The 2021 FCS playoffs have arrived, back to 24 teams and eight seeds after a reduced spring bracket.
Who are the top contenders to win the national title? Who are the long-shots?
Every week, I will rank my favorites to win the championship out of the remaining teams in the field. This list will get knocked down from 24 to 16 to eight to four, and then it’s national title time.
NOTE: This is NOT a ranking of the 16 best teams in the playoffs. The postseason is all about matchups. Just because a team is listed higher than another team doesn’t mean they are better, it just means they have a better opportunity to advance further.
Holy Cross needed a 35-yard touchdown pass from Matthew Sluka to Jalen Coker with 14 seconds left to beat Sacred Heart 13-10. It will take another gutsy defensive effort and much more offensive success to knock off No. 5 seed Villanova, which would be the biggest upset of the second round.
15. UT Martin
UT Martin is having a historic season, winning its first FCS playoff game last week at Missouri State in a game where a majority of predictors had Mo State winning. The Skyhawks now head to No. 8 seed Montana State, a more physical team than Missouri State and home to a tougher environment. Once again, the predictions will be heavily against UT Martin.
14. Southern Illinois
SIU plays MVFC foe and No. 2 seed NDSU for the first time since beating the Bison 38-14 in Carbondale during the spring season. The names are similar for the most part on both two-deep depth charts. But SIU has cooled off in the second half of this fall season, and the Bison look like an entirely different team than the one that took the field on Feb. 27. The Salukis were in the national title discussion back in September and early October. Now, the odds are stacked against them just to make the quarterfinals.
13. Southeastern Louisiana University
SLU’s elite passing attack could give No. 3 seed JMU trouble, a team whose secondary has been picked on at different points this season. The Dukes bring physicality that is on a different level compared to FAMU, though, and have quite an explosive passing game as well. Winning at Bridgeforth Stadium is a tall task, and an upset would likely mean a trip to another tough environment at Montana. That’s back-to-back tough road trips just to be one game away from reaching Frisco. The probability of the Lions playing in the championship is not high.
Like SLU, UIW will have to be road warriors for any hope of a national title game appearance. It starts with No. 1 seed SHSU this weekend, a team that hasn’t been tested much this season and could be looking ahead in the bracket. UIW has a better shot of beating SHSU than SLU has beating JMU, but the odds are still low for the Cardinals to advance to the quarterfinals. Their offense is legit, though, which will give any team a scare.
11. Sac State (#4 seed)
For being the No. 4 seed, not many have faith in Sac State winning a game in the playoffs. The Hornets host an SDSU team that just beat UC Davis 56-24, a team Sac State beat in the regular-season finale 27-7. Comparing scores is a dangerous game, but if the Jacks play like they did in the first round, Sac State is in trouble. If the Hornets do win, they would host again in the quarterfinals in a slightly more favorable game vs. No. 5 seed Villanova. So a trip to the semis isn’t out of the question, this weekend just presents a massive hurdle.
EWU going to No. 6 seed Montana will be the most intense game in the second round. It’s a regular-season rematch from when EWU beat the Griz on ESPN2 in Cheney. Now, the Eagles have to do it on a shorter week, under the lights on Friday, and in Montana’s house. An EWU win won’t surprise many outside of Montana’s fan base, but the Eagles are still underdogs. A win means a trip across the country to JMU, and a win there likely means a trip to NDSU in the semifinals. EWU was considered a top-tier title contender after beating Montana. But a couple of losses afterward resulted in the Eagles not being seeded, creating quite a gauntlet of games to make the championship.
9. Kennesaw State
Kennesaw has a better chance to beat ETSU than EWU does beating Montana, so the Owls are one spot higher. KSU-ETSU is a 50/50 game between two teams with strong defenses and good rushing attacks. ETSU has seen the option offense plenty of times in the SoCon, and it is more balanced offensively. Kennesaw will be slight underdogs in this one. A win means a tough draw in the quarterfinals at NDSU. The Owls continue to build into a consistent playoff team and now look to take that next step in the bracket. However, this current bracket setup isn’t favorable to make a deep run.
8. ETSU (#7 seed)
ETSU has the defensive strength and offensive balance to beat Kennesaw this weekend, but it’s going to be the closest battle in the second round. With a win, the Bucs would have to knock off NDSU in the Fargodome to advance to the semifinals, which the odds would be stacked against them to do so. It’d be great to see a SoCon team in the championship game at some point soon. ETSU doing it this year would require upsets at NDSU and either JMU or Montana.
7. Montana (#6 seed)
Montana’s path to a national title is daunting. There’s the interesting dynamic of the Griz beating rival Montana State to end the regular season, and then getting the No. 6 seed on the loaded side of the bracket while MSU got the No. 8 seed on the more favorable side. Montana will have to beat EWU in a regular-season rematch, go to JMU, and then likely go to NDSU to reach the title game. The Griz have the defense to play with anyone in the country, and their offense is picking up steam, but those are three-straight potential heavyweight bouts.
