With the 2022 FCS season all but in the books, there’s lots to look back and reflect on. Several teams turned out to be surprises in this year but there was a select few that really made a name for themselves this fall simply because they weren’t expected to do much of anything at the start. Some went on to win conference titles against the odds while others ended up making respectable playoff runs. These ten teams made fans do a double take this year.
10. Southeastern Louisiana Lions
Final Record: 9-4 (5-1 Southland)
Going into this season the Lions weren’t expected to make the same noise they did last year after losing guys like quarterback Cole Kelley. Cephus Johnson stepped in and stepped up, though, to lead SLU to a postseason appearance where they reached the second round once again. Frank Scelfo’s group was only one of two teams to beat Incarnate Word this year, a feat in an of itself. The Lions put up over 35 points per contest and averaged nearly 250 passing yards per game. Johnson, despite missing some time with injury, still threw for 1,354 yards while teammate Eli Sawyer tossed for another 1,605. It wasn’t always easy sledding down in Hammond but when the dust settled, SLU made it further than many thought they would.
9. New Hampshire Wildcats
Final Record: 9-4 (7-1 CAA)
It was tough to determine who would rise to the top and make it out of the CAA into this year's playoffs back in August. James Madison being gone opened the door but, of all the guesses, few outside the state of New Hampshire probably pegged the Wildcats to be one of those teams. Big wins over Elon and Rhode Island propelled UNH into the postseason where they knocked off a very high-powered Fordham unit. For the first time in what feels like forever, New Hampshire was not led by longtime coach Sean McDonnell but Ricky Santos came through and guided the team to its best record since 2017 while players like running back Dylan Laube broke out and had a career year. All in all 2022 was a great success for the Wildcats.
8. Southeast Missouri State Redhawks
Final Record: 9-3 (6-0 Ohio Valley)
Southeast Missouri State has never had a 10-win season but came as close as they've ever been to one this year. The Redhawks went undefeated in the Ohio Valley and picked up nine wins to get back to the playoffs. Quarterback Paxton DeLaurent threw for 2,684 yards and 19 touchdowns while running back Geno Hess dominated on the ground for nearly 1,700 yards and 21 scores. We didn't get to see SEMO take on last year's OVC champs UT-Martin thanks to some weird scheduling wrinkles but it's safe to say the Redhawks probably would have held their own. Regardless, they had a season to hang their hats on.
7. William & Mary Tribe
Final Record: 11-2 (7-1 CAA)
Despite the fact their season came to an unceremonious end, William & Mary accomplished a lot this year. Nearly running the table on the CAA is not easy to do and yet the Tribe only lost one game in conference play. They took down some major competition in Delaware and Richmond while reaching the playoffs for the first time in seven years. Mike London led the Tribe to eight wins by 10 points or more and even got an FBS victory over Charlotte back in September. W&M grabbed a share of the league crown and reached the quarterfinals for the first time since 2009. It'll be difficult to replicate this success next year but as of right now the Tribe are the team to dethrone in the CAA.
6. Furman Paladins
Final Record: 10-3 (7-1 SoCon)
To say Furman made some unexpected noise in the SoCon this year would be an understatement. The Paladins took down some noteworthy opponents this fall including Chattanooga and Mercer. Once in the playoffs, Furman dispatched a good Elon team before nearly toppling Incarnate Word in the second round. Tight end Ryan Miller was a big reason for much of the team’s success with his 12 touchdown catches and 762 receiving yards. Quarterback Tyler Huff threw for 2,199 yards and 15 scores while leading the Paladins to a ten-win season for the first time since 2005. Furman has plenty to build on going into next season and optimism should be running abound in Greenville.
5. St. Francis Red Flash
Final Record: 9-3 (7-0 Northeast)
The Northeast Conference is often an afterthought when it comes to the national landscape of the FCS and St. Francis was an afterthought in the conference itself by several. It wasn't until the Red Flash upended last year’s NEC champion Sacred Heart in lopsided fashion that folks began to take notice. Sophomore quarterback Cole Doyle did it all, rushing for 310 yards and throwing for 21 touchdowns. Those efforts helped his team reach the postseason for the second time in program history and, although their run ended early, what St. Francis did this year shouldn't be taken lightly.
4. Gardner-Webb Runnin' Bulldogs
Final Record: 7-6 (5-0 Big South)
2022 was historic by many standards for Gardner-Webb. Not only did the team reach the playoffs for the first time in program history but they won their opening round game as well. The Bulldogs went undefeated in Big South action thanks to guys like running back Narii Gaither who racked up 1,019 yards and averaged over six yards per run. Quarterback Bailey Fisher almost hit 3,000 yards through the air and receiver T.J. Luther hauled in 63 passes for 1,166 yards. It was arguably the best season in Gardner-Webb history and there's no telling what awaits the Bulldogs next year if they continue on this trajectory.
3. St. Thomas Tommies
Final Record: 10-1 (8-0 Pioneer)
It seems the only reason St. Thomas isn't receiving the recognition it should for its stellar year is the fact that the Tommies weren't in the playoffs. That came through no fault of their own as the NCAA has rules prohibiting transitioning teams from qualifying in their first few years. The fact that St. Thomas beat every Pioneer League opponent it faced this year is made more impressive by the fact that this team is just two years removed from being a Division III program. The defense held its opposition to under 20 points per game while the offense produced at a fantastic clip, averaging 378 per outing. In a conference that always seems to be up in the air, there’s no reason to believe St. Thomas can’t find itself in a similar position next season.
2. Idaho Vandals
Final Record: 7-5 (6-2 Big Sky)
The Vandals knew they were on to something when they hired head coach Jason Eck last year and, in his first season in Moscow, he delivered. Idaho won seven games and snuck into the playoffs for the first time since their FCS return (not an easy feat in the loaded Big Sky Conference). Freshman phenom quarterback Gevani McCoy lit it up for 2,735 yards and took home the Jerry Rice Award while wideout Hayden Hatten established himself as one of the best receivers in the subdivision. It was truly the banner year that the Vandals have been waiting for for ages and now they hope to use it as a springboard into what could be an even greater 2023.
1. Samford Bulldogs
Final Record: 11-2 (8-0 SoCon)
No team in the FCS raised eyebrows quite like Samford did this year. Picked to finish in the bottom half of the SoCon in the preseason polls, they ran their way to the top of the league by beating every conference foe in their path. In fact, the Bulldogs may hold the rare distinction of having their only two losses come to participants in both the FCS and FBS national championship games as NDSU and Georgia were the lone pair of teams to beat Samford this year. Whether it was Michael Hiers' 3,534 passing yards or having two receivers reach the 1,000-yard mark, Samford had the best year it's seen in quite some time and it was justly rewarded with the first ever home playoff game in school history and a trip to the quarterfinals. It'll be hard to top but the Bulldogs should be looked upon much more highly going into next fall.