Way-too-early top 10 for the 2022 FCS college football season
By CRAIG HALEY
(Stats Perform) - Don't hit the snooze button if your Cooper Kupp alarm clock just sounded.
Perhaps you have the Darius Leonard model.
Either way, the best from FCS college football is always appreciated.
It may seem way too early to be thinking about the 2022 FCS season, but, in truth, is it ever?
Everybody is (still) chasing North Dakota State following the Bison's ninth FCS championship in the last 11 seasons, and it already feels like something will have seriously gone wrong if they don't reach double figures next January in Frisco, Texas.
While eliminating national powers James Madison and Sam Houston as they go over the FCS scholarship limit during their transition season to the FBS, here is a way-too-early preseason top 10 for the 2022 FCS season:
1. North Dakota State (14-1, 7-1 MVFC)
The Skinny: The Bison have a potential All-American at basically every offensive and defensive positional group sans quarterback, and that is a particularly deep position with returning starter Cam Miller, 2021 season-opening starter Quincy Patterson and 2021 stud recruit Cole Payton. Fullback Hunter Luepke and tight end Noah Gindorff are 2023 NFL Draft prospects, and the nation's best defense gets end Spencer Waege back from injury to team with linebackers James Kaczor and Jasir Cox and safety Michael Tutsie. Arizona Wildcats, are you ready for the Sept. 17 matchup?
How About This: The Bison led the FCS in point differential (+344, 511-167) while surrendering the fewest points per game (11.1) of their Division I era (since 2004).
2. South Dakota State (11-4, 5-3 MVFC)
The Skinny: Quarterback Mark Gronowski, the MVFC offensive player of the year in the 2021 spring season, missed the fall campaign with a knee injury, but returns to ample offensive weapons, including running back Isaiah Davis, tight end Tucker Kraft and wide receiver twins Jadon and Jaxon Janke. Record-wise, it will hard for the Jackrabbits to gain home field advantage throughout the playoffs due to a regular-season road schedule of Iowa, Missouri State, North Dakota State, North Dakota and Northern Iowa.
How About This: The Jackrabbits are riding the first two-game winning streak against North Dakota State since 2010, when UNI posted a third straight win and Illinois State and Missouri State both reached two in a row.
3. Montana (10-3, 6-2 Big Sky)
The Skinny: Linebacker Patrick O'Connell and cornerback Justin Ford (FCS-high nine interceptions) finished third and fourth, respectively, in the Buck Buchanan Award voting. Touchdown machine Marcus Knight will return from injury to team with running backs Xavier Harris and Junior Bergen.
How About This: Only four FCS players have reached 500 career tackles since 2000. Free safety Robby Hauck enters his senior season with 364 stops, and a shot at the half-century club.
4. Montana State (12-3, 7-1 Big Sky)
The Skinny: The national runner-up surely needs a key transfer or two to overcome significant losses to graduation, but the 1-2 rushing punch of tailback Isaiah Ifanse and quarterback Tommy Mellott (if fully healthy following an ankle injury) is fierce. Linebacker Callahan O'Reilly has over 90 tackles in each of the last two seasons.
How About This: The Bobcats' 12-game home winning streak is the FCS' second-longest active streak to SWAC member Alcorn State (13).
5. Missouri State (8-4, 6-2 MVFC)
The Skinny: In coach Bobby Petrino's first two seasons, the surprising Bears earned a share of the spring MVFC title and finished second in the fall. They'll return 17 starters for his third campaign, including four first-team All-MVFC picks, quarterback Jason Shelley (the Valley's reigning offensive player of the year), wide receiver Tyrone Scott, defensive back/return specialist Montrae Braswell and punter Grant Burkett.
How About This: The Bears get a kick out of Burkett, whose 46.2-yard punting average last season ranks first among FCS returnees, and Jose Pizano, whose 21 field goals are tied for the most among returnees.
6. Sacramento State (9-3, 8-0 Big Sky)
The Skinny: Coach Troy Taylor is 15-1 in two Big Sky seasons, winning back-to-back titles. Quarterbacks Jake Dunniway and Asher O'Hara form an effective rotation, and both work the ball to wide receiver Pierre Williams and tight end Marshel Martin. While it retools, the defense will rely on hybrid safety/linebacker Marte Mapu.
How About This: Under Taylor, the Hornets are 14-0 when scoring first and 9-0 on the road against FCS opponents.
7. Kennesaw State (11-2, 7-0 Big South)
The Skinny: While the new ASUN is quite competitive, the Owls will be the preseason favorite. Quarterback Xavier Shepherd led the FCS with 23 rushing touchdowns and added 15 more through the air - a single-season record for their triple option program. The defense returns nine starters, including all on the line and in the secondary, but linebacker Evan Thompson is a huge loss.
How About This: Every down should be fourth down with the Owls' offense. They converted 22 of 28 attempts into first downs - a 78.6 conversion rate, which led the FCS.
8. Southern Illinois (8-5, 5-3 MVFC)
The Skinny: Between the spring and fall seasons, the Salukis had eight top-25 wins. They will simply outscore opponents with quarterback Nic Baker, wide receiver Avante Cox and running backs Javon Williams Jr., Romeir Elliott and Justin Strong. The defense should be solid in the secondary and on the D-line.
How About This: The Salukis ranked No. 1 in the FCS regular season in turnovers gained before finishing third overall with 28.
9. Villanova (10-3, 7-1 CAA)
The Skinny: Give the 2021 co-champion Wildcats a slight edge in a superb CAA race that includes Rhode Island, William & Mary, Delaware and others. Two-year backup quarterback Connor Watkins figures to take over an offense that is experienced up front and with wide receivers Rayjoun Pringle and Jaaron Hayek, and running backs DeeWil Barlee and Jalen Jackson. Grad transfer linebacker Danny Damico posted 224 career tackles at Albany.
How About This: A win at James Madison in October improved Villanova's all-time record against top-five opponents to 18-13 (.581).
10. Chattanooga (6-5, 5-3 SoCon)
The Skinny: Surely a wild card in the national picture, the Mocs are primed for a big step under fourth-year coach Rusty Wright. The key players return in the two front defensive units, led by SoCon defensive player of the year Devonnsha Maxwell on the edge and linebackers Ty Boeck and Jay Person. McClendon Curtis will anchor the O-line for a deep running backs unit, including Ailym Ford and Reggie Davis.
How About This: The Mocs led the SoCon in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense and passing defense.
Updated January 18, 2022