It’s August and fall camps are just getting underway around the country. It might seem ludicrous to already be talking about the postseason but it’s never truly a bad time to be thinking ahead to the playoffs. That is, after all, the ultimate goal, right?
Last year’s postseason was as fun as ever despite the regulars coming out on top when the dust settled. With all the wild comings and goings that was the 2022 offseason, there’s no doubt that this year’s bracket will look a bit different than last year’s. That’s not to say, though, that some of the mainstays won’t be back in the mix either. We decided to give our best guess at how the tournament will shake out before anyone’s even taken a snap.
It should be noted that the FCS playoffs don't exactly function like a true bracket, at least at the beginning. Host institutions in the opening round are determined by bids, not necessarily by who's ranked higher or has the better record. Therefore at-large teams can and often do end up playing at home against conference champions. Also first round pairings are based on geographical proximity to cut down on travel costs as much as possible.
With all that being taken into account, here's our preseason predictions for this year's playoffs field.
1. North Dakota State
The Bison have given us no reason to think they’re slowing down this season or for the foreseeable future. Head coach Matt Entz is now in his fourth year and is coming off his second national title while the program itself is coming off its ninth. Hunter Luepke and Noah Gindorff are still around and look to be bruisers on the offense. Michael Tutsie is still manning the defense. As always they’ve lost some big names to the NFL but as always they’ll find a way to fill those holes without a hitch. Good luck to anyone tasked with a trip to Fargo come playoff time.
The Grizzlies are poised to claim the Big Sky crown this season thanks in large part to one of the best defenses in the country. All-American linebacker Patrick O’Connell is gunning for the Buck Buchanan Award in 2022 and standout corner Justin Ford may not be far behind him in that chase. UM also has one heck of a return man in Malik Flowers and Bobby Hauck is one of the more experienced coaches out there. Montana is here to make some noise in 2022 and Washington-Grizzly will not be welcome confines for visitors in December.
3. South Dakota State
You won’t find many head coaches with more years under their belt than John Stiegelmeier who is coming into his 26th season at the helm in Brookings. The Jacks said farewell to running back Pierre Strong Jr but Isaiah Davis is right there to take his place and pace one of the nation’s best offenses. If it hadn’t been for an injury last year, Davis may have even eclipsed Strong’s numbers. The experience of back-to-back deep playoff runs will serve this group well and having the best tight end in the country (Tucker Kraft) doesn’t hurt either. Expect SDSU to shine once again but this time they won’t have to play on the road nearly as much in the playoffs.
4. Montana State
The Bobcats ascended to new heights last fall when first-year head man Brent Vigen led MSU to the championship game. As an 8-seed in last year’s playoffs, Vigen’s team shockingly dispatched the 1-seed in a rout on their way to Frisco. Falling short to the perennial juggernaut NDSU, albeit in blowout fashion, should be no reason to think that MSU is fading away. Sure studs like Troy Andersen and Daniel Hardy left for the pros, but the ‘Cats are still very talented. Isaiah Ifanse is one of the nation’s best running backs and sophomore signal-caller Tommy Mellott has the reins now. The Big Sky is no cakewalk but Montana State will be just fine.
5. Kennesaw State
The triple option is tough to stop and when KSU is running it well, opposing defenses look silly. The Owls have perhaps the most dynamic player in the subdivision right now with Xavier Shepherd and if he’s healthy this team is easily in the playoffs. If it wasn’t for some late game magic by ETSU a year ago, Kennesaw would have been in the quarterfinals. The postseason is a familiar spot for this bunch and they should be right in the thick of it again. The ASUN/WAC’s auto bid should go to the Owls barring an epic meltdown and yes, this team is good enough to get a seed.
6. Stephen F. Austin
SFA’s opening-round heartbreaker last year only fueled the fire for what is already an explosive team. Receiver Xavier Gipson is eying the Walter Payton Award and looks to be the guy for the Lumberjacks on the outside. There’s no reason quarterback Trae Self shouldn’t tear through the WAC and get his team back to the postseason. The only question right now is whether or not SFA will garner the respect from the committee to realistically land a seed. They aren’t, after all, a perennial contender on the national stage (yet). Still, an impressive enough run should get the job done.
