No. 9 Montana State and No. 19 Weber State have something to prove when they take the field against each other Friday night on ESPNU.
MSU wants to prove it is among the FCS elite with a 19-16 loss to Wyoming (who is now 4-1) and five straight dominating performances against FCS opponents. But with a Massey strength of schedule of 85th, the jury is still out on how good the Bobcats are.
Weber is looking to prove it is still a playoff team and one of the top squads in the Big Sky Conference. The Wildcats are 2-3 with losses to FBS Utah, currently-No. 8 James Madison and No. 13 UC Davis.
Let’s start with what this game means for the home team…
The Wildcats have grown to be one of the top programs in the FCS with four straight seasons of winning at least a share of the conference title along with 2017 and 2018 quarterfinal appearances and a 2019 semifinal appearance.
Weber entered this season ranked No. 6 in the Stats Perform preseason poll. It has since dropped to No. 19 with its 2-3 overall record. The combination of earned respect nationally and “quality losses” has kept the Wildcats in the polls. A loss Friday likely knocks them out. Not only that, but a fourth loss puts Weber in playoff mode for the rest of the season.
The magic number to hit for a Big Sky/CAA/MVFC team is seven D1 wins to make the playoffs. Six wins can get you in some years, but probably not this season. If Weber loses Friday, it will have to win out to make the bracket, which means beating No. 2 EWU on the red turf next week. The final four games are favorable — at Idaho State (who did just beat ranked UC Davis), vs. Portland State, at Southern Utah, vs. Northern Colorado.
Weber needs to at least split these next two games.
A lot of the same names from the 2019 semifinal team are still around. The talent is there to be a factor in the playoffs. The Wildcats have had tough luck with QB injuries this season, although Bronson Barron appears ready to return after an MCL injury in Week 2.
Is Weber one of the 24 best teams in the FCS when healthy? Certainly. But if the Wildcats drop these next two games against Top 10 opponents, they likely won’t be able to prove that as a playoff team. Five total losses and no ranked wins won’t cut it for an at-large bid.
Win one of the next two and stay clean in the final four? Probably a playoff team. Win them both and stay clean in the final four? Well, the Wildcats would be right back in the seeding discussion.
The Bobcats were a 2019 semifinal team. They did not play in 2020-21. They have a new coaching staff, a new starting QB, and a couple of new go-to targets at WR. They nearly beat a good FBS team in Wyoming. And then they’ve beaten five FCS opponents with a combined record of 9-21.
It’s safe to assume this team is good.
The defense is playing at a high level, allowing 11.1 points per game, and is as disruptive as ever, already racking up 45.0 tackles for loss and 13 sacks, led by Daniel Hardy’s 10.5 TFLs and five sacks. The offensive balance is there, something MSU lacked in previous seasons that resulted in the Bobcats hitting a ceiling in the playoffs. They are averaging 228.5 rushing yards per game and 232.8 passing yards a game while scoring 38 PPG.
Isaiah Ifanse continues to be one of the better running backs in the FCS (661 rushing yards and six TDs). And it looks like MSU has finally found its QB. Six-foot-4 Matthew McKay (an NC State transfer) is completing 67.8 percent of his passes with 1,344 yards, 12 TDs, and one interception.
But how good is this team? How good is the defense against a competent FCS offense? How good is McKay against a strong defense?
We don’t know. Yet.
The good news is the Bobcats can prove how good they are with three ranked opponents coming in the final five games. The bad news is the three ranked foes are on the road — No. 19 Weber State, No. 2 EWU, and No. 5 Montana. The home games are against Idaho State and Idaho.
MSU can go anywhere from a Top 2 playoff seed to a playoff-fringe team, depending on how these ranked games go. It starts with Weber on Friday, a chance for the Bobcats to prove it is legit and the offense has taken the next step against a good defense.
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.