The 2021 FCS playoffs have arrived, back to 24 teams and eight seeds after a weird spring.
Who are the top contenders to win the national title? Who are the long-shots?
Every week, I will rank my favorites to win the championship out of the remaining teams in the field. This list will get knocked down from 24 to 16 to eight to four, and then it’s national title time.
NOTE: This is NOT a ranking of the 24 best teams in the playoffs. The postseason is all about matchups. Just because a team is listed higher than another team doesn’t mean they are better, it just means they have a better opportunity to advance further.
Davidson’s option offense can give teams who don’t see it often some trouble. But that should not be the case in the first round versus Kennesaw.
23. Sacred Heart
Sacred Heart at Holy Cross is the weakest first-round matchup. Both teams have solid individual talent but are not expected to do damage in the bracket due to lack of depth. Holy Cross will be favored to beat Sacred Heart in the first round.
22. UT Martin
The Skyhawks were undefeated against FCS opponents until a Week 12 loss to SEMO (31-14). They go to Missouri State, one of the more dangerous unseeded teams, in the first round.
21. UC Davis
UC Davis enters the playoffs on a two-game losing streak — 38-20 to EWU and 27-7 to Sac State. If not for its FBS win against Tulsa and eight total D1 wins, UC Davis would have been a very bubbly team on Selection Sunday. The Aggies go to SDSU in the first round, a popular pick for an unseeded team to make a deep run.
20. Holy Cross
Holy Cross should win its first-round game versus Sacred Heart. The Crusaders would then have to go to No. 5 seed Villanova. Holy Cross is a talented team with playoff experience. Could they be this year’s Colgate? Expect a competitive game at Villanova, but odds aren’t favorable for Holy Cross to get a win.
The Lions, losers of two of their last three games by giving up 55 and 45 points, will face its toughest defense all season in the first round — FAMU. These all-offense, no-defense teams typically hit a wall in the playoffs. If it’s not in the first round against FAMU, it will be in the second round at No. 3 seed JMU.
FAMU, who won the first-ever FCS/D1-AA national championship in 1978, hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2001 due to the SWAC and MEAC sending their champions to the Celebration Bowl and the two conferences rarely getting an at-large bid into the bracket. The Rattlers can show their bid was deserved and prove their defense is legit (No. 8 in scoring D at 15.1 PPG and No. 4 in total D at 257.5 YPG) against one of the top-scoring offenses in SLU. But after that? A trip to No. 3 seed JMU will be a massive challenge.
UIW has a pod of familiar teams. The Southland champ hosts former conference mate SFA in the first round, and the winner goes to former Southland power and No. 1 seed SHSU. That familiarly could lead to the Cardinals making a run, but SFA is a bit more balanced than UIW in what should be a close first-round game.
16. South Dakota
USD clinched a spot in the bracket with its Hail Mary win over SDSU a couple of weeks ago. The reward is fellow MVFC member SIU in the first round with the winner getting sent to No. 2 seed NDSU. The Coyotes and SIU did not play in the regular season. While the Salukis are trending down and USD gets to host them, this is the same team that got hot and went on a playoff run in the spring.
SFA enters the playoffs on a five-game winning streak. Its defense has allowed 17, 14, and six points in the final three games. While the three opponents aren’t close to UIW offensively, SFA’s team balance and solid defense should lead to a win. But then it’d be on to rival and No. 1 seed SHSU. SHSU won by just one point when the two met in October. But that was a neutral site game and the Bearkats were without starting QB Eric Schmid.
14. Southern Illinois
SIU went from one of the hottest teams in the FCS to losing three of its last four games. The Salukis were one of the last teams to make the playoffs. They have to go to South Dakota in the first round, then a trip to No. 2 seed NDSU if they win. This was a dangerous team in the spring playoffs. The Salukis have a 50/50 shot to beat USD, but a trip to Fargo won’t be easy as the Bison would look to avenge an embarrassing spring loss at SIU.
The Panthers were one of the last teams to make the bracket. To go on a deep run, they will have to beat a couple of Big Sky teams. UNI did defeat Big Sky champion Sac State on the road in September. But going to EWU, and then potentially to No. 6 seed Montana if they win, has the Panthers playing in two of the better home-field advantages. The game at EWU will be the best game in the first round, and the Eagles will be slightly favored.
12. Missouri State
Missouri State got a nice draw in the first round, hosting UT Martin. The Skyhawks have a good record, but their strength of schedule will rear its ugly head when they face Mo State. The Bears would then go to No. 8 seed Montana State, who is 1-1 against Bears this year. That will be a great game and a chance for Mo State to show they were deserving of a seed. But Montana State’s d-line will be the defense if Mo State can’t protect standout QB Jason Shelley.
The Eagles feel they were snubbed from a seed. Not only that, but they host a tough UNI team with the winner going to No. 6 seed Montana, who EWU faced and beat earlier this season. The two losses for EWU came against strong passing defenses — Weber State and Montana State. UNI always has a great defense. It is average at defending the pass, though, ranking 48th in the FCS with 212.4 YPG. The Eagles will be favored to win in the first round. Going to Missoula and beating Montana on a short week (Friday night game) isn’t as favorable.
10. Kennesaw State
Kennesaw is up there as an unseeded team most likely to win in the second round. The Owls have a good get in the first round, hosting Davidson. Then it’s a game at No. 7 seed ETSU, who is relatively unknown on how good it really is. ETSU will still be favored, but Kennesaw has a realistic shot to advance to the quarterfinals. Beating No. 3 seed NDSU is not quite as realistic.
