Are you feeling melancholy wash over you with the arrival of a college football-free weekend? Well cheer up, because the FCS Playoffs are afoot, which means your Saturday schedule isn’t yet cleared.
In fact, quarterfinals action kicks off tonight with the No. 1 overall seed.
Represented among the final eight are every national championship-winning program since 2009 (including the three-time defending champs), a recent two-time title game participant, the veritable Susan Lucci of the FCS Playoffs with seven consecutive appearances and zero trophies and one of the nation’s hottest head coaching names.
Chattanooga at New Hampshire
When: Friday, 8 p.m. ET
How to Watch: ESPN 2
New Hampshire earned the FCS Playoffs No. 1 seed and home-field advantage all the way to Frisco, Texas — location of the national championship game since the 2010 season — with an 11-1 record and Colonial Athletic Association championship.
The CAA has staked its reputation as the “SEC of FCS.” The league is indeed competitive virtually from top-to-bottom every year, with such noteworthy members as Richmond, Villanova and James Madison (all 2014 FCS Playoffs participants); William & Mary; and Towson.
However, the CAA has not won a national championship since Villanova beat Montana in 2009.
The best of head coach Sean McDonnell’s seven straight playoff teams, this year’s Wildcats are primed to change that. They’ve won 11 straight since dropping the season opener at Toledo.
The New Hampshire football program is perhaps most recognized among major college and NFL fans for producing former Oregon Ducks and current Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly.
Yet, despite having one of the game’s brightest offensive minds in the fold for 13 years, the Wildcats are known more for preventing touchdowns than producing them.
No FCS opponent has reached 30 points against the New Hampshire defense, while seven failed to score even 20.
The Wildcats thrive with a tenacious pass rush that has produced 37 sacks on the year. Cody Muller’s nine set the pace.
Chattanooga won a Southern Conference that was once in the conversation as the best FCS conference, but sadly lost its luster with Appalachian State and Georgia Southern bolting for the FBS and Sun Belt.
Nevertheless, Chattanooga poses an intriguing challenge to the No. 1-seeded Wildcats because the Mocs are another defensive-minded team.
Chattanooga ranks No. 11 nationally in points per game allowed at 18.8, and the Mocs’ Buck Buchanan Award finalist, defensive end Davis Tull.
Tull is a name for NFL fans to remember as an off-the-radar draft steal.
The forecast calls for temperatures around the point total either team is likely to score; e.g., mid-20s. Ideal conditions for old-school football, indeed.
Coastal Carolina at North Dakota State
When: Saturday, Noon ET
How to Watch: ESPN
North Dakota State is perhaps the most prominent FCS program on the national landscape, thanks to three straight national championships and two appearances as the host school of College Gameday
The Big South champion Chanticleers visited the Fargodome in last year’s FCS Playoffs and — well — the below meme spread through the online NDSU community pretty accurately summarizes how that game went.
The oppressive defensive style on which North Dakota State has made its bones through three straight championships grounded one of college football’s most explosive offenses a year ago.
But 2014 is a new year.
Coastal Carolina head coach Joe Moglia’s rise up the ranks is well-documented. He went from AmeriTrade CEO, to coach of the ill-fated UFL’s Omaha franchise, to now leading a program that reached No. 1 in the FCS polls last month playing an explosive brand of football.
The Chanticleers average a hair below 38 points per game, 13th most in the FCS. Dual-threat quarterback Alex Ross leads the way with nearly 3,200 passing yards and another 671 on the ground, working in tandem with running back De’Angelo Henderson.
Henderson’s rushed for 1,391 yards and 19 touchdowns. Truly, the Coastal offense is as balanced as it gets.
The styles clash between Coastal’s uptempo offense and North Dakota State’s tremendous defense is the obvious story line here — and with good reason. NDSU is as smash-mouth a team as there is at any level of college football, and this year the Bison feature two Buck Buchanan Award finalists: defensive end Kyle Emanuel and safety Colton Heagle.
