We’re at the halfway mark, FCS folks. Six weeks down, six weeks to go until we hit Selection Sunday on Nov. 21.
This weekend, we may have some separation in the FCS ranks. The games listed below provide plenty of opportunities for that separation. Some teams may fall by the wayside as soon as Saturday night, thinking of what could have been in 2021.
Some teams will rise to the top and begin thinking – if not talking about – what could happen once November and the postseason roll around.
The big games start on Friday night with Montana State visiting Weber State in a nationally televised – not just live-streamed – game.
Here’s a countdown of the 10 best games of week seven:
Note: All times ET. Rank in front of team refers to the Athlon Sports FCS Top 25 Power Poll
10. Nicholls (2-3, 1-1 in Southland) at No. 20 UIW (4-1, 2-0)
12 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
This is it for Nicholls. For the Colonels to stay in the Southland Conference hunt, they need a win this weekend. That’s certainly possible, but UIW has one of the top passing attacks in the country and is having its best season yet. The Cardinals look like a potential automatic playoff team (though Southeastern Louisiana may have something to say about that soon).
This should be a good battle, but with UIW playing host, it has the edge here. If the Cardinals win, it’ll be the first time since 2015 – ending a five-game losing streak to Nicholls.
Pick: UIW by 2.
9. No. 6 James Madison (4-1, 2-1 in CAA) at Richmond (2-3, 0-2)
2 p.m., Saturday (FloFootball)
JMU fans hate Richmond fans, and they call them the Ticks (instead of the Spiders, their rightful mascot). Richmond fans hate JMU fans and call Dukes fans names we can’t publish.
This is precisely the kind of vitriol you want to see in a college football rivalry. Who are we kidding?
Richmond is on a three-game slide (P5 Virginia Tech is one of those), while JMU comes in after falling by one point to Villanova. They both need a win here. The last time Richmond knocked off the Dukes was 2015 – the day ESPN's "College Football GameDay" broadcast live from JMU’s campus for the first time. The previous two JMU wins have been by a combined score of 134-22.
Expect a big bounce back by JMU and a lot of acidic language.
Pick: James Madison by 14.
8. No. 21 South Dakota (4-2, 2-1 in MVFC) at No. 12 Northern Iowa (3-2, 1-1)
5 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
Since these two teams entered the current realm of the Missouri Valley Football Conference, South Dakota has won only twice – once by three at home in Vermillion (in 2016) and once in overtime in Cedar Falls, Iowa (2013). The other nine affairs since 2008 have gone the way of the Panthers.
This game is a battle between two teams that aren’t potential playoff seeds – at least not right now. But they are both considered threats to secure at-large playoff bids. That’s why this game is so critical to the postseason picture. It’s not a “must-win” because we have six weeks left, but it’s close to that stigma.
South Dakota does a lot of the little things well. The Coyotes are good on special teams, don't commit many penalties, are good in turnover margin, and play sound defense. UNI is similar in how it goes about things.
This should be a good one, likely low-scoring, but the home-field advantage is the key – and USD may end up looking back at this game as a turning point.
Pick: Northern Iowa by 7.
7. Dartmouth (4-0) at No. 24 New Hampshire (3-2)
1 p.m., Saturday (FloFootball)
The Granite Bowl – the battle between New Hampshire’s only two Division I football programs – is alive and well once again. They’ve agreed to play six games between now and 2028. New Hampshire had won 13 straight dating back to 1976 when Dartmouth knocked off UNH at home in Hanover, 22-21 in 2016. The first meeting was 120 years ago.
This game is crucial for UNH. The Wildcats seemed to mentally recover from their September drubbing at P5 Pittsburgh, giving James Madison all it wanted while playing at UNH’s home in Durham – but it still didn’t get a win.
The Big Green are 29-5 since the beginning of 2017 and haven’t lost to a non-Ivy League team since falling to a ranked New Hampshire in 2014.
This one’s a biggie for both teams.
Pick: New Hampshire by 7.
6. Alabama State (3-2, 2-1 in SWAC) at Jackson State (4-1, 2-0)
3 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
This should be an entertaining game when you look at how Jackson State loves to throw the ball (Top 25 passing attack vs. being No. 109 in rushing) and how Alabama State plays pass defense (No. 9 in the FCS in passing yards allowed)
Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders certainly has created a buzz with the Tigers, and his quarterbacking son Shadeur Sanders has proven to be a quick study (1,337 passing yards). Couple JSU’s offensive production with ASU’s struggles on the offensive side of the ball, and the writing is on the wall.
This is a critical game for the SWAC, but Jackson State looks like the clear-cut favorite.
Pick: Jackson State by 10.
5. No. 10 ETSU (6-0, 3-0 in SoCon) at Chattanooga (2-3, 1-1)
1:30 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
In 2018, ETSU broke through – after reinstating football following a decade-plus break – and made the FCS playoffs. The program went 6-2 in the Southern Conference, winning all six games by a touchdown or less. After an impressive win over the SEC’s Vanderbilt, holding the Commodores to only a field goal, ETSU seemed to be following its 2018 pattern of tight-knit SoCon wins (Samford in OT and Wofford by six). Then the Bucs exploded last weekend against The Citadel. Which ETSU team will we get this weekend in Chattanooga?
