Unseeded teams often stand up to the big boys
Momentum or rest, it’s a big question early in the FCS playoffs.
The eight seeded teams that sat out last week were happy for the break while the 16 other teams slugged it out in do-or-die fashion. If the seeds fall in the second round on Saturday, they’ll be quick to think their opponent had an advantage because their normal routine wasn’t disrupted by a two-week break.
In the first five years since the playoffs increased to 24 teams, the unseeded teams on the road have beaten seeded opponents in 13 of the 40 games, including three times last year.
The FCS second-round playoff games:
Note: All times ET
Saturday, Dec. 1
Jacksonville State (9-3) at No. 7 seed Maine (8-3), noon
On paper, this first-time matchup is one of the closest in the second round. Jacksonville State, which has won five straight Ohio Valley Conference titles, will have to handle the winter-like weather, which heavily favors Maine. The Gamecocks also have to avoid a letdown after back-to-back emotional slugfests with Kennesaw State and ETSU. The CAA champion Black Bears got healthier during their first-round bye, none more important than quarterback Chris Ferguson. There’s no right or wrong pick here, it’s a good matchup. The winner will play either Southeast Missouri or Weber State in the quarterfinals, scheduled for Dec. 7-8.
Pick: Jacksonville State
James Madison (9-3) at No. 8 seed Colgate (9-1), 1 p.m.
In the only previous meeting, Colgate dispatched of James Madison, 44-38, in the 2015 second round, and this year’s Patriot League offensive player of the year James Holland Jr. rushed for 165 yards and two touchdowns in that Raiders win. This year’s meeting won’t be nearly as high-scoring considering Colgate ranks No. 1 in the FCS in scoring defense (5.7 points per game, but 3.2 against FCS opponents) and the visiting CAA power is sixth (13.9). But there’s a storyline looming over the matchup – JMU’s national championship-winning coach Mike Houston (37-5 in three seasons) is considering an offer by Charlotte to take over its program. Will that be too much of a distraction for the Dukes? The winner will play either Montana State or defending national champion North Dakota State in the quarterfinals.
Pick: James Madison
Wofford (9-3) at No. 4 seed Kennesaw State (10-1), 2 p.m.
This first-time matchup figures to be the fastest in the second round because both offenses run the triple option, with Kennesaw State ranking second in the FCS in rushing and Wofford fourth. The coaching staffs are going to have to work hard to run a play that surprises the other team. If the host Owls get near the Wofford goal line, expect senior Chandler Burks to take it in because he has an FCS single-season-record 29 rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. In Division I, only the Owls and Alabama can say they have 10-game winning streaks in both of the last two seasons. The winner will play either Duquesne or South Dakota State in the quarterfinals.
Pick: Kennesaw State
Duquesne (9-3) at No. 5 seed South Dakota State (8-2), 3 p.m.
There may not be a hotter player in the FCS than Duquesne running back A.J. Hines, who has averaged 182 rushing yards and 218 yards from scrimmage with 11 touchdowns during the Northeast Conference team’s six-game winning streak, which includes the Dukes’ first-ever FCS playoff win. But South Dakota State is another level of opponent, and the Jackrabbits’ 51-13 rout of the Dukes to open the 2017 season is a bit ominous. Quarterback Taryn Christion is one of the top players in Missouri Valley Conference history and junior linebacker Christian Rozeboom has made the all-conference first team three times already. The winner will play either Wofford or Kennesaw State in the quarterfinals.
Pick: South Dakota State
Montana State (8-4) at No. 1 seed North Dakota State (11-0), 3 p.m.
North Dakota State’s 2010 playoff run gets a little overlooked because it occurred a year before the Bison won the first of six FCS titles in seven years. But in that prelude to the dynasty, they handled fourth-seeded Montana State, 42-17, on the road in the second round. This year’s second-round game threatens to end with a similar score because, well, most Bison playoff games do, but Montana State is surging behind quarterback Troy Anderson, who’s rushed for 1,283 yards and 20 touchdowns. The defending champ runs it better, of course, and a healthier Bruce Anderson is recharged to play tag-team with the other running backs. Also consider the Bison are 16-0 at the Fargodome over the last two seasons. The winner will play either James Madison or Colgate in the quarterfinals.
Pick: North Dakota State
Southeast Missouri (9-3) at No. 2 Weber State (9-2), 4 p.m.
It’s the season of giving, but Southeast Missouri is adept at taking, leading the FCS with 35 takeaways, including four against Stony Brook to flip the game for its first-ever FCS playoff win. Junior linebacker Zach Hall, who leads the FCS with 163 tackles, also would look good in the Weber State lineup, whose defense is even stronger that SEMO’s even if its 25 takeaways seem far behind despite being 11th in the FCS. What Weber does better is stop the run, so that’s an advantage to Wildcats running back Josh Davis (1,288 yards) over SEMO’s Marquis Terry (1,226). The winner of this first-time meeting will play either Jacksonville State or Maine in the quarterfinals.
Pick: Weber State
Nicholls (9-3) at No. 3 seed Eastern Washington (9-2), 5 p.m.
There could be a driving snowstorm at red-clad Roos Field (there won’t be) and these two offenses would continually find their way into the opposing team’s end zone. Nicholls is averaging nearly 46 points during a five-game winning streak and Eastern Washington is putting up nearly 55 points in four straight victories. They should go back and forth at each other, both able to run and pass effectively. Nicholls holds a distinct advantage in quarterback experience with Chase Fourcade, who’s stood tall against the FBS as a three-year starter. But the Southland Conference co-champ will have to contain Eric Barriere’s running ability behind center. The winner will play either Northern Iowa or UC Davis in the quarterfinals.
Pick: Eastern Washington
Northern Iowa (7-5) at No. 6 seed UC Davis (9-2), 7 p.m.
It’s power (UNI) vs. finesse (UC Davis) at what should be a rocking Aggie Stadium as the last of the four Big Sky teams in action plays an FCS playoff game for the first time. That’s in stark contrast to UNI’s 46-game history. The seasoned visitors from the Missouri Valley have been banged up defensively, but they do the banging on offense with a big ol’ offensive line and rugged running back Marcus Weymiller. Quarterback Jake Maier will work the ball around for the Aggies’ offense, including to NFL prospect Keelan Doss, who’s reached 100 receptions for the second consecutive season. The winner will play either Nicholls or Eastern Washington in the quarterfinals.
Pick: UC Davis
Last Week’s Record: 7-1 (.875)
Season Record: 92-49 (.652)
— 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 Nicholls Athletics)