Will it be more home cooking in the FCS playoffs or can the first-round winners keep the momentum going?
It was home for the holidays over Thanksgiving weekend as seven of the eight first-round games in the FCS playoffs were won by the home team.
The winning teams carry momentum into the second round – the Sweet 16, if you will – to the road on Saturday. Six of the eight games will be first-time matchups.
The SWAC Championship Game also is on tap for what should be another excellent Saturday across the FCS.
2016 FCS Playoff — Second-Round Games
Note: All games are on Saturday, Dec. 3 and times are ET
New Hampshire (8-4) at No. 4 seed James Madison (10-1), 2 p.m.
The series is tied 8-8 as CAA Football champ James Madison and playoff staple New Hampshire meet for a second time this season (JMU won at UNH, 42-39, on Oct. 15). The host Dukes are happy to be home at Bridgeforth Stadium and even happier about the expected return of quarterback Bryan Schor, the conference’s offensive player of the year, who’s missed a game and a half with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder. There’s a terrific matchup of senior running backs with CAA scoring leader Khalid Abdullah of JMU and UNH’s Dalton Crossan, who’s coming off a 184-yard, three-touchdown performance against Lehigh. The winner will play either Chattanooga or Sam Houston State in the quarterfinals on Dec. 9 or 10.
The Pick: James Madison
Youngstown State (9-3) at No. 3 seed Jacksonville State (10-1), 2 p.m.
We’ll never live down picking Coastal Carolina over Jacksonville State earlier this season (it was only a 27-26 JSU win), so we’re going here with the premise that Gamecocks are tougher than lovable Penguins. But don’t underestimate a Youngstown State squad that has a fierce running attack (Martin Ruiz and Jody Webb included) and has lost only to West Virginia and the two Missouri Valley co-champs, South Dakota State and North Dakota State. Jacksonville State wants to find its way back to the FCS championship game behind senior quarterback Eli Jenkins, who will play in his 53rd career game, tying a school record. In a fairly close matchup, go with the Gamecocks’ playoff experience. The winner will play either Wofford or The Citadel in the quarterfinals on Dec. 9 or 10.
The Pick: Jacksonville State
Villanova (9-3) at No. 8 seed South Dakota State (8-3), 3 p.m.
NFL Draftniks may want to take a look at Villanova’s 6-foot-7, 280-pound defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon for next spring and South Dakota State wide receiver Jake Wieneke and tight end Dallas Goedert for 2018. The Wildcats look to continue to extend retiring head coach Andy Talley’s 32nd and final season. John Stiegelmeier is in his 20th leading the Jackrabbits. SDSU’s defense isn’t elite, so the Wildcats figure to pound away with their run game. But SDSU’s passing attack is elite with Missouri Valley offensive player of the year Taryn Christion continually seeking out Wieneke and Goedert, who have combined for 26 touchdown receptions. The winner will play either San Diego or North Dakota State in the quarterfinals on Dec. 9 or 10.
The Pick: South Dakota State
Chattanooga (9-3) at No. 5 seed Sam Houston State (11-0), 3 p.m.
Sam Houston quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe “only” had nine touchdown passes after the first three games, but he’s thrown 44 in the last eight games, and his 52 overall are just four shy of the FCS single-season record. Chattanooga, coming off a first-round rout of Weber State, poses a threat to the Bearkats’ high-powered offense as it ranks No. 1 nationally in fewest passing yards allowed (147.2). What the Mocs have to do is survive a potential early onslaught because Sam Houston has outscored opponents 201-37 in the first quarter and 379-93 by halftime. The Mocs have a playoff-tested team, including NFL prospects Corey Levin at left guard and Keionta Davis at defensive end. The winner will play either New Hampshire or James Madison in the quarterfinals on Dec. 9 or 10.
The Pick: Sam Houston State
San Diego (10-1) at No. 1 seed North Dakota State (10-1), 3:30 p.m.
