The 2023 United Athletic Conference title race is full of uncertainty, appropriately like the schools in the mix and the name of the FCS college football league.
Conference realignment losses first led to the ASUN and the Western Athletic Conference partnering as an FCS league in 2021. They put “Challenge” behind their joint name in the first season, just went with ASUN-WAC a year ago and this year rebranded as the UAC. Though denied formal status from the NCAA, the champion of the nine-member league (from 14 involved at some point) will have an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs.
Eastern Kentucky was the league’s playoff representative last season and probably rates as the favorite, but the title race feels wide open, with the offenses ahead of the defenses across the conference.
Unlike the last two seasons, when there wasn’t much crossover action, there’s a legitimate conference schedule of six games each. ASUN members Austin Peay, Eastern Kentucky, Central Arkansas and North Alabama will play each other as well as three opponents from the five-team WAC contingent of Abilene Christian, Stephen F. Austin, Southern Utah, Utah Tech and Tarleton. The WAC teams will play each other as well as two of the four ASUN teams.
Here’s a preview of the upcoming UAC season:
Predicted Order of Finish
*-FCS Playoff Qualifier (With 2022 Record)
1. *Central Arkansas (5-6, 3-2 ASUN) – Despite last year’s losing record, this wouldn’t be a rags-to-riches story after UCA was the first team outside the Stats Perform FCS Preseason Top 25 Poll. Coach Nathan Brown’s lineup is rich in talent, especially at running back with Darius Hale (1,966 yards, 27 touchdowns in two seasons), ShunDerrick Powell (1,508 yards, 18 TDs at North Alabama last season) and Kylin James (863 rush yards, 640 receiving yards in two seasons). Quarterback Will McElvain even has his favorite target back in Jarrod Barnes. Defensive ends David Walker and Logan Jessup will be found in backfields, and the secondary boasts safety Tamaurian Wilson and cornerback Cam Godfrey. The non-conference schedule is rugged with Oklahoma State, North Dakota State and Southeast Missouri.
(UCA Bears boast five of UAC’s seven Stats Perform FCS Preseason All-Americans)
2. Eastern Kentucky (7-5, 3-2 ASUN; preseason No. 24 ranking) – Coming off its first playoff appearance since 2014, EKU boasts a superb offense again. Parker McKinney, who averaged 329.7 passing yards per game (No. 3 in FCS) and threw 33 TDs, has rewritten the school’s record book, often getting the ball to versatile running back Braedon Sloan and leading receiver Jaden Smith. Josiah Ezirm, a 2024 NFL Draft prospect, and left tackle Payton Collins (32 career starts) anchor the offensive line. The defense lost a lot in the front seven. Grad transfer linebacker Logan Blake had four interception returns for TDs at Marian.
3. Austin Peay (7-4, 3-2 ASUN) – The return of a veteran offensive line is welcome news for dual-threat QB Mike DiLello (2,893 yards of total offense, 29 total TDs) and running backs CJ Evans Jr. and Jevon Jackson. Defensive back Kory Chapman (67 tackles) also returns off a banner season. However, the Governors suffered huge transfer losses, including wide receiver Drae McCray, Buck Buchanan Award finalist Antoine Williams and cornerback Demetries Ford.
4. Abilene Christian (7-4, 3-1 WAC) – The Wildcats’ seven wins last season marked their highest total on the FCS level (since 2013). Longtime wide receiver standout Kobe Clark is gone, so QB Maverick McIvor will want to get handoffs to Jermiah Dobbins and Rovaughn Banks Jr., who combined to rush for 1,214 yards and 12 TDs. Reese Moore enters his third season as the starting left tackle. Safety Elijah Moffett led a balanced defense with 50 tackles and some transfers will help the defense.
5. Tarleton (6-5, 1-3 WAC) – If there’s a UAC dark horse, it may Tarleton. Quarterback Beau Allen passed for 2,839 yards and 23 TDs last season, and the Texans have playmakers with wide receivers Darius Cooper and Jaden Smith (combined 102 receptions for 1,885 yards and 19 TDs), running back Derrel Kelley III (1,004 yards, eight TDs) and Arkansas-Pine Bluff transfer Kayvon Britten, who was second in the SWAC in rushing yards (1,063) and first in rushing touchdowns (16). Linebacker Qua’Shawn Washington had team highs in tackles (75) and tackles for loss (13.5).
