Every week in the FCS season, games impact the evolving playoff picture as teams build out their playoff resume worthy of a seed or an at-large bid in the 24-team bracket.
Let’s take a look at the most important game of every week in the 2022 season when it comes to playoff implications.
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Stephen F. Austin vs. Jacksonville State
It may just be Week 0. And only one of these teams is eligible for the playoffs. But this is still a great matchup that will tell us a lot about both teams. Rich Rodriguez is in his first season as JSU’s head coach as the Gamecocks transition to the FBS. They always have talent, but fell short of last year’s playoffs. JSU should be an overall solid team in 2022, although it is ineligible for the postseason.
While a win over JSU may not prove all of SFA’s preseason love is deserved just yet, a loss would kill some of its buzz early, especially with an FBS opponent looming. The Lumberjacks could easily go 3-0 in their first three games (JSU, Alcorn State, FBS Louisiana Tech) and be soaring as a Top 10 team in the playoff seeds discussion. They could also easily be 1-2 and battling to get back into that discussion.
Southern Illinois at UIW
Two playoff teams from last season, this matchup will be a fun one with plenty of offensive weapons. Again, while this is early, the result impacts perception for both teams and their conferences. If SIU beats UIW and finishes fourth or fifth in the MVFC like it’s done the last two seasons while UIW finishes first or second in the WAC-ASUN alliance, it’s another reason for the MVFC to grab several at-large bids.
If UIW beats the Salukis and SIU ends up making the playoffs, it boosts the strength of the WAC-ASUN to have multiple bids.
South Dakota at Montana
Two more postseason teams from 2021 in what may be a Top 25 matchup. USD looks to build off of its first playoff appearance since 2017, losing in the first round last year. The Griz made their second trip to the fall quarterfinals in a row and have the expectations for a deeper run.
It’s a great opportunity for a USD team that is looking strong. And this will be a good test for Montana’s new starting QB (likely San Diego State transfer Lucas Johnson) since the Griz should take care of Northwestern State in Week 1.
Sacramento State at Northern Iowa
These two met last September resulting in a 34-16 road win for UNI. Sac State turned its 1-2 start around with changes to how it operated at the QB position between Jake Dunniway and Asher O’Hara and went 8-0 in the Big Sky. The Hornets lost in the second round as the No. 4 seed to South Dakota State. UNI got in the bracket at 6-5 last year, losing in the first round at Eastern Washington. The September win against the eventual Big Sky champ was a big reason the Panthers got in with their record.
UNI has an FBS opponent Air Force and has to go to a tough place to play at North Dakota before hosting Sac State. The Hornets play at FBS Colorado State the week after going to UNI. The loser here risks a losing record heading into October. Whether it’s for a seed or for an at-large bid, the result of this game will be a big resume booster for the winner.
South Dakota State at Missouri State
There’s a good chance this is a Top 10 matchup. SDSU is No. 2 and Missouri State is No. 6 in our preseason ranking. The Jackrabbits look loaded, and Mo State recently added All-American FCS RB Otis Weah to an already explosive offense.
SDSU has beaten the kings of the FCS NDSU several times in recent years. Yet multiple losses in MVFC play have led the Jacks to be a lower seed or not seeded at all, creating a tough path to the title game. Missouri State’s program turnaround has been impressive, but two first-round losses the past two seasons are making some pause on giving the Bears as much preseason love as we did. The talent in this game will be incredibly high, and there’s a good chance both of these squads will be in the seeding discussion all year as Top 3 Valley teams.
Chattanooga at ETSU
ETSU is the preseason favorite in the SoCon, ranked No. 5 in our preseason Top 25 after going 11-2 with an FBS win and a quarterfinal appearance last season. Chattanooga can be a sleeper team, both in the conference and the playoffs. We ranked the Mocs No. 16.
ETSU’s lone regular-season loss last fall came against Chattanooga in mid-October. The Mocs were unable to capitalize, losing their last two games by a combined seven points to Mercer and The Citadel to get left out of the postseason at 6-5. The SoCon should get at least two bids in 2022, and this matchup is massive in the conference title and auto-bid picture.
UIW at Stephen F. Austin
Figuring out who gets the auto-bid and who else gets at-large bids in the recently-announced 2022 WAC-ASUN alliance that includes separate schedules is going to be tricky. There are several playoff-potential teams, including Austin Peay, Central Arkansas, Eastern Kentucky, and Kennesaw State out of the ASUN, and Stephen F. Austin and UIW out of the WAC.
It’s safe to say this alliance will get at least two total bids in 2022 (one AQ and one at-large), but anything more than two is far from guaranteed. UIW and SFA look like the top two teams in the WAC. The loser of this game may finish third in the combined race for an AQ, putting them on the bubble in a convoluted structure of the WAC-ASUN. How the auto-bid will be determined (whether it be winning percentage or another metric) is still being decided.
