The FCS playoffs kick off this weekend with eight first-round games. We ranked them based on the most intriguing matchups.
8. Davidson at Richmond
Pioneer Football League AQ and triple-option-running Davidson brings the nation’s leading rushing offense (350.5 YPG) to CAA Football at-large selection Richmond, which boasts the No. 11 passing offense in the FCS at 290 YPG. The Spiders will go as far as quarterback Reece Udinski (24 touchdowns to four interceptions, 3,152 passing yards) can take them, which should be past the Wildcats in round 1 at home. Davidson needs its option attack to confuse one of the CAA’s better rushing defenses, facilitating winning time of possession and keeping Udinski on the sideline.
Davidson’s heavy underdog status caps this game’s national intrigue, though there should be interest in the winner insofar as that team hitting the road for second-seeded Sacramento State’s second-round battle. Sac State had an argument for the No. 1 seed, but now, its mission is to exorcize playoff demons, and that effort begins with Davidson or Richmond. Davidson enters the first-round game with the better momentum, having held off Dayton 24-23 in the regular season finale to clinch a third straight PFL auto-bid while UR fell to eventual seed recipient William & Mary 37-26.
7. Gardner-Webb at Eastern Kentucky
Gardner-Webb’s story in 2022 is not done yet, as the Runnin’ Bulldogs will make their FCS playoffs debut at a legacy program in Eastern Kentucky. The Colonels, winners of the ASUN-WAC AQ out of the ASUN’s pool of teams, seek to end Big South champion GWU’s storybook year unceremoniously. In actuality, EKU has its own feel-good story in the form of head coach Walt Wells’ comeback to the sidelines following a serious health scare.
Wells has overseen the development of Colonels QB Parker McKinney, whose 318.36 passing yards per game join only Fordham’s Tim DeMorat and Incarnate Word’s Lindsey Scott at the 300+ YPG threshold. As much as Eastern Kentucky might like to be in the FBS at some point, whether EKU can capitalize on its current postseason opportunity, its first since 2014, is of note for round 1 intrigue.
6. Saint Francis at Delaware
Delaware has been top-25-ranked all season, but skids into the FCS playoffs at 7-4. The Blue Hens managed to be the CAA’s fifth playoff qualifier by virtue of their FBS win at Navy and a runaway victory over fellow 7-4 finisher Rhode Island. Both of these triumphs came in September, however, and UD is 2-4 in its last six, including late-game losses to playoff Richmond and middling Villanova to close the regular season. Saint Francis takes its eighth-ranked scoring offense (37.6 PPG) to Newark, where Red Flash QB Cole Doyle, a Walter Payton Award finalist with the country’s fourth-best passing efficiency (179.9), aims to crack the CAA’s leading pass defense. Doyle is doing the reverse of the Hens’ late-season nosedive, heating up down the stretch with 14 passing touchdowns in his last three outings, two of which came against a pair of the NEC’s better teams in Sacred Heart and Merrimack.
Delaware requires a strong, convincing showing while hosting SFU to assuage doubts that it belongs in the field (UD was Sam Herder’s first team out in his final bracketology on Selection Eve), but if it doesn’t get itself together this week, even in a projected win, top-seeded South Dakota State can run it off the field the following week with relative ease. Before that comes into play, Saint Francis, a winner of nine in a row and a team in possession of a competitive loss to Richmond, seeks to replicate the scare NEC mate Sacred Heart delivered to Delaware in the opening round of the 2020-21 season’s spring bracket.
5. Idaho at Southeastern Louisiana University
Welcome back to the FCS playoffs, Vandals. Idaho makes its first foray into the FCS dance since returning to the Championship Subdivision voluntarily from an FBS stint. In doing so, it must trek to Hammond to tussle with SLU, the Southland AQ. This game matches top-25 scoring offenses and respected head coaches in Idaho’s Jason Eck and Southeastern’s Frank Scelfo. With Idaho and SLU each sporting a proficient offense, the winner sets up a second-round date at Samford that could be as high-scoring as any of that day’s games.
The Vandals beat Idaho State last week without starting QB Gevani McCoy, who was absent for precautionary reasons. McCoy’s return, coupled with Idaho’s cross-country flight, makes this matchup one of top-5 intrigue. It’s likely the most underrated game on this list, but another offensive-oriented game awaits in…
4. Fordham at New Hampshire
Fordham nets a rare Patriot League at-large berth to receive a ticket to Durham. The Rams score 50.2 PPG, making them a fun watch for any casual playoff observer. New Hampshire, however, has designs on stopping the Fordham fireworks in their tracks for CAA Football Coach of the Year Rick Santos. UNH aspires to prove that a somewhat favorable CAA schedule was not to thank for the Cats’ share of the conference crown with league AQ William & Mary. New Hampshire played such CAA opponents as Towson, Stony Brook, and rival Maine while avoiding in the rotation names including playoff W&M and Delaware.
