The 2023 season gave FCS fans several reasons to do a double take and a bunch of teams around the country did more than anyone thought they would last summer. It was not all the usual suspects making headlines last fall. In fact, there were several unexpected names coming out of the woodwork that ended up making some real noise down the stretch.
These ten teams gave their fanbases a pleasant surprise last season.
10. Youngstown State Penguins (8-5)
Youngstown State has been on the brink of returning to the playoffs for a few years and finally broke through last fall. One of six MVFC teams to make the bracket, the Penguins won eight games in 2023 and toppled Duquesne in the opening round. YSU was led by Mitch Davidson under center who threw for over 3,000 yards. They also had a 1,000-yard rusher in senior tailback Tyshon King. Youngstown State wasn’t necessarily showing up on a lot of preseason playoff picks but ended up proving the early predictions wrong. It was the winningest season for the Penguins since their run to the championship in 2016.
9. Eastern Illinois Panthers (8-3)
In 2022, Eastern Illinois was only able to muster up two wins and finished in a tie for last place in the OVC. That’s why no one expected much of anything to come out of Charleston last year but the Panthers had other plans. Led by junior signal-caller Holley Pierce, EIU spun off eight wins and had themselves in a position to compete for a playoff spot in the final weeks. The Panthers didn’t quite get in but they showed improvement in leaps and bounds. The defense, which allowed 31.2 points per contest two years ago, had that number way down to under 20 last season while the offense produced 373 yards a game on the other side. All-around 2023 turned out to be a surprisingly successful campaign and things are looking up for EIU.
8. Austin Peay Governors (9-3)
The Govs’ season came to an early, heartbreaking end in the playoffs but there’s no denying that, final result aside, 2023 was a notable year for Austin Peay. The program picked up the most wins its had in the Scotty Walden era and won the UAC championship. Quarterback Mike DiLiello ended his collegiate career in style, passing for a career-best 3,164 yards along with 28 touchdowns. He finished 8th in voting for the Walter Payton Award. The Governors were also the only FCS team to have two players register more than 100 total tackles last fall with Tyler Long and Sam Howard each eclipsing the mark. All of these accomplishments came for a team that wasn’t pegged by many to make much national noise. Austin Peay won’t be overlooked going into next year.
7. Chattanooga Mocs (8-5)
Several folks thought that last fall might be the year that the SoCon sent three teams to the playoffs (and it did) but only a handful picked Chattanooga to be one of those teams. The Mocs, despite losing an ugly one to North Alabama to start the season, ended up winning eight games in 2023 and reaching the postseason for the first time since 2016. Chattanooga made it to the second round after ousting Austin Peay in the opening round behind a dramatic last-second field goal. Star running back Ailym Ford went down with a season-ending injury but it didn’t hinder the Mocs like it could have. Gino Appleberry stepped up to lead the team with 753 yards and eight scores.
6. Western Carolina Catamounts (7-4)
Western Carolina didn’t quite make the cut for the playoffs (although there’s some real controversy around that) but it shouldn’t take away from what the Catamounts were able to do last fall. WCU posted its first seven-win season since 2017 and finished in the STATS Perform Top 25. Led by a dynamic duo of QB Cole Gonzalez and running back Desmond Reid, the Catamounts were the only FCS offense to average over 500 total yards per game. They navigated a tough SoCon slate taking down last year’s champion Samford along with playoff-bound Chattanooga.
5. Southern Illinois Salukis (8-5)
Making a run in the Missouri Valley is no easy task but Nick Hill’s SIU team was able to do it in 2023. The Salukis started their season with four straight wins and were one of only four FCS squads to defeat an FBS opponent last year. Southern Illinois made the playoffs and beat the brakes off Nicholls in the opening round before taking Idaho to overtime a week later. Quarterback Nic Baker was great in his final collegiate year, throwing for 2,741 yards and 17 touchdowns. The defense kept opponents to 16.2 points per contest and the offense put up numbers at a high clip. SIU was back where they expected to be after a down year in 2022.
4. Lafayette Leopards (9-3)
Who would have thought that the 2023 playoffs would have featured Lafayette? Hardly any, as it turns out. Holy Cross was practically a unanimous pick to represent the Patriot League in the postseason this year and not so much as a second thought was given about it... at least until October 21. That’s when the then-unranked Leopards went into Worcester and knocked off the Crusaders for arguably the most impactful of their nine wins last year. John Troxell’s team would end up only losing three games all year and two of those were to FBS Duke and Delaware in the playoffs. It was just the fifth time in program history that Lafayette saw postseason ball and the first in over a decade.
3. Montana Grizzlies (13-2)
Montana had a tale of two seasons with about as stark of a contrast as it can get. After barely beating Division II’s Ferris State at home and dropping an ugly one to Northern Arizona back in September the Grizzlies were left for dead by most everyone in the FCS. UM, though, reeled off 10 straight after that loss, won the Big Sky championship for the first time in 14 years and reached the national championship game. The Griz took down several powerhouse teams along the way including Sacramento State, Montana State and North Dakota State on their historic run to Frisco. Although it all came up short on the big stage, Montana made a lot of folks eat crow last season.
2. South Dakota Coyotes (10-3)
One of the biggest surprises in the FCS last season was the success of South Dakota. The Coyotes weren’t expected to do a whole lot but instead they ended up stringing together ten wins. Not only did Bob Neilson’s team reach the playoffs but they landed a seed for the first time in program history and made it to the quarterfinals. USD beat five ranked opponents including a then-#2 North Dakota State. Aidan Bouman led an offense that averaged nearly 350 yards per game and the defense wasn’t too shabby either, surrendering less than 18 points per outing. All in all it was a year to remember in Vermillion.
1. UAlbany Great Danes (11-4)
Picked to finish near last in the CAA last fall, the Great Danes did nothing but turn heads all year in 2023. UAlbany put together the best season in program history, not only qualifying for the playoffs and taking a share of the conference title, but making a run all the way to the semifinals for the first time in school history. Greg Gatusso’s squad was exciting to watch all season. Whether it was dynamic sophomore quarterback Reese Poffenbarger lighting up the scoreboard or Buck Buchanan finalist linebacker Dylan Kelly posting an FCS-leading 159 tackles, UAlbany made its mark last year and did so in spite of what most everyone thought back in August.