The Colorado State Rams are set to welcome the FCS national runner-up South Dakota State Jackrabbits to Fort Collins on Friday to kick off the 2021 college football season. Because of schedule disruptions, Colorado State head coach Steve Addazio only had four opportunities to lead the Rams onto the field in his first year at the helm, so it’s hard to say how much we learned from the team’s 1-3 record. The 34-24 victory over rival Wyoming was important, but Colorado State wasn’t very competitive in losses to Fresno State, Boise State, and San Diego State.
The Jackrabbits didn’t play at all in 2020 but excelled during the 2021 spring season. From Feb. 19 to May 16, South Dakota State posted an 8-2 overall record, including a 5-1 mark in Missouri Valley Conference play that earned the Jacks the top seed in the 16-team FCS playoffs. The Jackrabbits beat heavyweight North Dakota State in the regular-season finale and then made a run to the FCS National Championship in Frisco, Texas, but lost a heartbreaker to Sam Houston 23-21 to fall short of the program’s first national title.
After nine straight playoff appearances and the near-miss last season, South Dakota State enters the season ranked No. 3 in the NCAA FCS poll and No. 4 according to Athlon Sports. In other words, the Jacks should be a very dangerous matchup for their FBS hosts.
South Dakota State at Colorado State
Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 3 at 9 p.m. ET
Spread: South Dakota State -3
When South Dakota State Has the Ball
Chris Oladokun is expected to start for the Jackrabbits at quarterback, replacing the injured duo of Mark Gronowski and J’Bore Gibbs. Gibbs was the starter in 2019, and Gronowski completed 57.4 percent of his passes for 1,565 yards and 15 touchdowns with only three interceptions in the spring. He added 577 rushing yards, which ranked third behind running backs Isaiah Davis (818) and Pierre Strong Jr. (707), and scored seven times on the ground, second only to Davis (10). The job opened for Oladokun, a former three-star prospect, because of knee injuries to Grownowski and Gibbs. Oladokun threw for 2,064 yards and 18 touchdowns and added 493 rushing yards and eight touchdowns at Samford in 2019. He also appeared in eight games for South Florida from 2017-18.
Other than Oladokun, nearly the entire roster returns from South Dakota State’s runner-up squad. Davis and Strong are back in the backfield, as are top receivers Jaxon Janke (32 rec., 473 yds., 6 TDs) and Jadon Janke (21, 425, 5). Given his experience and skillset, as well as the talent around him, Oladokun should keep the Jacks rolling offensively.
When Colorado State Has the Ball
We didn’t get a full look at the Colorado State offense in 2020, but the bottom-line numbers were discouraging for Addazio, who likes to win games on the ground. The Rams averaged just 124.0 rushing yards per game and 3.18 yards per carry, which ranked No. 105 and No. 113, respectively, nationally. Marcus McElroy Jr. scored three rushing touchdowns to lead the team, but he managed only 2.7 yards per attempt, gaining 110 yards on 41 carries. A’Jon Vivens led the way with 210 yards on 49 attempts, and scored once, but was still held to 4.29 yards on average. Both McElroy and Vivens return, and Addazio added David Bailey as a transfer from Boston College. Bailey led the Eagles with 503 rushing yards and seven touchdowns last season and ran for 844 yards and seven scores for Addazio in 2019.
Quarterback Todd Centeio started the opener against Fresno State and ran for 80 yards on 13 attempts (6.2 ypc) but played sparingly the rest of the way and finished with 92 rushing yards on 25 carries (3.68). Centeio was anointed the 2021 starter shortly after Patrick O’Brien transferred to Washington. His athleticism will be an asset, but he must improve as a passer. Last year, Centeio completed 14 of 36 attempts (38.9 percent) for 207 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He averaged 5.8 yards per attempt, which would have ranked 99th nationally had he played enough to qualify for the national leaderboard. However, with All-Mountain West receiver Dante Wright and tight end Trey McBride returning, Centeio will have one of the best pass-catching duos in the league. McBride led the team with 22 receptions, 330 yards, and four touchdowns in 2020. Wright was close behind with 20 catches for 315 yards.
It’s extremely rare for an FCS program to be favored over an FBS opponent, but the Rams opened as an underdog according to oddsmakers. South Dakota State has played well in these games in recent years, losing to Minnesota 28-21 in 2019 (when the Gophers finished 11-2), hanging with eventual Liberty Bowl champion TCU in a 59-41 loss in 2016, and knocking off Kansas 41-38 in 2015. It’s very possible the 2021 squad is better than any of those. In addition to a well-stocked offense, nearly every defensive contributor returns from the unit that held opponents to 15.0 points per game last season.
Nevertheless, Colorado State has a talent advantage. The Rams have two of the top offensive weapons in the Mountain West in Wright and McBride, and Addazio has improved the roster through the transfer portal. CSU also has a solid defense. Led by Scott Patchan (a Miami transfer who had 5.5 sacks for the Rams last season), Manny Jones, and Dequan Jackson (two each), Colorado State ranked among the national leaders in sack rate (11.6 percent of pass attempts resulted in sacks).
The Jacks will test Colorado State, but the Rams can avoid the embarrassment of losing to an FCS opponent – even if South Dakota State is one of the very best.
Prediction: Colorado State 28, South Dakota State 24
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