North Dakota State, James Madison, Jacksonville State lead the way
The FCS victories over FBS programs are always the talk of college football -- a little touch of March Madness in September.
But when those games are out of the way and the top FCS programs are going head-to-head, they’re just as thrilling and important.
The big matchups are countless, but here are 15 that are must-see in the 2018 season:
North Carolina A&T vs. Jacksonville State (Aug. 25)
The FCS Kickoff gets it all started in “neutral” Montgomery, Alabama, which basically gives Ohio Valley Conference champ Jacksonville State a home game. But the Aggies are unfazed; they enter with a 12-game winning streak which is the longest in the FCS.
Northern Iowa at Montana (Sept. 1)
Montana wants back into the big time of the FCS and the return of head coach Bobby Hauck gives the Grizzlies a better chance. The two-time FCS champs and seven-time finalists have won all six previous matchups with UNI, most recently 20-14 in 2016.
Charleston Southern at The Citadel (Sept. 15)
Can’t we all get along? There is some lingering bitterness in "The Battle of Charleston." Charleston Southern pulled off two wins over The Citadel in 2015, including in the second round of the FCS playoffs.
Delaware at North Dakota State (Sept. 22)
FCS champ NDSU doesn't face an FBS opponent again this year, but its first-ever meeting with Delaware is certainly intriguing. While Delaware has a strong run game and defense like NDSU, the Bison are better in the pass game behind quarterback Easton Stick and on special teams.
Sam Houston State at Nicholls (Sept. 22)
Nicholls has lost 11 straight games in this Southland Conference series, but Sam Houston State is a bit vulnerable after losing the likes of quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe and defensive lineman P.J. Hall. The Colonels are bringing back all 10 of their players that have earned all-conference honors.
South Dakota State at North Dakota State (Sept. 29)
A week after playing Delaware, NDSU has revenge on its mind because it’s lost two straight regular-season games (which decides the Dakota Marker trophy) against rival South Dakota State. No other program has defeated the Bison twice in the last seven seasons, a span in which they’ve won six national titles.
Austin Peay at Jacksonville State (Sept. 29)
The Gamecocks enter the season with a 33-game winning streak in the Ohio Valley Conference, and it should be 34 when last year’s second-place squad visits Burgess Snow Field. Austin Peay defensive end Jaison Williams and linebacker Gunnar Scholato form a dynamic duo.
North Dakota State at Northern Iowa (Oct. 6)
OK, who’s responsible for NDSU’s schedule? Make it Delaware, South Dakota State and UNI in a 15-day span. Head coach Chris Klieman’s squad doesn’t even get that kind of trifecta in the playoffs.
Eastern Washington at Weber State (Oct. 13)
In a Big Sky that is the largest conference in the FCS, there are many important games. But a motivated Eastern Washington squad and defending co-champ Weber State, which is coming off its greatest season (11-3, FCS quarterfinals), are in the top 10 entering the season.
James Madison at Villanova (Oct. 13)
James Madison, the 2016 FCS champ and '17 national runner-up, hasn’t lost in CAA Football since 2015 (18 straight games entering the season), but this is a difficult road assignment. When healthy, Villanova can match the Dukes in most ways.
Grambling State at Alcorn State (Oct. 20)
With the SWAC moving away from a conference championship game this year, there’s little margin for error in a seven-game conference schedule. This matchup is ultra-important for two-time defending SWAC champ Grambling and an Alcorn squad that appeared in the last four title games.
Wofford at Samford (Nov. 3)
Samford won at Wofford last season, although the Terriers still won the Southern Conference championship. On offense, it’s run (Wofford triple option) versus pass (Samford senior Devlin Hodges).
James Madison at New Hampshire (Nov. 3)
Considering they’re No. 2 and 3, respectively, in Athlon Sports' FCS Preseason Top 25, you know this a much-anticipated matchup. But, oh, do these CAA powers have some landmines to sidestep in the first two months of the season.
Jacksonville State vs. Kennesaw State (Nov. 17)
People have been looking forward to this game since it was announced in June 2017 that these two teams would meet in the first college football game to be played at SunTrust Park, the second-year home of the Atlanta Braves. But along came a Kennesaw playoff upset of JSU last November to raise the stakes more.
Harvard vs. Yale (Nov. 17, in Boston)
Could the Ivy League title be on the line when The 135th rendition of "The Game" is played at a sold-out Fenway Park? Harvard has 17 all-time titles, including nine under head coach Tim Murphy, but Yale won last season under Tony Reno.
-- Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Photo courtesy Jacksonville State Athletics)