The 2023 season in FCS college football looked a lot like the 2022 season, but it could be different in 2024 when South Dakota State goes about trying to defend back-to-back national titles.
The NCAA transfer portal continues to raid the FCS of key players, and a number of the top teams have key senior losses as well, so there’s plenty of retooling going on already shortly after SDSU capped the 2023 season with a 23-3 victory over Montana in the national championship game.
Maybe, just maybe, the big picture will all come back to North Dakota State, the nine-time FCS champion since 2011 that – egad! – has gone two straight seasons without a title.
The FCS will remain at 128 programs during a calendar year in which teams can play a 12-game regular season instead of the usual 11.
It’s never too early to look ahead, so here’s a conference-by-conference sneak peek at the 2024 season.
Big Sky Conference (12 Teams)
The Big Sky will surely remain the second-strongest FCS conference behind the Missouri Valley, but defending champion Montana and rival Montana State have to fill holes.
Montana wide receiver/returner Junior Bergen is bypassing offers from FBS programs to remain with the national runner-up, and new quarterback Keali’I Ah Yat already had plenty of receivers as well as Jerry Rice Award-winning running back Eli Gillman. The defense was senior-dominated this past season, but the strong secondary will bring back cornerback Trevin Gradney and strong safety Ryder Meyer, and linebacker Riley Wilson is a headliner.
Montana State lost offensive linemen to transfers, but tackle Marcus Wehr was the best of the group and will return to block for quarterback Tommy Mellott. Running backs Jared White and Scottre Humphrey showed a lot as freshmen, while defensive end Brody Grebe and linebacker Danny Uluilakepa will anchor the defense.
Sacramento State returns quarterbacks Kaiden Bennett and Carson Conklin, and, just as importantly, its five starters up front. Safety Cameron Broussard is coming off a banner campaign.
Idaho, which tied for second place with Montana State, will look differently after losing key players to transfers, but it’s also set to add impact players. The holdovers include the defensive line trio of Dallas Afalava, Keyshawn James-Newby and Amarii Notice.
Weber State ended the 2023 season with momentum behind quarterback Richie Munoz and defensive end Brayden Wilson. Long-time power Eastern Washington, with a seasoned Kekoa Visperas behind center, appears primed to put two straight losing records behind it with a winning campaign.
Big South-OVC Football Association (9)
After Gardner-Webb represented the Association in the playoffs in the joint league’s first season, coach Tre Lamb departed for ETSU in the Southern Conference (he’s replaced by Cris Reisert). Plus, the Runnin’ Bulldogs (defensive end Ty French and quarterback Jaylen King) as well as fellow co-champ UT Martin (defensive end Daylan Dotson and running back Sam Franklin) have been hit hard by transfer losses.
Eastern Illinois, which improved to 8-3 this past season from 2-9 in 2022, could be the favorite, expecting to return quarterback Pierce Holley and running back MJ Flowers, among others.
Tennessee State welcomes back defensive end Terrell Allen, the 2023 Buck Buchanan Award recipient.
Former Old Dominion coach Bobby Wilder seeks to lift Tennessee Tech in his first season, while Western Illinois enters the conference with a new coach in Joe Davis, but also a 24-game losing streak.
CAA Football (16)
The largest-ever FCS conference grows again in 2024 to 16 teams. Villanova, a tri-champion and quarterfinalist this past season, expects to return 14 or 15 starters, including quarterback Connor Watkins, linebackers Shane Hartzell and Brendan Bell, and sweet-named cornerback Ice Waxter. Fellow tri-champs UAlbany, a semifinalist, and Richmond must overcome bigger senior and transfer losses (the good news is UA returns running back Griffin Woodell and cornerback Aamir Hall, and Richmond will have Kyle Wickersham and Camden Coleman in a nice combo behind center).
William & Mary, which slumped after a banner 2022 season, faces substantial losses on defense, but the offense boasts quarterback Darius Wilson, running Bronser Yoder, wide receiver DreSean Kendrick and left tackle Charles Grant, and its schedule is favorable. Elon also will be back in the playoff mix, like in 2022, returning a defense led by safety Caleb Curtain, and an offense that saw quarterback Matthew Downing play at a high level over the final month of its 2023 season.
Delaware expects to have eight starters back on each side of the ball, but it begins a transition toward the FBS in 2025 and won’t be eligible for the CAA title.
