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Stan Becton | | April 18, 2023

Way-too-early FCS tiers for every team entering the 2023 season

South Dakota State beats North Dakota State for 2022 FCS championship

It's April and the first 2023 FCS kickoff isn't for four months, but it's never too early to take a look at what's to come in an exciting season ahead.

There will be 127 teams in FCS play this fall — not counting Kennesaw State and its FBS transition.  That said, I've sorted all 127 teams into tiers from top to bottom, factoring in last season's success, potential and new, returning and departing talent.

Let's get into the tiers.

The step above the rest tier

  • South Dakota State

South Dakota State is a step above even the elite teams entering the 2023 season. The Jackrabbits should be a unanimous No. 1 preseason team after winning last season's FCS title.

Outside of a new coach, South Dakota State has few question marks. Its only major loss offensively is tight end Tucker Kraft, who missed a good portion of last season anyways. The Jacks lose two starters on their defensive line in Reece Winkleman and Caleb Sanders, but expect them to reload at the positions that rotate more often than not.

🏆: How South Dakota State won the 2022 FCS title

The Frisco-or-bust tier

  • North Dakota State
  • Montana State
  • William & Mary

These three teams should have their eyes set on lifting the trophy at the end of the year. 

North Dakota State can never be counted out, even with numerous departures via graduation, the draft and the transfer portal. Montana State will try to finally get over the hump after advancing to the semifinals and championship game the last two years behind what should be a dominant rushing game again. William & Mary made the quarterfinals last year and returns a top-10 quarterback in Darius Wilson and the best pass-rushing duo in John Pius and Nate Lynn.

The potential-playoff-seeds tier

  • Holy Cross
  • North Carolina Central
  • Southeast Missouri State
  • Samford
  • Furman
  • Sacramento State
  • Idaho
  • New Hampshire

All the teams in this category could earn a top-eight seed in the playoffs. Holy Cross, Samford and Sacramento State were all seeds last year and advanced to the quarterfinal round. Holy Cross and Samford should be preseason favorites to win their conferences. Meanwhile, Sacramento State lost its head coach, running back and both of its quarterbacks. Yet, the Hornets should still contend in the Big Sky after winning the conference in each of the last two years.

Furman, Idaho, New Hampshire and Southeast Missouri State could also make pushes for seeds this year. Furman, Idaho and New Hampshire all won playoff games last season and should hover around the top 10. SEMO may have to run the table to overcome its strength of schedule, but the potential is there in the OVC.

North Carolina Central, while not a playoff candidate if the season is a success, should be far and away the favorite to win the MEAC and the 2023 Celebration Bowl behind star quarterback and Walter Payton Award candidate Davius Richard. The Eagles have the potential to run the table against FCS competition.

CHAMPIONS: How North Carolina Central won the 2022 Celebration Bowl

The playoff-contenders tier

This tier is full of teams that could make the playoffs, likely as an at-large or teams that could compete for conference titles in what have been one-bid leagues in past seasons. There are more teams in this tier than playoff spots, so some of these could be in the first-teams-out come playoff time. All of these have the potential to enter the top-25 throughout the season.

  • Southeastern Louisiana
  • UIW
  • Weber State
  • UC Davis
  • Montana
  • Chattanooga
  • Northern Iowa
  • North Dakota
  • Southern Illinois
  • UT Martin
  • Florida A&M
  • Southern
  • Delaware
  • Rhode Island
  • Gardner-Webb
  • Eastern Kentucky
  • Princeton
  • Yale

Starting with the two Southland teams, I expect UIW and Southeastern Louisiana to compete for the conference title yet again. UIW would be a tier higher but two straight seasons of a new coach and quarterback leave me concerned.

Elsewhere, you'll find a handful of Big Sky, MVFC and CAA teams. The top three conferences in the FCS almost always receive three to four bids to the playoffs, and while I don't see any of the teams in this tier contending for their conference crown, I definitely see them as at-large contenders.

Some teams could reach eight wins and contend for a conference title, but won't be participating in the playoffs. Florida A&M and Southern should be the favorites to win their divisions in the SWAC entering 2023. Princeton and Yale are the front-runners for the Ivy League title this year.

QB1: The top 10 returning FCS quarterbacks in 2023

The good-but-not-great tier

This tier has teams that should finish the season around the six to seven-win mark. It also has teams in conferences that aren't typically as strong and may win or fall just short of a title.

  • Jackson State
  • Illinois State
  • Austin Peay
  • Mercer
  • Elon
  • Richmond
  • Harvard
  • Penn
  • Youngstown State
  • Saint Francis (PA)
  • Howard
  • Merrimack
  • Morgan State
  • St. Thomas (MN)
  • Dayton
  • Davidson
  • Alabama State
  • Prairie View A&M
  • Fordham

The top NEC and Pioneer teams are in this tier, and while they could finish with more than seven wins, past performance in the postseason put them a tier below the other playoff contenders.

You'll find a bunch of HBCU teams in this tier, including two-time defending SWAC champion Jackson State. Gone are the days of Coach Prime, and he brought his son, the star quarterback. More players have left in the transfer portal. Those losses drop the Tigers from recent heights.

Fordham, Elon and Richmond are all teams that made the 2022 playoffs as at-larges that drop to this tier. Why? Because each team has a significant loss at quarterback.

CHAMPIONSHIPS: Schools with the most FCS national championships

The unproven potential tier

The teams in the year have a chance at being better than last season, leading to a surprise rise up conference standings. However, until they prove it on the field, they stay put.

  • Columbia
  • Villanova
  • Central Arkansas
  • Abilene Christian
  • Stephen F. Austin
  • Tarleton State
  • Alabama A&M
  • Tennessee State
  • Sacred Heart
  • Missouri State
  • Delaware State
  • South Dakota
  • Duquesne
  • South Carolina State
  • San Diego
  • Butler
  • Texas A&M-Commerce
  • ETSU
  • Northwestern State
  • Alcorn State
  • Texas Southern
  • Cal Poly

The meh tier

This tier features teams that won't be the worst teams in their conferences, but they won't contend either. Think of 4-5 win teams that are competitive in most games... for at least a quarter or two.

  • Lindenwood
  • Eastern Washington
  • Monmouth
  • Cornell
  • Dartmouth
  • Tennessee Tech
  • Stonehill
  • LIU
  • Lafayette
  • North Carolina A&T
  • Campbell
  • Albany
  • Maine
  • Towson
  • Valparaiso
  • Marist
  • Western Carolina
  • Northern Arizona
  • Northern Colorado
  • The Citadel
  • Nicholls
  • McNeese
  • Grambling State
  • Southern Utah
  • Utah Tech
  • Portland State
  • Bryant
  • Stony Brook
  • Brown

The bottom tier

After last season these teams round out the bottom of the tiers list. The good news is they can only go up from here.

  • VMI
  • Hampton
  • North Alabama
  • Houston Christian
  • Lamar
  • Wofford
  • Presbyterian
  • Morehead State
  • Stetson
  • Drake
  • Robert Morris
  • Charleston Southern
  • Idaho State
  • Colgate
  • Central Connecticut State
  • Wagner
  • Georgetown
  • Lehigh
  • Bucknell
  • Norfolk State
  • Indiana State
  • Western Illinois
  • Murray State
  • Eastern Illinois
  • Mississippi Valley State
  • Bethune-Cookman
  • Arkansas-Pine Bluff

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