Last season’s second round of the FCS playoffs saw four games decided by one score and one unseeded team winning a game. This year looks to be an even more intriguing second-round slate.
Who advances to the quarterfinals? Let’s predict some scores.
2022 record: 82-39
2019-2021 record: 244-115
New Hampshire at #8 Holy Cross
UNH defeated Fordham 52-42 last week, a game that saw UNH jump out to a 28-7 lead. Fordham clawed back and made it a one-possession game two times, but its struggling defense all season just couldn’t get a needed stop. Holy Cross faced Fordham in the regular season as Patriot League foes, winning 53-52 in overtime with a two-point conversion.
UNH will be a popular pick here, but Holy Cross is a much more balanced team than Fordham and presents more problems for UNH. If Fordham had even an average defense, it may have completed the comeback vs. UNH, or wouldn’t have given up 28 early points in the first place. Fordham has the No. 2 FCS scoring offense, and Holy Cross has the No. 5 scoring offense (39.1 PPG). But HC has the No. 14 scoring defense (19.9 PPG) compared to Fordham’s No. 104 scoring defense.
This Holy Cross team is talented, balanced, and veteran. Some will knock its 11-0 record that features an FBS win due to its strength of schedule. But the Crusaders are one year better after returning most of last year’s team that only lost 21-16 to CAA co-champ Villanova in the second round. And that was a good Nova squad that beat James Madison.
Every handful of years, a Patriot League team reaches the quarterfinals. Holy Cross has that capability this year.
Prediction: Holy Cross 35-28
Furman at #7 UIW
Lindsey Scott Jr. is fantastic. The UIW QB is No. 1 on my ballot for the Walter Payton Award. I also think this UIW team is playing tougher defensively than previous squads. But maybe there is too much deja vu in my mind of Walter Payton Award QBs on high-flying Southland teams bowing out early in the playoffs.
Furman will be the most complete team UIW has faced this season, and that includes FBS Nevada. Its defense is playing at a really high level, including shutting down a good Elon offense last week in an emphatic 31-6 win. Furman has only lost to one FCS team this year, and that is to seeded Samford by seven points. The Paladins are on a seven-game winning streak, and while their 261.9 passing yards allowed per game is a major concern against this UIW offense, the defense as a whole has played especially well down the stretch. The unit allows just 18.5 PPG while the offense led by QB Tyler Huff is about as balanced as you can ask for and is scoring 32.7 PPG.
I think with how the defense played last week, how the offense is balanced and may have a physical advantage, and UIW dealing with the distraction of head coach G.J. Kinne being reported as the frontrunner for the Tulsa job … it all leads to a Furman win.
Prediction: Furman 41-38
Gardner-Webb at #5 William & Mary
Gardner-Webb proved many people wrong in the first round, winning 52-41 at EKU. Narii Gaither’s 245 yards on the ground led a rushing attack that went for 405 yards. William & Mary will present a much more stout defense, though. W&M allows 20.4 PPG and 139.4 rushing yards per game.
Finding success on the ground against a disruptive defense led by John Pius (19 TFLs, 11.5 sacks, 12 QB hurries) and Nate Lynn (10 TFLs, six sacks, 10 QB hurries) is going to be a challenge. And QB Bailey Fisher getting in rhythm throwing the ball with that pressure will be just as tough.
W&M will control the clock via its rushing attack averaging 274.0 yards per game. The Tribe are a blast to watch in the multitude of ways they can run the ball. The combination of Malachi Imoh (709 yards, 9 TDs) and Bronson Yoder (1,061 yards, 10 TDs) plus the running ability of QB Darius Wilson (433 yards, four TDs) makes for an offense tough to slow down. W&M is a complete team and a program on the rise under Mike London.
Prediction: William & Mary 38-21
Delaware at #1 South Dakota State
Delaware lost three of its final four regular-season games, including by 20 to Elon (who just got blown out in the first round by Furman) and by three to unranked Villanova. It erased doubts last week in a 56-17 win over Saint Francis, an underfunded NEC team but one many thought could push Delaware. The Blue Hens face a rested and relatively healthy SDSU team firing on all cylinders.
The Jacks will have gone three weeks between games with back-to-back byes. The veteran squad will use that to their advantage in the rest vs. rust debate.
These are two Top 4 scoring defenses, so expect a lower-scoring affair in the Brookings cold. That favors SDSU, who is elite at stopping the run and has a two-headed RB monster with Isaiah Davis and Amar Johnson. Meanwhile, Delaware’s offense is better suited when its passing attack is rolling — 276.8 passing yards per game compared to 150.0 on the ground. Keeping Nolan Henderson upright is key. I think SDSU’s strong defensive line can get after an o-line that is No. 71 in sacks allowed per game (2.17).
Prediction: SDSU 28-17
Weber State at #4 Montana State
Weber should feel confident entering Saturday, thinking it won’t have four bad punt snaps for safeties and dropping a routine fourth-down catch inside the red zone late in a 43-38 loss at MSU earlier this season.
Montana State should feel confident entering Saturday, thinking its defense is improved, it’s rolling into the playoffs with momentum after dominating rival Montana, and Isaiah Ifanse is back in the lineup.
