The chase for an FCS national championship continues this weekend in the second round of the 24-team bracket.
As we’ve done all season, let’s dive into these matchups and predict some scores.
2023 Record: 81-42
2019-2022 Record: 337-158
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Richmond at #5 seed UAlbany
Richmond is coming off of a gutsy comeback win over NC Central in the opening round, erasing a 20-7 deficit for a 49-27 win. Kyle Wickersham was excellent, throwing for nearly 300 yards and three touchdowns. The Spiders now face a much stiffer test, going to a UAlbany team with a legit defense.
The Great Danes allow just 17.2 points per game (No. 7 in the FCS) and 79.3 rushing yards per game (No. 1). They have multiple All-American-level guys in the front seven. Dylan Kelly already has 145 tackles at linebacker. And Anton Juncaj (18.5 TFLs, 13 sacks) and AJ Simon (18 TFLs, 10.5 sacks) are studs on the d-line. Juncaj is the top-graded FCS edge defender on PFF.
Both squads finished 7-1 in the CAA but did not play each other. And both are hot. Richmond is enjoying a seven-game winning streak. UAlbany is on a five-game winning streak and is 5-0 at home. The Great Danes are too balanced of a team, and offensively are led by one of the best young quarterbacks in the FCS Reese Poffenbarger (2,860 yards, 31 TDs, 9 INT.).
Prediction: UAlbany 31-21
Youngstown State at #8 seed Villanova
This will be a physical, black-and-blue battle on the gridiron. Both squads are good in the trenches, want to establish the run offensively, and can be explosive through the air.
YSU looked really good against Duquesne in the first round. But, it’s, you know, Duquesne. Nova is going to be a much more talented opponent.
The Wildcats are strong defensively, allowing 17.6 points per game (No. 10 in the FCS), 114.4 rushing yards per game (No. 22), and 177.6 passing yards a game (No. 14). They are also the 13th-best tackling team in the FCS, per PFF. Nova will need to play sharp to defend a strong trio of QB Mitch Davidson (2,765 yards, 21 TDs, 4 INT.), WR Bryce Oliver (61 rec., 940 yards, 8 TDs), and RB Tyshon King (179 rushes, 995 yards, 9 TDs).
YSU has a very good front seven as its defense allows just 94.8 rushing yards per game (No. 7 in the FCS). Nova is balanced on offense, averaging 223.1 rushing yards per game and 216.8 passing yards per game. The Wildcats have a deep stable of RBs, but the difference may be in the passing game.
YSU allows 237.7 passing yards per game, which is 93rd in the FCS. Its PFF coverage grade is 90th. Connor Watkins has played well at QB for Nova, throwing for 2,332 yards, 19 TDs, and eight interceptions. He has some talented WRs who are veterans, like Rayjuon Pringle (950 yards, 8 TDs) and Jaaron Hayek (415 yards and 4 TDs in 9 games).
The Wildcats are on a six-game winning streak and are 5-0 at home. YSU is 6-1 at home, but 2-3 on the road. Home-field advantage and finding some success through the air are the difference for a Villanova victory.
Prediction: Villanova 28-20
Chattanooga at #7 seed Furman
The injury reports are trending in opposite directions for these two squads.
Furman is expected to get multiple key players back from injury, highlighted by captain and starting QB Tyler Huff and leading RB Dominic Roberto. Huff missed the last two regular-season games after suffering an early injury in the Nov. 4 game at Chattanooga, a game where Furman held on for a 17-14 win. The SoCon Offensive Player of the Year has thrown for 1,489 yards, nine TDs, and four interceptions while rushing for 488 yards and five scores in eight full games. Roberto, a 5-foot-11 and 231-pound back who sets the tone, has rushed for 704 yards and seven scores after being a 1,000-yard rusher last season.
UTC’s starting QB Chase Artopoeus, a UCLA transfer who has thrown for 2,672 yards, 20 TDs, and seven interceptions, is expected to miss his third straight game. The offense was already without multi-time All-American RB Ailym Ford, who suffered a season-ending ACL injury in October. Veteran DB Reuben Lowery III is also expected to be sidelined. And All-American DE Jay Person, the SoCon Defensive Player of the Year who has 17 TFLs and 9.5 sacks, is questionable after an injury last week and having his arm in a sling.
Many questioned Chattanooga getting one of the last spots in the bracket. But the Mocs proved their strength with a thrilling 24-21 win over Austin Peay, a 9-2 squad that felt it should have been a seed. Clayton Crile hit the game-winning 35-yard field goal as time expired.
Furman’s momentum and shine were dimmed after its 19-13 loss to Wofford to end the regular season. But now healthy, the Paladins look to go on a run with a deep and veteran roster.
