Conference-by-Conference Lookahead to 2022 FCS Season: Part II
North Dakota State’s win in the national championship game last Saturday completed an outstanding 2021 season in FCS college football, which was full of standout players, veteran teams and national attention.
The crystal ball doesn’t provide as strong an outlook for 2022.
The FCS will be in transition next season following heavy graduation losses, key players making transfers to FBS programs, and traditional powers James Madison, Sam Houston and Jacksonville State getting ready to move upward.
The top national title contenders basically reside in the Big Sky and the MVFC, and it’s particularly top heavy in Montana and the Dakotas. (Final 2021 FCS Top 25 rankings)
The good news is new players will emerge given bigger opportunities and teams will surprise those who didn’t see their success coming. It happens every season. (See 2021 FCS All-America Team)
In the second of a two-part lookahead to the 2022 FCS season – here is Part I of the story – take an early outlook at this half of the conferences:
Ohio Valley Conference
Early Outlook: Murray State, set to make a move to the Missouri Valley Conference in other sports, will play the 2022 season in the OVC, so the conference will have enough teams (six following Austin Peay’s move to the ASUN) to allow its champion to automatically qualify for the FCS playoffs. The Racers should be strong behind quarterback DJ Williams. Defending champion UT Martin, coming off its first-ever playoff win, loses a number of key players, but coach Jason Simpson will reload the lineup, and his team’s conference-leading run game should remain strong up front and with breakout back Zak Wallace. The title contenders, including Southeast Missouri and Tennessee State, could be bunched together. Interestingly, former Austin Peay signal caller Jeremiah Oatsvall will be back in the conference at Tennessee Tech.
Fast Fact: In response to both conferences losing membership, the OVC and Southland will join forces this fall to begin a two-year nonconference scheduling alliance.
Early Outlook: Before securing its first playoff victory, Holy Cross rolled to its third straight title, winning Patriot games by an average of 29.5 points, so the return of quarterback Matthew Sluka and linebacker Jacob Dobbs doesn’t bode well for the rest of the league. Second-place finisher Colgate boasted the league’s rookie of the year in quarterback Michael Brescia. Pencil in Fordham linebacker Ryan Greenhagen again alongside James Conway, perhaps returning to his record-setting FCS tackles pace that was derailed by a knee injury in early October.
Fast Fact: Only one FCS conference had more than one player in the national top eight in tackles per game, and it was the Patriot League with a trio – Conway (second, 11.8), Lafayette’s Marco Olivas (seventh, 10.6) and Dobbs (eighth, 10.5).
Pioneer Football League
Early Outlook: Coming off back-to-back PFL titles, coach Scott Abell has Davidson primed for a three-peat. The FCS’ No. 1 rushing attack will return Dylan Sparks, while the Wildcats defense boasts a league player of the year candidate in defensive end Jonathan Hammond. The league won’t have a shortage of top backs as Dayton returns all-purpose standout Jake Chisholm and St. Thomas (7-3, 6-2 in its PFL debut) has Hope Adebayo. San Diego tied Dayton for the PFL all-time high by earning a share of its 12th league title, and coach Dale Lindsey will lead the way again as Division I’s oldest coach (79 next week).
Fast Fact: Dayton seeks to reach a milestone in its third game. The Flyers have scored in 497 straight games since 1976.
Early Outlook: This could be one of the more fun races once again after the SoCon’s 2021 season didn’t get its due by having only one playoff team, champion ETSU, which now has a new coach in George Quarles. Chattanooga has been knocking on the door, and the Mocs return running back Ailym Ford and defensive end Devonnsha Maxwell to highlight a veteran-laden lineup. Mercer appears primed to earn its first-ever playoff bid after falling one win short. Western Carolina figures to keep the momentum going in coach Kerwin Bell’s second season. (ETSU and other FCS schools that have a new coach)
Fast Fact: SoCon teams led the FCS in rushing yards per game for the third straight season, averaging nearly 194 (almost 27 yards more than the teams of the next-highest conference).
Early Outlook: UIW moves to the Western Athletic Conference after winning its first outright Southland title, but the race remains at six teams because Texas A&M-Commerce is moving in from the Division II level. Stalwarts such as Nicholls, Southeastern Louisiana and McNeese lose plenty of key players, so the race is particularly wide open. The biggest individual loss is Southeastern quarterback Cole Kelley, the 2020 Walter Payton Award recipient and runner-up this past season, but Cephus Johnson III has waited in the wings.
Fast Fact: The loss of so many key players in the offensive skills positions will make it difficult for the Southland to match its FCS-leading averages in offensive yards per game (nearly 422) and points per game (30.6).
Southwestern Athletic Conference
Early Outlook: Four of the 12 teams will have new coaches: Alabama State (Eddie Robinson Jr.) in the East Division, and Grambling State (Hue Jackson), Prairie View A&M (Bubba McDowell) and Southern (Eric Dooley) in the West. Jackson State will be a heavy favorite for a title repeat, considering Eddie Robinson Award-winning coach Deion Sanders keeps adding top recruits and transfers to the program. East runner-up Florida A&M only lost to the Tigers by one point, and the 2021 playoff qualifier returns defensive end/linebacker Isaiah Land, who won the Buck Buchanan Award (watch the FCS National Awards broadcast). Alcorn State wants the West title after beating eventual champ Prairie View late in the 2021 season.
Fast Fact: The SWAC has led FCS conferences in attendance 43 of 44 times since the FCS formed in 1978. Jackson State’s six-game home attendance average of 42,293 set a single-season record in the subdivision.
Western Athletic Conference
Early Outlook: Sam Houston remains a part of the conference schedule as it begins to transition to the FBS level (Conference USA), although the WAC has yet to announce if the Bearkats will be title-eligible (they aren’t playoff-eligible). Due to the Bearkats’ 2022 status and Dixie State (to be renamed Utah Tech on July 1) and Tartleton not yet playoff-eligible, the WAC has applied to the NCAA to request an automatic qualifying bid to the postseason. Stephen F. Austin, which features one of the FCS’ most exciting offensive players in wide receiver Xavier Gipson, and newcomer UIW will be paired again, having most recently met in an overtime playoff game Thanksgiving weekend. Southern Utah is the other newcomer, joining from the Big Sky.
Fast Fact: The 2022 schedule will be easier for Dixie State (Utah Tech) after it played nine of its 11 games against opponents that were in the playoffs either in the spring or fall campaign, or both.