The chase for an FCS national championship continues this weekend in the quarterfinals of the 24-team bracket.
As we’ve done all season, let’s dive into these matchups and predict some scores.
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#7 seed Furman at #2 seed Montana
The SoCon champ vs. the Big Sky champ. Two teams who believe they are built to contend for a national title with their style of play and guys in the trenches.
Will it be a battle? The oddsmakers don’t believe so, having Montana as a 17.5-point favorite. That may seem steep, especially for a Furman team that was in the running for a No. 2 or 3 seed until a loss to Wofford to end the regular season. The Paladins played that game without quarterback Tyler Huff (SoCon Offensive Player of the Year) and running back Dominic Roberto (leading rusher). Both returned in last week’s second-round win over Chattanooga.
Furman now goes to Missoula on a short week, playing a red-hot team, and doing so in front of a crowd that is at a fever pitch and thirsting for a run to the national championship game.
The cold weather shouldn’t be an issue for Furman stylistically. The Paladins want to run the ball, stop the run, and win in the trenches. They allow only 16.8 points per game (7th in the FCS) and 92.7 rushing YPG (3rd) while owning the No. 1 turnover margin (+17). This is a quality football team that is built to win playoff games. And Huff is 18-1 against FCS opponents.
But winning at Montana will require his best game yet.
Montana is suffocating on defense, allowing 14.8 points per game (4th in the FCS) and 97.7 rushing YPG (9th). Furman will have to move the ball through the air for offensive success, which isn’t its comfort zone. How Furman’s o-line, which has the fourth-best pass-blocking grade on PFF, holds up in pass protection against the crowd noise and an aggressive Griz defense is key.
Clifton McDowell will need to play sharp as well. Montana’s offense may not be able to run the ball as effectively as it’d like against Furman’s defense. But there will be opportunities for explosive plays in the air if McDowell can be accurate and deliver balls to his game-changing WRs, which he’s shown more than capable of doing.
Prediction: Montana 31-17
#8 seed Villanova at #1 seed SDSU
Villanova impressed in last week’s win over Youngstown State, rolling over what was a solid front seven. Size and physicality are rarely an issue for CAA squads.
But that physicality will be put to the ultimate test.
If you thought SDSU was rolling in the regular season — the Jackrabbits went 11-0 and beat seven ranked opponents, five of them by at least three scores — then it’s scary to think that it will likely hit a whole new level in the playoffs.
The Jacks have several players who either could have transferred or entered the NFL Draft after last season. But they all came back for one purpose: win one more national title.
Villanova will test SDSU early. The Wildcats are tough defensively, allowing 18.5 points per game (13th in the FCS) and 110.4 rushing yards per game (17th). Their offense can be explosive on the ground and through the air. Connor Watkins isn’t quite the runner like a Matthew Sluka, but he has the ability to make a defense hurt with his legs.
If SDSU has a lackadaisical performance (turnovers, penalties, poor tackling), this can turn into a tight ball game. If SDSU plays sharp and to its abilities, the Jacks should win comfortably. It’s hard to see an “off” game for the Jacks in this bracket.
They are just too loaded across the board, graded as the No. 1 FCS offense and defense on PFF.
Mark Gronowski, Isaiah Davis, Jadon Janke, Garret Greenfield, Mason McCormick, Jason Freeman, Amar Johnson, Zach Heins, Gus Miller, Cade Terveer, Isaiah Stalbird, Dyshawn Gales, Jaxon Janke, Adam Bock … the list goes on and on of SDSU players who are as good as it gets at their position groups in all of FCS.
Prediction: SDSU 38-21
NDSU at #3 seed South Dakota
NDSU feels like it ran out of time in its 24-19 September home loss to USD. The Bison trailed 21-3 at halftime. They made it 21-13 early in the fourth. Then USD made it 24-13 with 2:49 left. Then NDSU made it 24-19 with 36 seconds left.
USD feels like it could have won by more if it kept its foot on the gas, maintaining the same game plan in the second half instead of turning to a conservative style and being fine with NDSU going on lengthy drives due to its cushioned lead.
Both sides have a fair point. But thankfully they get to decide who’s the better team on the field again.
At least someone will get their ticket punched, heading to the semifinals with a win.
