Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Take a good look at the FCS playoff bracket for the 2013 playoffs, and what do you see?
Sure, there are a handful of teams in the playoff field that in the preseason were predicted to be far from it. That's the nature of football - there are always bound to be some surprises.
What certainly jumps right off the bracket is the potential for some incredible second-round and late-round matchups. If the selection committee had this in mind when the members sat down and drew up the newly expanded field of 24 teams, they hit the nail right on the head. Indeed, there are some doozies.
Whether the matchup could potentially be between bitter conference rivals or just an outstanding offense versus a top-notch defense, the potential is there. That is, of course, dependent on what transpires in the first round.
Let's start with Northern Arizona and South Dakota State. The winner of this first-round matchup gets third-seeded Eastern Washington in Cheney on Dec. 7. Northern Arizona, a fellow Big Sky Conference member, didn't get a look at the Eagles during the regular season. But should the Lumberjacks make it past the Jackrabbits, it'd be an exciting defense-vs.-offense battle, not to mention the conference similarities.
Sam Houston State hosts Southern Utah this weekend for a chance to advance and face Southland member Southeastern Louisiana. The Bearkats, a playoff- weathered team, lost to the Lions during the regular season, but would love a shot at redemption.
They have to first get through the Big Sky-tested Thunderbirds, who are young but surprised more than a few people to get into this position. Sam Houston State is the third Southland team in the playoff field, and the only one playing this weekend. The back-to-back national runners-up would sure love to prove they're better than their record during the season.
Should New Hampshire get past Patriot League champion (and the first sub-.500 playoff team ever) Lafayette, the Wildcats will head up north one state to face CAA Football rival Maine. The Wildcats just defeated the Black Bears in New Hampshire, 24-3, last weekend, but playing in Maine may be a different story.
The Black Bears won the CAA title outright and had already clinched the conference's automatic bid prior to playing New Hampshire, so the consequences of the loss weren't severe (Maine is still the No. 5 seed in the playoff field). But would the Bears love another shot at defeating the Wildcats in front of a raucous Orono crowd? You bet they would.
Looking even further down the road, a Montana/North Dakota State quarterfinals matchup would draw many viewers, as two of the nation's top defenses would square off.
How about the possibility of an Eastern Illinois and Towson matchup in the quarterfinals? Towson running back Terrance West trying to keep pace with Eastern quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo would lead to a mushroom cloud- like explosion of offense.
How about this matchup to send shivers down your spine: Eastern Illinois versus Eastern Washington for a shot at the national title. Gives you chills, right? Vernon Adams against Garoppolo seems like the ultimate clash.
This, of course, is all hypothetical. "What if's" are prevalent in sports, and there's no exception here. But it's clear that either the stars aligned perfectly for this season's playoffs, or the selection committee recognized some truly fantastic potential for this postseason.
Let's sit back and watch it all unfold in this first-ever 24-team field.
The following is a game-by-game breakdown for the FCS first-round playoff field and the final two regular-season games involving Southwestern Athletic Conference teams (all times ET):
Thursday, Nov. 28
Stillman (6-4) at Alabama State (7-4)
Kickoff: 4 p.m. ET
What to Know: Ah, the 90th annual Turkey Day Classic. This game is a reminder that traditions in college football run just as deep as any other level in the country. And really, isn't Thanksgiving Day synonymous with football anyway?
Typically the Turkey Day Classic is played between Alabama State and Tuskegee, but this year it's Stillman visiting Alabama State's house. The Hornets, at 7-4 overall, had a decent season facing a Southwestern Athletic Conference schedule that got tougher as the year went on.
The SWAC endured a rough patch at the beginning of the season, but several teams in the East Division righted themselves and finished just behind East winner Jackson State - the Hornets included. Both Alabama State and Alcorn State accumulated 7-2 records in the conference, right behind Jackson State's 8-1 mark.
Alabama State had a successful 7-3 campaign going in 2012 before losing to Division II Tuskegee. Considering the game is nationally televised on ESPNU, the Hornets will be seeking a better result in the spotlight against Stillman.
Alabama State is led by junior running back Isaiah Crowell, a Walter Payton Award candidate who has rushed for over 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns while battling through a few injuries that slowed his season a bit. He and backfield mate Malcolm Cyrus have combined for 21 of the team's 25 rushing scores.
Quarterback Daniel Duhart was effective, completing 143-of-264 pass attempts this season for 1,717 yards and 16 touchdowns with just six interceptions. It was a rough start to the season for the Hornets, who suffered two straight losses to Jacksonville State and Jackson State, then two more losses to start November to Kentucky and Southern. A six-game winning streak in the middle of the season helped the Hornets along.