Ivy League (8)
Harvard let a potential outright title slip away to a three-way share title last season, but it’s surely the team to beat with the return of quarterback Jaden Craig, running back Shane McLaughlin, and much of the back seven on defense. However, Penn has a big three on offense with quarterback Aidan Sayin, Malachi Hosley and Jared Richardson.
Notably, the league loses key quarterbacks in Nolan Grooms (tri-champ Yale), Nick Howard (tri-champ Dartmouth), Jake Willcox (Brown) and Blake Stenstrom (Princeton).
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (6)
While defending champ Howard loses long-time quarterback Quinton Williams, it will return a handful of all-conference players, including safety Kenny Gallop Jr. (the MEAC defensive player of the year), linebacker Terrance Hollon and wide receiver Kasey Hawthorne. Playoff qualifier North Carolina Central has to replace its long-time QB, Davius Richard, but Walker Harris was a revelation in his one start last season.
Morgan State could be a title contender with its defense plus quarterback Tahj Smith likely taking the next step as a sophomore. South Carolina State coach Buddy Pough retired after 22 seasons, but his replacement, Chennis Berry, is highly regarded.
Missouri Valley Football Conference (11)
South Dakota State will begin the 2024 season with a 29-game winning streak, but it will be hard to continue it in the season opener at Oklahoma State. The senior losses are substantial going into coach Jimmy Rogers’ second season, and holding on to Walter Payton Award-winning quarterback Mark Gronowski – a coveted transfer candidate – is vital. Center Gus Miller becomes the anchor of the offensive line for running backs Amar and Angel Johnson. On defense, there’s tackle Jarod DePriest, linebackers Adam Bock and Graham Spalding, and defensive backs Dalys Beanum and Tucker Large.
North Dakota State will be trying to reclaim the MVFC and FCS titles from SDSU, and quite possibly will in Tim Polasek’s first season as head coach. Quarterbacks Cam Miller and Cole Payton have offensive weapons in wide receiver Eli Green and running back Barika Kpeenu. The defense features veterans in defensive tackle Eli Mostaert, linebacker Logan Kopp and free safety Cole Wisniewski. The Bison will open the season against Colorado and – you guessed it – coach Deion Sanders.
While SDSU and NDSU finished No. 1 and 3, respectively, South Dakota was No. 4 in the national rankings. The Coyotes are expected to return all but right guard Isaac Erbes on offense, with quarterback Aidan Bouman, running back Travis Theis and wide receiver Carter Bell remaining a dangerous trio.
The MVFC depth is incredible. Illinois State is the one that could make the biggest jump, going 6-5 this past season, but with four of the losses by a combined eight points. The Redbirds potentially have 17 returning starters, including defensive end Amir Abdullah, linebacker Tye Niekamp and running back Mason Blakemore.
Southern Illinois will surround new quarterback Hunter Simmons or DJ Williams with a terrific offensive line, and the defense will be excellent with another season out of cornerback Mark Davis Jr. Youngstown State will have offensive weapons, including running back Tyshon King, while Northern Iowa is replacing a lot in a season when it has two FBS matchups.
Northeast Conference (7)
The defections of Merrimack and Sacred Heart are huge, with the former having played for the conference title on the final day of each of the past two seasons, and the latter having advanced to the playoffs four times since 2013.
Defending champ Duquesne will have a different look following key transfer losses. On a team that passed well downfield last season, the Dukes will rely more on running backs Taj Butts and JaMario Clements in 2024.
Saint Francis figures to remain in the title mix even with quarterback Cole Doyle seeking a grad transfer. The new QB will rely on wide receiver Dawson Snyder, while linebacker Carter Glassmyer is a building block on defense.
Robert Morris boasts quarterback Anthony Chiccitt for its return to the NEC.
Patriot League (7)
The PL figures to remain solid even with Holy Cross, which has won a record five straight PL titles, set to step backward due to heavy senior losses and coach Bob Chesney’s hiring at James Madison. Co-champ Lafayette, which advanced to the playoffs due to a head-to-head win over Holy Cross, will seek to capture an outright title behind quarterback Dean DeNobile and running back Jamar Curtis.