6. Montana State (#8 seed)
After a bye week to recover emotionally and physically from a loss at Montana, the Bobcats get UT Martin in the second round, a more favorable matchup for the Bobcats than the passing attack of Missouri State, who lost at home to UT Martin. MSU would then likely go to No. 1 seed SHSU, who has been untested this season. And then there’s a chance, if MSU beats SHSU next week, that the Bobcats could host in the semifinals if unseeded SDSU goes on a run like many are projecting. There is a path to Frisco one can reasonably draw out as MSU is on the more favorable side of the bracket. But that doesn’t mean the path is a smooth one. MSU would have to play its best game of the season to beat SHSU next week, a team that is strong against the run and is fantastic at home.
The way the Jacks handled UC Davis 56-24 in the first round would suggest they are heavy favorites to win on the road at No. 4 seed Sac State. That’s no guarantee win, especially for a team struggling with consistency. If they do win, the Jackrabbits would then likely head to the other side of the country to play No. 5 seed Villanova. On a neutral site after a bye week, SDSU would be favored to win that game. But there are countless examples of teams running out of steam on the road in December. When would that happen for SDSU, if it did? In the quarterfinals? Semifinals? The Jacks making it back to Frisco is possible. They have the fourth-best odds to win the national title. It would likely require winning in California, then Pennsylvania, then Texas to advance to the title game.
4. Villanova (#5 seed)
Villanova got a favorable draw in the second round, hosting Holy Cross. You can go either way with who the Wildcats would rather face in the quarterfinals. Either hosting an SDSU team that looks like a legit national title contender and who may be running on fumes or going to No. 4 seed Sac State. You probably prefer the home game, but SDSU is a dangerous team. Either way, Nova has a decent path to the semifinals and is built to win a couple of games in the playoffs with a strong defense and playmakers in the running and passing game.
3. JMU (#3 seed)
The Dukes will definitely earn it if they reach the title game. SLU is no slouch this weekend. Hosting EWU or Montana next week is going to be tough. And then a semifinal game likely at NDSU could be the game of the year. Whoever wins that potential matchup in the semis will probably be slight favorites in Frisco against whoever makes it from the other side of the bracket, which odds say is going to be SHSU. With the game being at the Fargodome and JMU lacking some balance offensively with RB injuries and a younger o-line, JMU would be underdogs at NDSU. Standout QB play and a good defense can take you a long way, though, and the Dukes have exactly that.
2. Sam Houston (#1 seed)
It isn’t a cakewalk to Frisco for the defending champs. UIW will stress SHSU’s defense. Montana State will be the most physical opponent of the season. And a semifinal game against either SDSU/Sac State/Villanova isn’t going to be an easy win. The path isn’t smooth, but it is favorable for an SHSU team built to win playoff games and with home-field advantage. The Bearkats are good up front on defense with depth and can hold up physically. The LBs are solid and fast. Zyon McCollum is a pro prospect at cornerback. Offensively, the o-line is playing even better than it did in the spring. Ramon Jefferson is a very underrated RB nationally. The group of WRs is as talented as it gets in the FCS led by all-star Jequez Ezzard. And is there an FCS QB you would objectively trust more in the fourth quarter to win you a game than Eric Schmid? SHSU can easily move to the No. 1 spot later on in the playoffs depending on how NDSU looks.
1. NDSU (#2 seed)
Not only did NDSU look like a championship-level team in its demolition of ranked USD to end the regular season, but the oddsmakers also favor the Bison to win it all by a decent margin. The Bison have been strong defensively all year, Cam Miller is getting better each game after taking over as the starting QB, and the rushing attack has found its groove with the o-line gelling and transfer TaMerik Williams settling into a more featured role. This isn’t like past seasons where NDSU is the clear favorite, though. While the Bison have looked more like title contenders in their last two games after losing to SDSU, we still don’t know how good NDSU is. More specifically, how good the d-line is against strong offensive lines, or if the offense is good enough against tough defenses, or if Miller can get it done in big games. Beating up on YSU and USD doesn’t necessarily tell us the Bison can beat JMU, SHSU, or SDSU again. But they are a more complete team now than in September and October. With home-field advantage, the Bison will be favored in every game. And once in Frisco, it’s hard to pick against this program.
Sam’s coverage of the FCS began in 2012 as the sports editor and eventual editor-in-chief of NDSU’s The Spectrum. After graduating in 2015, he spent three years in the newspaper and magazine industry while starting his work for HERO Sports in the fall of 2016 as a freelancer. In May 2018, he joined the website full time as the Senior FCS Analyst.