9. Sac State (#4 seed)
The Hornets should be happy to get the No. 4 seed and the opportunity to potentially host two playoff games. They probably are not thrilled about the second-round matchup between either rival UC Davis or defending national runner-ups SDSU. SDSU is a popular pick to make a deep playoff run as an unseeded team and when fully healthy, the Jacks are one of the most talented teams in the FCS.
8. ETSU (#7 seed)
ETSU is going to have a battle in the second round against Kennesaw, who should beat Davidson. Kennesaw is strong defensively and just played its best game of the season, dominating Monmouth to win the Big South. ETSU will be slightly favored to win, but advancing past the quarterfinals requires a win at No. 2 seed NDSU, and chances of that happening are low.
7. Montana State (#8 seed)
The Bobcats are going to be challenged in the second round by Missouri State. If they win, it’s a road trip to No. 1 seed SHSU. The Bearkats haven’t faced a team as good as Montana State this season, but they play incredibly well at home. MSU winning in the quarters isn’t out of the question, but its chances at a quarterfinal win are lower than the teams below. SHSU has a strong defensive front to slow down MSU’s rushing attack.
6. Montana (#6 seed)
Montana getting the No. 6 seed is understandable, although you can make an argument the Griz could have been as high as No. 4. The matchups are where Montana probably feels slighted. The Griz will have to play either EWU (who they lost to earlier this season) or a hard-nosed UNI team in the second round. And with a win, No. 3 JMU is waiting. Montana at JMU is a dream game and should be a blast. The Griz are hot, but they will be underdogs going to Virginia in the quarterfinals.
The three teams SDSU lost to are all on the opposite side of the bracket — SIU, USD, and UNI. Plus, two top-tier national title contenders (NDSU and JMU) plus one of the hottest teams (Montana) plus a seedable team (EWU) are also on the other side. The Jacks are super talented, healthy, and have plenty of postseason experience. A deep run is realistic. They host a UC Davis team on a two-game losing streak. They would then go to No. 4 seed Sac State, who hasn’t had the toughest strength of schedule and lacks good playoff experience after losing as a seed right away in 2019. SDSU has a good shot to make the round of eight, but it is just outside of the Top 4 because going to the West Coast in the second round and then to the East Coast to play No. 5 seed Villanova in the quarterfinals is a challenging road to the semis.
4. Villanova (#5 seed)
Nova has the most favorable second-round matchup between Sacred Heart or Holy Cross, although Holy Cross can give the Wildcats a good game if they are looking ahead. If the projection of SDSU beating No. 4 seed Sac State happens, Nova will get to host in the quarterfinals against a Jacks team running on fumes after a lot of travel. Even if they had to go to Sac State, the Wildcats should like its chance to get a win there. This team has the balance to win games in the bracket. A semifinal appearance is in the cards. Playing No. 1 seed SHSU in Huntsville is where the run stops, though.
3. JMU (#3 seed)
JMU has as good of odds to win the national title as anyone. The path isn’t easy, though. The Dukes look like they’ll host No. 6 seed Montana in what should be a fabulous matchup. That’s no guarantee win, but they will be favored. Then it’s a likely trip to No. 2 seed NDSU. The Bison have only lost one home FCS playoff game ever, which was to JMU in 2016. This potential semifinal game will be a tight battle, but NDSU’s home field and disruptive defense have the advantage over JMU.
2. Sam Houston (#1 seed)
SHSU avoids teams like EWU, Montana, JMU, and NDSU on its side of the bracket. Those four teams have all been labeled as legit national title contenders over the course of this season. The Bearkats don’t have an “easy” road back to Frisco, but they are on the easier side of the bracket. Montana State could be a problem in the quarterfinals, and SDSU/Nova/Sac State will present challenges in the semis. The Bearkats are tremendous at home and have the perfect recipe to play for another national title. It may not have been challenged by strong teams in the regular season, yet the spring’s experience of closing out tight games will prove valuable for the Bearkats. The coaches and every returning starter know how to win in the playoffs.
1. NDSU (#2 seed)
The Bison’s early November performance in a loss at SDSU makes you wonder if this team, notably its offense, has what it takes to win deep in the playoffs. However, the regular-season finale versus South Dakota, who came in with a strong defense, resulted in a 52-24 win where Cam Miller went 19-of-23 for 219 yards and one TD while the running game gained 334 yards. NDSU has been strong defensively all year. Its offense, more notably the passing game and lack of a push on the offensive line, is what kept NDSU from winning in the spring playoffs and against SDSU. Is that all solved now? Or is beating up on YSU and USD in the last two games not the best gauge? We may not truly know the answer until the semis since the Bison should handle SIU/USD and then either No. 7 seed ETSU or Kennesaw in the quarters. Hosting No. 3 seed JMU in the semis will be a battle. That may even be called the true national title game, although SHSU has been strong all year and is the No. 1 seed for a reason. The Bison traditionally have peaked in the postseason. That appears to be the case once again this year.
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Sam’s coverage of the FCS began in 2012 as the sports editor and eventual editor-in-chief of NDSU’s The Spectrum. After graduating in 2015, he spent three years in the newspaper and magazine industry while starting his work for HERO Sports in the fall of 2016 as a freelancer. In May 2018, he joined the website full time as the Senior FCS Analyst.