If you’re liking the sound of “Play Ball!” just wait until you hear the first whistle.

While the return of baseball is a symbol of rebirth, the anticipation of the opening kickoff of a football season is more a passion.

There are 128 FCS football programs preparing for the 2023 season. With the boys of summer back on Thursday, we take a look at what to expect on Opening Day (spread over Week 0 and 1 action) in the FCS:

South Dakota State is the Team to Beat

South Dakota State is expected to return 16 starters from its 2022 national championship team, and nearly half of them may earn preseason All-American honors prior to coach Jimmy Rogers’ first season.

After having a rigorous road schedule last season, the Jackrabbits’ schedule is more favorable with Montana State and North Dakota State – last season’s opponents in a semifinal and the championship game, respectively – plus playoff contenders North Dakota and UNI coming to Brookings.

If Not the Jackrabbits

The aforementioned North Dakota State and Montana State appear destined to be No. 2 and 3, respectively, behind SDSU in the preseason Top 25 (perhaps starting with Craig Haley’s never-too-early top 10 in mid-January). Those three teams have only been eliminated by one of the other in the last two playoffs.

NDSU has won nine national titles since 2011, but it’s replacing more key players than rival SDSU. Montana State has advanced to at least the national semifinals in its last three seasons (2019, ’21-22).

Key Season-Opening Games

The notable Week 0 opener on Aug. 26 is South Carolina State against Jackson State in the MEAC-SWAC Challenge in Atlanta. JSU’s TC Taylor who had been on Deion Sanders’ staff, makes his head coaching debut against Buddy Pough, who enters his 22nd season four wins shy of 150.

Five nights later on the same field, Rhode Island will seek to post an FBS win against Georgia State in Week 1. Also during the first full weekend of action, Tennessee State will become Notre Dame’s first FCS opponent and UIW will face UTEP, seeking a third straight FBS win with a third different coach, Clint Killough.

Among FCS vs. FCS matchups, North Dakota State will take on Eastern Washington at Target Field in Minneapolis and Austin Peay travels to Southern Illinois.

New Coaches

By the end of the first full weekend of action, 27 news coaches, including Wofford’s Shawn Watson – who was elevated from interim status after last season – will have led their teams into season-opening games.

Three of last season’s top five teams have new coaches: Rogers at FCS champ SDSU, Killough at UIW (No. 3) and Andy Thompson at Sacramento State (No. 5).

(Full list of opening games for new FCS coaches)

Biggest FCS Conference Gets Underway

With the addition of Campbell and North Carolina A&T on July 1, CAA Football will increase to 15 and be alone as the biggest FCS conference in history. There is at least one conference game in all 12 weeks of the regular season, and Campbell jumps right in by hosting CAA co-champ William & Mary in a season opener. In addition, Delaware travels to Stony Brook.

Run, Run, Run Some More

The 2023 season may be about pounding the run.

Four of the FCS’ top five running backs in rushing yards last season are returning, each above 1,450 and led by Walter Payton Award third-place finisher Jaden Shirden of Monmouth. Also back are eight of the top 10 quarterbacks in rushing yards, including 1,000-yard rushers Matthew Sluka of Holy Cross and Tommy Mellott of Montana State.

Davidson led the FCS in rushing yards per game for the third consecutive season in 2022. (Tim Cowie – DavidsonPhotos.com)