There’s optimism, renewal and anticipation as college football programs kick off spring practices.
The NCAA allows up to 15 practices, often staggered over about five weeks, as teams begin to take important steps toward the 2023 season – each holding a clean slate.
South Dakota State isn’t far removed from winning their first FCS national title on Jan. 8, but many programs haven’t suited up since late November, so there’s likely an eagerness to get going again.
As spring practices continue to get underway among this year’s 128 FCS programs, here are five questions surrounding the 2023 season:
Are Jackrabbits Going Back-to-Back?
Remember when the dynamic with predictions was picking North Dakota State or the rest of the FCS field? The mindset has changed in a short period – it’s now South Dakota State versus the FCS field, including NDSU. The Jackrabbits are a clear choice to repeat as national champion, returning quarterback Mark Gronowski, who was the title game’s most outstanding player, and the FCS’ most talented offense.
Are there concerns other than playing in the same MVFC as their motivated Bison rivals? Not too many, although Eddie Robinson Award recipient John Stiegelmeier has retired after 26 seasons, and Jimmy Rogers is now leading as a first-time head coach. Also, it’s seems impossible to replace defensive linemen Caleb Sanders and Reece Winkelman.
Fast Fact: Since the playoffs began in 1978, a school has won two or more consecutive national titles seven different times, most recently NDSU with three straight from 2017-19.
Who Has the Bandwagon Ready?
There are always surprises in the FCS, and identifying them early is part of the fun. Here are some programs that appear ready for a bigger step, ala Holy Cross last season:
Deep playoff run: The trendy pick may be Idaho’s revitalized program, but let’s go William & Mary. The way the Tribe were eliminated in the 2022 playoffs – 55-7 at Montana State – probably causes concern, but coach Mike London’s team will return a dominating rushing attack and a top-notch defensive duo in the front seven with Nate Lynn and John Pius.
Outside the big-three conferences (Big Sky, CAA and MVFC): Furman felt it fumbled away its only Southern Conference loss to Samford (it also was without starting quarterback Tyler Huff), but the Paladins only got better during the 2022 season, throttling Elon in a first-round playoff game and nearly taking down UIW in the second round. Their defense will return 10 starters.
Conference: The ASUN should be more formidable following an awkward 2022 season (FBS-transitioning Jacksonville State was its strongest team and Eastern Kentucky flamed out in a playoff defeat). Central Arkansas coach Nathan Brown could have one of his better teams with the 1-2 rushing duo of Darius Hale and ShunDerrick Powell plus pass rusher David Walker headlining a star-studded defense. Austin Peay (Mike DiLiello) and EKU (Parker McKinney) will put up points behind their quarterbacks.
Fast Fact: Perhaps we shouldn’t look too deep for national title upstarts. Since the championship game moved to Frisco, Texas, 10 of the 13 eventual national champions have been seeded 1 or 2.
(A look back to Craig Haley’s Never-Too-Early Top 10)
Is This Another Season for Conference Chaos?
We predicted last preseason more conferences than not would have a different champion in 2022 than in 2021, and it happened with only two repeating as outright winners and three a part of co-titles. This year, expect much more status quo with repeat championships. The heavy favorites include Holy Cross (Patriot), North Carolina Central (MEAC), South Dakota State (MVFC), William & Mary (CAA) and Yale (Ivy).
Fast Fact: Holy Cross is the only program to win four straight outright titles in the Patriot League, and in 2023 will seek to become the first with five consecutive championships.
Who Needs Spring Practices the Most?
While every team will gain from spring practices, the ones with new head coaches and those coming off particularly disappointing seasons stand out. Here’s a wild fact: Three of the top five teams in the final Stats Perform FCS Top 25 – No. 1 (South Dakota State), 3 (UIW) and 5 (Sacramento State) – plus No. 9 Weber State have new head coaches, and there are 27 overall (one change occurred after original publication). Four 2021 conference champions hope that season is more representative this fall than last year’s drop-off: Dartmouth (9-1 in 2021 to 3-7), South Carolina State (7-5 to 3-8), Sacred Heart (8-4 to 5-6) and ETSU (11-2 to 3-8). For good measure, add in traditional power Eastern Washington, whose run of 15 straight winning seasons ended with a 3-8 campaign.
Fast Fact: The 26 head coaching changes after an FCS season are the second-most only to the 30 after the 2014 campaign.
(Who the new FCS head coaches will face in 2023 season openers)
Who Are Some of the Key Returning Players?
Only 11 of the 35 Stats Perform first-team All-Americans are likely returning this season, but there’s plenty of decorated players to go around, including No. 3 (Monmouth running back Jaden Shirden), 4 (Samford quarterback Michael Hiers) and 5 (Southeast Missouri running back Geno Hess) in the 2022 Walter Payton Award voting, and No. 2 (Pius), 3 (Walker) and 6 (Gardner-Webb defensive end Try French) in the Buck Buchanan Award voting.
Among the key returnees are four of the top FCS’ five in rushing yards, including Isaiah Davis of South Dakota State; all-purpose yardage leader Dylan Laube of New Hampshire and five others in top-10 average; Idaho big-play wide receiver Hayden Hatton; quarterbacks such as Gronowski, McKinney, UNI’s Theo Day, Idaho’s Gevani McCoy and Holy Cross’ Matthew Sluka; SDSU offensive linemen Garret Greenfield and Mason McCormick; and Chattanooga defensive end Jay Person. Really, the list goes on and on.
Fast Fact: Greenfield and Mercer all-purpose standout Devron Harper have twice earned first-team All-America honors. There have been only two three-time selections since Cooper Kupp’s run of four straight nods from 2013-16.