South Dakota State at North Dakota State
SDSU has beaten NDSU four times since 2016 and is on a two-game winning streak. Yet it’s been the Bison with the last laugh in the fall playoffs. NDSU has gotten a Top 2 seed multiple times despite losing to the Jacks. And that very well could happen again this year, especially if NDSU beats Arizona.
But as stated earlier in this article, letdown performances in seasons the Jacks have beaten their rival have led to lower seeds or unseeded positions for SDSU. The Bison could very well go undefeated this year. They could also easily go 10-1 with another loss to SDSU. Whether they end up seeded higher or lower than SDSU in that scenario depends on what SDSU does with the rest of its schedule. This season looks like the year we can finally see NDSU-SDSU in Frisco. The seedings and sides of the bracket will obviously help determine if that happens, and the Dakota Marker game is always going to play a huge factor in the seeding order.
Mercer at Chattanooga
As written above, Chattanooga can be a sleeper team to win the SoCon. Another squad to keep an eye on is Mercer. The Bears beat UTC 10-6 in November. Then they narrowly lost 38-35 to eventual quarterfinalist and SoCon champ ETSU to end the regular season. Mercer finished 7-3 with six D1 wins and was one of the first three teams left out of the playoff bracket.
The SoCon is good enough to get at least two teams into the bracket in 2022, possibly three. But it was just a one-bid league last season. Chattanooga and Mercer will be battling for the top spot alongside ETSU. This matchup will is huge in the at-large picture out of the Southern Conference.
Montana at Weber State
Montana will be many people’s favorite to win the Big Sky in 2022. Keep an eye on Weber State, though, who is an under-the-radar team this preseason. The Wildcats missed the playoffs last season after winning at least a share of the Big Sky title four straight years from 2017 to the 2021 spring. They should get back on track in 2022 and be in the playoff mix.
The Griz eye another playoff seed with hopes to go beyond the quarterfinals. Just a few weeks before Selection Sunday, this result will shift the seeding order and the at-large picture in FCS bracketology.
Kennesaw State at UT Martin
This is our No. 1 non-conference game in 2022. And with it being late in the season, the stakes will be high. UT Martin is the favorite out of the OVC, and Kennesaw is a top favorite in the ASUN-WAC Challenge.
UT Martin has a great shot to run the table in the OVC. If the Skyhawks also grab non-conference wins against ranked KSU and Missouri State, a playoff seed would be deserved. For KSU, how the auto-bid and at-large selections will go for the ASUN-WAC merger is to be determined, especially since schools in the two leagues aren’t playing each other. If Kennesaw does not get the AQ and it goes to a team like SFA, a non-conference win against the OVC champ UT Martin will go a long way on its at-large resume.
Richmond at Delaware
Richmond and Delaware are under-the-radar teams entering 2022. With the absence of James Madison, the CAA auto-bid race will be a packed one. Richmond, Delaware, Villanova, Elon, Rhode Island, Maine, and William & Mary all can be top-tier teams in the Colonial with a strong second tier.
A bigger question is how the CAA’s strength is perceived without JMU. Considered a “Big 3 Conference” by most FCS observers that was helped by the presence of JMU, the CAA often got several playoff bids. But last season saw just two bids (Nova and JMU). How many bids does it get this year? If teams 1-6 are all even and they beat each other up, resulting in several 7-win or 8-win teams, is this another two-bid season? The last two weeks of the schedule will be big as Delaware plays Richmond in Week 11 and then goes to Villanova in the final week while Richmond hosts W&M.
Montana at Montana State
The stakes in this game have grown to be massive over the last few seasons.
The 2018 matchup was essentially a playoff play-in game with MSU winning. The Bobcats won again in 2019, resulting in the Big Sky getting four seeds. Montana won last season, and the dominos that fell were significant: MSU getting knocked from a potential No. 2 seed back to the No. 8 seed, NDSU then getting the No. 2 seed and home-field advantage en route to Frisco, putting MSU on what turned out to be the easier side of the bracket with a favorable quarterfinal matchup at No. 1 seed SHSU and then hosting a semifinal game against unseeded SDSU, and giving Montana the No. 6 seed on the tougher side of the bracket with a quarterfinal matchup at No. 3 seed James Madison, who was actually the second-best team in the FCS.
MSU’s offensive performance in the 2021 loss in Missoula also led to the benching of starting QB Matthew McKay (who then left the team and entered the transfer portal before the playoffs) and the promotion of freshman Tommy Mellott, who took the FCS by storm and led his home-state team to the national title game.
Had MSU beaten the Griz instead, who knows how that would have shifted the bracket and the offseason narratives heading into this season.
No matter the result of the 2022 game, it’s sure to shake a lot of things up nationally and in Montana. We’ll see where these two teams are ranked when it’s time for the best rivalry game in the FCS, but they are both Top 4 teams in our preseason Top 25.