The FCS spring playoffs have arrived. The 16-team bracket will determine the best team playing this season.
Who are the top contenders to win the national title? Who are the long-shots?
This spring’s semifinals look like the most evenly-matched across the board in years. But someone has to be here at this No. 4 spot, and it will be Delaware going on the road to the No. 1 seed on a short week and an 11 a.m. kickoff. Of course, that won’t be the deciding factor in the game. But it is a factor nonetheless.
There’s a reason the Blue Hens are 7-0 and back in the semis for the first time since 2010. They have some dudes. Delaware is big, athletic, hard-nosed, explosive, and disciplined. It matches up with a team in SDSU that is built the same way. (Insert pun about it makes sense these two teams wear black and blue since Saturday will be a physical matchup.)
The FCS is better when Delaware and Sam Houston are good. It’s great to see these two teams in the semifinals. And frankly, we could easily see them meet up in Frisco.
3. Sam Houston (No. 2 seed)
There have been some tremendous “coaching jobs” in the FCS over the last decade. From turning around a struggling program, or developing a young team with early-season struggles into a title contender, or losing a massive senior class and not missing a beat. But what K.C. Keeler has done is arguably atop the list.
He took a team that was routinely in the semifinals and did an overhaul in style of play. That resulted in two straight seasons (2018 and 2019) of missing the playoffs as the roster morphed into what Keeler wanted it to resemble. It paid off, as SHSU proved it now has a team legitimately built to win a national title.
At this point in the playoffs, any of these four teams can win the national title. So there’s no doubting what SHSU can do on my end. But my original Frisco prediction was JMU vs. SDSU. And the Dukes are playing even better now compared to when I made that prediction.
2. James Madison (No. 3 seed)
The Dukes continue to look better and better, answering any doubts about their regular-season schedule. JMU’s defense and loaded stable of RBs were always among the best in the FCS this spring. But the offensive line gets stronger every week despite losing All-American tackle Liam Fornadel. And QB Cole Johnson looks more comfortable and is doing what he’s asked to do at a higher level (if that makes sense).
The path to a national title won’t be easy. JMU will have to hand SHSU its first FCS playoff loss at Bowers Stadium. Then it’d be facing CAA foe Delaware or the top team in the FCS South Dakota State.
SHSU vs. JMU is more of a 50/50 game than SDSU vs. Delaware (55/45). The Dukes may not be able to have a ton of success running the ball against SHSU’s defense, but there’s potential for Johnson and a speedy group of WRs to have a big day.
1. South Dakota State (No. 1 seed)
When Southern Illinois held a 20-7 lead on SDSU right before halftime, I typed up some tweets and saved them in my drafts. Essentially, I was going to make the point that maybe the national perception of SDSU puts too much stock in the Jacks beating NDSU a few times and overlooks SDSU’s horrible postseason reputation. After all, SHSU got a lot of crap for ugly playoff exits, and SDSU didn’t hear it as much.
But unlike past SDSU teams, which let turnovers snowball or the defense’s inability to get off the field, this version of the Jacks calmly battled back to beat the Salukis 31-26. While some may call the close game against an unseeded team uninspiring, it actually reaffirmed my belief that SDSU is the best-built team to win the natty. The Jacks got absolutely everything left in the tank from SIU and then some. SDSU didn’t collapse and responded with SIU’s best punch with one of its own every time, especially in the second half.
That’s the type of game championship teams find a way to win. The Jacks will have to do it again versus a tough Blue Hens squad.