Prediction: Furman 28-17
Sac State at #3 seed South Dakota
Many Sac State players visited North Dakota for probably the first time last week. They’ll experience South Dakota for probably the first time too. And hey, who knows, they could be back in ND next week.
That would require the Hornets beating USD and NDSU beating Montana State, in which the committee would go back to bid amounts and on-field performance to determine who hosts between two unseeded teams in the quarterfinals.
The Hornets will face a much stiffer defense this round compared to last, though. UND struggled against the athletic Sac State offense. USD’s defense has been the team’s strength and is the eighth-best tackling unit in the FCS, per PFF. The Coyotes allow just 14.6 points per game (No. 5 in the FCS), 136.2 rushing YPG (No. 47), and 176.3 passing YPG (No. 13).
USD can’t get into a track meet here. I think they can control the line of scrimmage and tempo of the game on offense. Aidan Bouman is an efficient QB, throwing for more than 2,000 yards, 12 TDs, and four interceptions. The Yotes want to run the ball first behind the physical rushing style of Travis Theis (740 yards, 5 TDs). UND found success on the ground last week and could have pulled off the comeback win if it stuck to the rushing game on first down. Sac State has a PFF run defense grade of 122nd in the FCS, the worst of the remaining playoff teams. Its tackling grade is 60th.
Kaiden Bennett was electric last week, throwing for 200+ yards and rushing for 125+ yards, which makes you wonder why Sac State went away from him at QB for a couple of games. He’ll have to play like that again. But USD should be able to get enough stops in a game with potentially limited possessions.
Prediction: USD 28-24
Mercer at #1 seed SDSU
Mercer is a 32.5-point underdog. That is the highest second-round spread in quite some time. The next highest in the last two brackets was SDSU as a 19.5-point favorite over Delaware last year.
There will be some fun individual matchups here.
Ty James (62 rec., 1,102 yards, 7 TDs) is a next-level, 6-foot-2 WR for Mercer. Devron Harper (53 rec., 536 yards, 2 TDs) isn’t too shabby either. Seeing them match up against the talented SDSU CBs DyShawn Gales and Dalys Beanum is sweet. Lance Wise Jr. (77 tackles) is fun to watch, and he’ll likely meet up with Isaiah Davis and Amar Johnson a few times coming downhill at each other.
But Mercer just doesn’t have the size, physicality, or athleticism in the trenches to match up with SDSU. The Jackrabbits have a Big Ten-level offensive line, and you better strap it up tight if you want to bang with SDSU’s front seven for four quarters.
The Jackrabbits are on a mission. There’s a reason the spread is “disrespectful” to Mercer.
Prediction: SDSU 42-14
NDSU at #6 seed Montana State
You don’t often say a second-round FCS matchup is a heavyweight bout. But this has to be the biggest early-round game in recent playoff memory, which is why it gets a longer preview.
The difference in offseason narratives is so large for both squads based off of Saturday’s result. Whoever wins will have a prime opportunity to then advance to the semifinals, squaring off against either USD or Sac State in the quarters (a decent draw). The loser will have plenty of offseason turmoil after coming into this fall ranked in the Top 3 nationally.
Losing in the second round would just not be good. NDSU social media was in disarray midseason, calling for changes after losing to all three Dakota schools. That will spark back up if it loses. MSU losing would end the season on a two-game skid, getting walloped by rival Montana and then exiting the playoffs right away after having legit national title expectations for most of this season. Reactions in Bozeman and across Montana would be fierce.
The lead-up game storylines are also endless: NDSU’s hot play and peaking at the right time, can MSU turn it around after a bad Montana loss similar to 2021, MSU’s home winning streak that dates back to 2019, NDSU going on the road for the first time in a fall playoff bracket since 2010, MSU HC Brent Vigen playing his former team, can NDSU QB Cam Miller win a big game, the curiosity behind why MSU QB Sean Chambers seems to be in the doghouse with his OC at times, and on and on.
Chambers gives MSU the best chance to go on a deep playoff run. It’s wild how much MSU fans, local media, and national media see that, and then see how little he played in MSU’s losses to Idaho and Montana. The Bobcats are more one-dimensional with Tommy Mellott behind center, no matter how elite of an athlete he is. Chambers is a more fluid passer, and he’s especially good on play-action as NDSU is likely going to sell out to stop the run. Re-inserting the package of Chambers and Mellott on the field at the same time also wouldn’t be a surprise.
NDSU needs to stop the run. Montana State has the top rushing grade on PFF, the No. 2 rushing offense statistically (293.4 YPG), and the No. 1 scoring offense (40.5 PPG). The Bison have been fine stopping the run, ranking 17th with 107.8 yards allowed per game. Their run defense grade is 32nd in the FCS. But NDSU has been leaky at times up the middle. NDSU is also one of the worst tackling teams in the FCS, per PFF. Its tackling grade is 102nd, the worst of the remaining playoff teams.
