October starts this week, and it signals a bevy of conference games that will go a long way in determining the FCS postseason picture. On Nov. 21 – FCS Selection Sunday – fans will look back at results from this weekend and wonder if this was a pivotal time for their favorite team.
One month from now, we’ll have a ton of answers. Right now, we only have questions.
Questions like: Who will emerge from this gaggle near the top of the FCS rankings? How will the selection committee unravel this pile of seeding spaghetti if this continues? And – who will ascend out of nowhere, and who will descend into the abyss known as next year?
The real answers begin when the conference slates crank up – and we have 43 games of that ilk cranking up this week, with the first being the SWAC’s Arkansas-Pine Bluff at Prairie View A&M game on Thursday night on ESPNU. Consider that an appetizer.
Here’s a countdown of the 10 best games of Week 5:
Note: All times ET. Rank in front of team refers to the Athlon Sports FCS Top 25 Power Poll.
10. Gardner-Webb (2-2, 0-0 in Big South) at Monmouth (2-2, 1-0)
1 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
Why does this game make the top 10? Well, Gardner-Webb – I’ll predict – will be in the national discussion more often as time goes on. GWU hired Tre Lamb as head coach in Dec. 2019. He has deep bloodlines in coaching and his hire reminds me of when Austin Peay hired Will Healy away from Chattanooga years ago. We know how that has turned out.
Lamb and his staff have recruited well, and Tennessee Tech QB transfer Bailey Fisher is a true talent and has two years left – and he played for Lamb at Tech.
On the flip side, Monmouth is a strong program that is stinging right now after a non-conference loss to a very good Holy Cross team. How does Monmouth rebound, or is this GWU’s turning point in trying to post its first winning season since 2013? It was driving to beat FBS Georgia Southern in the opener with a first down in GSU territory in week one (before falling by five). How good is GWU?
Pick: GWU by 3.
9. UAlbany (0-3, 0-1 in CAA) at No. 9 Delaware (2-1, 1-0)
3 p.m., Saturday (FloSports)
An 0-3 UAlbany team being mentioned? Again, why? Just like Gardner-Webb, diehards may question this – but this Great Danes team is talented, regardless of the record. While the Rhode Island loss (fourth-quarter field goal) is a bit of a head-scratcher at home, Albany’s other losses are at powerhouse North Dakota State and at P5 Syracuse.
UAlbany’s season is still very much ahead of it – but it must get some traction in a game like this road trip to Delaware. That won’t be easy, but the Blue Hens haven’t exactly looked unbeatable through the first three games. Look for Albany to stun Delaware on its own field. No, you don’t need glasses – you read it correctly.
Pick: UAlbany by 1.
8. No. 1 James Madison (3-0, 1-0 in CAA) at No. 25 New Hampshire (3-1, 2-0)
3:30 p.m., Saturday (FloSports)
New Hampshire’s horrendous and uncharacteristic 70-point loss at unranked P5 Pittsburgh will ultimately be ignored by the FCS playoff committee, but it doesn’t remove the sting. UNH historically has given northeastern FBS teams a tough game, if not knocking them off. The truth is, the Wildcats are still fully intact to be a CAA playoff contender.
It will be very interesting to see how UNH rebounds, considering everything lies in front of it and this is historically a very tough program at home. Intestinal fortitude is a strength in a Sean McDonnell-coached team, and they’ll tighten up – but it still won’t be enough this week. The question isn’t who will win, but how will UNH rebounds.
Pick: JMU by 17.
7. Alabama A&M (3-0, 1-0 in SWAC) at Grambling State (1-3, 0-1)
3 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
Alabama A&M has won nine games in a row since falling to Alcorn State in a close loss on the road in Nov. 2019 (this includes an abbreviated spring schedule this year).
The Bulldogs haven’t beaten Grambling since 2013, and although the Tigers are 1-3, two of those losses are to FBS opponents. Could this be the fall the Bulldogs prove they are among the elite SWAC teams, after giving a taste of it this spring by going 5-0? The answer: Yes.
Pick: Alabama A&M by 7.
6. Samford (2-2, 1-1 in SoCon) at Mercer (2-1, 1-0)
6 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
Samford is 2-2, with one touchdown losses to what has turned out to be the strongest-looking Ohio Valley Conference team (3-1 UT Martin) and SoCon team (4-0 ETSU). Again, this appears to be the best Bulldogs team since Walter Payton Award winner Devlin Hodges left after 2018.
Since reintroducing football in 2013 against a rather soft schedule (and going 10-2), Mercer has had only one winning season but also has never been a bottom-dweller in the SoCon. This year may just be the breakthrough, as evidenced by the way it played in the spring and early signs this fall. This should be an entertaining battle in the SoCon and easily could go either way.
