Many FCS football experts have addressed the lack of parity at the FCS level ever since North Dakota State started their legendary dynasty in 2011. Since 2011, North Dakota State has won 9 FCS Championships and only James Madison (2016) and Sam Houston State (2020) have won FCS Championships outside of the Bison. Only 10 different teams have appeared in the championship game since 2011, which leaves over 115 FCS teams that have not made a run past the semifinals in the FCS playoffs.
The addition of the transfer portal by the NCAA has helped many FCS programs bring in talent from across the FBS and some of the top D-II talent has transferred to the FCS as well. Multiple programs have built contenders entering the 2022 season and there are plenty of candidates that could make a run to potentially win their 1st FCS National Championship this season.
Below I breakdown the top FCS programs who could potentially win their 1st FCS National Championship this season and could be future contenders at the top of the FCS over the next few seasons.
South Dakota State
South Dakota State has been on the cusp of winning a FCS National Championship, in which the Jackrabbits came within seconds of beating Sam Houston State in the 2020-21 season. The Jackrabbits also have made the semifinals three times since the 2017 season along with making it past the 1st round every season since 2015.
A major reason that South Dakota State is going into the 2022 season as a favorite for the FCS Championship is the return of 2020-21 MVFC Offensive Player of the Year Mark Gronowski. Gronowski missed the 2021 fall season due to injury and comes into the 2022 season fully healthy, which should offer a major boost to this Jackrabbits offense. The offense did lose RB Pierre Strong Jr. to the NFL Draft, but Isaiah Davis returns after his 700 yard season last year. Davis averaged over 7.0 yards per carry last season, while also rushing for 7 touchdowns.
The defense for the Jackrabbits return multiple key contributors from the 2021 season and should be one of the strongest units in the FCS in 2022. LB Adam Bock is a favorite for the Buck Buchanan Award in 2022 after his 125 tackles last season, while the 2021 sack leader Caleb Sanders returns on the defensive line.
South Dakota State ranked #2 in the HERO Sports Preseason Top-25 and will be primed for another deep run in the FCS Playoffs. The Jackrabbits open their season against a top-25 team in Iowa; but will face the gauntlet of Missouri State, North Dakota State, & Northern Iowa on the road throughout the 2022 season. The path is going to be difficult, but the Jackrabbits will have an excellent shot this season to win their 1st FCS National Championship.
Stephen F. Austin
This pick may come as a surprise to some people, but Stephen F. Austin is primed to be a real dark horse contender entering the 2022 season. The Lumberjacks have not made a run past the quarterfinals of the FCS Playoffs since 1995 and have only made one FCS National Championship game in 1989, which was a 3-point loss to Georgia Southern. Last season the Lumberjacks lost in the 1st round to Incarnate Word in one of the most exciting games of the 2021 season.
Stephen F. Austin returns almost every top contributor across every position, including arguably the best WR in the country in Xavier Gipson. Gipson is going to be a favorite for the Walter Payton Award after his 1,300-yard season in 2021. The Lumberjacks had 17 WAC All-Americans in 2021 and return 14 of those players going into the 2022 season. QB Trae Self returns after a breakout season with over 3,000 passing yards and 31 total touchdowns, while Miles Reed returns after leading the team with over 600 yards rushing last season.
On the defensive side of the ball Stephen F. Austin returns multiple All-Americas and 9 of their top-11 tacklers from the 2021 season. Myles Heard comes into the season as one of the best safeties in the FCS and BJ Thompson takes his role as the top defensive lineman on the defensive front after his 9.5 sacks and 12.5 TFLs season in 2021.
Stephen F. Austin ranked #10 in the HERO Sports Preseason Top-25 and will be one of the favorites to win the WAC Championship in the 2022 season. I believe the Lumberjacks will make a run for a Top-8 seed in the FCS Playoffs and have an excellent shot to make a run to the FCS National Championship. Stephen F. Austin opens their season in the 2022 FCS Kickoff game in Montgomery, AL against Jacksonville State in a huge test in Week 0.
Missouri State is another team who has been on the rise at the FCS level after the hire of Bobby Petrino in 2020. The Bears have made back-to-back FCS Playoff appearances the past two years for the 1st time since 1989-1990. Last season the Bears lost in the 1st round to UT-Martin by only one point and returns a majority of their top contributors going into the 2022 season.
The offense is going to be one of the most dynamic in the FCS as 2021 MVFC Offensive Player of the Year Jason Shelley returns at quarterback. Shelley is coming off a huge year, in which he passed for a school record 3,000 yards and 22 touchdowns. MVFC All-American WR Tyrone Scott also returns after his 1,000-yard season in 2021. The running back position might be the deepest at the FCS level as the Bears return leading rusher Kevon Latulas, while also landing a commitment from All-American RB Otis Weah from North Dakota.
The defense will be the question mark for the Bears and could determine whether this program makes a run for the FCS National Championship. LB Ferrin Manuleleua and DB Kyriq McDonald both return for the Bears after being two of the biggest contributors in the 2021 season. The defense allowed 26 points per game and over 370 yards per game in 2021, which has been a point of emphasis for Petrino & his staff.
The Bears ranked #6 in the HERO Sports Preseason Top-25 and is primed to be a dark horse for the MVFC going into the 2022 season. Missouri State opens their season on the road against Central Arkansas on September 1st before getting their rematch against UT-Martin in Week 2.
Kennesaw State might be new to the FCS landscape after the program played their 1st season in 2015, but have since won 3 out of the last 4 Big South Championships before their move to the ASUN for the 2022 season. The Owls have made four appearances in the FCS Playoffs and have made it past the 1st round each year with two runs to the quarterfinals. This season the Owls lost in the 2nd round to East Tennessee State by one point after blowing a 14-point lead in the final two minutes.
The offense is going to be a nightmare scheme matchup for almost every team in the country due to the speed and execution they utilize in this triple option offense. Big South Offensive Player of the Year Xavier Shepard returns at the QB spot after rushing for 23 touchdowns, while also throwing 15 touchdowns for the Owls in 2021. Iaan Cousin will also return at the RB spot after ranking 2nd in rushing touchdowns last season for the Owls. The offense averaged over 270 yards per game on the ground last season and that should be no different in the 2022 season.
The defense for the Owls was overlooked last season after being ranked Top-20 in both scoring defense and total defense. All-American LB Evan Thompson returns after he led the defense with over 117 tackles in 2021. The defensive line also has multiple key contributors return including Kerick Reese & Travis Bell who led the team in sacks last season. The Owls defense should take another step forward in 2022 and could be a top defensive team throughout the season.
The Owls ranked 8th in the HERO Sports Preseason Top-25 and have been picked by multiple publications to win the ASUN in their 1st year in the conference. Kennesaw State opens their season on the road against Samford before taking on College Football Playoff contender Cincinnati in Week 2. The Owls will have a tough road to travel with road games against UT-Martin, Jacksonville State, & Eastern Kentucky.