Stillman isn't an easy team to beat, however. The Tigers average 28.8 points per game while only surrendering 21 per contest. They also maintain a 6.1- yards-per-play average and outgain their opponents 404.2 to 298.7 yards per game.
We'll see if the Hornets can handle the uptempo style of the Division II Tigers on Turkey Day.
The Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Alabama State 27, Stillman 20
Saturday, Nov. 30
Lafayette (5-6) at No. 15 New Hampshire (7-4)
Kickoff: noon ET
What to Know: This first playoff game could accurately be called "the battle of playoff teams that snuck in by the skin of their teeth," although the name itself probably won't catch on.
Both Lafayette and New Hampshire desperately needed wins in the final week of the regular season to earn their spots on the national stage, and both needed to do so against higher-ranked competition. Lafayette defeated Lehigh on the road (where Lehigh had not lost a game all season) to win the Patriot League title and the automatic bid, while New Hampshire downed rival (and previously No. 4-ranked) Maine at Cowell Stadium to stay perfect at home and earn a 6-2 record in CAA Football.
New Hampshire has now made a nation-leading 10 consecutive playoff appearances. And for the first time since the 2005 season, when the Wildcats were ranked No. 1 in the country, New Hampshire will be hosting a playoff game. It's against the only team in FCS history with a losing record to make the postseason.
But that in no way describes the Leopards. Lafayette, under field direction of freshman quarterback Drew Reed, has won four if its last five games, including against previously unbeaten Fordham in Week 12 and Lehigh this past Saturday.
Reed's efficiency has been apparent this season. This past Saturday, the freshman completed 20-of-27 pass attempts for 378 yards and three touchdowns with no turnovers. Turnovers are characteristically the problem of a young, inexperienced player on the college level, but Reed, aside from the Fordham contest, has overcome that stereotype.
Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, the Wildcats have found success with either of their two quarterbacks under center. Against Maine, regular starter Andy Vailas went down with an injury, so Sean Goldrich stepped in and completed 5- of-8 passes for 38 yards and a touchdown and orchestrated the victory. And if the effectiveness isn't there through the air, the Wildcats will turn to their ground game, which finished the regular season averaging 196.4 yards per game, which ranks third in the CAA.
Both teams got hot at the right time this season. But New Hampshire's success at home can't be ignored. Three of New Hampshire's five wins this season at home came against Top 25 squads, and the Leopards haven't beaten a non- conference opponent this year.
New Hampshire is a program that has been starved of a home playoff matchup for the past eight years, and has only hosted a postseason game five times in its history. The usual friendly confines of Cowell Stadium will be even more so this weekend for the Wildcats with the home crowd.
The Sports Network Predicted Outcome: New Hampshire 28, Lafayette 20
No. 19 Tennessee State (9-3) at Butler (9-3)
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET
What to Know: Not only does Butler become the first Pioneer Football League team to make the postseason with the league's first automatic bid, but the Bulldogs were handed possibly the surprise of the Sunday selection announcement - a home playoff game.
Butler won the league's automatic bid after San Diego declared itself ineligible due to concerns of potential violations in the way the university awards need-based financial aid to its players. Over growing concerns that the program was going against league rules, the Toreros withdrew from the playoff race.
That's not to say Butler wasn't deserving, however. The Bulldogs won the automatic qualifier in a ranking tiebreaker with Marist, and enjoyed a successful season in PFL play, going 7-1 in the league. The Bulldogs are also 5-1 at home in 2013.
Butler quarterback Matt Lancaster, last season's PFL offensive player of the year, has thrown for 2,639 yards this season with 19 touchdowns and six interceptions. He has added 12 touchdowns rushing on 117 season carries. He and running back Trae Heeter have made a dangerous combo this season, combining for 25 rushing touchdowns.
But Tennessee State is a team completely different than any PFL squad Butler has faced this season, although an Ohio Valley Conference squad hasn't won a playoff game since 2000.
The Tigers pride themselves on stingy defense and blanket coverage of downfield receivers. That's pretty evident in the team's scoring defense, as the Tigers rank sixth nationally in allowing just 16.8 points per game to opponents. That's impressive, considering the OVC competition Tennessee State has faced.
In a Nov. 16 contest against Murray State - the Tigers' final regular season game - Tennessee State held the Racers without a third-down or fourth-down conversion, and to just 24 rushing yards all game.
The Tigers defense is a nightmare for opponents. Tennessee State has held nine opponents to under 20 points this season, which means Lancaster will have his hands full trying to make plays. There's nothing for Butler to lose, and everything to gain in the PFL's first playoff appearance in history.
The Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Tennessee State 30, Butler 17
No. 12 Bethune-Cookman (10-2) at No. 11 Coastal Carolina (10-2)
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET
What to Know: Bethune-Cookman and Coastal Carolina will meet in the playoffs for a second consecutive year, with the Wildcats seeking some revenge for last year's playoff exit.
Coastal Carolina survived the matchup with Bethune-Cookman last season, advancing 24-14, which extended the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference's playoff losing streak to 17 straight postseason losses since 1999. With two MEAC teams in this year's field, there's a greater chance one team makes it through the first round.
Bethune-Cookman's offense needs to keep rolling in order to have a shot in this one. The Chanticleers rank third in the FCS in points per game, averaging 42.6 this season. Much of that offensive production comes from senior running back Lorenzo Taliaferro, who finished the regular season tied for second in the country with 23 rushing touchdowns.
The Chanticleers aren't the strongest defensive squad in the world, only holding opponents to under 20 points in three contests this season. But that's not a problem for the 10-2 Chants, so long as they outscore the opposition, which has been a familiar concept this season. Linebacker Quinn Backus will be busy against the run-heavy Wildcats.
Bethune-Cookman ranks ninth in the FCS in rushing offense, averaging 250.3 rushing yards per game. Against Florida A&M in the regular season finale, the Wildcats carried the ball 61 times and attempted 12 passes. That's the nature of their offense.
The Wildcats need to be careful of penalties. In the past five weeks, Bethune- Cookman has accumulated 73 flags. Against a strong Coastal Carolina opponent, the battle for field position will be a crucial one, and penalties can only do damage.
This contest will be an offensive battle, and the Chanticleers, unbeaten at home this season, will look to the senior Taliaferro and sophomore quarterback Alex Ross for typical offensive production.
The Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Coastal Carolina 34, Bethune-Cookman 24
Sacred Heart (10-2) at No. 9 Fordham (11-1)
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 30, 1 p.m. ET
What to Know: After receiving something of a scare several weeks ago in the form of a Michael Nebrich injury, the Rams junior quarterback returned for the season finale against Colgate and had one of his better games of the season.
Nebrich missed the Rams' only loss of the season, a 27-14 defeat at the hands of Patriot League champion Lafayette. Had the Walter Payton Award candidate played, we may be talking about a seeded Rams team and a second unbeaten squad in the nation. That's how important Nebrich is to this Fordham lineup.
The Fordham offense is a force to be reckoned with when its stars are healthy. In the team's 56-19 win over Colgate Saturday, Nebrich passed for 395 yards and five touchdowns, while running back Carlton Koonce rushed for 148 yards and two scores. Receiver Brian Wetzel caught three of Nebrich's five touchdown passes.
This matchup with Sacred Heart is more intriguing than a superficial glance may provide. Sure, the Northeast Conference isn't as strong as others around the nation. And last year's champion Wagner was the first NEC team to win an FCS playoff game in the conference's three years of postseason appearances.
But Sacred Heart is a different story. The 10-win program rebounded from a dismal 2-9 record last season with defensive improvements in mind. And that's exactly what coach Mark Nofri has gotten in the eight-win turnaround.
The Pioneers lead the nation with 22 interceptions and 38 takeaways in 2013. They're also tied for ninth in the FCS in red zone defense and tied for second in team tackles for loss. Sacred Heart has posted two shutout wins this season, and held Lincoln (Pa.) to a field goal back on Sept. 14.
Freshman quarterback R.J. Noel and junior running back Keshaudas Spence have ignited the offense, but whether they can keep pace with a Rams squad averaging 38.4 points per game is another story.
If Nebrich is completely healthy, this is Fordham's game to lose. An effective Rams offense could give Towson a run for its money should Fordham advance to the second round.
The Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Fordham 32, Sacred Heart 23
Furman (7-5) at No. 25 South Carolina State (9-3)
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET
What to Know: South Carolina State represents the other chance the MEAC has at a playoff win, which would be the first since the 1999 season. But this isn't the first time the conference has had an at-large bid, and the Bulldogs themselves are no strangers to playoffs.
In 2010, Bethune-Cookman won the MEAC's automatic bid while South Carolina State received an at-large bid. Buddy Pough's Bulldogs have enjoyed one heck of a turnaround season, adding four wins to their 2012 total and earning a share of the MEAC title with B-CU.
