We’re now two-thirds of the way through the 2021 FCS regular season, and there are still more questions than answers – and it seems like each week breeds more questions.
Who will emerge and impress, and who will effectively be eliminated heading into the November three-game stretch?
Here’s a countdown of the 10 best games of week nine:
Note: All times ET. Rank in front of team refers to the Athlon Sports FCS Top 25 Power Poll
10. Samford (3-4, 2-3 SoCon) at No. 21 VMI (5-2, 3-1)
1:30 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
This should be a fascinating matchup, as Samford is well known for its aerial attack (316 ypg) – but VMI has a top-10 pass defense in the FCS (165 yards given up per game). Obviously, somebody has to bend at the knee here.
Another key nugget is VMI has won the last two matchups between these two schools – in overtime. Will that trend continue? Tums hopes so.
The truth is, VMI is still very much in the Southern Conference title hunt. Samford played the two league frontrunners tight about a month ago (ETSU loss in OT, Mercer loss by 3) but then got throttled by a surging Chattanooga this past weekend.
Welcome, as always, to the topsy-turvy world that is – the SoCon.
Pick: VMI by 7 (not in overtime).
9. Columbia (5-1, 2-1 Ivy League) at Yale (3-3, 2-1)
12 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
These two teams last played nearly two years ago, with Yale running away with it. While the Bulldogs have played one of the toughest schedules in the Ivy League so far, Columbia has played as well as it has in years under legendary veteran head coach Al Bagnoli.
Case in point: This year’s top head-to-head comparison matchup with a very strong Dartmouth team went in opposite directions. Columbia won 19-0, while Yale lost to the Big Green in overtime.
This game features two of the stingiest defenses, statistically, in the FCS. Both are in the top 20 for scoring defense. Expect a game where the two sides score in the teens.
Pick: Columbia by 3.
8. No. 19 North Dakota (3-4, 1-3 MVFC) at No. 18 Missouri State (4-3, 3-2)
3 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
This is an interesting matchup because while both teams have fallen to some of the FCS' elite, they’ve both proven they can go toe-to-toe with elite teams. Case in point is both their games against North Dakota State, a team both gave them fits before falling by one touchdown’s worth of points.
So, who will emerge here? Missouri State whips the ball around in the passing game as well as anybody, yet at the same time controls the clock well, too.
North Dakota has allowed more than 20 points only once to an FCS opponent (31-28 loss to highly ranked Southern Illinois) and also does a good job with the clock but has struggled at times on offense.
Missouri State's at home, which is big. Look for the Bears to improve their resume for the playoffs heading into November.
Pick: Missouri State by 10.
7. Alabama A&M (3-3, 1-3 SWAC) vs. Alabama State (3-3, 2-2)
3:30 p.m., Saturday (ESPN3)
If you want to see one of the best FCS crowds each year, make plans to be at the Magic City Classic in Birmingham, Ala. These two teams attracted a crowd of 53,000-plus to Legion Field in 2019, and in this year’s 85th all-time matchup – it could even be bigger.
Alabama A&M has won three games in a row in the rivalry, dating back to 2018. The Bulldogs lead the all-time series by a narrow margin, 42-39-3. It was first played in 1924 and has become a massive event – with the 2019 game treating fans to a three-overtime affair.
Alabama State would like to begin a new trend and win for the first time since 2017, but A&M just looks much more consistent on offense – even though the Bulldogs are on a three-game losing streak coming in.
Pick: Alabama A&M by 6.
6. Austin Peay (3-4, 1-1 OVC) at No. 17 UT Martin (6-1, 2-0)
3 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
UT Martin is looking for its first FCS playoff trip since 2006, and right now looks like the strongest team in the Ohio Valley Conference – with its only loss this year being to an FBS team (Western Kentucky).
Austin Peay would like to get itself back into the OVC playoff discussion and could do that if it wins this game. The Governors won the league the last time it played a full season in 2019, and they have a lot of pride and a can move the ball on offense (436 ypg). The problem for the Govs is, the Skyhawks can move it too – to the tune of 430 yards per game.
The big question is, who will win this potential offensive shootout? Also, who gets the leg up in the OVC and the Sgt. York Trophy competition – a highly respected four-way competition among the OVC’s teams located in Tennessee. Austin Peay has won three of the last four York trophies, and UTM hasn’t captured it since 2016.