And speaking of who will show up? Chattanooga has been a tad up and down itself. But make no mistake, the Mocs were driving and on the five-yard line in the fourth quarter at the SEC’s Kentucky – looking to pull off the upset – before faltering. They’ve shown signs of being an elite team this year but have had some head-scratching moments too.
This should be a good one under the watchful eye of Lookout Mountain – and the crowd should be sizeable.
Pick: Chattanooga by 3.
4. Sacramento State (3-2, 2-0 in Big Sky) at No. 9 Montana (4-1, 1-1)
3 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
Montana owns this rivalry, winning 20 out of 22 games since it began in 1993. Keep in mind, though, the last time they met in 2019, Sacramento State won 49-22.
This one is important for the Hornets to claw back into the national discussion. Their loss to Northern Iowa was by 18 in the Big Sky-MVFC Challenge series, and the other was by 12 to P5 California. Sac State has won three other FCS games but no headliners.
On the flip side, Montana has held a ranked P5 team (Washington) to seven points, held Eric Barriere and Eastern Washington to 10 points in the first three quarters (then all hell broke loose in the final period), and in general, has looked good in the grit categories of football. Grit? Think defense, special teams, being stingy in the red zone – you name it.
Montana wants to claw its way back into the elite national discussion, and this game could help accomplish that.
Pick: Montana by 10.
3. No. 8 Montana State (5-1, 3-0 in Big Sky) at No. 16 Weber State (2-3, 1-1)
10 p.m., Friday (ESPNU)
How about this gem of a matchup on a Friday night? And on national television, no less (thank you, ESPN). While some football purists will scream that Friday nights are for the high schools (I agree with that sentiment in most cases), this is a good matchup, and it’ll have the FCS spotlight all too itself (Colgate-Cornell, the only other FCS game on Friday night, starts at 7 p.m. ET).
Montana State hasn’t beaten Weber State since October 2014. The Bobcats are looking to change that pattern in a season where WSU has been dealt some bad luck and is susceptible to being knocked off by elite FCS teams. But don’t forget that this game is being played in Ogden, and Weber State has been one of the four best FCS programs of the past four or five seasons.
Naysayers will say Montana State hasn’t played anybody yet. They won’t be able to say that after Friday night. The Bobcats have been impressive in the passing game for the first time in years (credit QB Matthew McKay), they’re stingy on defense, and they seem to have a swagger.
But don’t forget, Weber State is a sound program that plays good defense and is electric on special teams (hello, Rashid Shaheed). This is going to be a good one, a true toss-up.
Pick: Montana State by 2.
2. VMI (4-2, 2-1 in SoCon) at Mercer (4-1, 3-0)
4 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
Mercer head coach Drew Cronic has this program heading in a special direction. The Bears have had a respectable program since restarting football nearly a decade ago (they’d been out of football since the World War II years). They’ve tended to hover around .500 and were always a tough out in the SoCon.
This year, they look like more than a tough out.
The Bears grind opponents down in the run game. Stud RB Fred Davis even averaged nearly four yards a carry against Alabama when the Bears played the Crimson Tide. Mercer is fifth in the FCS in rushing offense, even with the Alabama numbers included.
On the flip side, VMI’s 2021 season (if you include the spring) is its best span of football since the early 1980s. The Keydets have certainly found themselves as a program under coach Scott Wachenheim – even with former star QB Reese Udinski now on Maryland’s roster as a grad transfer. VMI is very much in the mix for the SoCon title – and in many ways, this game seems like a No. 2 vs. No. 3 type conference matchup.
Pick: Mercer by 7.
1. North Carolina A&T (3-2, 2-0 in Big South) at No. 17 Kennesaw State (4-1, 1-0)
5 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
Kennesaw State will choke you with its style of offense. The Owls are second in the FCS nation in time of possession, holding the ball an average of 35 minutes, 25 seconds – obviously more than 10 minutes longer than their opponents. The Owls are a convincing 3-0 vs. FCS teams since falling to P5 Georgia Tech, outscoring the FCS opponents 96-31 in those games.
KSU has been the standard by which the Big South has been measured for most of the past five years, and this season is no different. On the flip side? North Carolina A&T has been the standard by which the HBCU ranks have measured up to, and the Aggies have beaten elite FCS teams and even FBS programs before. They won’t be intimidated by a matchup of this magnitude.
Monmouth is in the mix this year too, but this will go down as one of the pivotal matchups of the Big South season – and there’s a chance this game could hold up as the game that determined the champion.
Pick: Kennesaw by 10.
BMac’s Record Last Week: 6-4
BMac’s Season Record: 24-16 (.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 several well-known platforms like Spotify, Stitcher, etc. Follow him on Twitter @BrianMacWriter or Facebook at www.facebook.com/brianmacwriter.