Back in August, not too many people outside Minnesota thought St. Thomas was going to be where they are right now as was evident by their position in the preseason conference polls. Sure, they won seven games in their debut Division I season last fall, but the Tommies were still picked by the coaches to finish third in the Pioneer League.
That in and of itself, though, could be seen as an accomplishment. After all, the program just moved up to the FCS and they aren't making a transition from DII like most, they're rising up from the DIII ranks; undoubtedly a mighty leap. For those around the league to give them that kind of praise one year in is noteworthy.
This season, however, proved to be a coming out party that only those around St. Thomas could have foreseen or expected. They ran the table on the Pioneer League, going 8-0 in conference play and 10-1 overall. Their only loss came at the hands of Southern Utah in the first week. After that the Tommies spun off 10 straight and never looked back en route to the league crown.
The team picked up some notable accomplishments along the way including leading the conference in total sacks (34), holding opponents to a league-low 29.9% conversion rate on third down, racking up five special teams touchdowns on kickoffs and punts and averaging over 200 rush yards per game.
By nearly every metric, this campaign was a massive success for head coach Glen Caruso but to those familiar with the program that should come to little surprise. In his 13 years at the helm, Caruso is 144-25 with eight conference titles including this season’s. They've won 37 straight at home and have been a dominant force in their division for years. It's obvious they aren't missing a beat in their move to Division I with an overall record of 17-4 as an FCS institution.
For all that there is to be excited about, though, the FCS playoffs will start this weekend and St. Thomas won't be a part of them. Instead, league runner-up Davidson will go in their place; a rather lackluster conclusion to a season that's been anything but. Is it fair? Probably not. But, as of right now, it's the rule.
The NCAA does not allow transitioning FCS teams to qualify for the postseason, regardless of record and finish. The transitionary period typically takes four years and, unfortunately for St. Thomas, they are still well within that window. A lot of times, teams moving up struggle in their inaugural seasons so this bylaw doesn't usually rear its ugly head. Here, though, you have a program who's clearly ahead of schedule and it came back to bite them.
Playoffs or no playoffs, however, it shouldn’t be misconstrued; the 2022 season made it very clear that St. Thomas is going to be a problem down the line, especially when they eventually can qualify for the postseason. They've got the perfect storm of coaching, culture and players to make a seamless transition.
Running back Shawn Shipman had 845 yards and nine touchdowns to pave the way on the ground while fellow sophomore Andrew McElroy paced the receivers 717 yards and seven scores. Defensive back Luke Glenna is a Buck Buchanan Award finalist and Caruso himself is in contention for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year honor. This team is in capable hands moving forward and they certainly don’t seem like a group that was playing DIII ball just two years ago.
The Tommies strike first!— St. Thomas Athletics (@TommieAthletics) November 12, 2022
As he has so often this year, @shawnShipman26 gets into the end zone, his 9th rushing TD of the year.
A great start for @UST_Football as they take the lead with a chance to take at least a share of the @PFLNews title today!#RollToms pic.twitter.com/x7kjjX8R3h
It's tough to overstate how rare what fans just saw from the Tommies truly is. 10-1 seasons don't occur often and when they do they almost always happen with teams who are already well-established. Heck, even the other FCS newcomers this year had solid debuts in Texas A&M-Commerce (5-6), Lindenwood (7-3) and Stonehill (4-5) but St. Thomas looks miles ahead of those squads in just their second season. Those other three aforementioned schools all are transitioning up from Division II.
So, while not being able to partake in the playoff fun this year has to sting a little, it's not necessarily a setback or even really a negative. The Tommies had a season that was instrumental in determining the trajectory of their football program. A conference championship this early can only spell good things for the future and excitement should be running abound in St. Paul.