There’s a lot on the line here.
Pick: UT Martin by 8
5. Furman (4-3, 2-2 SoCon) at No. 22 Chattanooga (4-3, 3-1)
1:30 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
Folks, this is not the early September version of Chattanooga. When the Mocs lost at home to Austin Peay in their season opener on Sept. 2, there wasn’t a massive uproar because of APSU’s recent success on the gridiron. But as the Govs have struggled a bit, the Mocs would love to have that game back.
The rest of the season for the Mocs has been impressive. Chattanooga put a scare into a very strong Kentucky team out of the SEC and fell in overtime to SoCon contender VMI in its other loss. On the flip side, Chattanooga has handed ETSU its only loss of the year and dominated everybody else.
The Mocs need this one at home and play solid defense. They also run the ball well and control the clock. Furman, on the flip side, plays great defense, but struggles at times to put up points.
Chattanooga won this matchup by two points in the spring after not having won it since 2016, so it is hungry to push the Paladins farther down the SoCon standings. The Mocs are one of the hottest FCS teams playing right now.
Pick: Chattanooga by 10.
4. Davidson (5-1, 4-0 Pioneer League) at Morehead State (5-2, 4-0)
2 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
Only two Pioneer League teams are still undefeated in conference play – and there will be only one after this game concludes. This likely will hold up as the game that decides the league’s automatic playoff bid.
Davidson has already beaten perennial Pioneer League powerhouse San Diego, but Morehead State’s win over Marist last week thrusts it into territory it hasn’t been in for years – contender land.
Davidson is the league’s defending champion. Can it win it again?
Pick: Davidson by 10.
3. Dartmouth (5-1, 2-1 Ivy League) at Harvard (5-1, 2-1)
12 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
Both teams lost last weekend, though Harvard’s five-overtime game with Princeton was very controversial, with Ivy League officials admitting there were critical mistakes made by the officials in extra time.
Regardless, these are two of the league’s top programs right now – and four teams in the conference are tied in Ivy League play at 2-1, so this one is critical.
Harvard clearly has its best team in years and is trying to forget 2017-19, when it hovered around .500 all three seasons. The Crimson would much rather return to their form prior to the aforementioned three seasons.
Dartmouth has been stout for several years now under head coach Buddy Teevens, and like Harvard? It plays very good defense. Expect a low-scoring affair, just like Columbia-Yale.
Pick: Harvard by 3.
2. William & Mary (5-2, 3-1 CAA) at No. 4 Villanova, (6-1, 4-0)
1 p.m., Saturday (FloFootball)
William & Mary is having its best season since the middle of the last decade, but it is still looking for its first signature win. Villanova has signature wins (at James Madison, beating Rhode Island by 44) and is looking to collect more as it strives for a high playoff seed and the CAA conference championship – a race it currently leads.
Villanova’s defense has been stifling against FCS opponents, holding them to 70 total points in six wins (wtih no defeats). The Wildcats are fifth in the country when it comes to pinning down opponents in total yardage (only 260.9 per game). On offense, they run the ball well and are efficient when they pass.
Pick: Villanova by 10.
1. No. 3 Southern Illinois (6-1, 4-0 MVFC) at No. 15 Northern Iowa (4-3, 2-2)
5 p.m., Saturday (ESPN+)
These two MVFC opponents are at the opposite end of the spectrum yet are so evenly matched at the same time. It’s odd to say that (or type it), but Southern Illinois needs to prove itself in this critical road trip. Northern Iowa has proven to be a massive threat to anybody who comes near it.
The Salukis have the better record by a mile and a much better offense than UNI (7th in the FCS at 37.7 ppg), but the Panthers are much better on defense (18th in the FCS at 18.1 ppg).
Southern Illinois is going to be just fine if it takes a hit this week, while Northern Iowa needs this one badly to stay relevant. That could be a massive factor. The last thing UNI wants is to carry a .500 record into November.
Don’t call this an upset. It isn’t. It’s a matchup between two very good Missouri Valley Football opponents.
Pick: UNI by 3.
BMac’s Record Last Week: 7-3
BMac’s Season Record: 37-23 (.617)
— 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.