The storylines are always countless in FCS college football, but in 2023, it’s all led to one that’s basically the best possible in the sport – the national championship will be decided by the top teams, No. 1 South Dakota State and No. 2 Montana.

With best wishes to all in the new year, here are five of the more memorable FCS storylines and a top-10 ranking of the best games in the past year:

Jackrabbits Were Hopping

South Dakota State opened the year by winning their first national championship under 2022 Eddie Robinson Award-winning coach John Stiegelmeier, and they end it headed back to the title game under 2023 Eddie Robinson Award-winning coach Jimmy Rogers, who succeeded the retired Coach Stig. In between, Missouri Valley Football Conference co-offensive players of the year Mark Gronowski (quarterback) and Isaiah Davis (running back) as well as the nation’s top-ranked defense helped extend the Jackrabbits’ winning streak to 28 games – the third-longest in FCS history.

Montana is Back

The Montana program’s step backward during the 2010s coincided with North Dakota State’s rise to an FCS dynasty, so it seemed appropriate the Grizzlies defeated the Bison 31-29 in two overtimes in a national semifinal – the best game of the 2023 season. The thrilling win sends them to the national championship game for the eighth time, tying for the second-most appearances after NDSU, but for the first time since 2009, when Bobby Hauck wrapped up his first stint as UM’s head coach (he returned before the 2018 season). Along the way of the Griz beating rival Montana State for the Big Sky title and advancing through the playoffs, Hauck became the conference’s all-time wins leader (129).

Craig Haley’s top-10 game selections are based on impact or thrilling nature. (Montana Athletics photo)

Everybody’s on the Move

It’s musical chairs everywhere. Whether it’s a school making an affiliation change, a head coach departing or a player entering the NCAA transfer portal, finding the next-best thing continues to replace status quo in college football. CAA Football expanded to the most teams in FCS history – 15 teams – which led to a change in the conference’s name to Coastal Athletic Association, while the Big South and Ohio Valley conferences began their FCS merger. The number of head coaching changes since the start of the 2023 season has soared into the 20s for the fifth time in the last six years. Many hundreds of FCS players are in the process of well-publicized transfer bids, with NIL money now considered a priority.

FAMU is ‘Prime’

In Florida A&M’s first two seasons (2021 and ’22) after joining the Southwestern Athletic Conference, basically all that stood between the Rattlers and winning potential championships was Jackson State, then under coach Deion Sanders. The two losses to Coach Prime and Co. remain FAMU’s only non-FBS defeats in the last three regular seasons because coach Willie Simmons’ squad opened its 2023 campaign by handling the Tigers and going on to sweep the SWAC, Celebration Bowl and HBCU national titles while finishing 12-1. Quarterback Jeremy Moussa and linebacker Isaiah Major received SWAC offensive and defensive players of the year, respectively.


FCS in the NFL

The long buildup to the three-day NFL Draft is an offseason highlight for FCS nation, including all-star games, pro days and endless evaluation, and all part of the goal of under-the-radar prospects working their way onto rosters. The 11 FCS selections in the 2023 draft, including one player who had made a grad transfer to an FBS program, were a solid representation. Sorry, Jackrabbits fans, it was still a Bison world in late April as North Dakota State, with offensive lineman Cody Mauch going to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second round, becoming the first FCS program with at least one pick in five straight drafts since Florida A&M from 1994-98. Despite the small school label, the FCS stocks NFL rosters and practice squads with about 200 players annually. This season, Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Foye Oluokun from Yale is in the mix to to lead the NFL in tackles for a third consecutive year.