The biggest surprise team playing in the FCS playoffs this weekend may be the Samford Bulldogs.
Going into 2022, not too many people pegged Samford to be where they are right now, as was evident by their position in the preseason polls. The coaches poll had Samford coming in sixth in the SoCon this fall while the media poll put them at seventh. Fast forward to now, and the Bulldogs are not only the 2022 league champs, they have a home game in the second round of the playoffs this Saturday.
“Last year, we ended up finishing below .500,” Samford head coach Chris Hatcher told Underdog Dynasty earlier this week. “And I think a lot of people just look at the final record, which is fair, but we had five games that we got beat by a touchdown or less. We’ve been right on the edge of breaking out for a while.”
To say Samford broke out this season would be an understatement. The team finished 10-1, the best record in Hatcher’s eight seasons with the program, and won their first outright league championship since 1936 when they were part of the Dixie Conference. Their lone loss this year was to Georgia. It’s a feat that Hatcher attributes largely to the play of his team’s defense.
“The improvement on defense has been outstanding,” he said. “This year we brought in a new defensive coordinator, Chris Boone, and he’s done a great job. I truly believe in order to win football games you need to be able to run the ball well and play great defense, and we’ve done that.”
Samford’s defense has allowed just 158.5 rushing yards per contest and has sacked opposing quarterbacks 20 times. Their ground game has put up 1,739 yards over the course of the year. But it isn’t just the Bulldogs’ strong defense and rushing attack that’s helped them win games this fall. Having a guy like signal-caller Michael Hiers has helped greatly as well.
“He’s a winner,” Hatcher said of his junior quarterback, “He came in here from day one and garnered the respect of the team. I said that it takes a strong running game and a good defense to win games. Well, the number three thing on that list would be a good quarterback and Mike has been that for us.”
Hiers, who came over from Murray State as a transfer after the 2019 season, earned SoCon Offensive Player of the Year honors this fall and has been named a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, given annually to the FCS’ best offensive player. He ranks fifth in the subdivision with 3,290 passing yards and 35 touchdowns.
Hatcher also mentioned the Bulldogs offensive line, as well as their secondary when talking about the facets of the team that have impressed him the most this year.
“Traditionally we’ve had really good offenses here,” he said. “Our offensive line is playing at a high level right now but I’ve also been really pleased with our secondary. Our corners Kourtlan Marsh, Hakeem Johnson, Trey Elston... guys like that... they’ve been big for us.”
The trio of Marsh, Johnson and Elston have combined for three interceptions, 102 tackles and 30 PBUs. It’s been a total team effort and all of Samford’s accomplishments this season have the team getting ready to host its first playoff game in program history this weekend.
“Having a bye week after back-to-back games against ranked opponents like we did; that’s been huge for us,” Hatcher said. “It’ll be the first home playoff game for our program so we’re excited. I hope we can fill the stadium and have a great atmosphere.”
The Bulldogs will be making their first postseason appearance since 2017 and will be looking to win their first playoff game since 1991. Whatever happens on Saturday, though, Hatcher hopes the success of this season can spill over into next year and beyond.
“Any time you have a good season and you win you hope to build off of it in fan support, boosters and in recruiting,” he said. “Everyone wants to be associated with a winner.”
No matter how you cut it, Samford are in the midst of one of the best runs the school has seen. They’ve got the coach, quarterback and complimentary pieces to not only make some noise over the next few weeks but also in the next several years.
Hatcher’s sixth-seeded Bulldogs will host Southeastern Louisiana this Saturday at 3:00 PM (ET) on ESPN+ with a trip to the quarterfinals on the line.