St. Thomas is still hoping the NCAA will shorten its five-year wait to be eligible for the FCS playoffs, but the Tommies will remain on the sideline this year even if they repeat as the Pioneer Football League champions.
They are in the third year of its Division III-to-I reclassification, ineligible for the postseason until 2026.
After posting a 6-2 record in its first PFL schedule in 2021, they went 8-0 and were crowned as league champions last season. Their ineligibility allowed Davidson, which finished second, to receive the PFL’s playoff bid for the third consecutive season.
While St. Thomas is this year’s preseason favorite, its season will end on Nov. 18 no matter where it sits in the standings.
Here’s a preview of the upcoming PFL season:
Predicted Order of Finish
*-FCS Playoff Qualifier (With 2022 Record)
1. St. Thomas (10-1, 8-0) – Glenn Caruso’s next coaching win will be the 150th of his career (he’s 143-25 with the Tommies), and a bunch more should follow this season. The defending champs claimed the most spots on the PFL preseason team with six: Stat Perform FCS Preseason All-American Andrew McElroy (1,317 all-purpose yards, eight touchdowns) at both wide receiver and return specialist, running back Shawn Shipman (845 rushing yards, nine TDs), offensive lineman Alec Rasmussen, linebacker Jonathan Bunce and defensive back Yusef Leak. Sophomores Amari Powell and Travis Plugge have battled to be the starting quarterback. Incredibly, the Tommies are 43-1 at home since 2015, including 27 straight wins since their 2016 D-III playoff loss to UW-Oshkosh.
2. *Davidson (8-4, 6-2) – Davidson’s three straight playoff appearances represent the fourth-longest active run in the FCS. It all starts in the trenches, of course, and the FCS’ No. 1-ranked rushing offense (331.5-yard average) returns standout O-linemen Gilbert Deglau and Beck Kipperman, while the defensive line features Jonathan Hammond (129 tackles, 32.5 tackles for loss, 18 sacks). The running backs unit is replacing longtime stalwarts Dylan Sparks and Coy Wiliams. Quarterback Luke Durkin impressed in a backup role last season.
3. Dayton (8-3, 6-2) – Coach Rick Chamberlin retired after last season, having been a part of the program in every season but one since 1975. No pressure on new coach Trevor Andrews, right? It feels impossible to replace running back/returner Jake Chisholm and his Flyers’ all-time record 5,603 all-purpose yards. The defense has a standout in each unit with D-tackle Sam Schadek, linebacker Nathan Arthur and safety Cole Hildebrand.
4. San Diego (5-5, 4-3) – USD hired coach Brandon Moore, who led Colorado School of Mines to a Division II runner-up finish last year, after letting go of the highly successful Dale Lindsey. Quarterback Real-al Mitchell is one of the FCS’ more versatile players, capable of being a runner, passer or receiver. Defensive tackle Will Buck and linebacker Chase Lyons hope to lift a unit that ranked fifth in the PFL. Long a scenario for the Toreros, there are four games in the Eastern time zone.
5. Butler (7-4, 5-3) – While earning PFL offensive player of the year, QB Bret Bushka led the resurgent Bulldogs to scores on 36 (26 TDs, 11 field goals) of 37 trips into an opponent’s red zone, a 97.3 percentage that ranked No. 1 in the FCS. They’ll stay potent with running back Joey Suchy and wide receiver Luke Wooten also returning. Luka Zurak made 12 of 15 on field goal attempts, including a 56-yard walk-off to end a nine-game losing streak against San Diego.
6. Marist (4-7, 4-4) – The Red Foxes have finished .500 or better in the PFL schedule in eight of their last nine seasons. Coach Jim Parady’s 31st season features one of the PFL’s top players, linebacker Mike Arrington, who has 174 tackles and 21 TFLs in the last two seasons. QB Brock Bagozzi spreads passes around to wide receivers Brett Landis, Will Downes, Matt Stianche and Brandon Lombana, even running back Amin Woods.