6. Southern Utah (5-6, 1-3 WAC) – Fourth-year QB Justin Miller (7,007 passing yards, 45 TDs in career) tends to fly under the radar in the national conversation, but his passes don’t when he looks downfield to Isaiah Wooden (20.8-yard average on 40 receptions). The defense features the linebackers unit of Kohner Cullimore (team-high 76 tackles), Aubrey Nellems and Trent Whalen. The Thunderbirds have to survive a season-opening road stretch of Arizona State, BYU and UC Davis.
7. Stephen F. Austin (6-5, 3-1 WAC) – It feels impossible for SFA to effectively replace the likes of quarterback Trae Self, two-time WAC offensive player of the year Xavier Gipson at wide receiver and defensive end B.J. Thompson. As a new signal caller gets on track, running back Jerrell Wimbrey will be the focal point of the offense, working behind O-linemen Clint Lapic and Keegan Holm. Defensive end Ahmad Murray has 152 tackles and 14 sacks through 47 career games. The Lumberjacks are strong in the kicking game, including Chris Campos (51 field goals, 273 points in career).
8. North Alabama (1-10, 0-5 ASUN) – UNA wasn’t too strong in the Big South and plunged in its ASUN debut with a number of close defeats, so former Kansas, Middle Tennessee and FAU offensive coordinator Brent Dearmon was hired to spark the program. The Dearmon era begins with the first FCS game, Aug. 26 against Mercer. The Lions allowed 41.6 points and 483.8 yards per game, worse than all but four FCS teams. They have 19 transfers to add alongside the likes of QB Noah Walters, big-play wide receiver Takairee Kenebrew, and defensive linemen Philip Ossai and Kam’ron Green.
9. Utah Tech (4-7, 2-2 WAC) – A three-game winning streak late in the season was a boost heading into the offseason, but the Trailblazers offense is replacing QB Victor Gabalis and both a 1,000-yard rusher (Quali Conley) and receiver (Joey Hobert). They’ll seek a lift from Kobe Tracy, who passed for nine TDs, and Rickie Johnson, who had 40 receptions. The defense has fewer holes with seven returning starters, including defensive end Syrus Webster and leading tackler Will Leota at linebacker.
(A look back to the inaugural UAC media day)
How the Conference Predicted the Race
Five Players to Watch
Parker McKinney, QB, Eastern Kentucky (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) – The fifth-year starter leads active FCS QBs in passing yards (9,718) and TD passes (74).
Justin Miller, QB, Southern Utah (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) – Second to McKinney among active FCS QBs with 7,007 career passing yards.
ShunDerrick Powell, RB, Central Arkansas (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) – 5-foot-7 game-breaker had four games with 200+ rushing yards last season, tying two others for the FCS high.
David Walker, DE, Central Arkansas (Buck Buchanan Award preseason nominee) – Third-place finisher in the 2022 Buchanan voting totaled 22 tackles for 107 yards in losses.
Syrus Webster, DE, Utah Tech (Buck Buchanan Award preseason nominee) – Was WAC co-leader in sacks (5.5) as part of a banner sophomore season with 42 tackles and 10 TFLs.
Five Must-See Matchups
1. Eastern Kentucky at Central Arkansas (Nov. 11) – At least a piece of the UAC title could be at stake. McKinney passed for three TDs as EKU rolled to a 42-14 win in last year’s matchup.
2. Central Arkansas at Austin Peay (Nov. 18)
3. Abilene Christian at Stephen F. Austin (Oct. 21)
4. Austin Peay at Eastern Kentucky (Nov. 4)
5. Stephen F. Austin at Central Arkansas (Oct. 14)
Eastern Kentucky’s 59-57, seven-overtime win at Bowling Green last season marked the most overtimes in a game between FCS and FBS teams.
This season’s 12 UAC matchups against FBS programs:
Abilene Christian: North Texas (Sept. 30) and Texas A&M (Nov. 18); Austin Peay: Tennessee (Sept. 9); Central Arkansas: Oklahoma State (Sept. 2); Eastern Kentucky: Cincinnati (Sept. 2) and Kentucky (Sept. 9); North Alabama: Florida State (Nov. 18); Southern Utah: Arizona State (Aug. 31) and BYU (Sept. 9); Stephen F. Austin: Troy (Sept. 2); Tarleton: Texas Tech (Sept. 16); Utah Tech: Colorado State (Sept. 30)
Winning on the road may be a difference maker in the UAC title race. Last season, seven of the nine programs were above .500 at home, but only SFA was above .500 on the road.