Sam Houston eliminated North Dakota State, the three-time defending FCS champion and a winner of eight of the last nine national titles, in the quarterfinal round last weekend.
On Saturday, the Bearkats will attempt to knock off James Madison, the other preeminent FCS power, which has played in three of the last four national championship games, winning the 2016 title.
If the Southland Conference champion Bearkats get it done again, it will be the best 1-2 punch since Buster Douglas.
Make no mistake, third-seeded James Madison (7-0) at second-seeded Sam Houston (8-0) is a heavyweight matchup, with the winner advancing to face either top-seeded South Dakota State or unseeded Delaware in the championship game on May 16 in Frisco, Texas.
FCS Playoffs Semifinals: James Madison at Sam Houston
Kickoff: Saturday, May 8 at 2:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Pick 'em
When James Madison Has the Ball
The Dukes have one of the deeper running backs units in the FCS, but it's money time, so they're going heavy with leading rusher Percy Agyei-Obese, who's had 25 and 27 carries in back-to-back playoff wins. He's rushed for 619 yards in six games this season and added a touchdown each time. The CAA power is 18-0 when he's found the end zone during his career.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Cole Johnson is coming off arguably the best performance of his career, going 14-of-17 for 251 yards and two touchdowns against North Dakota in the quarterfinals. If he's not handing off to Agyei-Obese, Jawon Hamilton and Latrele Palmer will get some carries to work behind All-CAA offensive linemen Raymond Gillespie and Truvell Wilson. Their dominant run game (244 yards per game, No. 4 in the FCS) opens up downfield passes to breakout playoff star Antwane Wells Jr., who has 11 receptions for 275 yards and three TDs in the two wins, and Kris Thornton.
Sam Houston often uses five defensive backs, accustomed to facing Southland passing attacks. The key against JMU will be stopping the run, something the Bearkats have done well while allowing just two yards per carry and 68.9 rushing yards per game. Defensive end Jahari Kay, who left the quarterfinal early with an injury, has led an aggressive assault in which the Bearkats have totaled 83 tackles for loss and 32 sacks.
When Sam Houston Has the Ball
Quarterback Eric Schmid, the Southland's player of the year, spreads around the passes, and that keeps opposing defense off-balance. Cody Chrest was the main target against Monmouth, and running back Noah Smith led the way against North Dakota State, but Jequez Ezzard (26.9 yards per catch, six TDs) and Ife Adeyi (20.8 yards per catch) are the big-play threats on the perimeter. Ezzard has to get it going again after having a dominating regular season, but a slow start to the postseason.
While Schmid (297.6 passing yards per game, 16 TDs, seven interceptions) was heroic in the win over North Dakota State, James Madison is going into the difficult assignment at the right time. The Dukes have five interceptions in the two playoffs wins after having just five in the five regular-season games. The secondary will be helped by the Bearkats surely needing two players to account for JMU All-America defensive end Mike Greene.
JMU has long been an FCS staple against the run, ranking in the top 10 nationally in each of the past four seasons, so the Bearkats may be forced to convert on a fair share of third downs. Schmid steps up well in the pocket, and leading rusher Ramon Jefferson (596 yards, 6.3 yards per carry, six TDs) is dangerous on delays. Two-time first-team All-Southland offensive line Colby Thomas is so versatile that he played center, guard (his regular spot), and tackle in the same game against Northwestern State.
The visiting Dukes ended the regular season ranked No. 1 in the Athlon FCS Power Poll and in other FCS rankings, so they were miffed when the playoff committee seeded them third, which placed them on a track to be playing on the road in the semifinals instead of inside the comfy confines of Bridgeforth Stadium, where they've played five of their seven games this season and won 11 straight playoff games.
To advance to the championship game, the Dukes will have to hand Sam Houston its first home playoff loss because the Bearkats are an incredible 15-0 in such games at Bowers Stadium. Seventh-year head coach K.C. Keeler won the 2003 FCS championship at Delaware, and a win here would give him an opportunity in Frisco to become the first coach to capture national titles at two different schools.
No matter where you slice, the matchup appears even all-around, so it's imperative for both teams to win at the line of the scrimmage.
Prediction: James Madison 23, Sam Houston 21
— 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.