The big boys come out in the second round of the FCS playoffs. Each pounds its chest over having a seed, is rested from a first-round bye and gets started with a home game.
Ah, enjoy the calm feeling until kickoff.
Don’t be mistaken, the first-round winners who are on the road this week aren’t quite the little brothers set to fall in line. In the first four years since the playoffs increased to 24 teams in 2013, 10 unseeded road teams have rolled through town to post victories.
Saturday’s second round (aka the Round of 16) is hotly contested, including four games matching teams from the same conference.
The FCS second-round playoff games:
Note: All times ET; All games on ESPN3
Saturday, Dec. 2
Stony Brook (10-2) at No. 1 seed James Madison (11-0), 2 p.m.
The top two finishers in CAA Football, although they haven’t met in the 12-team conference’s schedule rotation since 2015, will flex their defensive muscles. No unit has been better in the FCS than defending national champion James Madison, which leads the nation in scoring defense (9.0 ppg) and total defense (228.2 ypg), and has gotten after quarterbacks with 43 sacks. The Dukes, who have won 23 straight games, have the distraction of head coach Mike Houston’s name being mentioned for FBS openings, but is that enough to knock them off the "Road to Frisco"? Probably not. The winner will play Weber State or No. 8 seed Southern Utah in the national quarterfinals on Dec. 8 or 9.
Pick: James Madison
Furman (8-4) at No. 7 seed Wofford (9-2), 2 p.m.
The Deep South’s oldest rivalry, which dates to 1889, reaches its 92nd meeting, and the first in the playoffs. Wofford won 24-23 on Sept. 2 after Furman failed on a two-point conversion attempt in the final minute. The score tells the closeness of these two Southern Conference teams, just like the 37-mile separation of their campuses. Both teams seek to establish the run game, so the play at the line of scrimmage is crucial. The difference could come from Wofford’s stout defensive line and the Terriers’ ability to win close games. The winner will play San Diego or No. 2 seed North Dakota State in the national quarterfinals on Dec. 8 or 9.
Kennesaw State (11-1) at No. 3 seed Jacksonville State (10-1), 2 p.m.
Having signed on to meet next November in the first college football game at SunTrust Park in Atlanta, Big South champ Kennesaw State and Ohio Valley Conference kingpin Jacksonville State get their new series started early. Kennesaw’s third-year program leads the FCS in rushing behind option quarterback Chandler Burks, but the Owls have to solve the Gamecocks’ ferocious defense, anchored by senior end Darius Jackson, the conference’s two-time defensive player of the year. Incredibly, the Gamecocks’ offensive line that opened holes for offensive player of the year Roc Thomas placed four members on the All-OVC first team for the third straight season. The winner will play South Dakota or No. 6 seed Sam Houston State in the national quarterfinals on Dec. 8 or 9.
Pick: Jacksonville State
Northern Iowa (8-4) at No. 5 seed South Dakota State (9-2), 3 p.m.
As South Dakota State opens its sixth straight playoff appearance, it always seems the Missouri Valley Football Conference power has the nation’s toughest draw. In this year’s Round of 16, it’s faced with reversing a 20-point loss to Northern Iowa on Oct. 14. Granted, the Jackrabbits’ offensive firepower is top-notch with quarterback Taryn Christion, tight end Dallas Goedert and wide receiver Jake Wieneke, but the Panthers will pound, pound and pound away with the run, as they did with running back Marcus Weymiller’s 42 carries on Oct. 14, when a streak of six wins in seven games began. The winner will play New Hampshire or No. 4 seed Central Arkansas in the national quarterfinals on Dec. 8 or 9.
Pick: Northern Iowa
New Hampshire (8-4) at No. 4 seed Central Arkansas (10-1), 3 p.m.
Central Arkansas doesn’t garner the national attention that it deserves, so the Bears hope to use the playoffs as a coming-out party. Head coach Steve Campbell’s team’s team placed a whopping 20 players on the All-Southland team, including 10 first-teamers, and had the overall player of the year (quarterback Hayden Hildebrand), defensive player of the year (linebacker George Odum) and freshman of the year (running back Kierre Crossley). The visiting Wildcats struggled in the first round to put away a Central Connecticut State squad without its starting quarterback, so they need to lift their play quickly. The winner will play Northern Iowa or No. 5 seed South Dakota State in the national quarterfinals on Dec. 8 or 9.
Pick: Central Arkansas
South Dakota (8-4) at No. 6 seed Sam Houston State (10-1), 3 p.m.
If you like 7-3 defensive struggles, watch this game for about the first five minutes. Sam Houston leads the FCS in points per game (45.9) and yards per game (544.6), while South Dakota, which outgunned another Southland team, Nicholls, in the first round, is second in yards per game (514.2) and fifth in points per game (37.8). As seniors, dual-threat Chris Streveler (USD) and pocket passer Jeremiah Briscoe (Sam Houston) have been the most productive quarterbacks in the FCS. Whoever has the ball last might be the one to survive and advance. The winner will play Kennesaw State or No. 3 seed Jacksonville State in the national quarterfinals on Dec. 8 or 9.
Pick: Sam Houston State
San Diego (10-2) at No. 2 seed North Dakota State (10-1), 3:30 p.m.
The best thing San Diego did in the first round was blow out Northern Arizona, 41-10, to advance to a meeting with North Dakota State for the second consecutive year. The worst thing San Diego did in the first round was get the Bison’s attention – unlike last year when the Toreros were coming off the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League’s first-ever playoff win. USD quarterback Anthony Lawrence has a ridiculous line of 33 touchdown passes against two interceptions, but the Bison have, well, the Bison defense, led by senior linebacker Nick DeLuca, one of the grittiest players in the FCS. The winner will play Furman or No. 7 seed Wofford in the national quarterfinals on Dec. 8 or 9.
Pick: North Dakota State
Weber State (10-2) at No. 8 seed Southern Utah (9-2), 8 p.m.
These Beehive State rivals grab the prime-time spotlight, and that’s what they were in the Big Sky while sharing this year’s title. However, there was a decided difference in their regular-season meeting when Southern Utah rolled 32-16 at Weber State, whose starting quarterback, Stefan Cantwell, was knocked from the game early in the second quarter under concussion protocol. Weber’s defense has surged since the loss, keying six straight wins, but Southern Utah has gone one better with seven straight wins under 32-year-old coach Demario Warren. The Thunderbirds are favored, but the rematch should be close. The winner will play Stony Brook or No. 1 seed James Madison in the national quarterfinals on Dec. 8 or 9.
Pick: Weber 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 Weber State Athletics)