North Dakota State is the team to beat in the FCS playoffs — yeah, duh! — but it’s run at a record national title haul got tougher with the announcement of the 24-team pairings.
The Bison’s half of the bracket is stronger than the other Big Sky-led half. The 11-0 juggernaut can beat everybody, of course, but their opponents will be strong as they chase a seventh FCS title in eight years.
Following is the Athlon FCS Power Poll for games through Nov. 17. The final poll will occur after the playoffs.
1. North Dakota State
(11-0, 8-0 Missouri Valley)
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
Last Week’s Result: 65-17 win over Southern Illinois
The Bison’s largest senior class — 24 members — will try to lead a national championship run. As the No. 1 playoff seed, they wouldn’t have to leave the Fargodome prior to the title game in Frisco, Texas.
Next Opponent: UIW-Montana State winner in FCS second round (Dec. 1)
2. Kennesaw State
(10-1, 5-0 Big South)
Last Week’s Ranking: 2
Last Week’s Result: 60-52 (5OT) win over Jacksonville State
A first-round bye seems even better after the Owls went to five overtimes to beat Jacksonville State. But the Owls are only the No. 4 playoff seed, stuck on the side of the bracket with North Dakota State and South Dakota State.
Next Opponent: Elon-Wofford winner in FCS second round (Dec. 1)
3. South Dakota State
(8-2, 6-2 Missouri Valley)
Last Week’s Ranking: 3
Last Week’s Result: 49-27 win over South Dakota
With the Jackrabbits, the playoffs are always about not landing on the same side of the playoff bracket with North Dakota State. Oops, they did.
Next Opponent: Duquesne-Towson winner in FCS second round (Dec. 1)
4. Weber State
(9-2, 7-1 Big Sky)
Last Week’s Ranking: 4
Last Week’s Result: 26-13 win over Idaho State
The game plan in the playoffs is simple: be efficient on offense and physical on defense to outlast the competition. All 10 of the Wildcats’ FCS games were decided by 17 or fewer points.
Next Opponent: Stony Brook-Southeast Missouri winner in FCS second round (Dec. 1)
5. Eastern Washington
(9-2, 7-1 Big Sky)
Last Week’s Ranking: 5
Last Week’s Result: 74-23 win over Portland State
With QB Eric Barriere, who accounted for six total TDs against Portland State, getting stronger by the week, the Big Sky co-champion Eagles surge into the playoffs off four straight blowout wins.
Next Opponent: San Diego-Nicholls winner in FCS second round (Dec. 1)
6. James Madison
(8-3, 6-2 CAA)
Last Week’s Ranking: 7
Last Week’s Result: 38-17 win over Towson
The Dukes are back on track for the playoffs, rolling past Towson with three players (running backs Cardon Johnson and Trai Sharp and quarterback Ben DiNucci) going over 100 rushing yards. Somehow they didn’t gain a seed, and head coach Mike Houston wasn’t happy about it.
Next Opponent: Delaware in FCS first round (Nov. 24)
(8-3, 7-1 CAA)
Last Week’s Ranking: 8
Last Week’s Result: 27-26 win over Elon
The outright CAA Football champion enters the playoffs with a 5-0 record against Top 25 teams. In the clincher against Elon, Earnest Edwards returned two kickoffs for touchdowns.
Next Opponent: ETSU-Jacksonville State winner in FCS second round (Dec. 1)
8. UC Davis
(9-2, 7-1 Big Sky)
Last Week’s Ranking: 9
Last Week’s Result: 56-13 win over Sacramento State
The Aggies are enjoying their best Division I season as they head into the playoffs. All-America wide receiver Keelan Doss dominated Sacramento State with 16 receptions (the most in an FCS game this season) for 205 yards and two touchdowns.
Next Opponent: Lamar-UNI winner in FCS second round (Dec. 1)
(10-0, 7-0 Ivy)
Last Week’s Ranking: 12
Last Week’s Result: 42-14 win over Penn
Quarterback John Lovett accounted for 31 touchdowns this season, just like his Ivy League offensive player of the year season in 2016. He will win the award again.
Next Opponent: Season complete
(9-1, 6-1 Patriot)
Last Week’s Ranking: 6
Last Week’s Result: 28-14 loss to Army West Point
The Raiders have raised expectations for the postseason. In their only loss of the regular season, likely Patriot League offensive player of the year James Holland Jr. matched his career high with 166 rushing yards and scored a touchdown.
Next Opponent: Delaware-James Madison winner in FCS second round (Dec. 1)
11.Jacksonville State (8-3, 7-1 Ohio Valley)
12. Wofford (8-3, 6-2 Southern)
13. Nicholls (8-3, 7-2 Southland)
14. North Carolina A&T (9-2, 6-1 MEAC)
15. Southeast Missouri(8-3, 6-2 Ohio Valley)
16. Towson (7-4, 5-3 CAA)
17. Montana State (7-4, 5-3 Big Sky)
18. Dartmouth (9-1, 6-1 Ivy)
19. Elon (6-4, 4-3 CAA)
20. UNI (6-5, 5-3 Missouri Valley)
21. Stony Brook (7-4, 5-3 CAA)
22.Delaware (7-4, 5-3 CAA)
23. Indiana State (7-4, 5-3 Missouri Valley)
24. ETSU (8-3, 6-2 Southern)
25. Furman (6-4, 6-2 Southern)
FCS Conference Rankings
1. Missouri Valley Football Conference – Indiana State was the most surprising playoff snub.
2. CAA Football – Maine, Delaware, Elon, James Madison, Stony Brook and Towson gave the CAA a record six playoff qualifiers.
3. Big Sky Conference – With four playoff qualifiers, this has clearly been the third-best conference in the FCS.
4. Southern Conference – Wofford and ETSU made the playoffs; fellow champ Furman did not.
5. Ivy League – If the Ivies went to the playoffs, it might have had two qualifiers in Princeton and Dartmouth.
6. Southland Conference – In the preseason, nobody foresaw UIW and Lamar making the playoffs.
7. Ohio Valley Conference – Jacksonville State’s sixth straight playoff appearance is third-longest active streak behind North Dakota State and South Dakota State.
8. Big South Conference – Monmouth (8-3) tied for the most wins of any team left outside the playoffs.
9. Northeast Conference – Two of playoff-bound Duquesne’s three losses are to FBS competition.
10. Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference – It wasn’t a straight path, but North Carolina A&T is back in the Air Force Reservation Celebration Bowl.
11. Patriot League – For the second straight year, only Colgate will finish with a winning record.
12. FCS Independents – Hampton, North Alabama and North Dakota all finished with winning records.
13. Southwestern Athletic Conference – Alcorn State will host the Bayou Classic winner — either Grambling State or Southern — in the conference championship game.
14. Pioneer Football League – San Diego has won first-round road games in each of the past two seasons.
— 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)