Here’s the one playoff selection not to sweat over. Let’s face it, if the North Dakota State dynasty (an unprecedented five straight FCS national titles) is going to end, it won’t be against a team from the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League. Now the visiting Toreros deserve plenty of credit as last weekend they avenged an early-season loss to Cal Poly and handed the PFL its first-ever playoff win. But the Bison have a mammoth offensive line and defensive scheme that even the big boys of the FCS can’t seem to solve in the playoffs. Oh yeah, there’s that deafening Fargodome to deal with as well. Quarterback Easton Stick is tasked with running the offense, building a lead and let the Bison get ready for Villanova or South Dakota State, which handed them their only loss this season, in the quarterfinals on Dec. 9 or 10.
The Pick: North Dakota State
Central Arkansas (10-2) at No. 2 seed Eastern Washington (10-1), 4 p.m.
Eastern Washington has done well to replace its entire offensive line and improve on defense this season. The Big Sky Conference power already had the high-flying passing attack, and quarterback Gage Gubrud has two of the best around in seniors Cooper Kupp (the Division I career leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown receptions) and Shaq Hill. Central Arkansas is strong against the run, but that hardly matters against the Eagles, who average 406.8 passing yards per game. The Bears will want to get their inconsistent running game going to keep Gubrud, Kupp and Co. off the red turf. Oh yeah, the turf won’t faze the Bears because their home field has gray and purple stripes. The winner will play either Richmond or North Dakota in the quarterfinals on Dec. 9 or 10.
The Pick: Eastern Washington
Wofford (9-3) at No. 6 seed The Citadel (10-1), 6 p.m.
Here’s the other matchup of familiar opponents: The Citadel, the Southern Conference champ, leads its all-time series with Wofford, 41-27-1, including a 24-21 overtime win on the road on Oct. 22. Both teams run triple-option offenses, so it’s a rare chance to say it’s a battle of fullbacks. Lorenzo Long carries Wofford’s fortunes and Tyler Renew, who beat up South Carolina last season, is The Citadel’s standout. In the mini-bracket of South Carolina schools, the visiting Terriers are trying to sweep Charleston schools, as they edged Charleston Southern, 15-14, in the first round. If it comes down to a kick, Wofford’s David Marvin has two 57-yard field goals this season and Cody Clark has two game-winners. The winner will play either Youngstown State or Jacksonville State in the quarterfinals on Dec. 9 or 10.
The Pick: The Citadel
Richmond (9-3) at No. 7 seed North Dakota (9-2), 6 p.m.
Big Sky co-champion Eastern Washington was glad it could heal up over a first-round bye. North Dakota, though, ended its regular season on Nov. 12, so head coach Bubba Schwiegert’s co-champ has faced a three-week break between games. Provided there’s no rust, they’re excellent at stopping the run and have 20 interceptions. Running back John Santiago had an early sophomore slump, but he finished the regular season with momentum. It would take until next season for Richmond to rest up its banged-up lineup as the Spiders have suffered 12 season-ending injuries, including to eight starters. The CAA Football squad, a semifinalist last season, has a quarterback (Craig Johnson) making his second career start and a freshman running back (Deontez Thompson). The winner will play either Central Arkansas or Eastern Washington in the quarterfinals on Dec. 9 or 10.
The Pick: North Dakota
SWAC Championship Game
Grambling State (9-1) vs. Alcorn State (5-5) at NRG Stadium in Houston, 4 p.m.
Most signs point to Grambling State winning the SWAC Championship Game for a seventh time. The Tigers have gone 18-0 against SWAC opponents in the last two regular seasons, handling Alcorn State, 43-18, on Sept. 24. Ah, but here’s where it gets interesting: Alcorn is the two-time defending conference champion and it beat Grambling, 49-21, in last year’s title game. The question is, did the Braves lose too much talent from those teams to knock off a Grambling squad that ranks first in the SWAC in scoring offense, scoring defense, total offense and total defense? Grambling quarterback DeVante Kincade has thrown 28 touchdowns against only three interceptions. But he will face pressure from Alcorn pass rusher Darien Anderson. The winner will play MEAC champion North Carolina Central (9-2) in the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl on Dec. 17 in Atlanta.
The Pick: Grambling 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.
(Top photo by Brian Blalock/Sam Houston State Athletics)