FCS Playoffs Forecast

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Selection Sunday for the FCS Playoffs arrives this weekend with the announcement of the 24-team national championship field. The outlook for Sunday’s bracket reveal is anything but clear, but Saturday’s results will help shape the tournament.

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    • NEC: Central Connecticut State

The Blue Devils are headed to their first-ever FCS Playoffs, sealing the Northeast Conference title in dramatic fashion last week. Cameron Nash took a screen pass 18 yards with a little more than a minute remaining to down Duquesne.

    • OVC: Jacksonville State

A perennial contender in recent years, Jacksonville State reached the national championship game at the culmination of the 2015 season. The last of North Dakota State’s title game victims did not do well.

Nevertheless, the Gamecocks are back and poised for a likely top four seed. They’re ranked No. 2 in the current FCS poll, looking at the possibility of home-field advantage all the way back to Frisco.

    • Pioneer League: San Diego

The non-scholarship Pioneer Football League struggled in its first few FCS Playoffs upon gaining an automatic berth, part of the tournament’s expansion from 20 teams to 24. But last year, the University of San Diego scored a monumental upset with its upset of Big Sky representative Cal Poly.

    • Southern: Wofford

Knick-knack patty whack give a Terrier a flexbone, Wofford’s in the Playoffs and will play at home; at least, presumably in the early round. The SoCon used to be the toughest conference in FCS, but Appalachian State and Georgia Southern leaving for FBS provided some upward mobility for remaining members.

Wofford rolls into the FCS Playoffs at 9-1, though the Terriers conclude the regular season playing an SEC Buy Week game against South Carolina. The Gamecocks come in at 7-3, so I would be prepared to chalk this up as a Wofford loss — if not for fellow SoCon option team, The Citadel, beating South Carolina two years ago. Will Muschamp also has a loss to a member of the SoCon option legacy, dropping a game while at Florida to Georgia Southern (though the Eagles had moved to the Sun Belt by then).

    • Southland: Central Arkansas

Central Arkansas’ tremendous purple-and-silver striped field getting national airtime when the FCS Playoffs come to ESPN gives me life. Oh, also, this is an excellent team.

Bears quarterback Hayden Hildebrand is one of the most prolific passers in FCS, his 26 touchdown passes ranking near the top of the subdivision. At 38 points per game, UCA ranks No. 6 in scoring offense nationally. 

FCS PLAYOFFS PIVOTAL MATCHUPS

No. 24 Northern Arizona at No. 16 Southern Utah

Both the Grand Canyon Trophy and at least a share of the Big Sky Conference championship are at stake between rivals Northern Arizona and Southern Utah.

The Lumberjacks have a strong case for an at-large bid despite their ranking, boasting a win over Illinois State, but missing out on Weber State — the third team tied atop the Big Sky heading into the regular-season finale — puts NAU on a thin bubble. The Jacks lost to fellow bubble team Montana earlier this month, putting up their lowest point total of the season after the dubious targeting ejection of quarterback Case Cookus early in the game.

Already having a win over Weber State, Southern Utah is guaranteed the conference’s automatic berth. The Thunderbirds are in great shape for an at-large berth with a loss, adding the Weber State victory to a resume that also includes defeats of Eastern Washington and Northern Iowa.

Monmouth at No. 23 Kennesaw State

Scheduling worked out perfectly for the Big South Conference. The league’s championship is on the line when Monmouth and Kennesaw State, currently tied for first place, square off.

The Big South is historically a one-bid conference, meaning the winner is guaranteed a berth in the FCS Playoffs, and the loser is likely out. Monmouth will be hard-pressed to slow the best rushing offense in the nation.

No. 6 South Dakota State at No. 15 South Dakota

Given the overall strength of the Missouri Valley Football Conference, and recent precedent for MVFC representation in the field of 24, it’s virtually certain the loser of this rivalry matchup will still get the call for the FCS Playoffs.

Saturday’s game is more about home-field jockeying. The Jackrabbits can lock up home field all the way through the semifinals with the right breaks. South Dakota rolled into November with what looked like one of the most impressive resumes in the nation, but high-profile wins over North Dakota and Youngstown State proved to be not that meaningful, as both faded down the stretch.

The Coyotes since dropped games to Northern Iowa and a blowout to North Dakota State. Losing a third straight heading into Selection Sunday would put South Dakota in a tenuous spot, but a win over a strong South Dakota State bunch could help the Coyotes avoid a First Round game.

No. 1 James Madison at No. 11 Elon

Defending national champion James Madison is an obvious, sure-fire inclusion, and would likely maintain a top four seed even with a loss Saturday. Still, the Colonial Athletic Association’s automatic berth and the pursuit of an undefeated season are both at stake for the top-ranked Dukes against surprising Elon.

The Phoenix rose from the proverbial ashes to contend for the crown in what is arguably the best conference in FCS. Elon is assured a spot in the FCS Playoffs, but claiming a share of the Colonial championship, with a win over the buzzsaw that is James Madison, would mark quite the culmination in a breakout season.

No. 4 North Dakota State at No. 21 Illinois State

North Dakota State’s run of consecutive national championships nearly ended two years earlier courtesy of MVFC counterpart Illinois State. The Redbirds took the Bison to the wire in the 2015 FCS National Championship Game (culmination of the 2014 season) before falling just short.

Even without that win over the Bison, Brock Spack’s tenure in Normal has been exceptional. This Redbirds team might need to beat North Dakota State in order to ensure its place in the FCS Playoffs, however.

The Redbirds have an important win over South Dakota, and took South Dakota State to overtime just last week. A loss to North Dakota State would drop Illinois State to 6-5, however. Should the Bison win, it’s yet another MVFC championship for North Dakota State.

Austin Peay at Eastern Illinois

Among the better stories to emerge from this college football season is the turnaround of Austin Peay football. Since 2010, the Governors went 8-71. With a win Saturday at Eastern Illinois, the 2017 Governors would match that total.

That may not necessarily be enough to get Austin Peay into the field of 24, as the Governors’ portfolio lacks high-profile wins. Still, it’s worth noting three of their four losses are to FBS opponents, including a late add of undefeated UCF. The fourth and sole FCS loss on Austin Peay’s slate is to national title contender Jacksonville State.

Maybe a win against Eastern Illinois gets Austin Peay in. Maybe not. But that the Governors will be discussed for an at-large berth come Selection Sunday is remarkable.

Lafayette at Lehigh/Colgate at Georgetown

The Patriot League championship and automatic berth into the FCS Playoffs comes down to these two games. Lehigh embarks on the longest-running rivalry in college football against Lafayette with the most unlikely playoff portfolio of any team, in the context of this season.

The Mountain Hawks went winless through the month of September at 0-5. Win or lose Saturday, Lehigh will finish the regular season below .500, but by virtue of winning a Patriot League championship, the Mountain Hawks would proceed to the Playoffs.

Lehigh holds the tiebreaker over Colgate, but a Mountain Hawks loss to Lafayette, coupled with a Colgate defeat of a dismal Georgetown bunch, would send the Raiders back to the FCS Playoffs.

Furman at Samford

The SoCon has not historically been a one-bid conference, so precedent suggests the winner between Furman and Samford — both of which sit at 7-3 coming into Saturday’s showdown — will snag an at-large bid. 

Samford’s SoCon win over Wofford bolsters the Bulldogs’ postseason case. Furman lacks a signature victory of that caliber, but the Paladins are winners of seven straight since losing to Wofford, Elon and NC State to kickoff the season.