Ifanse was HERO Sports’ No. 1 returning RB this preseason but has yet to play after offseason surgery. He may not have a ton of carries like last year in his first game back, especially with the several options MSU’s No. 2 FCS rushing offense has, but Ifanse is going to show some burst with his fresh legs that other players don’t have this late in a season.
MSU will be without defensive coordinator Willie Mack Garza as he is serving a one-game suspension after being cited for DUI the night of the regular-season finale. We’ll see if that impacts a defense that has been spotty this season. But MSU is better at stopping the run than the pass, and running the ball is definitely Weber’s strength.
Overall, MSU has too much momentum, home-field advantage will be a factor, and the spark of Ifanse’s return all give the Bobcats a hard-earned victory.
Prediction: Montana State 31-24
Southeastern Louisiana University at #6 Samford
Southeastern won a shootout over Idaho where the more playoff-experienced team made winning plays in the fourth quarter. I think the same will happen here.
Both offenses can hit on explosive plays, led by their quarterbacks. Samford’s Michael Hiers has thrown for 3,290 yards, 35 TDs, and three interceptions. Southeastern’s Cephus Johnson III may not have gaudy numbers, but he came up big in big moments last week. His season total is 1,354 yards passing, 10 TDs, and five interceptions along with 488 yards on the ground and five more scores.
Hiers suffered a Week 12 wrist injury in the first OT of a 50-44 double-overtime win vs. Mercer. The extent of the injury is unknown, but it’s probable he’ll play. Even if he’s slightly off, though, that could play into the hands, literally, of a Southeastern defense that is tied for the third-most FCS team interceptions (16).
I expect a high-scoring, down-to-the-wire game. And anything can happen in these types of games. I’ve been high on Samford down the stretch. But Southeastern has flown under the radar. The Lions only have one FCS loss to Texas A&M-Commerce, a game Johnson missed. It has an impressive win over seeded UIW and won 31-14 at an FBS-transitioning Jacksonville State team that finished 9-2. This team is good, and it makes a winning play at the end.
Prediction: Southeastern 45-42
Montana at #3 North Dakota State
The energy around this game is weird.
On paper, Montana at NDSU is a phenomenal playoff matchup of bluebloods who have resources 99% of the FCS doesn’t have. At one point early in the season, we thought these two could meet deep in the bracket. But the Griz are hard to gauge after an up-and-down year and after getting dominated by SEMO for 2.5 quarters before crushing SEMO and looking fantastic for a comeback win last week. And even NDSU is hard to gauge after another good-but-not-great regular season, multiple injuries to major players, and transfer portal departures of depth guys that were contributing. And also, it appears there will be a few thousand empty Fargodome seats.
The juice doesn’t seem to be there. Is that because most assume NDSU will win? I don’t know, I think this could be a close game.
With no Hunter Luepke, maybe NDSU’s rushing attack doesn’t get going as much. Montana may be better defending a power-run scheme of NDSU than an outside-zone scheme of Montana State. The Grizzlies only allow a respectable 129.5 rushing yards per game. Montana’s heavy-blitzing and twisting defensive style can be creased, but it can also get an offense on its heels where the offensive line can’t pick it up and is spinning trying to identify where the pressure is coming from, forcing the offense into throwing situations where the QB is almost guaranteed to get hit with the heat Montana brings.
If Montana’s interior DL can eat blocks and hold up for all four quarters, if the Griz can get after Cam Miller, and if Montana’s offense spreads NDSU’s defense out and Lucas Johnson can be accurate, extend plays, and make plays with his legs, the Griz have a shot. But I don’t know if Johnson has the consistent play. And I don’t know if Montana can go toe-to-toe for all four quarters defending the run led by the best FCS offensive line. I think this could be a tied ballgame for 2.5 quarters before NDSU takes control.
Prediction: NDSU 27-17
Richmond at #2 Sacramento State
Not only does Sac State have the mental barrier to break through with an 0-2 playoff record as a Top 4 seed, but the Hornets are facing a Richmond squad that can present legit problems. It all leads to a fascinating game that goes beyond on-field storylines.
Sac State has truly had one of the best program turnarounds in recent memory under Troy Taylor. But it will always lack the full respect until the Hornets prove their worth on a national stage. This team is built better for a deep run. Its defense is playing well, and the offense has a more physical attack. RB Cameron Skattebo may be the toughest guy to bring down in the FCS.
They go against a solid Richmond defense that is No. 23 in rushing yards allowed per game (120.5). The Richmond offense led by Reece Udinski is No. 12 in the FCS in passing yards per game (288.1). Udinski has thrown for 3,398 yards, 26 TDs, and four interceptions. The best way to attack Sac State’s defense is through the air. Sac State’s rushing defense ranks No. 29 (126.7 YPG), and its passing defense ranks No. 93 (246.0 YPG).
I believe this will be a close game. Richmond has the players on both sides of the ball to match Sac State. And the longer this game is close, it’ll be interesting to see how tight Sac State plays. But the Hornets have shown the ability to pull off nail-biters multiple times this season. They make the big plays when needed most, and that’s a key part of the recipe for playoff success.
Prediction: Sac State 31-27