The Bobcats, defensively, need to get off the field on third downs. Miller has been an absolute menace converting third downs, whether it’s his accuracy throwing the ball, using his legs to get past the sticks, or extending a play and evading a pass-rush before finding his playmakers down the field. MSU ranks second in FCS team sacks (37). NDSU is 12th in sacks allowed (12).
MSU has a sold-out crowd. It has had two weeks to heal up and fully prep for NDSU. The Bobcats appear to be good enough in the trenches to go toe-to-toe with the upper-echelon teams, unlike in past years. On paper, it seems to be building toward MSU finally having the opportunity to take down NDSU after a few lopsided playoff losses to the Bison. But until I see it happen, it’s hard to pick against NDSU in this situation.
Expect a higher-scoring game. But as odd as this sounds traditionally, NDSU’s passing attack will be the difference here. It’s an opportunity for Miller, the No. 1-graded FCS QB on PFF, to silence the few doubters who still may be out there. The Bison wide receivers have also developed into big-time playmakers, much needed as the running backs haven’t gotten going much this year. (Although weather updates are now telling me wind speeds in Bozeman tomorrow will range from 20-30 mph, which may be more beneficial for MSU. I’ll stick to my guns, though.)
Prediction: NDSU 35-28
Delaware at #2 seed Montana
Delaware is enjoying a big week in the athletic department as it announced a move to the FBS and CUSA. What won’t be enjoyable is finding offensive success against a suffocating Montana defense in the toughest FCS environment. The Blue Hens are beat up on offense, including being potentially down to their No. 3 QB in freshman Nick Minicucci. Standout RB Marcus Yarns is also battling injury.
That doesn’t bode well against the Grizzlies, whose pressure coupled with the crowd noise can make the QB and o-line’s heads spin. Alex Gubner is a wrecking machine as a top DT in the FCS. And the linebackers and secondary for Montana continue to make splash plays, creating turnovers and negative-yardage plays.
Offensively, the Griz get better every week. Coming off of a bye always raises the concern of cooling off. But Delaware has allowed 33, 35, and 34 points in three of its last four games. Montana offers a balanced and powerful attack. Clifton McDowell has consistently raised his play to be a top signal-caller in the FCS, graded as the No. 12 QB on PFF. He has uber-talented WRs in Junior Bergen, Keelan White, and Aaron Fontes, plus RB Eli Gillman is the best freshman in the subdivision. The o-line’s pass-blocking grade is just outside of the Top 10, and its run-blocking grade is just outside of the Top 25.
Montana looks loaded for a run to the national championship game. And it starts Saturday.
Prediction: Montana 38-14
Southern Illinois at #4 seed Idaho
Idaho hosts its first postseason game in 30 years in what should be a rocking environment on ESPN2.
SIU’s defense is sick (No. 5 graded FCS defense on PFF, No. 8 in run defense, No. 3 in tackling, and No. 1 in coverage.). Safety PJ Jules leads the way as a next-level talent and one of the best overall defenders in the FCS. He has 105 tackles, 13 TFLs, two sacks, and 11 pass breakups. He’ll be a busy man as Idaho can attack you in many ways.
In terms of skilled offensive talent, the Vandals are as good as they get in this subdivision. Gevani McCoy is a top young QB, even if his numbers aren’t staggering (2,410 yards, 14 TDs, 7 INT.). Hayden Hatten is a mismatch problem (75 rec., 985 yards, 9 TDs) and Jermaine Jackson is an explosive playmaker with 42 catches for 507 yards and one TD. But for how explosive Idaho can be through the air, the Vandals want to slow down the game and control the ball, led by the legs of RB Anthony Woods (987 yards, 14 TDs). Idaho is second in the FCS in time of possession, holding the ball for an average of 34:46 a game.
Establishing the run against SIU won’t be easy. The Salukis allow just 92.9 rush yards per game, No. 5 in the FCS.
McCoy is expected to play, but he sat out in the regular-season finale after getting banged up in the Weber State loss. How much that is lingering will be key as SIU’s defense looks to take advantage of an Idaho offensive line that ranks 110th in pass protection on PFF. Scrambling and extending plays is a key part of McCoy’s play-making ability. SIU will certainly bring the heat.
The Salukis, meanwhile, have been up and down on offense. They throw for 226.0 yards per game behind the veteran arm of Nic Baker. Defending the pass is the strength of Idaho, though, owning the sixth-best coverage grade in the FCS. SIU runs for just 118.3 YPG, No. 91 in the FCS.
I’m not sure how well SIU can consistently move the ball on Idaho. The same can be said for Idaho. But the Vandals can dial up enough explosive plays when they need them most.
Prediction: Idaho 28-21