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Getting to Know the Newest FCS Teams

Three DII programs have decided to make the jump to the FCS this fall. Who are they?

NCAA FOOTBALL: DEC 16 Division II Football Championship - West Florida v Texas A&M-Commerce Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2022 FCS season’s membership storylines have centered greatly around what life will be like without programs like JMU, Sam Houston and Jacksonville State. Three of the nation’s most relevant programs said so long and found new homes up in the FBS, leaving behind a division of football that is currently seeing lots of realignment. What may get lost in the shuffle of this upcoming season, though, is the new faces that will be joining the fray this fall. Let’s meet them.

Texas A&M-Commerce Lions (Southland)

Hailing from Commerce, Texas, the Lions have been a very successful program that has seen multiple playoff appearances at the Division II level. From 2014 to 2019, the team never missed the postseason and in 2017 they ran it all the way to their first ever national title.

Like many teams around the country they didn’t play during the 2020 pandemic-altered season and just got back into the swing of football last year. In 2021, A&M-Commerce went 7-4 overall (5-2 in Lone Star Conference play) and had the fifth best defense in DII with 13.2 points allowed per contest.

It isn’t just a string of recent successes, though, that have given the Lions clout. They are currently coached by former Texas State and Rice head man David Bailiff who will be entering his fourth season with the team in 2022. Bailiff went 21-15 with the Bobcats before joining the Owls for an 11-year stint that saw the team win three bowl games and appear in the C-USA championship.

Rice University Training Session
David Bailiff is currently 18-7 as the Lions head coach.
Photo by Matt King/Getty Images

A&M Commerce also is, to date, the only non-DI program to boast a Super Bowl MVP. Back when they were known as the East Texas State Lions as members of the NAIA, Harvey Martin took home the accolade in Super Bowl XII with the Dallas Cowboys. Other notable Lions alum to make a splash in the NFL include Dwight White and Wade Wilson.

As they leave behind DII and the Lone Star Conference, they also say goodbye to some of their most intense rivalry games. Nearly every year the Lions have squared off with Texas A&M-Kingsville to play for the “Chennault Cup”. Their win in the series last fall marked a program-best ninth straight victory over the Javelinas. They will also no longer consistently play West Texas A&M in the East Texas vs. West Texas game.

One rivalry, however, may be renewed in the years to come as A&M-Commerce is following in the steps of a Tarleton State program that moved up just two years ago. The Lions and the Texans have met 29 times for the “Presidents Cup” with A&M-Commerce holding a 15-14 lead in the series. Although the two schools will not play in 2022, there is hope that they can meet again in the near future.

The Lions are set to begin FCS play in a few months as a member of the Southland Conference which is losing Incarnate Word to the WAC (but is rumored to be getting UIW back in just one season). Texas A&M Commerce will play alongside new conference foes Houston Baptist, McNeese, Nicholls, Northwestern State and Southeastern Louisiana. They will kick off their inaugural FCS season against Lincoln (CA) at home on September 1.

Lindenwood Lions (Ohio Valley)

Lindenwood, who plays their home games in St. Charles, MO, are also jumping up from DII and, like the other aforementioned Lions, have seen some recent success at that division. There may be no national title on the mantle, but Lindenwood is coming off a 9-3 record and a trip the second round of the playoffs last year.

All things considered, the Lions are fairly new to the football scene and have advanced rather quickly. The program played its first season in 1990 as an NAIA Independent and reached the national championship once at that level (2009) but barely lost to Sioux Falls once there. They moved up to the NCAA ranks in 2011. In their first ever game as a DII school that season, the Lions defeated the FCS’ Northern Colorado on a last-second field goal marking the program’s first win over a DI opponent since 1998.

The team has made the DII playoffs twice under head coach Jed Stugart and went a perfect 14-0 in league play while in the Great Lakes Valley Conference, of which they were a member for three years (Lindenwood did not play in 2020).

In their 32-year history, Lindenwood only has one NFL draftee and that distinction goes to defensive back Pierre Desir who was taken by the Cleveland Browns in 2014.

Now a bona fide FCS team, the Lions have already begun dipping their toes into deeper competition by inking future games with some of the subdivision’s more competitive teams like Missouri State and Stephen F. Austin. That should come as little surprise for a squad that already played the likes of South Dakota State last year.

Lindenwood will play with Eastern Illinois, Murray State, Southeast Missouri State, Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech and UT Martin in the OVC. The team will begin its 2022 campaign at Houston Baptist on September 10.

Stonehill Skyhawks (Northeast)

In April, the Skyhawks announced that they will too be leaving DII to join the Northeast Conference and have done so at prime time. Stonehill is fresh off their best record since 2013, an 8-2 romp through the Norhteast-10 Conference. They do not have a national championship but are on the rise thanks to sixth-year coach Eli Gardner. Gardner is 27-24 all-time as Stonehill’s head coach.

Stonehill began playing football in 1988 as a DIII program where they resided until 1996. While there, they won three conference titles (1989, 1991 and 1995). In ‘97, the Skyhawks transitioned up to DII where they found a new home in the Eastern Football Conference before joining the NE-10 in 2000. Surprisingly though, the team has never qualified for the playoffs at either level of competition.

Located in Easton, MA, the Skyhawks are in prime NEC territory and will actually renew some old NE-10 rivalries with conference mates Merrimack (whom they only play 60 miles away from) and LIU; two programs that also recently left for the FCS. Also playing alongside Stonehill in the NEC will be Central Connecticut, Duquesne, Sacred Heart, St. Francis (PA) and Wagner.

Stonehill kicks off their upcoming season at Bloomsburg on September 3.