7. Missouri State
The Bears aren’t pinging on a ton of radars right now but they should be; this team is good... really good. Jason Shelley is as electric as they come at quarterback and that special teams unit is no joke. Pair all that with a stingy defense that forced 24 turnovers a year ago and you’ve got a legitimate contender. A first-round upset loss at home a year ago gave Missouri State just the motivation it needed to be a really scary team this time out. They probably won’t be winning the MVC because of sharing the league with the likes of NDSU and SDSU but a bye is certainly attainable.
8. Holy Cross
The Patriot League is Holy Cross’ for the taking and it’s hard to see anyone nabbing it from them at the moment. They’ve claimed the league title three years in a row and until someone can prove they’re worthy of dethroning them, the Crusaders sit firmly at the top. The program took a big step last year when it won its first ever playoff game. This team is trending in the right direction and senior linebacker Jacob Dobbs has the defense looking as stout as ever. It won’t be a shock if this squad gathers enough wins to not only win the conference again but to sit the first round out.
Predicted First-Round Matchups
North Carolina A&T at Chattanooga (Winner to North Dakota State)
Chattanooga has been on the cusp for a while and now it’s time for them to break through. Devonnsha Maxwell is a beast on the edge for a defense that itself is really good. The SoCon has some good teams but the Mocs shape up to be the best right now. They’ll be back in the playoffs for the first time in six seasons and playing host to a solid Aggies bunch from North Carolina. The Big South isn’t very deep and North Carolina A&T are favorites to win it in their last year there before departing for the CAA.
UC Davis at Incarnate Word (Winner to Montana State)
UC Davis looks to again be a force out west and with guys like Ulonzo Gilliam Jr in the fray, they have a chance. That being said, playing in the Big Sky is tough. The Aggies have a solid enough roster to reach the postseason again but getting one of the coveted seeds seems out of reach for the moment. They’ll hit the road in the first round to take on likely Southland champ Incarnate Word. The Cardinals did lose one of the best quarterbacks in the country when Cam Ward transferred out but with studs like receiver Taylor Grimes still on the offense, we expect UIW to have enough in the tank to reach the playoffs for a second consecutive year.
UT-Martin at ETSU (Winner to South Dakota State)
Randy Sanders retiring this offseason was a big hit. Can first-year coach George Quarles carry the torch and avoid a slump for ETSU? Yes the Bucs won 11 games last fall and yes they’re probably good for at least seven or eight this year but Chattanooga got better. Mercer got better. VMI is still hanging around. As of right now it feels like ETSU winning the SoCon again is a stretch. The Buccaneers will, however, make the cut and host UT-Martin in the opening round. The Skyhawks are picked to win the OVC again this year and we really can’t disagree after last year's team made the playoffs then won its first-ever postseason game.
Rhode Island at Villanova (Winner to Holy Cross)
Normally first round matchups between conference mates isn’t allowed with the postseason rules however, the Rams and the Wildcats aren’t slated for a regular meeting thus the pairing is possible. Villanova is coming off a great year in which they won ten games and got a seed. They are the favorite to win the JMU-less CAA once more but that’s not say that other teams won’t give them a run, Rhode Island being one of them. The Rams were one of the first teams left out of the postseason field a year ago and you’ve got to believe that left a sour taste in their mouth. This time they’ll sneak in for what would be their first appearance in the playoffs since 1985.
Mercer at Southern Illinois (Winner to Montana)
Drew Cronic’s Bears will finally get over the playoff hump for the first time in program history after narrowly missing out despite a seven-win season last year. They’ll nab enough gritty SoCon wins to sneak in this time and their reward for doing so will be a trip to Carbondale to take on the Salukis. Led by quarterback Nic Baker, SIU will have what it takes to stay afloat in the Missouri Valley to again make it in. Southern Illinois head coach Nick Hill is coming into his seventh season and should have his team primed for another run to the playoffs.
San Diego at Sacramento State (Winner to Missouri State)
The Hornets have been plagued by rough endings to otherwise successful seasons as of late. Home playoff losses after byes in 2019 and 2021 have clouded the team’s two Big Sky titles and this year Sac State will again host a postseason contest in their building with a chance to put those demons to rest. Their opponent will be San Diego. The Toreros ended last season about as well as they could, winning their last seven contests. Unfortunately that streak wasn’t quite enough to snag a playoff spot but this year should be different. The Pioneer League isn’t exactly loaded with heavy hitters and if San Diego can carry their momentum from last year over, watch out.
