At this time of the year, feel free to dream the big dream with your favorite FCS power: You know, forecast a take-the-money-and-run win over an FBS program or a silencing of the home crowd at the Fargodome, even a successful business trip to Frisco, Texas.
Yes, the preseason is supposed to be the time for optimism everywhere.
OK, now reel it in somewhat because even the higher-ranked FCS teams have some level of concern.
With the 2023 season on the horizon, let’s look at a potential freak-out factor among some top FCS teams and rate their level of concern on a scale of one (exhale and relax) to five (time to worry).
South Dakota State Has a New Coach
The Scenario: Less than two weeks after the Jackrabbits captured their first FCS championship, Eddie Robinson Award-winning coach John Stiegelmeier announced his retirement following 199 wins and 26 seasons. Jimmy Rogers, a 10-year assistant who also played linebacker under Coach Stig from 2006-09, was installed as a first-time head coach.
Freak-Out Factor Rating: 1.5 – It wouldn’t honor Stiegelmeier’s legacy enough to go with a 1 rating, but the defending champions are just fine under Rogers. He knows the ins and outs of the program – he’s actually following his mentor with an internal move from defensive coordinator to head coach (Coach Stig in 1997) – and has the strongest starting lineup in the FCS with 16 returning starters.
UIW Has a New … Team?
The Scenario: UIW’s first-year coach Clint Killough, at 30 the youngest in Division I, is replacing much more than quarterback Lindsey Scott Jr., the 2022 Walter Payton Award recipient. The Cardinals are returning only six starters (three on each side of the ball).
Freak-Out Factor Rating: 3 – Actually, UIW will have a different head coach and starting quarterback for the third consecutive season. The defending Southland co-champ, which finished No. 3 in the final Stats Perform FCS Top 25, has to mesh with over 20 transfers, led by former Texas A&M quarterback Zach Calzada. But it’s a talented group of newcomers, so the Cardinals plan to reload, not rebuild as a top FCS team.
The Scenario: Expectations are bursting through the Kibbie Dome roof after Idaho’s first winning season and playoff bid since the Vandals’ 2018 return from the FBS. Their 2023 schedule is difficult, however.
Freak-Out Factor Rating: 4 – While Jerry Rice Award recipient Gevani McCoy fronts a highly talented roster, the Vandals can’t get ahead of themselves. They are on the road for their first three games, including FBS matchups at Nevada and California, and five of the first six games (including Eastern Washington), are home only four times and will play last year’s four other Big Sky playoff qualifiers. Yikes, indeed.
Montana State’s Road Schedule
The Scenario: The Bobcats will face the strongest road schedule in the FCS – at South Dakota State, where they lost in the 2022 FCS semifinals, and fellow Big Sky playoff qualifiers Weber State, Sacramento State (the conference’s other defending co-champ), Idaho and Montana.
Freak-Out Factor Rating: 2.5 – South Dakota State’s road schedule appeared equally daunting prior to the 2022 season, and its high level of talent overcame it (losing only 7-3 at Iowa) with a national championship season. The Bobcats have a highly talented roster as well entering coach Brent Vigen’s third season.
North Dakota State’s Shaken Aura
The Scenario: The Bison suffered significant player losses after last season – mostly through graduation, but also via transfers – and allowed 45 points to South Dakota State in the national title game, the most they had surrendered since 2009.
Freak-Out Factor Rating: 2 – Yup, SDSU has NDSU’s number, winning the last four meetings. But that’s it in the FCS as no other FCS team has defeated the Bison more than once in the last 12 seasons – a span that includes a record nine FCS titles. Quarterback Cam Miller comes back with 25 career starts, the recruiting is always strong and they have a veteran coaching staff, so the Bison are still No. 2 heading into the season. They’re not going away, and anything less than a return to Frisco would be considered disappointing.
High Expectations Surrounding Holy Cross and Furman
The Scenario: Four-time defending Patriot League champion Holy Cross finished No. 6 nationally after playing well against South Dakota State in the FCS quarterfinals, and Furman also finished in the Top 10 after falling late to a UIW rally in the second round. With many key players returning on both teams, there’s hope of even greater success.
Freak-Out Factor Rating: 3 – Along with Idaho, Holy Cross and Furman are trendy picks for the FCS Top 10, but high expectations also mean added pressure. As much as Holy Cross should roll to a record fifth straight PL title, it lost a number of key seniors as well, and the road schedule, including two FBS matchups, is difficult. Furman also plays a bunch of its key games on the road, including defending champ Samford in what’s again a competitive Southern Conference.
(Holy Cross and Furman are involved in some of the best games of the 2023 FCS season)
Jackson State Staying Prime Without You Know Who
The Scenario: Jackson State coach Deion Sanders departed for Colorado after three seasons and two straight SWAC championships. Oh yes, Coach Prime took a bunch of key players with him as transfers, including his son/quarterback Shedeur Sanders and prized 2022 recruit Travis Hunter.
Freak-Out Factor Rating: 3 – Granted, T.C. Taylor is a first-time head coach, but he preceded Sanders with the Tigers, contributed to their breakout seasons and became accustomed to the significant national attention. No, the Tigers aren’t as strong a team this season, but they’re still the one to beat in the SWAC until another team gets it done.
CAA’s Mammoth Conference Schedule
The Scenario: With an FCS-record 15 teams this season, CAA Football will have its share of playoff contenders, but it may not have enough big games with key teams missing each other over the eight-game conference schedule.
Freak-Out Factor Rating: 3 – Rivalry games such as Richmond at William & Mary, Villanova at Delaware and Maine at New Hampshire sound great for the final Saturday of the regular season, but that day appears to be an exception across the largest conference schedule in FCS history. With the unbalanced nature of it and a lot of games going to be eighth place vs. 14th place or 12th place vs. 15th place, it’s a concern.
The Scenario: Samford only lost to FBS champion Georgia during the regular season and quarterback Michael Heirs returns as a potential Walter Payton Award favorite. If there’s a question mark surrounding the Bulldogs, it’s how they will fill holes on defense, which doesn’t return any All-SoCon selections.
Freak-Out Factor Rating: 3.5 –The Bulldogs swept through the conference with their offense and have the firepower to do so again. Their defense brings back middle linebacker and leading tackler Noah Martin from a unit that was laden with seniors and grad students. Transfers Garrett Morris (Penn linebacker) and Kamron Smith (Charleston Southern defensive back) were first-team all-league selections a year ago, so they’re welcomed additions.
First Games for Florida A&M and Yale
The Scenario: Florida A&M and Yale have proven there is life after season-opening losses to Jackson State and Holy Cross, respectively – FAMU rallied to make the 2021 FCS playoffs and Yale came back to capture the 2022 Ivy League title – but to have a particularly special campaign this year, each needs to beat its higher-ranked rival. Without a win, a feeling of “missed opportunity” may hover over the remainder of the season.
Freak-Out Factor Rating: 5/4 – FAMU gets a higher freak-out rating because the Jackson State matchup has meant everything in the SWAC East Division standings for two straight seasons with JSU going 8-0 and the Rattlers 7-1 each time. Yale’s biggest game is Harvard, and Princeton is second, but with the defending Ivy champion returning 13 players who earned a form of all-league honors, the Bulldogs are eyeing a 10-0 season, and it can only happen with a win over Holy Cross.