This weekend, we could finally see some serious movement in the FCS playoff picture. October is the time of year programs begin to pay attention to such things.
For weeks, the upper crust has held firm. But this week, thanks to crucial conference matchups in the top three conferences in the FCS – the Big Sky, Colonial Athletic Association, and Missouri Valley Football Conference – we’ll see how the elite programs stack up.
We need data. We need evidence. We need results. Feed us, oh FCS.
The good thing is, we shouldn’t be as hungry for answers after Saturday night. Here’s a countdown of the 10 best games of week six:
Note: All times ET. Rank in front of team refers to the Athlon Sports FCS Top 25 Power Poll
10. No. 18 Southeastern Louisiana (3-1, 1-0 in Southland) at No. 23 Nicholls (2-2, 1-0)
1 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
This is one of those sneaky-good FCS matchups. Both schools have come within three points of padding the FCS-over-FBS numbers this year – with Southeastern Louisiana giving Louisiana Tech fits and Nicholls giving the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns all they wanted in Lafayette. If a fifth quarter was a mathematical possibility, these two Southland foes could have added two more FCS wins over the schools with more scholarships. The Lions and Colonels both have played North Alabama, and both have handled UNA easily.
On paper, with this game being at Nicholls, this looks like a stalemate. Neither team has an FCS loss, so they’re both very much still in the mix for a playoff berth. SE Louisiana quarterback Cole Kelley won the spring season’s Walter Payton Award – given to the top offensive player in the FCS. And he’s done nothing but rip up opponents – 1,593 passing yards, 18 total TDs (13 passing) – in four games this fall. This game could ultimately decide a playoff spot, but home-field advantage is always vital. Expect a shootout.
Pick: Nicholls by 2
9. No. 24 Princeton (3-0) at Monmouth (3-2)
1 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
Princeton has gone 21-2 in its last 23 games dating back to its Ivy League-winning season of 2018. The Tigers have outscored a very weak schedule’s worth of teams 119-7 so far – but Monmouth will pose a challenge. The question with the Hawks and all of their returning experience is this – will we get the team that lost by 30 points to Holy Cross, or will we get the team that has looked impressive in Big South play? We may be looking at two potential conference champions in this New Jersey matchup – and they’ll want this game for further bragging rights.
Pick: Princeton by 7
8. The Citadel (2-2, 1-0 in SoCon) at No. 15 ETSU (5-0, 2-0)
4:30 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
Think this looks like a mismatch? Think again. If you overlook The Citadel, you’ll pay for it. Just ask South Carolina and Georgia Tech – they’ve overlooked the Bulldogs and hated life afterward when they lost. The Citadel features the nation’s No. 4 rushing attack, eats up the clock, is efficient when it does pass, doesn’t commit many penalties, and is sound on special teams – all goals of military academy football programs. Discipline is its fuel.
ETSU is 5-0, and since owning the SEC’s Vanderbilt in the season opener, the Bucs have looked somewhat human – but they just win, baby. This ETSU team reminds me of 2018 when the Bucs had the best season of their second stint in football (they went from 2004-13 without the sport). The 2018 ETSU team just found a way to win in SoCon play – with every single league win being by three points or less on the way to a share of the SoCon title. Is this team similar? Time will tell.
Pick: ETSU by 6.
7. Stephen F. Austin (3-2, 0-1 in AQ7) at No. 25 Jacksonville State (2-3, 0-0)
4 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
Let’s be honest: The team that loses this game is eliminated from the playoff discussion for 2021 – at least as far as the potential for an at-large berth. With defending national champion Sam Houston in this year’s league, one would imagine an at-large spot would be more realistic for these two programs.
On the flip side, the team that wins is still alive for consideration. The AQ7 – the one-year fill-in mixture of the new WAC and ASun football leagues that will crank up next year – is the No. 4 overall league in the FCS this year. These two programs seem to have the most potential to be a second team from the group.
And here’s the weekly question: Which Jacksonville State team will show up? The one that silenced the Florida State crowd in Tallahassee when it stunned the Seminoles, or the one that hasn’t looked very good in the weeks that have followed?
Either JSU version is possible.
Pick: Stephen F. Austin by 3.
6. Grambling State (2-3, 1-1 in SWAC) at Alcorn State (2-2, 1-0)
3 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
Alcorn State’s brass has called for a "Purple Out" for this weekend’s homecoming game against SWAC rival Grambling. The last time they played in Lorman in 2019, the game went to overtime, and Grambling won it on a field goal – so you know that hasn’t left Alcorn in a good mood when it comes to the Tigers.
This one has a lot of SWAC ramifications hanging on it – and Alcorn State only has two wins over the Tigers since 2014 (eight tries – including three SWAC Championship Game rematches). The last Alcorn win came in 2018.
This game should be a good one, folks. Expect a low-scoring affair.
Pick: Alcorn by 7
5. No. 9 Delaware (3-1, 2-0 in CAA) at No. 19 Rhode Island (4-0, 2-0)
1 p.m., Saturday (FloSports)
Even with these two teams combining for a 7-1 overall record (and 4-0 in the CAA), neither can afford to drop this game. They are both firmly in the mix at this juncture, but the CAA is a gauntlet, and they have a lot of tough tests ahead of them.
