Frisco, Texas, awaits the winner of a marquee semifinal matchup between Delaware and South Dakota State.
Delaware, the automatic bid out of the Colonial Athletic Association, is one of the most historically successful programs at any level of college football. The Fightin' Blue Hens own a national championship at the Div. I level, claimed in 2003, and appeared in the title game a decade ago.
South Dakota State has been consistently excellent for the last decade, but the glass ceiling that Missouri Valley Football Conference rival North Dakota State placed over the entirety of FCS made a breakthrough difficult for the Jackrabbits. With a win at home on Saturday, they make their first title game appearance.
FCS Playoffs Semifinal: Delaware at South Dakota State
Kickoff: Saturday, May 8 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: South Dakota State -8
When Delaware Has the Ball
For those who believe in cosmic influence in sports, the first play of Delaware's season was Dejoun Lee taking the first kickoff of the season for a touchdown. A harbinger of things to come, Lee balled out both on special teams and offense en route to winning CAA Offensive Player of the Year.
The versatile Lee is a threat to score on a return, running the ball or receiving out of the backfield. In the Fightin' Blue Hens road win over Jacksonville State to advance to the semifinals, however, quarterback Nolan Henderson took center stage.
Henderson has grown into the role he took over midway through the 2019 campaign, combining his explosive ball-carrying with veteran savvy as a passer. Thyrick Pitts and Gene Coleman II have been Henderson's two primary targets, but Bryce De Maille and Jourdan Townsend factor into the passing game.
Delaware has not been particularly high-scoring since opening the season with four straight games scoring 31 points, but have been effective enough to complement a stout defense. Points come in short supply against the South Dakota State defense, holding teams to an average of 15.5 points per game. Defensive tackle Caleb Sanders keys a rush defense limiting opponents to just 3.4 yards per attempt.
When South Dakota State Has the Ball
Just a freshman, Mark Gronowski emerged on the Missouri Valley Football scene making quite an immediate impact. He doubled up winning both the Valley Newcomer of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year and has accounted for 20 touchdowns (13 passing, seven rushing) heading into the semifinals.
The big and agile Gronowski operates from a routinely clean pocket thanks to one of the most physical offensive lines in the FCS. His top two targets, brothers Jaxon and Jadon Janke, are rangy targets who double as both reliable short-yardage options and dangerous, big-play threats. The prospect of the deep ball forces defenses to be honest and not load up on the run, which gives Pierre Strong Jr. room to operate on the ground.
Excluding Montana, which played just two games, Delaware has allowed the fewest points of any defense in FCS at just over 11 points per game. The Fightin' Blue Hens shut down Jacksonville State's multifaceted run game in the quarterfinals, one week after limiting outstanding Sacred Heart running back Julius Chestnut to just one score. Delaware's spring 2021 defense is playing at a level comparable to that of the 2003 national championship Blue Hens.
South Dakota State rallied from a first-half deficit to advance past Southern Illinois in an instant classic quarterfinal. The scare could light a fire under the Jackrabbits, who sit on the cusp of their first-ever FCS Championship Game appearance. Undefeated Delaware comes to Brookings with a feisty and deep defense, leading the nation in several categories by no accident: The Blue Hens are that good.
One big play could determine Saturday's semifinal and a berth in Frisco.
Prediction: South Dakota State 17, Delaware 14
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.