Enjoy Thanksgiving Day, but come this weekend, forget the leftovers, there will be a brand-new start in the FCS.
The 24-team playoff kicks off Saturday with eight first-round games. It’s no ordinary menu either because five or six road teams appear capable of pulling off wins. Some wouldn’t even be upsets.
The eight seeded teams that are resting on byes sure can be thankful for that.
The FCS first-round playoff games:
Note: All times ET
Saturday, Nov. 25
Furman (7-4) at Elon (8-3), 1 p.m.
This game features two first-year head coaches in Furman’s Clay Hendrix and Elon’s Curt Cignetti. Elon prevailed over Furman 34-31 back on Sept. 9, but in wild fashion, going from a 21-0 lead after one quarter to a 31-24 deficit after three quarters before winning on a late field goal. The rematch should be close throughout, with Furman running backs Antonio Wilcox and Kealand Dirks establishing a physical run game and Elon quarterback Davis Cheek working the passing game. The winner advances to play at No. 7 seed Wofford (9-2) in the second round Dec. 2.
The Pick: Furman
Central Connecticut State (8-3) at New Hampshire (7-4), 2 p.m.
New Hampshire backed into its 14th straight playoff appearance with a shutout loss to Albany last Saturday, but the Wildcats caught a break by drawing a home game (they’re 56-8 there since 2007) against the Northeast Conference champ. It got even better for the perennial CAA Football power when veteran CCSU quarterback Jacob Dolegala was suspended for the playoff game. UNH’s signal-caller Trevor Knight (23 touchdown passes) is primed for a big game. The winner plays at No. 4 seed Central Arkansas (10-1 in the second round Dec. 2.
The Pick: New Hampshire
Lehigh (5-6) at Stony Brook (9-2), 2 p.m.
The Patriot League champ Mountain Hawks are the second team in the playoffs’ 40-year history to earn a bid with a losing record (Lafayette also entered with a 5-6 mark in 2013), but they’ll prove dangerous with one of the best offenses in the FCS, featuring quarterback Brad Mayes, running back Dom Bragalone and wide receivers Troy Pelletier and Gatlin Casey. The question is, can head coach Andy Coen’s team play enough defense? Stony Brook will pound the run with Stacey Bedell and Donald Liotine. The winner plays at No. 1 seed James Madison (11-0), the defending FCS champ, in the second round Dec. 2.
The Pick: Stony Brook
Samford (8-3) at Kennesaw State (10-1), 2 p.m.
These two teams met on opening night, Aug. 31, with Samford winning at home 28-23. Since then, Kennesaw State’s third-year program hasn’t lost a game, rolling behind a Chandler Burks-led triple-option attack that ranks first in the FCS in rushing and a nation’s-best plus-23 turnover margin. Samford scores quickly with quarterback Devlin Hodges, who’s over 10,000 career yards of total offense with another season to go. There is great athleticism on both teams. The winner advances to play at No. 3 seed Jacksonville State (10-1) in the second round Dec. 2.
The Pick: Kennesaw State
Western Illinois (8-3) at Weber State (9-2), 4 p.m.
Purple will be the color of the day in Ogden, Utah. It’s just a matter of which team will be moving on because this is one of the big toss-ups of the first round. The Fighting Leathernecks might be a tired team as it moves into its eighth road game of the season. Their defense features the leading tackler in the FCS, senior linebacker Brett Taylor, who has 150 stops, including 28 in a game. But the Weber State defense is the best in the Big Sky, led by Senior Bowl-bound cornerback Taron Johnson. The winner advances to play at No. 8 seed Southern Utah (9-2) in the second round Dec. 2.
The Pick: Western Illinois
South Dakota (7-4) at Nicholls (8-3), 4 p.m.
It took the final two at-large spots in the field to match these teams for the first time. South Dakota quarterback Chris Streveler, the Missouri Valley offensive player of the year, has been electric all season, accounting for 33 touchdowns and only five turnovers. The host Colonels from the Southland Conference haven’t been so protective of the ball with a minus-10 turnover margin. But they have a seasoned signal-caller in Chase Fourcade and a game-breaking wideout in Damion Jeanpierre Jr. The winner advances to play at No. 6 seed Sam Houston State (10-1) in the second round Dec. 2.
The Pick: South Dakota
Monmouth (9-2) at Northern Iowa (7-4), 5 p.m.
First-time qualifier Monmouth has drawn a playoff staple in Northern Iowa, making its 19th appearance (22-18 all-time record). The Hawks have to prove they can stop the surge of an UNI offensive line which opens holes for Marcus Weymiller, who has 676 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in the last six games. If the Hawks are successful, count on senior safety Mike Basile being in on the plays. He has an FCS-leading 87 solo tackles among his 113 stops. The winner plays at No. 5 seed South Dakota State (9-2) in the second round Dec. 2.
The Pick: Northern Iowa
San Diego (9-2) at Northern Arizona (7-4), 8 p.m.
If you want a great matchups of quarterbacks, this game has it with San Diego’s Anthony Lawrence, who’s thrown for 30 touchdowns and only two interceptions this season, and Northern Arizona’s Case Cookus, who has thrown for 71 TDs in 26 career games. The visiting Toreros beat a Big Sky opponent (Cal Poly) a year ago for the Pioneer Football League’s first-ever FCS playoff win. NAU’s players were energized this week from the school reversing an earlier decision and announcing head coach Jerome Souers will be back next season.
Pick: Northern Arizona
— 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 Kennesaw State Athletics)