The FCS playoffs hit the second round this weekend.
What games are the most intriguing? We ranked them below.
RELATED: Second-Round Game Predictions
8) Delaware at No. 1 seed South Dakota State
On the surface, you could reasonably conclude that the tournament’s top seed opposing a big-name CAA team would form a more intriguing game than being tabbed dead last in our second week of playoff game rankings. While the prospect of No. 1 being put on “upset alert” leaves room to argue for a ranking well above the basement, Delaware doesn’t match up well with South Dakota State.
The Fightin’ Blue Hens regained a semblance of momentum after a late-season skid (consecutive narrow losses to Richmond and Villanova) by demolishing Saint Francis in the first round, and they have QB Nolan Henderson and his 3,200 season passing yards on their side. Looming Saturday, though, is a Jackrabbits team that is undefeated vs. the FCS and has all the makings of a national championship clincher. The Jacks have size on both lines that UD doesn’t see or handle regularly despite its power-conference schedule (i.e., the CAA Football and MVFC fronts among league leaders are different beasts.) The hosts in this second-round contest also take the ball away frequently (15 passes intercepted). Delaware likes to sling the ball around to begin with, particularly on deeper routes, but SDSU may well force it to do so earlier than even Ryan Carty might hope. SDSU QB Mark Gronowski has all-conference skill players left and right, all of whom are rested via a Week 12 bye and the ensuing first-round bye, to strain UD’s load-carrying defense (No. 3 FCS total defense at 276.8 YPG).
While the Carty-called offense gives the Hens (426.8 YPG) better odds of hanging in there in Brookings relative to 2020-21’s semifinal defeat at the same venue, the risk of this one still getting away from the visitors sags the matchup’s intrigue. Can one foresee South Dakota State’s John Stiegelmeier losing a home playoff game to a first-year head coach who’s had some “‘first-year’ moments”?
7) Gardner-Webb at No. 5 seed William & Mary
Gardner-Webb hits the road for a second straight week in search of another toppling of a bigger FCS brand. First-round victim Eastern Kentucky couldn’t stop GWU on the ground, permitting 405 Runnin’ Bulldogs rushing yards on 7.9 YPC. The Webb scored all 52 of its points in the first three quarters in Richmond, KY, and finished the Colonels off with a 21-0 third quarter.
William & Mary, however, knows a thing or two about excellent rushing, averaging 274 YPG to rank second in the category among bracket remainers, trailing only possible quarterfinal opponent Montana State. The Tribe’s defense faces this strong running game in practice routinely, but it’s hard to simulate GWU RB Narii Gaither rumbling in your direction. That was EKU’s experience as he decimated it for a career-high 245 rushing yards.
That eye-popping stat is emblematic of this truth: Gardner-Webb did not eke its way here or arrive in the second round by some fluke. The Big South automatic qualifier has house money in its corner; all the pressure is on W&M to take care of business. The Tribe should be favored to do so, though, in recognition of Eddie Robinson Award finalist head coach Mike London’s guidance of a talented roster stacked with CAA Defensive Player of the Year LB John Pius and CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year CB Jalen Jones.
We haven’t seen William & Mary in this spot, though, in some time: How will the Tribe respond to being postseason darlings? It hasn’t lost since September, a four-point setback to Elon.
6) Montana at No. 3 seed North Dakota State
This is the Cubs-Yankees of the FCS. You can tire of seeing them on prime TV slots, but you’d be hard-pressed not to at least scoreboard-watch these household names.
Montana is not a Gardner-Webb/W&M or Delaware/SDSU underdog at the Fargodome, but that might have more to do with NDSU’s perceived susceptibility (and generous seed placement) than anything. The Grizzlies needed a furious comeback to win rather comfortably late against Southeast Missouri State in round 1. A decade of evidence says the Bison take it up a notch each playoff run, so much so that it’s quite unlikely that UM can survive another miserable start. North Dakota State continues to execute too many essentials too well to forgive such a thing (+8 turnover margin is top-15 in the FCS.)
To its credit, Montana has not hurt itself often in the way of flags, a deficiency exploited in other teams in the dome. The Griz are the second-least penalized team left standing in the field (Richmond), committing 4.17 penalties per game. The road to knocking off NDSU in December starts with no free yards. A subdivision blueblood attempting that feat is sufficiently intriguing, but this is an impressive slate.
5) Southeastern Louisiana University at No. 6 seed Samford
SLU took one of the first round’s best games over Idaho in Hammond, 45-42. “Southland vs. SoCon” is an enticing chance to measure the FCS conference pecking order outside the Big Sky and MVFC.
Samford is the flash of the SoCon; QB Michael Hiers is top-10 in the FCS in passing efficiency, passing yards, and passing TDs to support his first-place completion percentage (76.9). Hiers and the Bulldogs can outscore SLU in a shootout, but that may be just what it takes to advance. The Lions run the SLC’s No. 2 offense to UIW (34.8 PPG) and Samford possesses the top-scoring offense (33.5) among SoCon playoff entrants and contenders/near misses.
