FCS College Football 2021: Pioneer Football League Preview
The Pioneer Football League title race feels oh-so-different than just a few months.
Davidson helped end San Diego’s stranglehold on PFL competition during the unique spring season, capturing the league title and an FCS playoff berth for the first time under coach Scott Abell. But the race proved to be “the more, the merrier” even without Dayton and Marist because Morehead State, Valparaiso and transitioning member Presbyterian joined San Diego as finishing within a half-game of Davidson.
The feeling around the league is so different that Davidson was voted atop the PFL’s preseason poll this summer, ending San Diego’s nine-year run as being the preseason favorite.
Here’s a preview of the upcoming PFL season:
With Spring Season Record Unless Noted
1. San Diego (4-2, 3-2) – The Toreros’ average points per game (23.7) in the spring season were a 10-year low and down nearly 15 from 2019. Quarterback Mason Randall threw more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (10), but is helped by the return of wide receiver Michael Carner and tight end Derek Kline.
2. Davidson (4-3, 4-1) – After making their first postseason appearance in 52 years, the defending champion Wildcats must replace 3½-year starting quarterback Tyler Phelps, but the option offense still boasts Dylan Sparks and Coy Williams (1,095 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in the spring). Defensive end Jonathan Hammond was a beast in winning PFL freshman defensive player of the year.
3. Dayton (2019: 8-3, 6-2) – The Flyers sat out the 2020 season after having the top-scoring FCS offense (42.5 ppg) a year earlier. Quarterback Jack Cook no longer throws to tight end Adam Trautman (now a New Orleans Saint), but backfield mate Jake Chisholm led the subdivision in all-purpose yards per game (204.3).
4. Drake (2-3, 2-3) – Despite the losing record, no FCS team that played more than two games allowed fewer points per game than the Bulldogs (12.8). The offense showed maturation in the team’s final two games, and it figures to be better with quarterback Ian Corwin, who had an injury-plagued spring season.
5. Valparaiso (4-2, 4-2) – Valpo ended a 14-game losing streak to San Diego to close the spring season and match the best program’s winning percentage (.667) since 1999. Workhorse running back Robert Washington (140 carries, 653 yards, 5 TDs) was the PFL’s offensive player of the year.
6. Morehead State (4-3, 4-2) – No PFL passing duo connected on more TD passes than quarterback Mark Pappas and wide receiver B.J. Byrd (eight), but the Eagles have to run the ball (66.4 rushing yards per game) and defend the rush (232.3 ypg) better than their PFL-low averages.
7. Presbyterian (4-3, 4-1 ineligible for title) – Kevin Kelley makes the jump from being a successful high school coach in Arkansas. While the Blue Hose handed Davidson its only league defeat, their two All-Americans, wide receiver Keith Pearson and linebacker Colby Campbell, departed as grad transfers.
8. Marist (2019: 4-7, 4-4) – The Red Foxes return from a year off for coach Jim Parady’s 29th season and the easiest league schedule (Davidson and San Diego are not on it). As a redshirt freshman in 2019, Hunter Cobb rushed for 674 yards and 13 TDs on 5.5 yards per carry.
9. Stetson (0-4, 0-4) – Roger Hughes’ former defensive coordinator Brian Young has returned to Stetson to succeed him as head coach. The run game is still young, but already experienced with Jordan Younge Humphrey and Jalen Leary working behind linemen Billy Corte and Antonio Derry.
10. St. Thomas (2019: 8-2 Division III) – Having finished nationally ranked in each of its last 11 seasons, St. Thomas is the first institution to make a direct move in all sports from Division III to Division I, and the first in football since Buffalo and Dayton in 1993. After suffering big graduation losses, coach Glenn Caruso’s squad will rely heavily on senior quarterback Tommy Dolan.
11. Butler (0-6, 0-6) – Since appearing in the 2013 FCS playoffs, the Bulldogs are 16-38 (.296) in PFL games, and they’ve dropped 12 straight road games including nonconference. Quarterback Sam Brown has thrown more interceptions (13) than TD passes (nine) over the last two seasons.
PRESEASON OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF YEAR
Dayton quarterback Jack Cook – Only one FCS signal caller accounted for more touchdowns in 2019 than Cook’s 45. Villanova’s Daniel Smith had three more total TDs while playing two more games, so Cook ranked No. 1 nationally in points responsible for per game (24.7).
PRESEASON DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF YEAR
Dayton safety Brandon Easterling – Easterling kept pace with Cook on the defensive side of the ball in 2019, tying for the most takeaways in the FCS (nine on six interceptions and three fumble recoveries) and ranking second in solo tackles per game (7.5) and tackles per game (12.7).
2022 NFL PROSPECT
Morehead State defensive end Vaughn Taylor Jr. – Since a transfer from Kansas in 2018, the 6-foot-2, 252-pound Taylor has totaled 33 tackles for loss and 12 sacks in 28 games at MSU. A strong 40-yard dash would boost an eventual drop to outside linebacker.
Dayton coach Rick Chamberlin has been a member of the program for 503 games and in every season since 1975 except one (1979). He has a record 70 PFL wins and is closing in on 100 overall victories (93-41 through 12 seasons).
There will be a lot of getting to know you between PFL teams. Dayton and Marist haven’t played since 2019, Presbyterian and four of its league opponents are meeting for the first time, and St. Thomas is basically new to everybody.
3 MUST-SEE GAMES
Butler at St. Thomas (Sept. 25) – Butler, which stunned Youngstown State on the road in 2018, travels to St. Paul, Minnesota, for the Tommies’ PFL debut.
San Diego at Davidson (Sept. 25) – In April, the Wildcats ended San Diego’s 39-game PFL win streak, which left the Toreros tied for the longest league run in FCS history.
Davidson at Dayton (Nov. 13) – The end zones at Welcome Stadium will be hospitable to the two offenses.