A matchup with Furman, the Southern Conference's automatic bid recipient, at home could meet the right set of conditions for the first MEAC playoff win in 17 seasons. South Carolina State's change-of-pace offense is led by quarterbacks Richard Cue and Adrian Kollock. Cue, the more experienced passer, won't burn an opponent through the air, but his versatility in the passing game and running game keeps a defense on its toes.
Kollock is the runner. His four rushing touchdowns in the past two weeks has helped the Bulldogs immensely in the run game, which, from time to time, can be lacking. Typically anywhere from five to eight Bulldogs will record a carry in any given week.
But the Paladins have seen it all when it comes to opponents rushing the football. They play in a Southern Conference deeply involved in the run game, with talented rushers like those on Georgia Southern's roster, Marcus Cox from Appalachian State, Samford's Fabian Truss, and Wofford's and The Citadel's triple option attack.
Furman quarterback Reese Hannon has developed into a proficient passer and a standout leader. The Paladins, on the back off Hannon, moved into the postseason with a season-ending win over Wofford. Hannon threw for 326 yards and a touchdown in the victory.
Three of Furman's five losses this season have been by one score or less, and another came at the hands of FBS LSU. The Paladins didn't pick up their pace until the latter half of the season, but when they did, they were impressive. The train could very well keep rolling right through to Fargo for a matchup with top-seeded North Dakota State.
The Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Furman 29, South Carolina State 20
Southern (7-4) at Grambling State (1-10)
Kickoff: 2:30 p.m. ET at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans
What to Know: The XL Bayou Classic between these two Louisiana-based schools takes place at the home of the New Orleans Saints, which is appropriate, because college football in Louisiana will draw enough of a crowd to require such a large venue.
Southern will be playing in the SWAC championship game a week from Saturday against Jackson State, so this game against Grambling can either be looked at as a means for some practice - a primer before the championship game - or it can be seen as a potential for injury to some of Southern's players. The stage here is too big to consider the latter.
Grambling State, such a storied and marveled program, had some issues this season that went beyond football. Unfortunately, that's what this season will be remembered for - when players boycotted a bus trip to Jackson State that ended up costing the Grambling State athletic department $20,000 and a home game against Jackson State in each of the next three seasons.
There isn't much else looking past that. Grambling won one game this seson, though the Tigers could have made it two in a row when they took Texas Southern to overtime, and three in a row when they dropped the Nov. 9 regular season finale to Arkansas-Pine Bluff by three points.
The end of the emotional, like-to-forget season wasn't nearly as bad as the first few months. And it could all be made better with an upset win over the SWAC West Division champs.
But Southern isn't about to give up on this one to focus on the championship game. The Jaguars average 29.3 points per game - nearly 10 points more than Grambling State's 19.9 per-game average. Quarterback Dray Joseph has had a phenomenal year, passing for 3,010 yards and 24 touchdowns in the seven-win campaign. And Lenard Tillery can make teams pay on the ground, as the redshirt freshman back has scored eight times this season and gained over 600 rushing yards.
Grambling State's 38.4 points per game surrendered to opponents is a scary stat. Southern's opportunistic offense will be looking forward to taking the field Saturday.
The Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Southern 38, Grambling State 27
No. 22 Southern Utah (8-4) at No. 14 Sam Houston State (8-4)
Kickoff: 3 p.m. ET
What to Know: After having been to back-to-back national championships, Sam Houston State finds itself almost backing into the 2013 postseason.
The Bearkats suffered two straight losses to end the regular season against Southland Conference foes, and now must play their way out of the first round to take a shot at fellow Southland competitor Southeastern Louisiana, a team that just defeated Sam Houston State on Nov. 16.
The Bearkats have a nucleus of senior leaders who played integral roles in making it to back-to-back national championships. So there's no questioning whether or not they're ready for the postseason. The question is: are the Bearkats talented enough to make it back to Frisco?
With players like running back Timothy Flanders, quarterback Brian Bell and receiver/utility man Richard Sincere, Sam Houston's offense will show its quickness. The Bearkats have averaged 255.7 rushing yards per game this season. It's the defensive woes that could cause some concern, having surrendered 34 and 49 points in consecutive games to SELU and Central Arkansas, respectively.
The Thunderbirds don't necessarily have an offense that threatens to explode for 50 points week after week, and playoff inexperience can certainly provide a fair amount of nerves.
But this is a very young team, led by defensive standouts, junior quarterback Aaron Cantu and a trio of freshman running backs in Toa Afatasi, Levi Te'o and Raysean Martin who will be around as a Big Sky contender for years to come.
Against extremely tough Big Sky competition this season, the Thunderbirds went 5-3 with key wins over Montana State, Portland State and Sacramento State. Southern Utah nearly took care of Northern Arizona in the final week before Cantu threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown in the closing minute of play.
