It’s always a popular question in FCS preseason.
“Who are the Dark Horse teams?”
“Who are the sleeper teams?”
We’ll use a different term in this article and call this group “under-the-radar” teams. Because we’re not necessarily saying these teams will make a surprise run to the national title shot. “Under-the-radar” here means teams that probably won’t get much encouragement from the preseason top 25 but are likely to exceed preseason expectations.
This is a group that is either under-ranked or not ranked at all in the pre-season and has a good chance of moving up in the fall.
Delaware is just 365 days away from an FCS semifinal appearance. Although it’s fair to say that the road to getting there was pretty smooth in the spring playoffs. After peaking at No. 5 in the fall 2021 season, the Blue Hens finished 5-6 in the preseason. Because of that, voters will likely place them in their 20s this summer, if they even make the top 25.
However, Delaware will have a talented roster on both sides of the ball and should be stronger than their preseason ranking suggests. Starting QB Nolan Henderson’s injury derailed last season after he was named an All-CAA first teamer in the spring. He’s back in 2022 with additional weapons.
Looking to bring more explosiveness to the offense, new head coach Ryan Carty is returning to his alma mater after being OC at Sam Houston. To join top receiver of 2021 Thyrick Pitts (488 yards, six TDs), Delaware has brought in three FCS transfer WRs: VMI’s Michael Jackson Jr. (All-SoCon 2nd Team), Presbyterian’s Jalyn Witcher ( Freshman All-American) and SHSU Harvin’s Chandler (#4 WR on the 2021 team). Defensively, the Blue Hens are retrieving their top four tacklers, led by LB Johnny Buchanan and safety Kedrick Whitehead, after scoring the No. 37 defense in 2021 (23.36 PPG).
The No. 1 spot in the CAA is up for grabs with the departure of James Madison, and the Blue Hens are a prime contender for it.
UIW finished last season 10-3 and was almost a quarterfinal team. The Cardinals lost the second round 49-42 to 1st seed Sam Houston. They’re likely to be ranked in the preseason polls, but voters might be too far guessing about UIW losing head coach Eric Morris and star QB Cameron Ward to Washington State.
UIW hired UCF co-OC and QBs coach GJ Kinne as their new headman, a young but bright offensive head. And the Cardinals landed transfer QB Lindsey Scott Jr. from former Southland Conference opponent Nicholls. The Fall 2021 All-Conference Honorable Mention selection threw for 2,083 yards, 16 TDs and 11 interceptions and rushed for 990 yards and nine TDs. In the spring, Scott passed for 1,684 yards, 18 TDs and seven interceptions in seven games. He also had 557 rushing yards and six TDs.
The offense should remain just as explosive, after rank 4 in the fall nationwide (39.5 PPG). The No. 1 (Taylor Grimes: 1,145 yards, 15 TDs) and No. 3 (Darion Chafin: 771 yards, 11 TDs) WRs are returning. Scott’s running ability helps offset the loss of top RB Kevin Brown and Marcus Cooper is back after rushing for 580 yards and eight TDs.
UIW needs to get better defensively if they want to make a deeper playoff run. His two 100+ tacklers (Kelechi Anyalebechi and Kaleb Culp) are back to improve on last year’s 26.92 allowed points per game.
Sam Houston is not eligible for the WAC’s auto offer this year as it moves to FBS. The AQ is at stake between Stephen F. Austin and UIW. SFA has already received a lot of love this offseason. But we voters should be reminded of what UIW has achieved in 2021 and what it is bringing back, including beating SFA 35-28 (OT) in the first round.
Richmond had strong defense in 2021 that allowed 20.0 PPG to earn 21st place in FCS. The Spiders won their last four games of the season 6-5, but an offense average of just 24.0 PPG left them a few wins before making the playoffs.
Defense will be strong again, despite losing notables like LB Tyler Dressler to the NFL and Kobie Turner to Wake Forest. Richmond brings back his No. 1 tackler Tristan Wheeler (114 total tackles) and No. 3 tackler Aamir Hall (60).
What makes Richmond so intriguing this year is the offensive transfers it has brought in. VMI All-American WR Jakob Herres is now on the list. The 6-foot-4 target recorded 72 catches for 1,091 yards and eight TDs, 80 receptions for 978 yards and eight TDs in the spring (eight games) in 2019, and 47 catches for 500 yards and five TDs last season (eight games) . . The Spiders also brought in QB Reece Udinski, Herre’s VMI teammate from 2018 through spring 2021, before Udinski’s move to Maryland in the fall. Herres helped Udinski set multiple VMI passing records.
With JMU eliminated from the CAA and Villanova losing a star-studded senior class, it looks like Richmond now has the balance to be a top-two team in the CAA this fall, if not for the No . 1.
State of Weaver
The past two seasons shouldn’t cause Weber State to slip off the national radar. Let’s not forget that this was one of the most consistent FCS programs of the late 2010s, reaching the quarterfinals twice and semifinals once in 2019. The Wildcats have had two down years since, losing a home playoff game in the first round to Southern Illinois in the spring and finishing last season 6-5, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2015. Weber has won four of his last five games, including a win against the No. 2 in East Washington.
The Wildcats need to replace most of their top tacklers, but we’ve seen that program reload on the defensive side of the ball. Weber always has one of the best defenses at FCS, last season in 19th place (19.55 PPG).
It is offensive that has held Weber back for several years. The Wildcats look to be even more explosive with the hiring of D2 Notre Dame College head coach Mickey Mental. QB Bronson Barron has shown positive flashes and has two seasons of starting experience. And Weber has a great backfield in Dontae McMillan and Josh Davis, who was one of the best RBs in FCS in 2018 and 2019 but has struggled with injuries the last two seasons.
Weber won at least part of the Big Sky title four years in a row from 2017 to spring 2021. The rise of the Montana schools last fall may have put Weber’s past success in the rearview mirror for some, but the Wildcats have the list to be a Big Sky contender again.
State of Youngstown
YSU may not receive a preseason top 25 vote. Which is fair considering the Penguins went 3-7 last year. And moving up the MVFC rankings won’t be easy with players like NDSU, SDSU, Missouri State and SIU, as well as recent playoff teams AND, USD and UNI. But this team seems poised to finish 2022 above .500 and potentially hit the seven-win mark to be in the playoff bubble.
A 3-7 record in 2021 won’t open many eyes. However, those three wins came against playoff teams (UIW, Missouri State, and SIU). YSU also had two three-point losses to WIU and UND in a volatile season. While the record may not show it as clearly, the overall improvements were visible from spring (1-6 overall) through fall. Now in Doug Phillips’ third season as head coach, 2022 has the potential to grab voters’ attention.
QB Demeatric Crenshaw showed promise in 2021 (791 yards passing, 6 TDs, 5 INTs; 599 yards rushing, 7 TDs) and was named MVFC Freshman of the Year. Jaleel McLaughlin is a top-returning RB in FCS who rushed for 1,139 yards and 12 TDs last year. Top Touchdowns (8) Receiver Bryce Oliver is also back. However, if YSU wants to take that next step, overhauling its defense after being one of the worst in FCS (35.4 PPG) is a must.
YSU is one of the most famous programs in FCS. The tradition, the facilities and the internal support are there. While there hasn’t been momentum to reverse the program save for one playoff appearance in the last 15 years that ended in a national championship loss, and while the Valley is the toughest conference in FCS, there hasn’t been Reason why the YSU should do this. t be a more aggressive program. This fall, things are looking promising for the penguins to take a step in that direction.
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