Fall camps are underway around the country and college football is (finally) in the air again, even if the actual games are still a few weeks out. As the nation’s many FCS teams begin to work toward one of the coveted 24 playoff spots, we skip ahead... as we always do... to try and make our best guess at who will fill those spots before a snap has even been played. How far off will we be?
Find out in five months.
1. South Dakota State
It’s almost always a safe bet to put last year’s national champion as a 1-seed going into the following season and it’s a really safe bet this year. South Dakota State is the clear cut favorite to take the title home again because they hardly lost anyone from last year’s dominant team that thrashed NDSU in Frisco. The Jackrabbits will begin a fresh era without legendary head coach John Stiegelmeier who retired last winter but new head man Jimmy Rodgers has a roster that shouldn’t miss a beat. Quarterback Mark Gronowski returns along with Isaiah Davis and the Janke twins. SDSU is going to be tough to beat again this year and it appears the road back to Texas runs straight through Brookings once more.
2. North Dakota State
This has been one of the more tumultuous offseasons in recent memory for North Dakota State but it would be folly to count the Bison out even in the light of the great roster turnover. Just when you think NDSU is down and out they bounce back. This year is going to really be a “prove it” season for North Dakota State after not only losing the title game but taking one on the chin from their rivals. A slew of guys hit the transfer portal including standout players like Kobe Johnson and Courtney Eubanks while even more went pro including fullback Hunter Luepke and offensive lineman Cody Mauch. Matt Entz’s team is going to be put to the test in a big way this fall but the Bison have done enough over the years to earn our respect and maintain the 2-spot until they prove they don’t deserve it.
3. Montana State
Some think that Montana State is the second best team in the land behind SDSU and they may be right. The Bobcats return several starters from their semifinal run in 2022 including the dynamic pair of quarterbacks in Tommy Mellott and Sean Chambers. Yes, running back Isaiah Ifanse has a new home at Cal but remember, MSU survived the entire regular season without him last year as he was nursing an injury and they still won the Big Sky title. The ‘Cats hold the nation’s longest active home winning streak at 20 games in a row and it certainly seems as though that number should grow this year. If anything will be their undoing it’s a brutal road schedule that features South Dakota State, Weber State, Sacramento State, Idaho and Montana (all on the road). The Bobcats, though, should be at the top of the heap again come November if they stay healthy.
The Paladins were four points and a tough call away from pulling off an upset over Incarnate Word in the playoffs last year and who knows how far they would have gone after that. Fast forward eight months and Furman looks as though its ready to make a run at a conference championship. Clay Hendrix’s team will undoubtedly be fueled by the unceremonious end to last season and they’ll have a scary good roster to boot. The Paladins defense will be led by star CB Hugh Ryan who has eight career picks and 181 total tackles. On the other side, Dominic Roberto is back and that’s welcome news to Furman fans as Roberto was one of the best running backs in the FCS last fall. He rushed for 1,120 yards and 11 scores. These, of course, are just a few of the big names on the roster this year. That October 14 game at Samford will be a mammoth one but, as of now, Furman gets our nod for the SoCon’s top spot.
5. William & Mary
The Tribe put together a fantastic 2022 season and, despite the fact that it ended in blowout fashion, there’s plenty to be optimistic for this year. Mike London is one of the best coaches out there and he has a team that’s ready to compete for a conference title once again because essentially everyone is coming back. Quarterback Darius Wilson is only a junior and he has his top two running backs, Malachi Imoh and Bronson Yoder, returning as well. The pair combined for nearly 2,000 yards and 22 touchdowns last year. The CAA again feels fairly open this year and right now it’s hard to pick against the defending champs, especially when the schedule-makers did them a big a favor by keeping them away from the likes of Delaware, UNH and Villanova.
6. Holy Cross
Holy Cross was the only team we seeded correctly last August and the Crusaders came by that spot honestly a year ago. They tore through the Patriot League for the best season in school history and, while it will be no easy task to make the curtain call this year, Bob Chesney’s group is still the cream of the crop in that conference. Matthew Sluka put the nation on notice with 2,489 passing yards last year and now he returns for his senior season. Star linebacker Jacob Dobbs is also back after suffering an elbow injury that sidelined him for much of the year last fall. Don’t forget, this is the team that also gave South Dakota State its toughest time in the playoffs. The Crusaders have the pieces and now the experience under their belts to make another run.
