If it’s a Saturday, then it’s a big game for North Dakota State, Eastern Washington and Jacksonville State.
Credit the top three teams in the Athlon FCS Power Poll because they’ve earned it by playing rugged non-conference schedules leading into their conference title races. The only program that’s appeared as often in the weekly best games is Western Illinois, a program which knows rugged schedules (its-toughest-in-the-FCS schedule last season led to an FCS at-large playoff bid).
NDSU, EWU and JSU all play one of their biggest conference rivals on Saturday. Only four weekends remain until the 24-team playoff field is announced on Nov. 20.
Here are the FCS games of the week:
Note: All times ET
Saturday, Oct. 29
No. 14 Stony Brook (5-2, 4-0 CAA) at No. 25 New Hampshire (5-3, 4-1), noon
UNH is lacking a signature win on its resume as it seeks a 13th straight playoff appearance. To solve Stony Brook’s strong defense, up-and-down quarterback Trevor Knight must have his best game and running back Dalton Crossan needs to outperform his red-hot counterpart, the Seawolves' Stacey Bedell.
Pick: New Hampshire
Saint Francis (5-3, 3-0 NEC) at Sacred Heart (6-1, 1-1), noon
Saint Francis is coming off one of the biggest wins in school history (14-10 over defending NEC champ Duquesne) and will be in the conference driver’s seat with a win. But Sacred Heart can rev it up as well behind quarterback RJ Noel and the two-headed rushing monster of Ose Imeokparia and Nate Chavious.
Pick: Saint Francis
Fordham (5-2, 2-0 Patriot) at No. 23 Lehigh (6-2, 3-0), 12:30 p.m.
This game has 48-45 written all over it. Fordham’s Chase Edmonds leads the FCS in rushing yards (1,244) and touchdowns (13), and Lehigh’s Troy Pelletier (908) and Gatlin Casey (893) rank 1-2 nationally in receiving yards.
San Diego (6-1, 5-0 Pioneer) at Marist (4-3, 4-0), 1 p.m.
Is it going to feel like a 10 a.m. start for the Toreros? Maybe the host Red Foxes should have scheduled the kickoff an hour earlier. Great one-on-one matchup: USD cornerback Jamal Agnew (53 career passes defended) versus Marist wide receiver Justin Christion (23.2 yards per reception average on 70 career catches).
Pick: San Diego
Weber State (5-2, 4-0 Big Sky) at No. 11 North Dakota (6-2, 5-0), 2 p.m.
UND’s style – controlling the clock by running the ball and playing physical defense – is a lot like the other FCS program downstate. Head coach Bubba Schwiegert’s squad has gone over 200 rushing yards in each game during its six-game winning streak.
Pick: North Dakota
No. 13 Western Illinois (5-2, 2-2 Missouri Valley) at No. 24 South Dakota (4-3, 3-1), 3 p.m.
Bob Nielson won Missouri Valley Conference coach of the year honors last season while leading Western Illinois to the playoffs. This season, he’s lifting South Dakota, which is 3-0 at the DakotaDome. Oh yeah, Charlie Fisher has had a pretty good season leading the Leathernecks as well.
Pick: Western Illinois
Eastern Illinois (5-3, 3-2 OVC) at No. 23 Jacksonville State (6-1, 3-0), 3 p.m.
The visiting Panthers would be playing for first place in the Ohio Valley Conference if they hadn’t lost at home to Murray State last week. They’ll soon be playing for their playoff lives if they can’t end Jacksonville State’s 20-game conference winning streak.
Pick: Jacksonville State
No. 18 Samford (6-1) at Mississippi State (2-5), 3:30 p.m.
It’s Bulldogs versus Bulldogs in Starksville – their first meeting since 1963. Samford’s only win against an FBS opponent was versus Georgia State in 2013. The Southern Conference squad hopes to play well and avoid injuries heading toward their Nov. 5 game at unbeaten The Citadel.
Pick: Mississippi State
Southern (4-2, 4-0 SWAC) at Alcorn State (3-3, 3-2), 3 p.m.
Two-time defending SWAC champion Alcorn State has gotten back on track with the return of quarterback Lenorris Footman. Southern just may be better with its triple threat of QB Austin Howard, running back Leonard Tillery (114 yards shy of the SWAC career rushing record) and wide receiver Willie Quinn.
No. 16 Montana (5-2, 2-2 Big Sky) at No. 2 Eastern Washington (6-1, 4-0), 3:35 p.m.
Gage Gubrud’s only extensive action as the Eastern Washington quarterback last season was in a relief role against Montana. Oh yeah, the Eagles likely haven’t forgotten UM rolled to a 57-16 win. The Grizzlies are only 1-2 on the road as they head to the red carpet.
Pick: Eastern Washington
Alabama A&M (2-5, 2-4 SWAC) vs. Alabama State (2-5, 2-4), 4 p.m.
What makes this rivalry a big game is the largest crowd of the FCS season figures to be on hand at Legion Field in Birmingham. Last year’s ASU victory drew 63,874.
Pick: Alabama State
No. 1 North Dakota State (6-1, 3-1 Missouri Valley) at No. 20 Northern Iowa (3-4, 2-2), 7 p.m.
The last three NDSU losses saw the Bison’s opponent move ahead for good with :02, :00 and :01 showing on the clock. The loss prior to that was a no-doubt 23-3 thumping at the UNI-Dome on Nov. 8, 2014, which ended their FCS-record 33-game winning streak.
Pick: North Dakota State
No. 19 Central Arkansas (6-1, 5-0 Southland) at Southeastern Louisiana (4-3, 4-1), 8 p.m.
Is there any FCS venue that sounds more soothing than Strawberry Stadium? UCA and its hard-hitting defense, ranked 10th in the FCS in yards allowed per game, is coming to wreak havoc. Opponents have converted less than 26 percent of their third downs.
Pick: Central Arkansas
— 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 Eastern Washington University Athletics)