Make no mistake, the best games of the FCS season usually occur during the conference showdowns.
It’s where teams win on 70-yard, game-ending interception returns (see Stephen F. Austin’s play of the year) and preseason favorites are slipping by with one-point victories (see Wofford – twice already).
The conference schedule heats up in Week 4 and figures to only get better as title races unfold.
Here are the Week 4 FCS games of the week:
Note: All times ET, rankings referenced are from Athlon Sports' FCS Power Poll
Thursday, Sept. 21
South Carolina State (1-1, 0-0 MEAC) at North Carolina Central (1-1, 0-0), 7:30 p.m.
In a must-have game for both teams, the defenses should stand out. While SCSU features All-America linebacker Darius Leonard, defending champion N.C. Central has better depth, led by defensive end Antonio Brown, linebacker Reggie Hunter and safety Alden McClellon. The visiting Bulldogs seek to end the Eagles’ 15-game conference winning streak.
Pick: North Carolina Central
Saturday, Sept. 23
No. 22 Maine (1-1, 0-1 CAA) at No. 1 James Madison (3-0, 0-0), 1:30 p.m.
Maine has had two weeks to prepare for what would be a huge, although not impossible upset. While the FCS champion Dukes have lost leading rusher Cardon Johnson to a season-ending injury, they have able replacements in Marcus Marshall and Trai Sharp. The Dukes simply outscore the Black Bears to gain a 16th straight win.
Pick: James Madison
No. 21 Samford (2-1, 0-0 Southern) at Western Carolina (2-1, 0-0), 3:30 p.m.
Upset alert: Western Carolina has a triple threat offensively with running back Detrez Newsome, quarterback Tyrie Adams and wide receiver Terryon Robinson. Will they deliver a knockout punch to Samford?
Pick: Western Carolina
Montana State (0-2, 0-0 Big Sky) at No. 17 North Dakota (1-2, 0-0), 3:30 p.m.
After getting blown out by South Dakota, the Fighting Hawks, the preseason favorite in the Big Sky, need to move on quickly against a Montana State team they only beat 17-15 last season and that was before the Bobcats turned the offense over to quarterback Chris Murray. The Hawks have to decide: Can they run the ball consistently and can they stop it like last season?
Pick: North Dakota
No. 19 Tennessee State (3-0, 0-0 OVC) at No. 20 UT Martin (2-1, 0-0), 5 p.m.
Graham Stadium will be rocking as the top challengers to three-time defending Ohio Valley Conference champion Jacksonville State open conference play. TSU leads the conference in scoring defense, total defense and passing defense, but opponents have averaged fewer than two yards per carry against the host Skyhawks.
Pick: UT Martin
No. 13 Western Illinois (2-0) at Coastal Carolina (1-1), 6:30 p.m.
This game was originally scheduled to be played at WIU, but Coastal’s move to the FBS level led to the Leathernecks to be bought out of the home game. They will have a decided advantage at quarterback with junior Sean McGuire.
Pick: Western Illinois
No. 8 Villanova (2-1, 0-0 CAA) at Albany (2-1, 0-0), 7 p.m.
Albany welcomed back 2016 CAA rushing champion Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks last Saturday. The Great Danes are going to need him motoring at full speed to solve Villanova’s defense, which has allowed only one touchdown in the last two games.
Nicholls (2-1, 1-0 Southland) at No. 4 Sam Houston State (2-0, 0-0), 7 p.m.
After a week off, quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe and the Bearkats are going to be hungry for the end zone. The problem is, Nicholls is pretty darn good. The Colonels were tied at Texas A&M midway through the fourth quarter two weeks ago.
Pick: Sam Houston State
No. 12 Liberty (3-0) at No. 5 Jacksonville State (1-1), 7 p.m.
Gamecock players say it’s been hard to get a rhythm with both of their games followed by open weeks. They must avoid a sluggish start because Liberty quarterback Stephen Calvert has thrown for 1,107 yards and 12 touchdowns in three games.
Pick: Jacksonville State
Southern (1-2, 0-0 SWAC) at Alcorn State (1-2, 0-0), 7 p.m.
Welcome to another season of SWAC football, where results one week can be far different the next. At least these two teams have consistency at the quarterback position – Southern with Austin Howard and Alcorn with Lenorris Footman.
Pick: Alcorn State
No. 11 Eastern Washington (1-2, 0-0 Big Sky) at Montana (2-1, 0-0), 8 p.m.
Montana has lost starting quarterback Reese Phillips to a season-ending leg injury, while EWU’s Gage Gubrud is back on track after totaling 471 yards and five touchdowns at Fordham. Beware the pass rush, these two teams combined for 18 sacks in last week’s wins.
Pick: Eastern Washington
Southern Illinois (2-0) at Memphis (2-0), 8 p.m.
Sure, Memphis just beat UCLA, but the Salukis haven’t been overwhelmed in recent FBS matchups, hanging within eight of FAU last season, one of Indiana in 2015 and eight of Illinois in 2013.
Last Week’s Record: 10-3 (.769)
Season Record: 33-5 (.868)
— 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 of Tennessee State Athletics)