Rhody is 4-0 for the first time since beginning the 2001 season 7-0, and this is only the fourth time in school history it has happened. It needs a signature win, and Delaware would provide that.
They both edged UAlbany, and they’ve both knocked around NEC teams – there’s a lot in common here. Delaware QB Nolan Henderson has been solid for the Blue Hens for several seasons, but he’s been banged up.
Based on the game being in Rhode Island and Henderson’s situation being touch-and-go, this is a tossup.
Pick: Rhody by 6
4. Yale (2-1, 1-0 in Ivy) at Dartmouth (3-0, 1-0)
1:30 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
Two years ago, these Ivy League heavyweights shared the league championship with identical 6-1 records – even though Dartmouth throttled the Bulldogs on the field, 42-10.
By the way, why would the Big Green not be granted the league title outright based on that head-to-head outcome? Sometimes I just don’t get the Ivy League. Don’t get me started about these Ivy programs opting not to be in the playoffs. And trust me, the players and coaches want to be. Oh, and the rest of the FCS is curious, too.
Rant over, at least for a moment.
So, Yale has lost three in a row to Dartmouth and seven of the last eight.
Pick: Dartmouth by 10.
3. No. 8 Southern Illinois (4-1, 2-0 in MVFC) at No. 2 South Dakota State (4-0, 1-0)
3 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
Southern Illinois is playing like an FCS playoff seed for the first time in a long time. The Salukis gave Kansas State fits and have gone 4-0 against the FCS. They’re athletic, well-coached, and ticked off because they aren’t mentioned alongside the FCS blue bloods.
Well, this is SIU’s chance to silence a blue blood – literally blue. The problem is, South Dakota State also looks like a machine and arguably has one of its best teams in the program's FCS era. And this game is in Brookings.
SIU hasn’t beaten SDSU since 2013 (granted, it was in Brookings), and the Jackrabbits have won nine of the last 10 matchups dating back to 2009. The Salukis will be a playoff team this year and will be in the mix for a low seed, but this will be their most challenging FCS game on the schedule.
Pick: SDSU by 9.
2. No. 12 Northern Iowa (3-1, 1-0 in MVFC) at No. 3 North Dakota State (4-0, 1-0)
2 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
Northern Iowa hasn’t beaten NDSU since 2014, but man oh man – while most programs don’t pose a threat to the mighty Bison, these guys have been pesky over the years. In the spring, it was a three-point game. In recent years there have been spirited matchups, but the result has been the same – NDSU prevails.
NDSU may have seemed a bit human in last week’s 16-10 win over North Dakota in Grand Forks, but the Bison still got it done on the road against a playoff contender. UNI has given up only 42 points in four games – including only 16 to P5 Iowa State – but will they be able to score much against an NDSU defense that is No. 2 in the country in scoring and No. 4 in total defense?
This matchup may be one of the season’s fastest FCS games, too. Don’t expect a four-hour marathon – that’s another prediction.
Pick: NDSU by 14.
1. No. 11 Villanova (3-1, 1-0 in CAA) at No. 1 James Madison (4-0, 2-0)
2 p.m., Saturday (FloSports)
It wasn’t long ago that Villanova seemed cursed by the irritating, biting, dastardly insect otherwise known as the injury bug. The injury bug repellent of 2021 is working. It has allowed the Wildcats to get some momentum coming into the JMU matchup – as opposed to once again staring at a depleted depth chart.
Aside from a loss in front of 106,000 Penn State fans on Sept. 25, Villanova comes in unscathed this year. On the flip side of the argument, it hasn’t exactly played anybody – especially with Richmond dipping the past few weeks (‘Nova beat the Spiders by eight points on Sept. 18).
On the flip side, James Madison has played a more demanding schedule and has kept its record perfect. Quarterback Cole Johnson is No. 2 in the nation in passing efficiency by a hair (anybody remember a guy named Bryan Schor who used to do similar things?). Johnson has thrown 14 touchdown passes and only one interception. Yes, Johnson doesn’t have the stats of Eastern Washington’s dynamo – Eric Barriere – or the returning Walter Payton Award winner, Southeastern Louisiana’s Cole Kelly.
But the truth is, Johnson doesn’t need those stats to make the Dukes go.
Pick: JMU by 10
BMac’s Record Last Week: Um, I misplaced it (cue guilty whistling clip). OK! I went 3-7. There, I typed it. Aren’t there more important things to pay attention to in the world? I think so. Now let me go lick my wounds.
BMac’s Season Record: 18-12 (.600)
— 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. Before HERO Sports, he covered national college football recruiting for The Sporting News -- and compiled the PARADE All-America teams from 2010-17. He is a co-host on BMac and The Nach’s FCS Podcast each week, currently hosted on Podbean and soon to be on several other platforms. Follow him on Twitter @BrianMacWriter or Facebook at www.facebook.com/brianmacwriter.