7. Drake (3-8, 3-5) – Before a planned trip to Panama next May, the Bulldogs would love to surprise with a first-time trip to the FCS playoffs. Following an 0-8 start a year ago, Luke Bailey became the starting quarterback and led wins in the final three games. Jimmy Poremba anchors a strong offensive line and fullback Eli Stewart also paves the way for leading rusher Dorian Boyland (683 yards, five TDs). Defensive end Finn Claypool earned top PFL rookie honors with 14.5 TFLs and eight sacks.
8. Valparaiso (5-7, 4-4) – Despite the loss of PFL rushing champion Aaron Dawson, the Beacons are keeping up with the strong pass catchers in the league with wide receiver Solomon Davis (43 receptions, 748 yards, four TDs) and tight end Evan Jernegan. Additionally, QB Michael Appel Jr. had a solid rookie season last year. The Beacons have to improve on the other side of the ball after ranking ninth in the league in scoring defense and total defense.
9. Stetson (4-6, 2-5) – The Hatters won’t sneak up on anybody given the return of quarterback Brady Meitz, the 2022 PFL offensive rookie of the year, and cornerback Rassie Littlejohn, who led the FCS with seven interceptions in only 10 games. Also returning is Meitz’s favorite receiver, Nazeviah Burris, who tied for second in the PFL with 46 receptions. In a league accustomed to frequent-flyer mileage, Stetson has a nonconference trip to national power Montana State.
10. Morehead State (2-9, 1-7) – Last season was disappointing, though perhaps not surprising after the Eagles lost many key players from their 7-4 (6-2 PFL) squad of 2021. This year’s junior class should lead the way, including running back James Louis (780 yards, six TDs) building off a breakthrough season. Defensive back Cooper Krezek was all over the field, totaling 100 tackles and blocking three kicks.
11. Presbyterian (1-10, 0-8) – The Blue Hose’s three wins in the last two seasons were against sub-FCS opponents, but more than 100 players worked out on campus this summer, reflecting commitment toward coach Steve Englehart’s second campaign. As a freshman, Dominic Kibby paced the PFL in receiving yards (796), yards per catch (19.4) and 100+ yard games (four). Junior linebacker Alex Herriott has led the team in tackles in each of his first two seasons.
How the League Predicted the Race
Five Players to Watch
Bret Bushka, QB, Butler (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) – The PFL’s 2022 offensive player of the year accounted for over 3,000 yards of total offense and 25 totals touchdowns – both league highs.
Finn Claypool, DE, Drake (Buck Buchanan Award preseason nominee) – Second among FCS freshmen in tackles for loss (14.5) and sacks (eight), Claypool earned the PFL’s defensive rookie award.
Andrew McElroy, WR, St. Thomas – The Tommies’ go-to threat (45 receptions, 717 yards, seven TDs) was the only unanimous selection on the 2022 All-PFL first team.
Brady Meitz, QB, Stetson – As a redshirt freshman, Meitz led the PFL in passing yards per game (254.8) and connected on 17 TDs.
Re-Al Mitchell, QB, San Diego – The PFL’s first-team all-purpose pick excelled against top opponents, totaling 209 yards from scrimmage against St. Thomas and 187 against Davidson, scoring two TDs in each game.
Five Must-See Matchups
1. Dayton at Davidson (Nov. 18) – The PFL’s 2022 playoff bid was determined by Davidson’s 24-23 win over Dayton on the final day of the regular season. A lot could be on the line again.
2. St. Thomas at Dayton (Sept. 30)
3. St. Thomas at San Diego (Nov. 11)
4. Butler at Stetson (Sept. 23)
5. Dayton at San Diego (Sept. 30)
The PFL is Division I’s only non-scholarship football-only conference. Ten states, stretching from New York to Florida to California, are represented in the league, with Indiana home to two members (Butler and Valparaiso).