The best teams left standing in the FCS national championship race are down to eight as the quarterfinals begin Friday night.
So let’s keep that “best” theme going and look at the best offenses, defenses, players, and more in the round of eight.
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The Bearkats own the most balanced offense in the quarterfinals. They have the No. 3 scoring offense (43.0 PPG), No. 26 passing offense (254.4 YPG), and the No. 6 rushing offense (241.7 YPG). QB Eric Schmid is a gamer, RB Ramon Jefferson is highly underrated, the WR trio of Jequez Ezzard, Ife Adeyi, and Cody Chrest is as good as it gets in the FCS, and the offensive line goes 345, 340, 305, 300, and 290 pounds.
North Dakota State
The Bison may not have the big, household national names like past defenses, but the unit is playing at an equally high level. They are getting much more disruption on the defensive line compared to the spring, they can do a lot of different things schematically with outside linebackers Jasir Cox and a healthy James Kaczor, and safety Michael Tutsie is playing at an All-American level again. NDSU is No. 1 in the FCS with 11.7 points allowed per game. The Bison rank No. 4 in total defense (263.8 YPG), allow 83.1 rushing YPG (No. 6), and allow 180.8 passing YPG (No. 14). NDSU has the fourth-most sacks, both total (43) and per game (3.58).
South Dakota State
After a dominant spring season, SDSU returned an intact o-line this fall. Some inconsistent play happened early, but the Jackrabbits are back to owning the line of scrimmage. They rank No. 9 with 215.0 rushing YPG and No. 12 with 1.08 sacks allowed per game. The o-line goes Aron Johnson (6-foot-6 and 300 pounds), Mason McCormick (6-foot-4 and 310 pounds), Wes Genant (6-foot-4 and 300 pounds), Edward Miller (6-foot-5 and 315 pounds), and Garret Greenfield (6-foot-6 and 295 pounds). SDSU also rotates in 2-3 additional players to keep the big fellas fresh.
SHSU is gettable through the air, but its rushing defense is legit and ranks No. 4 in the FCS with 75.7 rushing yards allowed per game. It all starts up front with a talented defensive line. Joseph Wallace (300 pounds) and Trace Mascorro (270 pounds) plug the middle. Both are First Team All-WAC performers this season. Wallace was a 2020-21 All-American, and Mascorro was the 2019 Southland Conference Newcomer of the Year. Jahari Kay is another First Team All-Conference player. The edge standout was on four different All-American teams in 2020-21. Jevon Leon is the other disrupter on the outside. He was a 2019 Freshman All-American and was named to two All-American teams in 2020-21. SHSU also has Kamren Washington on the d-line, who was named the 2021 WAC Freshman of the Year.
James Madison’s Cole Johnson
Johnson’s elite play from the spring playoffs has carried over to this season. The 6-foot-5, 215-pounder has completed 245-of-364 passes for 3,274 yards, 37 TDs, and just two interceptions while also rushing for 228 yards and six scores.
Best Offensive Player
South Dakota State RB Pierre Strong, Jr.
Strong will finish his career as a four-time All-American. This season, the projected mid-round 2022 NFL Draft pick has rushed for an FCS-high 1,575 yards and is No. 2 with 17 rushing TDs. Strong is averaging 7.06 yards per carry, which is No. 4 in the subdivision.
Best Defensive Player
Montana State LB Troy Andersen
Andersen may be the best pure athlete in the FCS at 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds with the speed of a running back. He can defend the run and pass, totaling 116 tackles, 10.5 TFLs, two sacks, two interceptions, and seven pass breakups.
Most Underrated Player
Villanova CB Christian Benford
Benford has had past postseason love as a two-time All-CAA selection and a 2018 HERO Sports Freshman All-American. But the 6-foot-1, 205-pounder probably doesn’t get enough recognition for being the top lockdown cornerback this season. He has racked up seven interceptions and 25 passes defended this fall, and PFF grades Benford the No. 1 corner in the FCS.
Best Special Teams
Ethan Ratke is the NCAA all-time leader in career field goals (101) and has made 29-of-32 this season. Harry O’Kelly is 43rd with a 40.5 yards per punt average. Solomon Vanhorse ranks No. 4 with a 29.7 average in kick returns. As a team, the Dukes have the No. 6 kick return defense (14.9 average), are No. 1 in kickoff returns (29.3), and No. 4 in punt return defense (2.9).
Best Fan Base
For better or worse, no one loves their football team quite like Griz fans. Montana had the best scene and environment in its second-round win against EWU. Montana fans make their presence felt at home games, on social media, and you can expect a strong contingent this weekend at JMU.
Sam Houston’s K.C. Keeler
Keeler is the only coach in FCS history to win a national title at two different schools (Delaware in 2003 and Sam Houston State in 2020-21). He also has the most playoff wins in subdivision history. Keeler changed SHSU’s identity and style of play, helping the Bearkats win the program’s first FCS national championship in the spring.
Best Home-Field Advantage
This is strictly looking at the four host sites in the quarterfinals. And JMU will likely have the biggest and rowdiest crowd in what should be a great game versus Montana under the lights Friday. It is likely the last FCS playoff game ever at Bridgeforth Stadium, and having a program like the Griz coming to town should have the stadium rocking. NDSU’s Fargodome has lost its playoff magic in the second round and quarterfinals as 5,000ish fans wait until the semifinals to show up. At its peak, NDSU is the loudest FCS stadium. But it’s not 2015 anymore, and Saturday’s game is far from a sellout.
East Tennessee State
There are too many animal mascots in the quarterfinals. The one that is not is ETSU. The Buccaneers is a solid mascot name with a great logo.
East Tennessee State
SHSU, JMU, SDSU, and NDSU entered this season ranked 1-4. Montana was No. 9, Montana State was No. 12, and Villanova was No. 16. All seven have a history of postseason success. ETSU was not preseason ranked, and last reached the FCS quarterfinals in 1996 before discontinuing the football program from 2004-2014.
Biggest Pro Prospect
SDSU RB Pierre Strong, Jr. & NDSU WR Christian Watson
Draft Scouts projects both as fourth-round NFL Draft picks. Strong has rushed for an FCS-high 1,575 yards and is No. 2 with 17 rushing TDs this season. Watson, who is week-to-week with a hamstring injury, has 39 catches for 740 yards and seven TDs this fall.
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