Southern Utah certainly has a shot to win, but playoff experience and maturity counts more than some may think. Expect Sam Houston to be gunning for another shot at the Lions in Hammond on Dec. 7.
The Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Sam Houston State 36, Southern Utah 24
No. 18 Samford (8-4) at No. 20 Jacksonville State (9-3)
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET
What to Know: Talk about your nail-biting season finales.
After Furman defeated Wofford to remain afloat in the Southern Conference title race, the Bulldogs kicked off knowing a win would give them a fighting chance at a playoff spot. And the team's game against SoCon rival Elon came down to the wire.
With seven seconds remaining in the game, Samford quarterback Andy Summerlin hooked up with receiver Chris Cephus on a 12-yard scoring strike to give the Bulldogs a one-point lead. The ensuing two-point conversion failed, but time had just about run out on the Phoenix. With the win, Samford was given an at- large playoff bid as the second of two SoCon teams in the field.
The Bulldogs have dangerous playmakers both on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. The most prominent of which is senior Fabian Truss, who is explosive and can slice through a defense in a matter of seconds. That's why he serves as the team's kick returner as well.
Linebacker Justin Shade and safety Jaquiski Tartt on the defensive side make the Bulldogs a dangerous team when it comes to putting pressure on an opposing quarterback. In an offense-driven league like the Southern Conference, the Bulldogs pride themselves on a bend-but-don't-break philosophy.
But in an even more offense-centric league - the Ohio Valley Conference - Jacksonville State thrived this season. The Gamecocks ended their 9-3 regular season only with losses to Murray State, Tennessee State and Eastern Illinois - two OVC playoff teams - and averaged 34.8 points per game, good for 23rd in the country.
Running back DaMarcus James ended the regular season hotter than almost any other ball carrier in the FCS. James has come out of near obscurity since the first few weeks of the season to rush for 19 touchdowns in the final eight weeks and become tied for second in the nation with 23 rushing scores.
James will keep Justin Shade busy on defense, while Summerlin will look to pick apart the Gamecocks defense that's allowing 24.6 points per game to opponents. Turnovers will be one team's downfall in this game, and Jacksonville State's plus-two turnover margin may not suit Summerlin very well.
The Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Jacksonville State 31, Samford 27
No. 13 South Dakota State (8-4) at No. 8 Northern Arizona (9-2)
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET
What to Know: South Dakota State's season was a lot like riding in an elevator. For three weeks, the Jackrabbits enjoyed the ride upward with three straight wins over Butler (a playoff team), North Dakota and Southeastern Louisiana (a playoff team).
Then South Dakota State's elevator ride took a Tower of Terror-like plummet after a loss to FBS Nebraska. Four losses in five weeks left the Jackrabbits with a 4-4 overall record and a 1-3 mark in Missouri Valley Conference play. But the latter portion of the season was kinder to the 'Rabbits, as they closed out the regular season with four straight wins.
The offensive-minded Jackrabbits will meet up in Flagstaff this weekend against Big Sky opponent Northern Arizona. The Lumberjacks finished the regular season with six straight wins - their last loss coming against Montana State back on Oct. 5.
Northern Arizona survived a furious Southern Utah season finale in which Lumberjacks safety Blair Wishom intercepted Thunderbirds quarterback Aaron Cantu and returned it 52 yards for a touchdown a 10-point cushion that sealed the win. It was Northern Arizona's eighth defensive touchdown this season.
South Dakota State running back Zach Zenner finished his stellar regular season against Youngstown State with 186 rushing yards and two touchdowns. He is second in rushing yards in the country and tied for fourth in rushing touchdowns. His success against a very tough defense will be key for the Jackrabbits Saturday night.
Northern Arizona quarterback Kyren Poe hasn't been spectacular, but rather he gets the job done in clutch situations. He ended the game against Southern Utah with 99 passing yards and a touchdown. Against a South Dakota State defense that sports a plus-1.2 turnover margin per game, Poe will be forced to make safe decisions and stick to the game plan, which will likely involve senior running back Zach Bauman heavily.
The Jackrabbits have only lost twice on the road this season, and once was at Nebraska. Putting up a significant number of points isn't Northern Arizona's forte, so the Jackrabbits should take as many shots at the end zone as possible. Zenner's workload should increase against a talented defensive backfield, and we'll see if the Lumberjacks can handle it.
The Sports Network Predicted Outcome: South Dakota State 28, Northern Arizona 24
Last Week's Record: 17-5 (.773)
Season Record: 212-86 (.711)