One intriguing narrative that this game will write is Southeastern’s later-round playoff performance. The Lions have escaped the first round in years past only to get blown up by the physicality of seeded teams from deeper conferences (allowed 73 points to Montana in 2019, 59 to James Madison in 2021). I don’t anticipate a basketball number to be spotted to Samford by SLU Saturday, but if that does crop up again, there will be new fuel to the fire against Southeastern as a true quarterfinal threat.
4) Furman at No. 7 seed Incarnate Word
Some Furman fans made noise about angling for a seed, and while that didn’t turn out on Selection Sunday, here’s the Paladins’ chance to stake the claim that that was a real miss by the committee.
This game has gotten more intriguing by the day with Incarnate Word head coach G.J. Kinne strongly linked to the vacancy at FBS Tulsa. Kinne has overseen the spectacular season of UIW Walter Payton Award finalist QB Lindsey Scott Jr. Scott tore up record books at The Word in the regular season as he completed two games with seven TDs and racked up six games with five-plus TDs.
Scott and his teammates do need Kinne focused and squarely on the task at hand in Furman. The Paladins allow opponents just 32.4% conversions on third down, which is tenth in the FCS. Their 10 fumble recoveries in 12 games also rank a close fourth among second-round participants. Furman must be this opportunistic at UIW, as stealing possessions is a team’s best hope of limiting Scott. He isn’t especially likely to be fazed individually by coaching chatter.
3) Richmond at No. 2 seed Sacramento State
In other news of exceptional QB play, Richmond’s Reece Udinski disposed of Davidson in the first round by completing 29 of 32 passes for his highest completion percentage (90.3) this season, a mark that also set the FCS playoffs single-game record for completion percentage.
Udinski and the Spiders won’t have their way all day at Big Sky champ Sacramento State. The Hornets enter at 11-0, but they’ve seen regular-season peaks in recent history. The playoff monkey remains on Sac State’s back after failing to advance past the second round in 2019 and 2021. As a top-2 seed, the pressure and expectations are greater than ever.
This, however, is one of the more prolific Sac State teams in memory, running up 480.7 YPG of offense. RB Cameron Skattebo (113.7 rushing YPG) is a key resource to an offense quarterbacked smoothly by both Jake Dunniway and Asher O’Hara. All three are names to wrestle with for a UR defense headlined by LB Tristan Wheeler, who leads the team with 36 straight starts in his career.
In all, this amounts to a fascinating cross-country game that should be a battle for the seed with home field coming in handy. NDSU will be watching if it can manage Montana, as potential semifinal home field would come with a Spider knockout of “second-round Sac.”
2) Weber State at No. 4 seed Montana State
A Big Sky rematch takes second in round 2’s rankings. Weber State gets a bit of a tough deal after missing on a seed; it is now tasked with Montana State in Bozeman prior to the quarterfinals. Of course, WSU could have spared itself this fate by executing fundamentals better in its game at the Bobcats in October, a 43-38 loss doomed by four bad snaps that resulted in safeties for MSU.
That history projects to motivate Weber more than psych it out, but the home-field advantage enjoyed by Montana State isn’t slight. MSU might feel disrespected by the 4 seed and even be fed up with playing a Big Sky foe in its playoff opener. It has the horses to back up taking out such frustrations, with Tommy Mellott and Sean Chambers combining forces at QB to counter Sac State’s aforementioned dual-QB efficiency.
Weber/MSU also boils down to a stellar coaching matchup pitting the visiting Jay Hill, who is often floated for FBS jobs, against the ‘Cats’ Brent Vigen. Expect each team to bring a clean game this time around, which should turn in another tight result.
1) New Hampshire at No. 8 seed Holy Cross
Coaching is a theme eastward as well, where New Hampshire looks to make good on a trendy upset pick at eighth-seeded Holy Cross. This is a big moment for unbeaten HC and the Patriot League, as having a quarterfinalist would be momentous for the conference and the program in Worcester.
Bob Chesney is the head coach who’s constructed that ascending program and gotten national attention in the process. Right in New England, though, Chesney’s impression made on the area is unmistakable, sweetening the intrigue approaching a regional showdown with UNH.
“He’s earned that reputation,” UNH coach Rick Santos told HERO Sports. “He’s one of the best coaches in the nation at any level. He’s built programs at the Division II, III level, now at the Division I level. He’s extremely organized, he’s detailed, cerebral, very smart guy, well-spoken. I think he’s an elite motivator; you see how hard his guys play on Saturdays and they fly around, they have an edge about them.”
Santos considers those credentials to heighten his squad’s challenge in the second round.
“I don’t see many weaknesses in his game, if any. I don’t think there are,” he continued, later observing, “you look at that [Holy Cross] roster, it’s not a typical FCS roster. I think they have some [FBS] Group of 5 talent guys on there, some guys that we went head-to-head recruiting the last three or four years, and flat-out, they beat us on a lot of really good recruits.”
Santos and New Hampshire seek to serve up some payback from the recruiting trail on the field in our top-ranked game for intrigue.