We break for this public service announcement:
The first words when a team clinches an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament – regardless of the sport – tend to be about going to the Big Dance.
Well, there’s a lot to be said about winning a conference title because there will be only one national champion.
Sure enough, there is so much more than FCS playoffs bids on the line this weekend. Among the rivalry games and senior days, only two of the 13 FCS conferences have a team that has clinched an outright title already. Yeah, there’s a lot on the line.
Here are the FCS games of the week:
Note: All times ET
Thursday, Nov. 17
Liberty (6-4) at No. 14 Coastal Carolina (8-2), 7 p.m.
The visiting Flames consider this game a must-win because they won’t make the FCS playoffs if they fall to 6-5 and Charleston Southern wins on Saturday to claim the Big South’s automatic bid. With the return of running backs De’Angelo Henderson and Osharmar Abercrombie, Coastal has gotten much stronger at the wrong time for Liberty.
Pick: Coastal Carolina
Saturday, Nov. 19
Kennesaw State (8-2, 3-1 Big South) at No. 13 Charleston Southern (6-3, 3-1), 11:45 a.m.
The winner will earn a share of the Big South title with Liberty, but only Charleston Southern owns the tiebreaker to claim the automatic bid to the playoffs. Linebacker Solomon Brown is a constant and defensive end Anthony Ellis is coming off his best game this season, so the Bucs’ defense may be peaking.
Pick: Charleston Southern
No. 21 Lehigh (8-2, 5-0 Patriot) at Lafayette (2-8, 1-4), 12:30 p.m.
OK, a rested Lehigh team and all of its offensive firepower suggest this matchup will be a blowout. But rivalries tend to be wacky, and none in college football has been contested as often as this one, which reaches its 152nd meeting. Lafayette has a 78-68-5 series lead.
UT Martin (7-4, 6-1 OVC) at No. 3 Jacksonville State (9-1, 6-0), 2 p.m.
UT Martin needs a win to earn a share of the Ohio Valley Conference title and an automatic bid to the playoffs. But the bullies on the OVC block – the Gamecocks have won 23 straight conference games – aren’t quite ready to make room. Maybe quarterback Eli Jenkins and the offense have coasted through the season because they’ve been waiting for a challenge.
Pick: Jacksonville State
Montana State (3-7, 1-6 Big Sky) at No. 25 Montana (6-4, 3-4), 2 p.m.
It’s one of the most anticipated rivalry games in the FCS, but the importance of this year’s “Call of the Wild” is diminished following Montana’s loss to Northern Colorado last weekend. The Griz can win big – and, oh, will they try – but they might be too far down the Big Sky totem pole to gain an at-large bid.
No. 15 North Carolina A&T (9-1, 7-0 MEAC) at North Carolina Central (8-2, 7-0), 2 p.m.
Both teams were part of the MEAC’s five-way share of the conference title in 2014 and three-way share last season, but this year’s winner will claim the outright title and a spot in the Celebration Bowl. This week’s MEAC co-offensive players of the week happen to be the conference’s best player (N.C. A&T running back Tarik Cohen) and best quarterback (N.C. Central’s Malcolm Bell).
Pick: North Carolina A&T
No. 12 Villanova (7-3, 5-2 CAA) at Delaware (4-6, 2-5), 3:30 p.m.
Surely, the FCS selection committee members want to see Villanova head coach Andy Talley reach the playoffs in his 32nd and final season guiding the Wildcats. But the ‘Cats don’t want to tempt fate with two straight losses to end the regular season. They’re plus-9 in turnover margin in seven wins and minus-4 in three losses.
No. 6 The Citadel (10-0) at North Carolina (7-3), 3:30 p.m.
Sure, it’s asking a lot of The Citadel to keep its perfect season going against a solid ACC team. But no matter how much Tar Heels head coach Larry Fedora reminds his players about the Bulldogs beating South Carolina on this weekend last year, he may not be taken seriously. So the Bulldogs have a puncher’s chance.
Pick: North Carolina
No. 10 Central Arkansas (9-1, 8-0 Southland) at No. 4 Sam Houston State (10-0, 8-0), 3:30 p.m.
While Sam Houston has the top-ranked offense in the FCS, Central Arkansas’ defense is in the top 10 in both yards and points allowed per game. The Bearkats finally trailed in a game this season – for less than 3 1/2 minutes last Saturday – but there’s going to be a time when P.J. Hall and the defense may have to pull out a win. Is this finally the week?
Pick: Sam Houston State
No. 9 South Dakota State (7-3, 6-1 Missouri Valley) at No. 20 Northern Iowa (5-5, 4-3), 5 p.m.
A UNI win would make the Panthers the most attractive 6-5 team for an at-large playoff bid (sorry, Illinois State). But the Missouri Valley Conference may not be getting five playoffs teams for a third straight season, so the Panthers probably need Western Illinois, and to a lesser degree Youngstown State, to be upset on Saturday. Oh yeah, there’s this thing about UNI beating South Dakota State as well.
Pick: South Dakota State
No. 11 Chattanooga (8-2) at Alabama (10-0), 7 p.m.
The visiting Mocs’ home loss to Southern Conference rival Wofford surely cost them a seed and first-round bye in the playoffs. Hey, fellas, you want back in to that scenario? Well, you’re going to have to beat, uh, um... ‘Bama.
Northern Colorado (6-4, 4-3 Big Sky) at No. 24 Cal Poly (6-4, 4-3), 9:05 p.m.
The final FCS game to kick off Saturday night has a lot at stake. Cal Poly will get into the field of 24 with a win, while Northern Colorado will be a possibility. Quarterback Kyle Sloter has been a savior for UNC by stepping in for injured starter Jacob Knipp, but the Bears don’t defend the run enough to beat Cal Poly on the road.
Pick: Cal Poly
— 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.
(Top photo by University of Central Arkansas Athletics)