Visiting teams keep pulling off upsets, but is this the end of the road for them?
The home teams in the FCS quarterfinals say they’re ready to take a stand.
The first two rounds have been quite competitive with three road teams winning each time.
But this is the quarterfinals, where the big boys pound their chest. Home teams won all four games last year and three of the four in 2015.
The most vulnerable home team this weekend is sixth-seeded Sam Houston State, which hosts red-hot Kennesaw State. James Madison, North Dakota State and South Dakota State, regarded by many as the three best teams in the FCS, aren’t locks, of course, but they’re favored to survive and advance in what’s already been a wild postseason.
The FCS quarterfinal-round playoff games:
Note: All times ET
Friday, Dec. 8
Weber State (11-2) vs. No. 1 seed James Madison (12-0), 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
Reigning FCS champ James Madison is tied for the second-longest winning streak in FCS history at 24 games, and in prime time, the Dukes’ defense expects to turn the lights out on Weber State. The CAA Football champs have yet to allow more than 14 points in a game, and while their average is an FCS-low 8.8 points per game, it’s a mere 5.2 over the last five games. Their offense, led by savvy senior quarterback Bryan Schor, isn’t quite as potent as it was before No. 1 running back Cardon Johnson suffered a season-ending injury, so it gives hope to the visitors from the Big Sky that they will slow the Dukes’ roll and let dual-threat signal-caller Stefan Cantwell make enough of a dent in a defense-oriented matchup. The winner will play New Hampshire or South Dakota State in the semifinals Dec. 15 or 16.
Pick: James Madison
Saturday, Dec. 9
No. 7 seed Wofford (10-2) at No. 2 seed North Dakota State (11-1), noon Saturday (ESPN2)
Out of this weekend’s four quarterfinals, this is the only one with a prior meeting – just once, North Dakota State winning, 14-7, also at the Fargodome in the quarters in 2012. Both teams will seek to own the run game, with the host Bison using physicality on the line of the scrimmage – they rank fifth in the FCS in rushing yards per game (268.1) – and the visitors from the Southern Conference the deception of their triple-option offense – they rank seventh nationally (254). Wofford, an outstanding 7-1 in games decided by seven points or less, must break off several long runs to keep it close in the second half because the Bison are adept at putting away wins. The Missouri Valley Conference champ is in the quarterfinals for the eighth straight season, with, of course, the five straight national titles from 2011-15. The winner will play Kennesaw State or Sam Houston State in the semifinals Dec. 15 or 16.
Pick: North Dakota State
New Hampshire (9-4) at No. 5 seed South Dakota State (10-2), 3 p.m. (ESPN3)
Playoff staple New Hampshire validated this year’s 14th straight appearance with a 21-15, second-round upset of No. 4 seed Central Arkansas, but starting quarterback Trevor Knight was knocked from the game under concussion protocol. Whether the CAA power has Knight or redshirt freshman Christian Lupoli under center is vital to their offense matching South Dakota State score for score. Maybe the Wildcats’ defense can get it done again because it’s forced eight turnovers in two playoff games, but their Missouri Valley opponent has averaged 42 points during a six-game winning streak. The Jackrabbits feature incredible firepower with quarterback Taryn Christion (3,091 yards, 31 touchdowns), running back Brady Mengarelli, tight end Dallas Goedert and wide receiver Jake Wieneke. The winner will play Weber State or James Madison in the semifinals Dec. 15 or 16.
Pick: South Dakota State
Kennesaw State (12-1) at No. 6 seed Sam Houston State (11-1), 8:30 p.m. (ESPN3)
After James Madison, Kennesaw’s 12-game winning streak is the second-longest active streak in the FCS. It includes a 17-7, second-round win at No. 3 seed Jacksonville State. The Big South champ’s triple option, behind quarterback Chandler Burks, leads the FCS in rushing yards per game (328.5) and will seek to grind out drives to keep Sam Houston’s top-ranked offense (558.3 ypg, 46.6 ppg) on the sideline. The Owls’ turnover plank (plus-23 margin with 34 takeaways) is more productive than Miami’s turnover chain on the FBS level, and they’ll try to force turnovers from a Sam Houston offense that just totaled 708 yards against South Dakota. Bearkats quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe has plenty of offensive weapons to try to solve Kennesaw’s surging defense. The question is, will the Southland power’s often-maligned defense step up as well? The winner will play Wofford or North Dakota State in the semifinals Dec. 15 or 16.
Pick: Sam Houston State
— 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 North Dakota State Athletics)