For the last 10 or so years, the FCS national title race has typically been a two-team or three-team race. There has been the 1A team to beat, usually North Dakota State. There has been a 1B team as the top challenger, which was usually James Madison for several years. And then there was a No. 3 team joining that mix to push the top two, usually a team like South Dakota State, Eastern Washington, or Montana State depending on the year.
This season may have a similar top-heavy look.
SDSU is the 1A team to beat. NDSU is considered by many to be the 1B team and the top challenger. And Montana State can be considered the 1C team instead of the No. 3 team with its hot start to the season.
Can anyone else move their way into the top tier and legitimately win an FCS championship? Who else will we likely see deep into the playoffs? At the one-third point of the season, let’s break down FCS teams into playoff potential tiers.
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Legit National Title Contenders
South Dakota State, North Dakota State, Montana State
SDSU is the most talented FCS team since 2019, returning a majority of its two-deep that mostly cruised through last year’s bracket. NDSU has dominated its non-conference schedule that featured two now-ranked teams, looking much improved on both sides of the ball. And Montana State was an inch away from beating SDSU in Brookings and just crushed then-Top 10 Weber State 40-0 on the road. The Bobcats have established themselves as a legit title contender who can win the whole thing.
I said in the preseason that I would be surprised if any team outside of these three won the national title. And I still lean that way at this point in the season. Talent, and more importantly depth, will separate these three come playoff time.
Teams We Wouldn’t Be Surprised To See Reach The Semifinals
Idaho, Holy Cross, Furman, William & Mary, UIW
Who will be the fourth team accompanying the top three in the semifinals? Chances are high it is any of these five teams above.
All five look likely to finish 10-1 or 9-2, making the race for the No. 4 seed and a coveted home quarterfinal game a tight one.
Idaho is one of the hottest FCS teams right now, has an FBS win, and has multiple ranked opponents at home to build up a solid resume and seed to make a deep run. Whether the Vandals have risen all the way up to truly be able to win a natty will be determined as this season progresses. Holy Cross has elite top-end talent returning and played SDSU the toughest last year, proving it is a team to be reckoned with despite its FCS strength of schedule not being strong. You can question the schedule, but you can’t question the skilled talent and play in the trenches this year. HC nearly beat Boston College, and if it can knock off Army later this season, a Top 4 seed could happen at 10-1.
Furman has great team balance with a shot to go 10-1 and continually climb the rankings, setting itself up for a Top 4 seed argument. This is a solid team across the board that is built to win multiple playoff games. W&M returns a good chunk of its team from last year’s quarterfinal run, so we know the talent is there. The Tribe don’t play a challenging FCS schedule, and if it can beat a struggling Virginia team, an 11-0 W&M squad with a P5 win will get a strong seed to make a deep run. Its defense looks to have taken another step forward. And we know that side of the ball needs to be strong to win games in December.
UIW looks primed to finish 10-1 with an FBS loss. But a non-counter win could hurt its chance at a Top 4 seed. UIW is talented defensively, and its offense is now rolling. After making last year’s semifinals, it will probably have to win a road quarterfinal game again to make it back to the semis in December.
If there was a team to knock off one of the top three in December, it’d likely be Idaho or Holy Cross, possibly Furman. But HC’s overall depth that late in the season and Idaho’s fine-but-not-great offensive line prevents either from reaching the top tier.
Teams Good Enough To Reach The Quarterfinals
Sacramento State, Southern Illinois, Western Carolina
Sac State owns a P5 win and played Idaho down to the wire on the road. A deep playoff run has eluded the Hornets despite their consistent success over the last few seasons. And a tough remaining schedule could make it difficult in terms of seeding and positioning for a semifinal run.
SIU and WCU are two of the hottest teams right now, soaring up the rankings. They both appear strong enough to reach the quarterfinals, depending on second-round matchups. If WCU wins out, including beating Furman to probably determine the SoCon auto-bid, it can rise in these tiers. But if the Catamounts lose to Furman and finish 9-2 (9-1 vs. the FCS), past trends show they would probably get a 6-8 seed and have to go to one of the top three teams in the quarterfinals.
SIU is 3-0 with an FBS win, but with games against SDSU and NDSU still to come, you question how high of a seed SIU can get if it does finish 9-2. And as we know, seeding and matchups are big when it comes to how far a team can go.
Teams We Expect To Make The Playoffs And Probably Win 1 Game (Matchups-Pending)
North Dakota, Delaware, New Hampshire, Villanova, Eastern Washington
UND looks primed to finish 8-3 this year. And with a probable six-figure bid to host, you’d figure it will be awarded a home game after last year’s debacle of out-bidding Weber but still being sent on the road. EWU already has two ranked wins on its resume. A path to at least seven D1 victories looks promising. There is always the chance that EWU gets sent to a place like UND, though, making a first-round win more challenging.
Delaware, UNH, and Villanova are also looking good to start. They’ll have to navigate a competitive CAA to hit at least seven or eight D1 wins. The strong showings so far coupled with the CAA usually getting favorable draws in the first round have second-round appearances looking promising for these three.
Teams We Expect To Be In The Playoff Discussion Come Selection Sunday
Weber State, UT Martin, Youngstown State, Central Arkansas, UC Davis, SEMO, Rhode Island, Montana, Chattanooga, Mercer, Austin Peay, Fordham, Eastern Kentucky, UAlbany, Northern Iowa, Jackson State, Richmond, Abilene Christian
These are teams that will either earn their conference’s auto-bid in multi-bid leagues or will have a resume that will be looked at for at-large consideration. But as of right now, and as always matchups-pending, we don’t see them advancing past the first round if they do get in the bracket.