FCS Football: First-Round Playoff Games and Predictions

The holiday weekend has a menu filled with tight matchups

The first round of the FCS playoffs on Saturday features one of the more evenly matched schedules in recent memory.

 

The point spreads — hey, do "outlaw" lines still exist? outlaws scare us — reflect only one of the eight matchups being above a seven-point difference (San Diego at Northern Iowa), and four are below three points.

 

Loosen the belt some more because there will be plenty to feast on when the 24-team playoffs kick off with the first-round games:

 

Saturday, Nov. 30

 

Note: All times ET.

 

Holy Cross (7-5, 5-1 Patriot) at Monmouth (10-2, 6-0 Big South)

Kickoff: 12 p.m. (ESPN3)

Series: Monmouth leads, 2-1

Notable: Veteran players on both teams were part of Monmouth’s 48-36 regular-season win over Holy Cross in 2017. Over two years later, Holy Cross is vastly different under second-year head coach Bob Chesney and it comes off a shutout win behind linebacker Jacob Dobbs and free safety Chris Riley. Monmouth has had only one coach, Kevin Callahan, in its 27-season history, but the Hawks have never won a postseason game. Their explosive duo of quarterback Kenji Bahar, the Big South’s offensive player of the year, and running back Pete Guerriero, who leads the FCS with 1,668 rushing yards, seek to change that fact. The winner advances to face No. 2 seed James Madison (11-1) in the second round Dec. 7.

Pick: Monmouth

 

Central Connecticut State (11-1, 7-0 Northeast) at UAlbany (8-4, 6-2 CAA)

Kickoff: 1 p.m. (ESPN3)

Series: Albany leads, 13-6

Notable: CCSU is unbeaten against FCS opponents, but none has been on Albany’s level. While Blue Devils dual-threat quarterback Aaron Winchester, a Georgia State transfer, has grabbed the headlines, the NEC champ’s defense has been even better in head coach Ryan McCarthy’s first season, ranking second in the FCS in total defense and third against the run. UAlbany was picked to finish last in the 12-team CAA, but has surprised behind redshirt freshman quarterback Jeff Undercuffler, who’s thrown 33 touchdowns, and sack-happy linebacker Eli Mencer. The winner advances to face No. 5 seed Montana State (9-3) in the second round Dec. 7.

Pick: Central Connecticut State

 

Furman (8-4, 6-2 Southern) at Austin Peay (9-3, 7-1 Ohio Valley)

Kickoff: 1 p.m. (ESPN3)

Series: First meeting

Notable: There’s a decided difference in playoff history between the two programs: Furman — the 1988 FCS champ — makes its 18th all-time appearance and Austin Peay debuts under first-year head coach Mark Hudspeth. Furman ranks fifth in the FCS in rushing behind big-play specialist Devin Wynn (1,121 rushing yards, 16 total TDs), but the host Governors are fifth against the run with a defense that features three All-OVC first-teamers, defensive tackle Josephus Smith and defensive backs Juantarius Bryant and Kordell Jackson. The winner advances to play at No. 4 seed Sacramento State (9-3) in the second round Dec. 7.

Pick: Austin Peay

 

Kennesaw State (10-2, 5-1 Big South) at Wofford (8-3, 7-1 Southern)

Kickoff: 1:30 p.m. (ESPN3)

Series: Kennesaw State leads, 1-0

Notable: These teams met in last year’s second round and Kennesaw State used a field goal in the first two minutes to win 13-10 at home. The site switches to Gibbs Stadium, where Wofford has won 99 times since it opened in 1996. Both teams run a triple-option offense, but while Wofford’s SoCon offensive player of the year Joe Newman is a veteran starter, Kennesaw’s Tommy Bryant is starting for only the third time (although he has three straight 100-yard rushing performances). The Owls, who’ve reached 10 wins for the third straight season, are No. 1 in the FCS in rushing and Wofford is No. 2. The winner advances to play at No. 3 Weber State (9-3) in the second round Dec. 7.

Pick: Wofford

 

San Diego (9-2, 8-0 Pioneer) at Northern Iowa (8-4, 6-2 Missouri Valley)

Kickoff: 2 p.m. (ESPN3)

Series: First meeting

Notable: San Diego earned the respect of North Dakota State with visits to the Fargodome in the 2016 and 2017 second round, and UNI will notice the Pioneer Football League power is a junior version of the Bison. The Toreros’ high-powered offense features quarterback Reid Sinnett (3,341 passing yards, 38 total TDs) and wide receiver Michael Bandy. An upper-tier Missouri Valley program is a huge challenge, though, and UNI head coach Mark Farley has a 59-11 record in November games with just one first-round loss in 11 previous playoff appearances. His team’s stellar defense features edge rusher Elerson Smith and cornerback Xavior Williams. The winner advances to play at No. 7 seed South Dakota State (8-4) in the second round Dec. 7.

Pick: Northern Iowa

 

Illinois State (8-4, 5-3 Missouri Valley) at Southeast Missouri (9-3, 7-1 Ohio Valley)

Kickoff: 2 p.m. (ESPN3)

Series: Illinois State leads, 7-3

Notable: Illinois State has struggled in the passing game for much of the season after losing its top two receivers. Now the Redbirds have lost starting quarterback Brady Davis to a season-ending knee injury, and it showed in a 21-3 loss to Youngstown State last Saturday. NFL prospect James Robinson (1,316 rushing yards, 15 TDs) is going to need to post a huge performance to help the visitors beat an opponent that has playoff experience, beat another Missouri Valley squad, Southern Illinois, to open the season and boasts a red-hot Zach Hall at linebacker. The winner advances to play at No. 8 seed Central Arkansas (9-3) in the second round Dec. 7.

Pick: Southeast Missouri

 

North Dakota (7-4 Independent) at Nicholls (8-4, 7-2 Southland)

Kickoff: 4 p.m. (ESPN3)

Series: First meeting

Notable: The visiting Fighting Hawks have felt underrated all season given their difficult schedule, but they’ve been up and down and have a 1-4 record on the road. They’ve beaten another Southland power, Sam Houston State, in each of the past two seasons and have a superb linebacker, Donnell Rodgers (123 tackles), who plays sideline to sideline. The two best players on the field, though, figure to be Nicholls defensive Sully Laiche, the Southland’s player of the year, and quarterback Chase Fourcade, who won the award last season. The bad news for the winner is it advances to play at No. 1 seed North Dakota State (12-0) in the second round Dec. 7.

Pick: Nicholls

 

Villanova (9-3, 5-3 CAA) at Southeastern Louisiana (7-4, 6-3 Southland)

Kickoff: 4 p.m. (ESPN3)

Series: First meeting

Notable: The quarterback matchup may be the most fascinating of the first round. Villanova’s Daniel Smith, a grad transfer from Campbell, has stepped in to be a part of 43 touchdowns (32 passing, 11 rushing, one receiving). Southeastern Louisiana starts Chason Virgil and brings Arkansas transfer Cole Kelley off the bench, and they’ve nearly split 37 total TDs at 19 and 18, respectively. Also factor in Villanova was picked ninth in the CAA preseason poll and the host Lions were picked eighth in the Southland, so this is a matchup nobody saw coming. The winner advances to play at No. 6 seed Montana (9-3) in the second round Dec. 7.

Pick: Southeastern Louisiana

 

Last Week’s Record: 7-3 (.700)

Season Record: 90-40 (.692)

 

— 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 Austin Peay Athletics)

Include in Acu Data Feed: 
Exclude from Acu-data Feed

More Stories: