Stakes rise as conference schedules take over the national picture
The best games on the weekly FCS schedule keep living up to the billing, and with an excellent lineup this week, the list goes on and on.
It shouldn't be surprising, though, because conference play has taken over and the stakes are higher.
With the Missouri Valley Football Conference mainly taking a deep breath over the final weekend of September, the Big Sky and CAA Football headline the week's lineup.
Here's a countdown of the 10 best games of Week 5:
Note: All times ET. Rank in front of team refers to the FCS Power Poll.
10. No. 22 The Citadel (2-2, 0-0 Southern) at Samford (2-2, 1-0)
3 p.m., Saturday
Samford couldn't stop The Citadel option quarterback Brandon Rainey (206 rushing yards) in last year's win for the Bulldogs from South Carolina, and he will be back under center this week after sitting out a game due to a knee injury. Samford, behind its dual-threat QB Chris Oladokun, is starting to put the pieces together.
9. Northern Arizona (2-2, 0-0 Big Sky) at No. 7 Montana State (3-1, 0-0)
3 p.m., Saturday
Let’s see: Arizona, Illinois State, Montana State, Weber State, Eastern Washington, Southern Utah. Road schedules don’t get much tougher than NAU’s, even with standout QB Case Cookus. Montana State’s 2018 rushing leaders Troy Andersen and Isaiah Ifanse were sidelined by injuries against Norfolk State, but the Bobcats managed to put three rushers over 100 yards (Lane Sumner, Shane Perry and Logan Jones) for the first time.
Pick: Montana State
8. Sam Houston State (2-2, 1-0 Southland) at McNeese (2-2, 0-1)
7 p.m., Saturday
In their first meeting since 2016, McNeese can't afford to drop a second straight Southland game. But the Cowboys will be hard-pressed to match offenses with Sam Houston, which dialed up an old-time performance while routing UIW last week. Nathan Stewart became the conference's new all-time receiving yardage leader.
Pick: Sam Houston State
7. No. 16 Jacksonville State (3-1, 0-0 Ohio Valley) at Austin Peay (2-2, 0-0)
3 p.m., Saturday
The visiting Gamecocks have won 12 straight games against Austin Peay. Is it true they can say that about every Ohio Valley Conference rival? No, really, you don't have to tweet us, we know the answer.
Pick: Jacksonville State
6. North Dakota (2-1) at Eastern Washington (1-3)
5:05 p.m., Saturday
Who knew 2018 FCS runner-up Eastern Washington would have a playoff game in September. That's basically how head coach Aaron Best's squad must approach the rest of the season, including this 1,000th game in program history. North Dakota already lost to last year's other national finalist. Old what's-their-name. Just can't think of it.
Pick: Eastern Washington
5. ETSU (2-2, 0-1 Southern) at No. 9 Furman (2-2, 1-0)
1 p.m., Saturday
Two of the three 2018 SoCon champs get together with Wofford already saddled with a conference loss. The visiting Bucs are still muttering, "Now how did we lose to VMI?" Furman hung 45 on Mercer and didn't even score in the fourth quarter.
4. No. 17 Montana (3-1, 0-0 Big Sky) at No. 4 UC Davis (2-2, 0-0)
4 p.m., Saturday
The Griz (even more, their rabid fans) have wanted to be back in the FCS elite. To do so, they have to win games like this. UC Davis took FCS champ North Dakota State (ah, old what's-their-name) deep into the fourth quarter last Saturday. Last year's Aggies win completed the Griz's first three-game losing streak since 1992.
3. No. 12 Maine (2-2, 0-1 CAA) at No. 10 Villanova (4-0, 1-0)
3:30 p.m., Saturday
The question with 'Nova QB Daniel Smith was, would he handle the jump in level as a Campbell grad transfer who played in the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League and then the Big South. His FCS-high 17 total touchdowns make the answer a resounding yes.
2. No. 6 Northern Iowa (2-1) at No. 5 Weber State (1-2)
8 p.m., Saturday
Although the Big Sky-MVFC Challenge is decided already with the Missouri Valley clinching, this bruising non-conference matchup — their first since 1991 — remains one of the best of the season. First team to 10 points wins.
Pick: Weber State
1. No. 2 James Madison (3-1, 0-0 CAA) at No. 21 Elon (2-2, 1-0)
2 p.m., Saturday
When these two CAA teams met last October, head coach Curt Cignetti led Elon to a road victory over JMU. Now he's being asked to win on the road again, only this time with the Dukes. They're getting it done at the line of scrimmage at a championship level.
Pick: James Madison
Last Week’s Record: 8-2 (.800)
Season Record: 26-14 (.650)
— 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 Furman Athletics)