It's May and the FCS playoffs aren't until November, but it's not too early to predict the 24-team playoff field anyway.
Before diving into the bracket, I’ll explain how I selected the predicted field. In this bracket projection, the selected teams are not an indication of the FCS playoff selection committee picks, but rather these picks are my opinion, looking ahead at the 2022 season. The predicted bracket follows the format of the FCS playoffs, with 24 teams coming from 12 automatic bids — the ASUN and WAC replace the AQ7 this year* — and 12 at-large bids. Eight of these teams will be seeded and receive a first-round bye.
*This article was written before the May 18, 2022 announcement of the renewed ASUN-WAC football alliance. As a result, each conference receives an auto-bid to the playoffs in this bracket.
The first round of the predicted FCS bracket will be regionalized following the selection committee's effort to limit travel. Likewise, the first round will avoid any matchups featuring conference teams that will play each other. Last but not least, first round matchups will be regionally paired with teams seeded one through eight, also in an effort to limit travel.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get right into my way-too-early FCS playoff bracket predictions.
Way-too-early FCS playoff bracket predictions
FCS automatic bids, predicted
|Big South||North Carolina A&T|
|MVFC||North Dakota State|
|WAC||Stephen F. Austin|
Here are my reasons for each conference champion:
- Kennesaw State has arguably the top returning quarterback in the FCS in Xavier Shepherd. Shepherd leads a dominant triple-option offense that did not lose a regular season FCS game last year.
- Big Sky
- Yes, Montana State finished as the national-title runner-up, but the Bobcats lose two NFL draft-pick linebackers on defense and a starting receiver. Meanwhile, Montana brings back two defenders in LB Patrick O'Connell and CB Justin Ford who could win the Buck Buchanan Award.
- Big South
- The Big South is wide open. Bryant, Campbell or North Carolina A&T could've been the pick here. I went with the Aggies because I think head coach Sam Washington gets back to his winning ways in year two — the final year — of Big South play.
- No James Madison means anyone could be the conference favorite. Villanova won the CAA last year, but Rhode Island, Delaware and William & Mary should all be competitive. The Blue Hens get the nod thanks to the return of quarterback Nolan Henderson and safety Kedrick Whitehead, two stabilizing forces amid a head coaching change.
- North Dakota State has nine out of the last 11 FCS championships.
- Duquesne had awful injury luck at the quarterback position last year and still was in the conference championship race until the very end. The injury bug can't be that bad this year (knock on wood).
- UT Martin was the only road team to win a playoff game last fall and all-conference running back Zak Wallace returns.
- Holy Cross has won the last three Patriot League titles. The Crusaders won a playoff game last year. In 2022, they bring back 16 all-conference players. Holy Cross should do big things in the conference again.
- No one has yet to stop Davidson's triple-option attack, with the Wildcats coming off back-to-back conference titles. The option is back and Davidson should be the favorite here.
- The SoCon was a tough pick, but Chattanooga gets the nod since it did beat reigning champion ETSU last year, holding one of the nation's top rushing offenses to just 160 yards. ETSU also loses its head coach and a trio of All-Americans in running back Quay Holmes, offensive tackle Tre'mond Shorts and linebacker Donovan Manuel.
- The loss of Walter Payton Award winning quarterback Cole Kelley will be felt by Southeastern Louisiana, but expect a strong running game featuring New Hampshire transfer running back Carlos Washington to help lighten the new quarterback's load. On defense, cornerback Ferlando Jordan should be back healthy, pairing with cornerback Zy Alexander after a breakout season.
- To start, Sam Houston is not eligible for the FCS playoffs, as the program is transitioning to the FBS. That said, Stephen F. Austin is the favorite to win the conference's automatic bid after making the playoffs as an at-large last year. The Lumberjacks return one of the nation's best wideouts in Xavier Gipson who could end up playing on Sundays.
Other conference winners
Here are my predicted conference winners from conferences that don't send their champion to the FCS playoffs.
- South Carolina State
- Jackson State
Projected FCS at-large bids
|South Dakota State||MVFC|
|Eastern Washington||Big Sky|
|Montana State||Big Sky|
|Sacramento State||Big Sky|
Here's a breakdown of the at-large bids.
- Missouri State returns quarterback Jason Shelley. He plus head coach Bobby Petrino should combine to lead the Bears back to the playoffs.
- South Dakota made the playoffs last year and quarterback Carson Camp has a year of experience after an impressive freshman season.
- South Dakota State
- South Dakota State could enter the season ranked as high as second in preseason polls. Gone are quarterback Chris Oladokun and running back Pierre Strong Jr., but quarterback Mark Gronowski and running back Isaiah Davis are All-American level replacements. The Jackrabbits were an FCS semifinalist last year and beat national champion North Dakota State in the regular season. They have the talent to win it all in 2022.
- Southern Illinois
- The Saluki offense has all-star potential with wide receiver Avante Cox and running back Javon Williams Jr. in tow. I expect Southern Illinois to compete near the top of the MVFC.