Richmond at Southeastern Louisiana (Winner to Stephen F. Austin)
Cole Kelley being gone is going to be tough but SLU has the makings to withstand such a loss. Outside of Incarnate Word, the Southland isn’t expected to be ultra competitive this season and the Lions should be able to grab an at-large bid. Frank Scelfo has built something special in Hammond. The Spiders, meanwhile, will have one of the better linebackers in the nation with Tristan Wheeler and a dynamite return game that’s spearheaded by Aaron Dykes. Richmond won’t win the CAA but they will make the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
Sacred Heart at Delaware (Winner to Kennesaw State)
Malik Grant came onto the scene in a big way in 2021 and helped the Pioneers reach the postseason with an NEC championship and he’ll do the same this year. Duquesne is expected to give them a run but until they prove they can take the top spot from Sacred Heart, we can’t put the Dukes in yet. The Pioneers will head to Delaware where first-year head coach Ryan Carty should have the Blue Hens program revitalized and getting back to what they once we were in the late 2000s. It’s hard to say they’ll will win a CAA title right now but they’re well on their way to relevancy once more.
Here’s what our final bracket looks like (home teams are pictured on the bottom of each matchup)...
Predicted First Four Out
The Eagles are hit with a double whammy this year: they lost the defending Walter Payton Award winner and most prolific passer in the country Eric Barriere and the Big Sky continues to get tougher around them. EWU will still field a talented team in 2022 but as of right now there’s too many question marks to say for sure that this is a playoff-worthy squad, especially in the conference they play in. Games against Montana, Montana State, Sacramento State and two FBS contests against Oregon and Florida make for a brutal schedule.
It’s odd to think of a playoff field that doesn’t feature the Panthers, participants in 22 of these tournaments. However, with the Missouri Valley looking as tough as it is another 6-6 campaign in Cedar Falls is entirely possible. Last year that was enough to squeak into the playoffs; this year it likely won’t be. UNI is always good to pull some big time wins (see last year’s game against SDSU) but they also tend to lose some head scratchers too (the Illinois State game from last season). Mark Farley is an excellent coach but even he won’t have quite enough tricks up his sleeve this time.
The Keydets are so close to being a team ready to compete and who knows, maybe they’re ready this year. The SoCon is stacked with solid programs, though, and getting by Chattanooga, ETSU and Mercer will be no easy feat. Stone Snyder is one of the toughest linebackers in the country and the special teams is good enough to keep VMI in most if not all games they play. Will the offense have what it takes to put those games away? That’s the main concern right now.
William & Mary
Victims of circumstance, the Tribe will again come up just short. James Madison leaving the conference does spark hope for a team that went 6-5 in 2021 but even with standouts like Nate Lynn on the roster, the CAA slate will prove to be too much. Games against Villanova, Delaware, Richmond and Rhode Island are all pivotal and it’s hard to see William & Mary navigating that schedule unscathed. Maybe in one more year we’ll see them back in the playoffs but for now it seems out of reach.
The SoCon Sends Three: It hasn’t happened since 2017 and many don’t see it happening this year either but we’ll be optimistic. The SoCon is loaded this year and several teams have the talent and depth to make a playoff push in 2022 if they can stay healthy. Of course there’s still a whole season in front of us but as it looks right now Chattanooga, ETSU, Mercer and even VMI are all in the mix. This conference is the real deal.
Missouri State, Holy Cross Get Seeds/Villanova Doesn’t: For all the reasons mentioned above, the Bears are a team to really trust in this year. Enough wins in a quality MVC and you’ve got to believe the committee would absolutely have to consider MSU for one of the top eight spots. What helps greatly is that they do not face NDSU this season so there’s at least nine truly winnable games on their schedule perhaps outside of Arkansas and maybe SDSU. A conference having three seeds isn’t unheard of either. The Big Sky did it last year and actually had four (that’s half) in 2019.
Now for Holy Cross. The Crusaders play in weak Patriot League that they've dominated over the last few seasons. This year the team looks as good as it ever has and could realistically run the table or just lose one in league play. Let’s say they lose an expected one to Buffalo then drop one to a good Fordham team but go beat up on everyone else including the two Ivies they face. That’s 9-2 and that’s a record that was held by four seeded teams last year.
Then there’s the Wildcats who are good enough to win the CAA again. However, unless ‘Nova wins all their tougher games against foes like Maine, Richmond, William & Mary and Delaware, they may not have enough wins to get that week off. Remember, they also have an FBS game on their docket against Army. Mark Ferrante’s guys got the 5-seed last year but they also had a 9-2 record on their resume. We don’t see nine wins happening this time and (usually) that’s a the cutoff.