The Bison are rolling. They are getting a level of play from guys like DE Jake Kava, DE Dylan Hendricks, and WR Eli Green that they didn’t have at the start of the year. They seem to be an incredibly unified team, probably even more amplified after last week’s triumphant in Bozeman. They appeared to have weathered the storm of losing key players to the transfer portal and NIL deals, at least for now while the season is ongoing. And they know this stage of December football and national television.
But USD is built like a team that matches up well with NDSU and can win games in the bracket.
The Coyotes can spread a defense out and still utilize a physical run game led by Travis Theis and Charles Pierre Jr. NDSU was vulnerable defending a similar look against Montana State. If you get caught with your eyes in the backfield, Aidan Bouman is accurate and efficient in delivering slant routes behind the linebackers reading run. The Jacks of SDSU especially did this vs. the Bison, and NDSU struggled to slow it down. Getting out in space is advantageous, as NDSU ranks No. 93 in the FCS in tackling, per PFF.
On the flip side, USD is No. 3 in tackling. The Coyotes may give up some yards statistically, but at the end of the day, points matter. And they are No. 5 in FCS scoring defense, allowing 15.4 points per game. USD is stout on the d-line and at linebacker, led by MVFC Defensive Player of the Year Brock Mogensen. Myles Harden is a next-level talent at cornerback.
Those long runs NDSU had at MSU likely won’t be there Saturday. Cam Miller will need to deliver with his arm. Miller, the No. 1-graded FCS QB on PFF, has been sharp most of this season. But NDSU can’t afford another throwing day like last week when he went 5/13 for 66 yards.
Last week, many things on paper were telling me to pick Montana State. But my gut said NDSU. This week, USD has a great shot on paper to beat the Bison again with how they match up. But my gut again tells me that the Bison’s season won’t end this early in the bracket. In an evenly matched game, I trust the Bison to play a little better on this stage and make the winning plays again.
Prediction: NDSU 31-27
#5 seed UAlbany at #4 seed Idaho
If Idaho thought its nightmare of trying to find success on an elite SIU front seven was over, that’d be a mistake. UAlbany’s defense might be just as good, if not better, than SIU’s, especially up front.
UAlbany is tied for the No. 1-graded FCS defense on PFF. Its rush defense grade is also No. 1, while its pass-rush grade is No. 6. The Great Danes lead the FCS with 49 team sacks, eight more than No. 2 Montana State. The defense allows 16.8 points per game (No. 8 in the FCS) and 75.9 rushing yards per game (No. 1).
And if anyone questions who UAlbany played, they whipped Villanova 31-10, who just whipped MVFC member Youngstown State 45-28. There are also two FBS opponents (two competitive games) that tie into the stats and grades.
LB Dylan Kelly is a Buck Buchanan Award top-three finalist who has 148 tackles. Anton Juncaj (20.5 TFLs, 14 sacks) and AJ Simon (21 TFLs, 12.5 sacks) are a top DL duo in the FCS.
Idaho is 89th in sacks allowed (31), and its pass-blocking grade on PFF is ranked 108th.
Idaho’s offensive line is young and underdeveloped. And quarterback Gevani McCoy doesn’t look to be at full health/full potential. He won last year’s Jerry Rice Award as the best FCS freshman. Interestingly, UAlbany QB Reese Poffenbarger finished second. Poffenbarger is having another strong season this fall.
Idaho typically wants to establish the run and control the clock/tempo of games. That will be a tough game plan against this UAlbany defense. The Vandals will need to make plays through the air. Getting the ball out of McCoy’s hand quickly (screens to Jermaine Jackson, outs/hooks/fades to Hayden Hatten) is key, or else UAlbany’s d-line will feast. The Great Danes allow 220.8 passing yards per game (No. 78 in the FCS), so opportunities are there. Aamir Hall, the No. 7-graded FCS CB on PFF, will be tested.
Idaho’s defense will be challenging as well for UAlbany’s offense. The Vandals have improved on the front seven throughout this season to complement a strong secondary. Their coverage grade is the 9th best on PFF, and Marcus Harris is one of the best cornerbacks in the FCS.
It should be a fantastic atmosphere in Moscow. And it will be a late game for UAlbany’s body clocks. But the Great Danes will prove to be a tough matchup for Idaho. They can pop enough explosive plays offensively, while the defense just wreaks havoc.
Prediction: UAlbany 27-20