7. Incarnate Word
It’s tough to know what to do with UIW right now. Last year everyone thought the team would fall off after losing their head coach and star quarterback but instead the Cardinals ran it all the way to the semifinals where they nearly beat North Dakota State. This year the program is in the same boat as former head coach G.J. Kinne left for Texas State and signal-caller Lindsey Scott Jr. has graduated. Once again, though, Incarnate Word brought in a transfer QB with Zach Calzada (a guy who knocked off Alabama back in his Texas A&M days). They promoted Clint Killough to head coach as well. It seems to be a carbon copy of last fall and it worked out pretty well then. As of now, UIW gets a spot in the top eight.
It’s been a long, long time since fans in Moscow have had this much to be excited about going into a season and rightfully so. Idaho may have the most promise of any FCS team entering this year after making the playoffs last season out of a very tough Big Sky Conference. Jason Eck is now in his second season as is phenom quarterback Gevani McCoy, last year’s Jerry Rice Award winner. Receiver Hayden Hatten is back too and the Vandals shape up to be a scary team this year. Is a seed a little optimistic? Maybe. But if we’re going off potential here then Idaho is right at the top.
Predicted First-Round Matchups
North Dakota at Montana (Winner to South Dakota State)
The Grizzlies should be helped greatly by an easier schedule in 2023. UM plays only three teams that made the playoffs last fall and two of those games will be at home. They will not face an FBS opponent in 2023 and instead will square off with the likes of Butler, Utah Tech and Division II’s Ferris State during non-conference play. Montana did lose some big names after last year but Bobby Hauck always seems to find a way to field a competitive team. The Griz will play host to former Big Sky rival North Dakota who is looking to make it to the playoffs for the third time in four years. UND returns offensive studs like Tommy Schuster and Bo Belquist along with a pair of fifth-year DBs in C.J. Siegel and Malachi Buckner. The Missouri Valley is not a cakewalk but the Hawks should have enough to get back to the postseason.
Northern Iowa at UC Davis (Winner to Montana State)
It isn’t very often that Northern Iowa misses the playoffs twice in a row and it won’t be happening this year. The Panthers should be able to shake off the woes of last season with the help of Theo Day. Day finished as one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in 2022 with 3,121 passing yards and a completion percentage of 65%. He won’t be alone either as his top receiver Sam Schnee is back also. UC Davis will welcome the Panthers. The Aggies are considered by several to be one of the bigger playoff snubs from last year after winning five of their final six games but still not getting picked. Dan Hawkins’ team avoids two of the Big Sky’s top hitters this year and that should help them greatly.
Merrimack at New Hampshire (Winner to Furman)
William & Mary may be the class of the CAA right now but New Hampshire isn’t far behind at all. The Wildcats have an explosive offense with Dylan Laube at running back and Max Brosmer at QB; the same pair that led UNH to the second round last year. They’ll be back this winter and they’ll welcome in NEC champion Merrimack. The Warriors finished just behind St. Francis in the Northeast standings a season ago with 6-1 league record. Stud linebacker Myles Taylor should have the Warriors defense playing tough again while Gavin McCusker will lead the offense once more.
Southeastern Louisiana at Richmond (Winner to Holy Cross)
Lately its been an almost-surefire bet that when the playoffs roll around, Southeastern Louisiana will be a part of them. Frank Scelfo’s program was one of only two that beat Southland foe Incarnate Word last year and they very well could again in 2023. We aren’t giving them the auto bid right now but the Lions are very deserving of an at-large spot. Richmond, meanwhile, may be one of the last teams let in. The Spiders begin life in the post-Reece Udinski era and that leaves things uncertain. Still, with guys like star linebacker in Tristan Wheeler around, you can never count them out.