But how the North Dakota State offense fairs against a Coastal defense that ranks 10th nationally in points allowed and has its own Buchanan finalist — linebacker Quinn Backus — could determine the rhythm of this game.
North Dakota State’s offense has long countered the stout defense with a power-run game, but the Bison haven’t had a single ball-carrier produce at the level of current running back John Crockett since Paul Paschall in 2009.
Crockett has gone for over 1,500 yards on the year and 15 touchdowns.
Fargo is wild about North Dakota State football, and both the teams and atmosphere on Saturday make for an ideal introduction to the FCS Playoffs for first-timers.
Sam Houston State at Villanova
When: Saturday, 1 p.m. ET
How to Watch: ESPN 3
Willie Fritz parlayed three straight FCS Playoffs appearances and two national title game runs at Sam Houston State into the head coaching gig at Georgia Southern. The first month in the post-Fritz era was very rock, as the Bearkats lost in a nationally televised Week 0 contest at Eastern Washington and served as the early-season bodybag for LSU.
Of course, those losses could be penciled in before the season; a 47-21 home defeat to Div. II Colorado State-Pueblo, on the other hand? Not so much.
First-year head coach and former FCS title-winner (2003 at Delaware) K.C. Keeler rallied his new team in the final two months of the regular season, leading Sam Houston State to a share of its fourth Southland Conference championship in the last four seasons.
The Bearkats have also knocked off a pair of opponents ranked higher than them so far in the 2014 FCS Playoffs, dispatching conference rival Southeastern Louisiana in the opening round, 21-17, and No. 3 Jacksonville State in the Round of 16, 37-26.
Home-standing Villanova will try to avoid the upset bug in what has the potential to be a high-scoring quarterfinal.
Pacing Villanova’s 38.2-point per game offense is quarterback John Robertson.
If you havent’s seen Robertson before, Saturday’s game is worth tuning in just to see him, as he’s among the most exciting individual players in the FCS.
Winner of the 2012 Jerry Rice Award (best freshman in FCS), Robertson could add the Walter Payton Award to his trophy case this year. He’s thrown an incredible 35 touchdowns to just three interceptions while rushing for another 11 scores and 1,078 yards.
This is the FCS Marcus Mariota.
Illinois State at Eastern Washington
When: Saturday, 4 p.m. ET
How to Watch: ESPN 3
Last year’s runner-up for the Walter Payton Award, Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams, is a finalist once again and the top competition to Villanova’s Robertson.
And if Robertson is the FCS Mariota, consider Adams the FCS equivalent of Johnny Manziel: perhaps a bit undersized for what we expect of a quarterback, but with an arm much bigger than his frame and an explosive running ability.
He’s thrown 32 touchdowns and just six interceptions this season, and run for another five touchdowns. But don’t just take the numbers’ word on Adams’ play: Let one of the most talented defensive teams in the Pac-12, the Washington Huskies, sell you on Vernon Adams.
Adams scored seven touchdowns in the Eagles’ 59-52 loss at Washington in September, prompting the following praise from Huskies head coach Chris Petersen (via GoHuskies):
“Their quarterback, Mr. Adams is a very fun guy to watch. He never panics, is a playmaker.”
And linebacker John Timu:
He didn’t surprise us at all. We expected those plays. He was consistently performing well, he threw the ball on time and he made plays with his feet.
Behind Adams, Eastern Washington has the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense. But Illinois State is not far behind at No. 9.
Indiana transfer Tre Roberson quarterbacks the Redbirds offense, but running back Marshaun Coprich is the player to watch.
Coprich ranks third among all FCS ball-carriers with 1,831 yards on the season, and his 22 rushing touchdowns are tied for second nationally.
Eastern Washington’s Inferno has been home to some of the most raucous games in recent FCS Playoffs history. With these two explosive offenses taking to the red turf in Saturday’s finale, expect another high-scoring classic.