Pick: Samford by 3.
5. Harvard (2-0) at Holy Cross (3-1)
1:30 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
In 1904, these two Boston-area programs first faced off – with Harvard winning 28-4. It took more than 20 years and nine games before Holy Cross finally got a win in the rivalry in 1925.
It’s been interesting ever since – and this year should be no different. It’s been a few years since Harvard has truly dominated (16-4 in 2015-16 combined). The Crimson are hungry. Holy Cross, on the other hand, has beaten an FBS team (UConn) and knocked off two defending (full season) champs in 2019 – the Ivy League’s Yale, and the Big South’s Monmouth in a blowout. This will be one of the nation’s top games.
Pick: Holy Cross by 2.
4. No. 22 Jacksonville State (2-2) at No. 18 Kennesaw State (2-1)
3 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
Jacksonville State has been a bit Jekyll-and-Hyde-ish this year. OK, who are we kidding? JSU has been Jekyll-and-Hyde-ish for years. The Gamecocks’ fourth-quarter comeback win over Florida State in Tallahassee was magnificent – truly one of the FCS highlights of the last couple of years.
JSU matched the deeper Seminoles’ athleticism and rendered the crowd silent in the end. On the other hand, the loss to UAB in the Kickoff Classic was the complete opposite, and the past two games against FCS teams at home have been perplexing.
I have a feeling the Gamecocks bust out this week against a strong and consistent Kennesaw State program – which does have the ability to strangle a team that makes mistakes. Will JSU make mistakes?
Pick: Jacksonville State by 7.
3. No. 3 North Dakota State (3-0, 0-0 in MVFC) at No. 12 North Dakota (2-1, 0-0)
3 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
The last time these two teams met in Grand Forks – as they will this weekend – UND knocked off NDSU in overtime in 2003. It was the third straight year it happened. The problem for UND is that was 18 years ago, the two teams were in Division II and obviously a ton has changed since then. NDSU has beaten UND a combined 106-29 in their lone three meetings since 2003 – all in the past six seasons in Fargo.
UND does have a good team this year and could very well be in contention for an at-large playoff berth out of the MVFC. How much of a fight will the Fighting Hawks be able to muster? That’s the key question here. That could say a lot about the season UND has ahead of it.
Pick: NDSU by 20.
2. No. 4 Sam Houston (3-0, 1-0 in AQ7) vs. Stephen F. Austin (3-1, 0-0)
5 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
The Battle of Piney Woods always draws a good crowd (2019 drew 24,000-plus), and this weekend’s neutral-site game at NRG Stadium in Houston will be no different. It may feature the best matchup of these two teams in a decade.
On one side, Sam Houston hasn’t lost a game since Nov. 2019 – 14 games in all. Since last falling, it has won a national championship and earned the respect of the FCS Nation.
SFA, on the other hand, has built its program from the ground up and has taken steps to improve under third-year head coach Colby Carthel – mainly through recruiting. Sam Houston has won nine straight (since 2010) against the Lumberjacks, and that streak will continue this weekend. But the score will be as close as it has been in years and will send a message that SFA is ascending.
Pick: Sam Houston by 3.
1. No. 5 Montana (3-0, 1-0) at No. 10 Eastern Washington (4-0, 1-0)
10:30 p.m., Saturday (ESPN2)
In its opener, Montana beat a nationally ranked Power 5 team – Washington – 13-7. Since then, the Pac-12’s California gave up 31 to the Huskies. Even Michigan gave up more than seven points to Washington. In fact, the Huskies have scored 93 points in three games since the Griz held them to single digits.
On the flip side? Eastern Washington has piled up the points thanks to the talents of one of the best players in the FCS the past several years – QB Eric Barriere. With 99 yards of total offense this weekend, Barriere will go over 12,000 for his career – and he’s accounted for 91 TDs through the air and run for 19 more.
So what will give?
This matchup is an absolute classic, folks – but two things stick out to me: 1) The Washington material above concerning Montana’s defense; 2) EWU was in one of the FCS season’s biggest offensive shootouts (62-56 win) with 1-3 Western Illinois.
In contrast, Montana beat WIU 42-7 one week removed. Montana’s offense will be the key here.
Pick: Montana by 10.
BMac’s Record Last Week: 7-3 (.700)
BMac’s Season Record: 15-5 (.750)
— Written by Brian McLaughlin, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McLaughlin has covered the FCS level since 2015 and is the former HERO Sports FCS National Coordinator. Prior to HERO Sports, he covered national college football recruiting for The Sporting News — and compiled the PARADE All-America teams from 2010-17. He is co-host on BMac and The Nach’s FCS Podcast each week, currently hosted on Podbean and soon to be on several other platforms. Follow him on Twitter @BrianMacWriter or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/brianmacwriter.