Week four of the FCS season usually features a unique blend of matchups. It won’t go down as the most exciting week of the year, but there are some intriguing matchups.
On one hand, the larger conferences are beginning league play because they need the extra week to complete the season's full slate.
On the other hand, there are non-conference FCS contests, FBS matchups, and even some games against Division II opponents — all as a final warm-up before the grind of October league play truly cranks up.
- 30 conference games
- 14 non-conference FCS matchups
- 9 FBS matchups
- 5 games against lower-division opponents
Next weekend will feature a slate made up almost entirely of league games. The pressure will mount in October, but teams can’t afford a slip-up this week, either.
So will we see another victory over an FBS opponent after having 10 in the first three full weeks? It’s not likely, based on the matchups. But even if an 11th FCS win doesn’t happen this year, 2021 will go down as tied for third-most FCS-over-FBS wins in a season (since the bowl coalition came in 1998). Only 2013 (16 FCS wins) and 2000 (15) have surpassed 10 during that span.
Speaking of the number 10, here's a countdown of the 10 best games of week four:
Note: All times ET. Rank in front of team refers to the Athlon Sports FCS Top 25 Power Poll.
10. North Carolina Central (2-1) at North Carolina A&T (0-2)
6 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
This one could be special, as this rivalry has seen an interesting array of results in recent years. North Carolina Central already has an impressive win over a traditional SWAC powerhouse — Alcorn State — in week zero, and it was in front of an ESPN audience.
No, not an ESPN+ or ESPN3 — ESPN. North Carolina A&T is off to an 0-2 start, but it’s deceiving because the losses are to an ACC school (Duke) and a strong Furman team out of the Southern Conference. In the past two matchups, NC A&T has outscored NC Central 99-0, and NC A&T also won in 2017 — making it nearly five seasons since the last Central win. In 2016, Central beat A&T to knock the Aggies out of the Celebration Bowl and MEAC title.
Think these two teams like each other? Think again. While this is no longer a MEAC game, it’ll go a long way in establishing what kind of 2021 team Central possesses.
Pick: North Carolina A&T by 2.
9. San Diego (0-3, 0-0 in Pioneer) at Davidson (1-1, 0-0)
1 p.m., Saturday (ESPN3)
Why have we included two non-scholarship teams that are a combined 1-4 heading into the last week of September? Put simply? It could end up settling an FCS playoff spot in November. These may be two of the top teams in the Pioneer League — and the champion gets the league's automatic berth.
Davidson got the best of San Diego in the spring, but San Diego has been the perennial Pioneer powerhouse and even has upset two Big Sky teams in the first round once it qualified for the FCS playoffs. San Diego’s three losses have been understandable so far (all to Big Sky teams), while Davidson has shown a spark in recent years.
Pick: Davidson by 6.
8. Grambling (1-2, 0-0 in SWAC) vs. Prairie View (2-1, 1-0)
5 p.m., Saturday (TV TBD)
The State Fair Classic in Dallas drew more than 50,000 fans to this matchup in 2019, and there’s a good chance that it'll be matched in this popular HBCU showdown. This isn’t just a good football game, it’s an experience, a festival, a reunion — whatever word you want to use to describe it. Neither team has a sterling record — but it won’t matter.
Prairie View already has a SWAC victory over Texas Southern in the Labor Day Classic in Houston, while Grambling’s two losses have been of the FBS variety — but the Tigers have beaten Eddie George’s Tennessee State team. This should be a competitive game with eventual SWAC title implications.
Pick: Prairie View by 1.
7. UT Martin (2-1) at No. 14 Jacksonville State (2-1)
4 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
UT Martin is 2-0 against FCS teams, and Jacksonville State has shown us some amazing moments (Florida State win with no time remaining) and then some perplexing ones (31-0loss to UAB and surviving 0-3 North Alabama at home by three).
These two former Ohio Valley Conference foes both could use a good showing to bolster their status around the country. UT Martin would like to edge closer to the national top 25, while Jacksonville State would like to gain a more firm grasp of being a playoff-seed lock.
Pick: Jacksonville State by 10.