Fordham has a similar top QB/RB combo in C.J. Montes and Julius Loughridge, and linebacker James Conway should shatter the league’s all-time record for tackles. Colgate, behind quarterback Jake Stearney, won six of its final seven games this past season.
Pioneer Football League (11)
St. Thomas, which has won 21 of its 24 PFL games since joining in 2021, remains ineligible for the league title until 2026, due to its Division III-to-I transitional period. The Tommies will return four All-PFL players, including first-team offensive lineman Alec Rasmussen.
Defending champion Drake has the target this time around, but also the league’s best player in defensive end Finn Claypool. Quarterback Luke Bailey and leading rusher Dorian Boyland also return to bolster the chance for back-to-back titles.
Davidson, which went to the playoffs in three straight seasons from spring 2021 to fall 2022, still has Mari Adams to run the ball, but its defense must improve from last season.
Southern Conference (9)
Incredibly, the SoCon has had a different champion in five straight seasons, and it just may happen again with 2023 champion Furman losing nine starters on each side of the ball. Chattanooga and Western Carolina returns top quarterbacks and always have more transfers than the Paladins, so they could take a step ahead. However, the Paladins will have a skilled passer in emerging quarterback Carson Jones, run stoppers in nose guard Xavier Stephens and defensive tackle Bryce Stanfield, and kicker Ian Williams.
Chattanooga got back to the playoffs for the first time since 2016, and seeks to do it again with signal caller Chase Artopoeus passing to wide receivers Javin Whatley and Sam Phillips. Marlon Taylor is among the FCS’ best nose tackles, and linebacker Alex Mitchell will build on a breakout campaign.
Western Carolina QB Cole Gonzales was the SoCon media’s offensive player of the year, but coach Kerwin Bell’s squad has had some key offseason losses, including offensive coordinator Kade Bell, his son.
Southland Conference (8)
The Southland should be back stronger after a down 2023 campaign. UIW won’t be replacing nearly as much this year as it did before coach Clint Killough’s first campaign, and the Cardinals also seek to make a point (and score many) after missing the playoffs despite going 8-2. They’ll boast quarterbacks Zach Calzada and Richard Torres, linebacker Tylan Foster, and cornerback Ronald Wilson, and surely add impact transfers.
Of course, UIW being anointed the favorite won’t sit well with Nicholls following its unbeaten run through the conference schedule. The Colonels’ returnees include both All-Southland first-team running backs, Jaylon Spears and Collin Guggenheim, and four of the five starters up front. The defense will return nine starters.
Lamar, following its first winning season since 2018, is expected to return 17 starters, including signal caller Robert Coleman.
Southwestern Athletic Conference (12)
The SWAC has had a merry-go-round of coaching changes in recent years, and all of the spinning this offseason is making it the storyline going into the 2024 season.
Fred McNair was left in limbo after stepping down at Alcorn State, not immediately hired at Texas Southern – as was expected – then later shut out when the Tigers hired former NFL Pro Bowler Cris Dishman. Alcorn filled its opening from within with Cedric Thomas.
Also is the wild, wild West Division, Mickey Joseph has taken over at Grambling State and Southern elevated Terrence Graves to head coach.
In the East Division, there’s change at 2023 champ Florida A&M, after Willie Simmons departed for an assistant’s position at Duke. James Colzie III, elevated to the top spot, was the popular choice among a lineup that returns defensive end Anthony Dunn Jr. and defensive back Kendall Bohler, and has added FAU transfer quarterback Daniel Richardson.
United Athletic Conference (10)
Central Arkansas, which is expected to return about 16 starters, will have eye-popping talent once again with quarterback Will McElvain, running backs ShunDerrick Powell and Darius Hale, defensive end David Walker, and defensive back Tamaurian Wilson.
Tarleton State will be playoff-eligible for the first time, and it will challenge for that distinction and the UAC title behind an explosive offense, including quarterback Victor Gabalis, running back Kayvon Britten and wide receiver Darius Cooper.
Conference champ Austin Peay will have a different look with new coach Jeff Faris and East Carolina transfer Mason Garcia replacing standout QB Michael DiLiello. The team’s strength could be on defense with linebacker Sam Howard and edge Hosea Knifeley Jr.
Eastern Kentucky is replacing quarterback Parker McKinney, who made 50 career starts.
(We’re looking forward, sure, but here’s the final 2023 Stats Perform Top 25 Poll as well)