Everywhere you turn, there are intriguing story lines heading into the 2022 FCS college football season, where an all-time record 130 programs will hit the field.
It starts with North Dakota State’s pursuit of double figures with its FCS championship trophy collection.
That’s an easy call, though. With all due respect to the green and yellow dynasty up north, we’re here to pound our chest with bold predictions.
Here are five to watch for in FCS 2022:
More FCS conferences than not will have a new champion
FCS college football is synonymous with titles repeats – North Dakota State was the seventh school to capture at least two straight national titles – but the conference picture feels different as many teams work to overcome key senior (and fifth-year and sixth-year and …) losses. From 14 leagues, the likely strongest chances for repeats are in the Missouri Valley (North Dakota State), MEAC (South Carolina State) and Patriot League (Holy Cross). Everywhere else, it’s anybody’s guess. There definitely will be new champs in the ASUN-SWAC Challenge (Sam Houston ineligible) and Big South (Kennesaw State left the conference), but expect it to occur in a bunch of conferences.
CAA Football features the most interesting conference race
Ask five different people to predict the CAA Football champion and you may get five different answers. The FCS’ new largest conference – 13 schools this season, 15 next year – boasts many title contenders given national power James Madison’s departure to the FBS. New quarterbacks, transfers and unbalanced schedules will affect the race. Including the departed Dukes, 11 different CAA teams have qualified for the FCS playoffs since 2015, and Monmouth comes aboard having done the same. Defending co-champ Villanova will have the favorite’s role with its strong offense, but, take your pick, Delaware, Elon, Maine, Richmond, Rhode Island (last playoff appearance is 1985), William & Mary or another worthy program could be standing in the end.
Sam Houston, Jacksonville State face bumpy ride toward the sunset
Much like the final FCS season for Appalachian State and Georgia Southern in 2013, Jacksonville State and Sam Houston face obstacles despite having more scholarships than their competition. Neither will be eligible for the ASUN-WAC Challenge title or the FCS playoffs, and opponents are going to have extra motivation due to the two FBS-bound programs leaving next year. Their two common opponents, Stephen F. Austin and Eastern Kentucky, are Top 25-caliber. Sam Houston, which won the 2020 national title in a playoff held last spring, returns only three starters on each side of the ball. Jacksonville State will be getting acclimated to new coach Rich Rodriguez, having lost some key players to transfers. Both programs may be hesitant to utilize freshmen beyond four games, instead leaving them with four seasons of eligibility on the FBS level.
The secret’s out: Chattanooga is the sleeper team
Chattanooga has been a .500 team since its last playoff season in 2016 – the end of a four-year run under former coach Russ Huesman that included a 36-16 record, three Southern Conference titles and three postseason appearances – but the Mocs are primed for a big step nationally in coach Rusty Wright’s fourth season. They’ve added an excellent bunch of transfers to a team that returns NFL prospects in SoCon defensive player of the year Devonnsha Maxwell at defensive end and McClendon Curtis at offensive guard, linebackers Ty Boeck and Jay Person, and running back Ailym Ford. The Mocs led the SoCon in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense and passing defense a year ago, but the offense needs stronger play behind center. Former Eastern Michigan quarterback Preston Hutchinson is among the transfers.
Jackrabbits feel primed to claim first FCS title
If you can decide between FCS dynasty North Dakota State and the field to win the national title, take the field because it includes South Dakota State. Sure, that sounds odd because NDSU is loaded with experienced players and the team to beat again, but the Jackrabbits are a clear No. 2 choice, having advanced to at least the FCS semifinals in four of the last five seasons. The health of quarterback Mark Gronowski, the MVFC offensive player of the year during last year’s spring season, is vital, but his surrounding talent is undeniable, including NFL-bound tight end Tucker Kraft and running back Isaiah Davis, who had 305 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns in the national title game last May. Coach John Stiegelmeier’s squad has beaten NDSU two times in a row and match up well on the lines of scrimmage, but have a more difficult schedule, including a trip to Fargo on Oct. 15, so possible home-field advantage throughout the playoffs (as a top-two seed) is unlikely. Perhaps a second meeting between the two best FCS teams will be needed deep in the postseason.