Southeast Missouri State at Delaware (Winner to Incarnate Word)
SEMO is reloaded and ready to roll again. All-American running back Geno Hess is back for a final ride after rushing for 1,691 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2022. Quarterback Paxton DeLaurent also returns meaning that the Redhawks shouldn’t miss much of a beat on offense after taking the OVC crown last year. That auto bid will also encompass the Big South this year but it’s still SEMO’s for the taking. The Blue Hens will host and it’ll be a doozy. In Ryan Carty’s second year at the helm, Delaware is looking to bounce back from a lackluster end to 2022. Now without Nolan Henderson, the Hens will rely on veteran talent like receiver Jordan Townsend and running back Kyron Cumby.
San Diego at Sacramento State (Winner to Idaho)
It would be a mistake to doubt Sacramento State even though the architect of its recent success, Troy Taylor, is gone. The Hornets are still loaded and with playmakers like tight end Marshel Martin still around, it’s a safe bet to put this group in the bracket. The Big Sky is no joke and, unlike their last few postseason trips, Sac State will have to play in the opening round this time. They’ll welcome in San Diego who gets the auto bid from the Pioneer League. The Toreros should have little problem with navigating the conference slate and their likely toughest competition, St. Thomas, is not playoff-eligible yet.
Mercer at Eastern Kentucky (Winner to North Dakota State)
EKU got a big boost when quarterback Parker McKinney announced his return to the team this year and you’ve got to believe that the Colonels should be favorites to nab that auto bid from the United Athletic Conference (formerly WAC-ASUN) again. The season ended earlier than they would have hoped for in 2022 at the hands of Gardner-Webb but this time out Eastern Kentucky seems poised to make a deeper run. They’ll host Mercer in the opening round. The Bears under fourth-year coach Drew Cronic will have a slog waiting for them in the SoCon this season but end up nabbing one of the final playoff spots.
Gardner-Webb at Samford (Winner to William & Mary)
It’ll be Bulldog on Bulldog action in the first round with Samford opening the gates for Gardner-Webb. Michael Hiers may very well end up with the Walter Payton Award and is undoubtedly one of the country’s top QBs. Samford will go as far as he can take them and with a receiver like Chandler Smith to sling to... that seems like it might be pretty far. Gardner-Webb, meanwhile, is also ready to return to the postseason after their first-ever trip in 2022. Running back Narii Gaither is fresh off a 1,000-yard season and has his sights set on more as a senior. It’ll be a fun opening-round duel in Birmingham.
Predicted First Four Out
Not putting the Wildcats in the playoffs feels wrong but every year an unfortunate Big Sky team that is probably deserving gets the boot. This season it feels like it’s going to be Weber State simply because of the overturn they are seeing in key positions. With Jay Hill now calling the shots at Utah State and last year’s quarterback Bronson Barron also gone, there are more questions for the Wildcats than the other top teams in their conference. They should still string together a winning record but even 7-4 has proven to not always be enough for the selection committee.
The Penguins were right there last year and they’ll be right there again this time. Mitch Davidson will again be under center and he’s coming off a solid 12-touchdown season in which he threw for over 1,600 yards. The talent certainly is there. YSU, however, has the misfortunes of playing the Missouri Valley and that will do them no favors come the end of November. Games against South Dakota State, UNI and Southern Illinois will be the big deciders.
If the United Athletic Conference does send two, Austin Peay should be that second bid. Does the conference have enough credibility to land that second team, however? Right now, it’s tough to see. The Governors have the roster to put together a good season in 2023 with quarterback Mike DiLiello and running back CJ Evans back in the mix. That being said, it may need to be a great season in order for the Govs to make it in. Leading receiver Drae McCray is gone as are a lot of the defensive standouts from a season ago. This team will make some noise but it just won’t be quite enough.
The playoff discussion is not usually one Jackson State finds itself in but this year there could exist the makings of a perfect storm for it to be a legitimate possibility. The Tigers are no longer the favorites in the SWAC, at least not right now, with the departure of Coach Prime and the many, many transfers that followed. JSU is instead pegged by several to be second fiddle in the conference and, should that happen, then things get interesting. Let’s say Florida A&M takes the top spot. They, of course, go to the Celebration Bowl. Jackson State, however, at second in the standings may be considered for a playoff berth with a good enough record. Unfortunately for the Tigers, it takes a very good mark as an HBCU to be let in. This year it just doesn’t seem to be in the cards with all the change afoot.
Predicted Final Bracket
Host institutions are pictured on the bottom of each pairing.