6. Holy Cross (2-1) at No. 18 Monmouth (2-1)
1 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
This matchup may seem out of place, but consider this: Both of these programs could look back at this game in November as a defining point in the 2021 season. Why? Because Holy Cross has won games against an FBS team (UConn) and 2019 Ivy League co-champion Yale, who went 9-1 the last season it played. That’s not too shabby a start for the Crusaders — who should figure prominently into the Patriot League title race once it cranks up in October.
Monmouth appears to be one of the strongest teams out of the Big South and could end up being a front-runner for the league title by year's end. Who knows? This could feature two playoff teams from the Northeast.
Pick: Monmouth by 7.
5. Wofford (1-1, 0-0 in SoCon) at No. 25 VMI (2-1, 0-0)
1:30 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
After a breakout spring 2021 season where the Keydets won the SoCon and made the FCS playoffs for the first time — they’d love an encore. That would mean beating a typically stout Wofford program twice in a calendar year, which is no small feat. The game is in Lexington, Virginia., VMI is 2-0 so far against FCS teams, and Wofford is coming off a 21-point loss at home to Kennesaw State. This SoCon game could have an impact on the playoffs.
Pick: VMI by 3.
4. No. 22 ETSU (3-0, 0-0 in SoCon) at Samford (2-1, 1-0)
3 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
While ETSU’s last two blowout wins against Virginia-Ware and Delaware State haven’t turned heads, the Buccaneers’ season-opening win over Vanderbilt certainly should. They held the SEC team to just three points.
This is really the first game in which ETSU is playing a team on its own level, and Samford is an excellent road test to see where the Bucs fit in. Samford may have its most competitive team since 2018 Walter Payton Award-winning quarterback Devlin Hodges went to the NFL, scoring 121 points in its first three games.
Pick: ETSU by 3.
3. South Dakota (2-1, 0-0 in MVFC) at No. 16 Missouri State (1-1, 0-0)
8 p.m., Saturday (ESPN3)
When was the last time the South Dakota-Missouri State matchup meant so much — not only in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, but even in the national rankings picture? Both these teams have looked impressive this year. After falling by a touchdown at P5 Oklahoma State, Missouri State beat a good Central Arkansas program.
South Dakota fell by three at P5 Kansas and then throttled a Northern Arizona team (27 points) that turned around the next week and beat in-state Arizona for the first time since the Great Depression nearly 90 years ago. This is another game that could influence the playoff picture in November — sound familiar?
Pick: South Dakota by 1.
2. No. 10 UC Davis (3-0, 0-0 in Big Sky) at No. 15 Weber State (1-2, 0-0)
8 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
If you’re tired of hearing that each game mentioned in this column could influence the playoff picture? Well, sorry — it’s the truth. Yes, this is another one. Weber State has suffered key injuries in years past, as it has this year, but historically has rallied back later when it has found its groove with a replacement.
That may happen again later this season, but Saturday may be a bit early to expect a rebound. UC Davis has looked strong and has an FBS win over Tulsa — and appears to have its best team since winning 10 games in 2018.
Pick: UC Davis by 10.
1. No. 4 Sam Houston (2-0, 0-0 in AQ7) at No. 20 Central Arkansas (1-2, 0-0)
5 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
Sam Houston has a chip on its shoulder. This past spring during the pandemic, it relieved a lot of that pressure by hammering the usual FCS titans during playoffs on the way to the 2020-21 national title. The Bearkats want to prove it didn’t just happen because last year was a quirky season, and the real tests begin now.
Central Arkansas hasn’t lost to Sam Houston State in Conway since 2015, and the Bears really need a big win to stay relevant. While this may no longer be a Southland Conference game, the matchup is just as key as the ones that were so competitive the past several years.
Pick: Sam Houston State by 13.
Last Week’s Record: 8-2 (.800)
Season Record: 8-2 (.800)
— Written by Brian McLaughlin, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McLaughlin has covered the FCS level since 2015 and is the former HERO Sports FCS National Coordinator, as well as covering national college football recruiting for The Sporting News, and compiling the PARADE All-America teams from 2010-17. He also is co-host on BMac and The Nach’s FCS Podcast each week, currently hosted on Podbean. Follow him on Twitter (@BrianMacWriter) and like him on Facebook.