- Eastern Washington
- The Eagles lose Walter Payton Award winning quarterback Eric Barriere, but it's not the first time Eastern Washington has lost a star under center. I expect the Eagles to reload at the position, keeping up with an otherwise talented roster.
- Montana State
- I mentioned what the Bobcats lost after losing in the national title game above, but Montana State returns quarterback Tommy Mellott. Mellott ascended to star status during last year's playoff run. He has what it takes to get Montana State back to the playoffs.
- Sacramento State
- Sacramento State has won back-to-back Big Sky titles under coach Troy Taylor, who's 15-1 in conference play. While I don't see the Hornets three-peating, I do see them making a return to the playoffs as an at-large.
- All aboard the Udinski-Herres train at Richmond. That's quarterback Reece Udinski and wide receiver Jakob Herres for those who don't know. Like a Peaches & Herb song, the QB-WR duo has reunited with the Spiders and it should feel so good on their new team. When last together at VMI, they lit up the FCS. This tandem can carry Richmond to its first playoff appearance since 2016.
- Rhode Island
- Rhode Island had an FBS win last year and was right on the edge of making the playoffs. In 2022, the Rams get over the hump.
- Reigning CAA champion Villanova has a lot to replace in 2022, and for that, I don't have them winning the conference. However, the Wildcats are a playoff-caliber team.
- Central Arkansas
- Central Arkansas gets one of the final at-large bids to the FCS playoffs, finishing second in the ASUN. Star running back Darius Hale will make his playoff debut.
- You've read what ETSU lost, but what they return is enough to get them in the playoffs. Running back Jacob Saylors rushed for 1,019 yards and 10 touchdowns in a backup role last year and quarterback Tyler Riddell and defensive back Alijah Huzzie were freshmen All-Americans. There's enough talent on this team to get back into the playoffs.
Last teams in
From the at-large selections, these were my last teams in, in no particular order.
- South Dakota
- Eastern Washington
- Rhode Island
- Central Arkansas
Listed in alphabetical order by team.
- Bryant (Big South)
- I believe in quarterback Zevi Eckhaus after what he did last year at Bryant in the NEC. Unfortunately, the Big South is likely a one-bid league yet again, and I see the Bulldogs just missing out on a conference title.
- Mercer (SoCon)
- Mercer should be in the SoCon-title battle near the end. Yet, I think a first-ever playoff appearance remains out of reach for the Bears, with a few conference losses being the reason why.
- Monmouth (CAA)
- As one of the CAA's newest members, Monmouth just misses out on the playoffs. Last year, the Hawks missed out on the playoffs after losing its final game; it'll likely come down to the wire again in 2022. Monmouth still has running back Juwon Farri, a player with conference offensive player of the year potential.
- An MVFC team
- Whether it's Northern Iowa, North Dakota, or someone else there will be an MVFC team that feels snubbed come FCS championship selections. However, there's one less at-large bid this year compared to last year. Besides, five total playoff bids still leads all conferences.
- Florida A&M (SWAC)
- The Rattlers made the playoffs last year as an at-large, but the SWAC has only gotten tougher.
- UC Davis (Big Sky)
- If running back Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. and his 4,480 yards and 38 touchdowns from scrimmage weren't in the transfer portal, UC Davis would have received an at-large bid, knocking out Eastern Washington.
- UIW (WAC)
- UIW has a new head coach, a new quarterback and is playing in the WAC, a new conference in 2022. That's a lot of change to overcome to make the playoffs.
Projected FCS seeds
How important is seeding to the FCS playoffs? Teams that have only played home games through the FCS semifinal round have been nine of the last 10 participants in the last five FCS championship games. Every one and two seed has this advantage.
Here are my projections for the eight seeds.
First Round Bye
1. North Dakota State
2. Kennesaw State
5. South Dakota State
6. Montana State
8. Holy Cross
Predicted first round pairings
Here are the first-round pairings with second round opponents.
|FIRST ROUND MATCHUP (HOME TEAM IN BOLD)||SECOND ROUND|
|Southeastern Louisiana at Stephen F. Austin||No. 1 North Dakota State|
|UT Martin at Southern Illinois||No. 2 Kennesaw State|
|South Dakota at Eastern Washington||No. 3 Montana|
|Duquesne at ETSU||No. 4 Delaware|
|Central Arkansas at Chattanooga||No. 5 South Dakota State|
|Sacramento State at Missouri State||No. 6 Montana State|
|North Carolina A&T at Davidson||No. 7 Villanova|
|Richmond at Rhode Island||No. 8 Holy Cross|
Conferences with multiple teams in the projected bracket
|CONFERENCE||TOTAL TEAMS||TEAMS (AUTOMATIC BID IN BOLD)|
|MVFC||5||North Dakota State, Missouri State, South Dakota, South Dakota State,
|Big Sky||4||Montana, Eastern Washington, Montana State, Sacramento State|
|CAA||4||Delaware, Richmond, Rhode Island, Villanova|
|ASUN||2||Kennesaw State, Central Arkansas|