (8-3) at Furman Paladins (9-2)
After transferring over last offseason, quarterback Matthew McKay has done nothing but win for Elon and now the Phonix are back in the postseason. McKay and running back Jalen Hampton paved way for one of the best offenses in the CAA. Their reward for an eight-win campaign will be a date with Furman. The Paladins made some noise in the SoCon this year thanks to a ball-hawking defense and strong rushing attack. Safety Hugh Ryan knows how to make QBs pay and Dominic Roberto nearly racked up 1,000 rushing yards this season. The winner will move on to play Incarnate Word.
Davidson Wildcats (8-3) at Richmond Spiders (8-3)
Davidson will again represent the Pioneer League in the postseason but they should be counting their lucky stars the NCAA doesn’t allow for transitioning teams like St. Thomas to compete past the regular season, otherwise the Wildcats would be left out in the cold. They’re in, though, and ready to bring their tough ground game to Richmond to take on the Spiders. Reece Udinski is capable of having monster games throwing the ball and linebacker Tristan Wheeler leads a very stout defense that could have its work cut out for it against the best rushing offense in the FCS. Whoever prevails will see Sacramento State.