Put the four-team playoff bracket away and strap on the seat belt for a much better and wilder ride over the next six weeks.
Yup, the FCS playoffs have arrived for 24 teams to hop on the Road to Frisco. It looks a little like the Yellow Brick Road, but when you add in the green of FCS dynasty North Dakota State, it doesn’t seem so friendly when it passes through the Fargodome.
Eight first-round games kick off the fun Thanksgiving weekend. Be thankful it’s not a four-team playoff.
2016 FCS Playoffs - First-Round Games
Note: All games are on Saturday, Nov. 26 and times are ET
Saint Francis (7-4) at Villanova (8-3), 2 p.m.
Villanova wants to keep extending the career of head coach Andy Talley, who has one FCS championship (2009) and two other semifinal-round appearances (2002, '10) to his credit. That the Wildcats’ defense is ranked third in the FCS and they have a deep run game led by Aaron Forbes appears too much for the Northeast Conference champion Red Flash. The winner advances to play at No. 8 seed South Dakota State (8-3) in the second round on Dec. 3.
The Pick: Villanova
Weber State (7-4) at Chattanooga (8-3), 2 p.m.
Traditional rivals meet... no wait, this is the oddest matchup of the first round, with Weber State making the trek from Utah to Tennessee. Wildcats quarterback Jadrian Clark will be on the move from Chattanooga defensive ends Keionta Davis and Vantrel McMillan and outside linebacker Dale Warren, who have combined for 21 sacks. The Mocs have won 21 of their last 25 games at Finley Stadium, site of the FCS championship game for the 13 years prior to the move to Frisco, Texas, in 2010. The winner advances to play at No. 5 seed Sam Houston State (11-0) in the second round on Dec. 3.
The Pick: Chattanooga
Lehigh (9-2) at New Hampshire (7-4), 2 p.m.
The host Wildcats weren’t sure if they would get a 13th straight playoff bid (six more than North Dakota State!), but if they did, they probably knew they would open against the Patriot League champion. It’s the fourth straight year this pairing is happening and UNH's young secondary will be tested by Lehigh’s high-powered offense, led by quarterback Nick Shafnisky, the PL offensive player of the year. The winner advances to play at No. 4 seed James Madison (10-1) in the second round on Dec. 3.
The Pick: Lehigh
Charleston Southern (7-3) at Wofford (8-3), 2 p.m.
Don’t pay attention to the series record – Wofford leads, 13-0 – because none of these players were involved. Both teams would run the ball all game if they could, but they will have to mix in the pass because both are adept at defending the run. The Big South champion Buccaneers hope their two star backs, Mike Holloway and Darius Hammond, are better than Wofford’s one, Southern Conference rushing leader Lorenzo Long. The winner advances to play at No. 6 seed The Citadel (10-1) in the second round on Dec. 3.
The Pick: Charleston Southern
North Carolina A&T (9-2) at Richmond (8-3), 2 p.m.
Normally, a MEAC team (18 straight playoff losses) would be no match for a CAA Football power, but North Carolina A&T has big-game running back Tarik Cohen (5,549 career rushing yards) and Richmond no longer has star quarterback Kyle Lauletta, who suffered a season-ending ACL tear last weekend. Both of these teams beat FBS programs (Richmond, 37-20 over Virginia; NC A&T, 39-36 in four overtimes over Kent State. The winner advances to play at No. 7 seed North Dakota (9-2) in the second round on Dec. 3.
The Pick: Richmond
Illinois State (6-5) at Central Arkansas (9-2), 3 p.m.
Illinois State won its final three regular-season game to sneak into the playoffs as the second-ever 6-5 at-large team. But a win over Northwestern negated one of those losses and then some. UCA also has an FBS win of its own over Arkansas State. Most signs favor the Southland Conference squad winning at home, but Redbirds quarterback Jake Kolbe must have noticed how Sam Houston State picked apart the Bears a week ago. The winner advances to play at No. 2 seed Eastern Washington (10-1) in the second round on Dec. 3.
The Pick: Illinois State
Samford (7-4) at Youngstown State (8-3), 5 p.m.
With two victories to end the regular season, Youngstown State, winner of four national titles during the 1990s, busted down the door to its first playoff appearance in 10 years. Samford entered through the back door after losing three of its final four games. The Bulldogs hope to clear their heads with the passing of Devlin Hodges, the Southern Conference offensive player of the year. But the Penguins believe their deep run game will keep the ball out of his hands. The winner advances to play at No. 3 seed Jacksonville State (10-1) in the second round on Dec. 3.
The Pick: Youngstown State
San Diego (9-1) at Cal Poly (7-4), 7 p.m.
This is a rematch of Cal Poly’s 38-16 win over San Diego on Sept. 10. The Mustangs’ offensive stars that night – quarterback Dano Graves and fullback Joe Protheroe – are still going strong. Since then, San Diego has picked up steam, with a perfect season in the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League, and the Toreros have their own dangerous duo in quarterback Anthony Lawrence and running back Jonah Hodges. The winner advances to play at No. 1 seed North Dakota State (10-1) in the second round on Dec. 3.
The 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 Lehigh University Athletics)