The greatest source of intrigue in this game, beyond the regional bragging rights and stature at stake in pitting a Patriot vs. CAA at-large, is whether Tim DeMorat and Fordham can earn a rematch with No. 8 seed Holy Cross in the second round. The Rams lost an instant-classic shootout to HC in the regular season; that defeat, however narrow, cost Fordham the Patriot League AQ, given that the Crusaders would remain unbeaten the rest of the way.
3. Elon at Furman
The teams’ combined talent on paper smacks of a later-round game, but Elon and Furman find themselves paired for the first round. The Phoenix has a high-end resume in emerging from CAA Football: Its 8-3 overall mark includes a reasonably competitive loss at improved FBS P5 Vanderbilt, a win over Big South champ Gardner-Webb, and a trio of now-ranked CAA wins over William & Mary, Richmond, and Delaware. Elon’s Week 12 bye to conclude the regular season gives it the effect of a playoff seed rest-wise, albeit not the positioning for the remainder of the bracket. In the near term, though, it may help in tangling with Furman, which brings QB Tyler Huff and his 242.2 yards of total offense per game (fourth in the SoCon) to the table. Intrigue points added to this one for the CAA-vs.-SoCon element.
The SoCon really needs Furman in this game as its lone at-large qualifier. Chattanooga was among the first teams on the outside looking in on Selection Sunday and Mercer fell shy, too. The onus is on the Paladins to represent their conference nationally (this week, anyway), which is intriguing with a formidable Elon coming to town.
2. Southeast Missouri State at Montana
OVC coin-flip victor and AQ SEMO, which had the superior resume to UT Martin anyhow, travels to Montana, which snuck in the playoff back door at 7-4 coming off a Brawl of the Wild blowout loss and all of a sudden has ESPN2 eyes on its first-round game. Clouding the matchup is the question of how much the committee’s general or peripheral awareness of usual hosting bid amounts placed by schools translates to an acknowledgement of that consideration as a selection criterion. Speculation runs rampant when it comes to traditionally well-off bidders such as Montana and Delaware. It’s no secret these programs reliably bid highly for first-round home games at large FCS venues, but those dollar figures are, by rule, not to be discovered until after selections are made and thus are only to be known if necessary.
Setting the discernment of prospective host institutions’ bidding’s influence aside, SEMO/Montana is a fascinating game in multiple respects. The Redhawks take a lengthy trip into one of the FCS’s most imposing home-field advantages in prime time. QB health is a story on both sides. SEMO starter Paxton DeLaurent has been in a walking boot in the past two games, making star running back Geno Hess’s role all the larger (FCS-leading 19 rushing TDs ties Sac State QB Asher O’Hara).
If DeLaurent continues to be questionable, that could help Montana key on Hess, but the Grizzlies have to pick up the pieces on run defense after being gashed by Montana State for 439 Bobcat rushing yards.
For UM, Lucas Johnson has missed time at QB this season, but he played in Bozeman last week, the site of ESPN’s College GameDay. As one of the last two teams in the field, Montana received some committee benefit of the doubt for valuable time the Griz spent without Johnson available. It’s a different offense when he’s in action, undoubtedly for the better.
1. North Dakota at Weber State
A Missouri Valley/Big Sky contest (MVFC-Big Sky Challenge, anyone?) tops the “intrigue rankings” in round 1. Weber State lands the home first-round game after a regular season that some thought could be seedable (9-2 overall with 8 DI wins, including an FBS win by four touchdowns at Utah State). The Wildcats welcome a UND squad that went 7-4 but picked up key, close triumphs over Northern Iowa, Youngstown State, and WAC contender Abilene Christian throughout the campaign to earn an at-large spot as the Valley’s third team in.
Adding to the intrigue is UND believing it had the higher bid to host, but playoff committee chair Jermaine Truax said the committee awarded Weber the home game based on performance.
Games such as this are convenient avenues to comparing the MVFC and Big Sky beyond their top-4-seed quartet composed of “the XDSUs” and the BSC’s Sacramento State and Montana State. Which is the deeper league? Which can lay claim to more national, deep postseason threats? Think of UND/Weber as a barometer in this debate, especially in a semi-down year for the Valley (three total playoff teams for the league). One could still argue it’s a more important game for the Big Sky to take with Weber State at home and a Dakota Marker game in Frisco on the table. WSU should be favored in Ogden with its FCS No. 6 scoring defense (18.3 PPG).