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 eight 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.
ETSU’s historical season continues after last week’s wild win against Kennesaw State. The Bucs are a talented team with standout players at multiple positions, but they are the biggest underdogs in the quarterfinals going to No. 2 seed NDSU. Stopping the run and establishing the run is what ETSU wants to do. No one does that better in the FCS right now than NDSU.
ETSU did own P5 Vanderbilt in the trenches, so this won’t be a pushover for the Bison. But ETSU beating NDSU would be one of the bigger upsets in recent FCS playoffs memory.
7. Montana State (#8 seed)
Montana State’s path to Frisco can reasonably be drawn out. No. 1 SHSU nearly lost to UIW in the second round, making some question if the defending champs can get back to the title game. If the Bobcats beat the Bearkats, there’s a chance they could host in the semifinals against an unseeded SDSU team running on fumes if the Jacks beat No. 5 Villanova.
But then again, SHSU matches up much better against MSU than against UIW. The Bearkats are good against the run, something the Bobcats want to do even more now with new starting QB Tommy Mellott.
6. Montana (#6 seed)
Montana has a tough road to winning a national title. It starts with a trip to JMU, one of the hottest teams in the FCS right now. If the Griz pull off a win, then it would be a game in the Fargodome against NDSU. The odds are stacked against a Frisco appearance for Montana, even though it is built to win games in December. Offensively, the team is getting better every week. The defense, despite giving up 41 points to EWU, is dangerous against any team not prepared for its heavy-blitzing scheme.
Montana is gettable through the air, though, and JMU arguably has just as good of a passing attack as EWU. To handicap it, the Griz have a 45 percent chance to win at JMU. But the percentage chance of beating JMU and NDSU on the road in back-to-back weeks is much lower.
5. Villanova (#5 seed)
When QB Daniel Smith and RB Justin Covington and Co. get rolling, Villanova is a super dangerous team to go along with a stout defense that is physical against the run. But the offense has been inconsistent and struggled against Holy Cross. Unseeded SDSU comes in with an even stronger defense than Holy Cross’ and a more dynamic offense. I had Nova at No. 4 last week and SDSU No. 5, but I switched them around after the second-round games. The Jacks will be favored on Saturday, although both teams have some Jekyll and Hyde to them, so this is one of the tougher quarterfinal matchups to predict.
If Nova did get a win, the Wildcats would either host No. 8 Montana State or go to No. 1 Sam Houston, which could be a more favorable game than playing SDSU. If the Wildcats put everything together, a national title game appearance isn’t out of the question. We just haven’t seen that since the Oct. 9 win at JMU.
It’s hard to trust SDSU. The Jacks have looked like the best team in the FCS at different points this season. Like in the first half at No. 4 seed Sac State. Or in the first three quarters against NDSU. Or in the first 1.5 quarters against SIU. But in each of those games, they allowed their opponent to climb back into it, resulting in a loss to SIU and one-score wins against NDSU and Sac State.
On a neutral field after a bye week, I’d take SDSU over anybody in the FCS. But there are other dynamics to consider in the playoffs. The “road fatigue” angle has been pounded, but it’s valid. At some point after traveling all over the country in the postseason, plus the number of games this calendar year mounting up, you have to wonder if SDSU just won’t have “it” one week. I don’t know if that happens this week. But I can see it in the semifinals.
3. JMU (#3 seed)
The Dukes look loaded in their final run at an FCS title. Their defense shut down a high-scoring SLU offense, and Cole Johnson is playing like a top-tier quarterback. The younger o-line will have a challenge this week facing a Montana defense built to confuse you and throw you off schedule. Montana does give up chunk yardage through the air, so you have to like JMU’s ability to score. The Dukes will be the best FCS defense Montana has faced.
JMU is a slight favorite to beat Montana, meaning an electric semifinal game at NDSU could be in store. That would be another competitive contest, and beating the Bison in Fargo in the semis is something JMU has done before. A more one-dimensional offense and a young offensive line against a loud crowd and disruptive d-line could make it tough for the passing attack to find a rhythm versus NDSU. The Dukes are one of the top favorites to win a national title, but two tough games in a row to reach Frisco has them as the third most likely to win it all.
2. Sam Houston (#1 seed)
The UIW-SHSU second-round game played out how I expected it to for the first three quarters. I did think SHSU would be able to get a key fourth-quarter stop and score to win by two possessions. But UIW’s electric offense had a chance at the end to tie it up or go for the win before falling short at the goal line and losing 49-42.
Contrary to some opinions, this result doesn’t make me lose confidence in SHSU’s ability to return to the title game.
The Bearkats have a more favorable matchup in the quarterfinals against run-heavy Montana State. With a win, the semifinals would be another home game against an SDSU team on its third-straight long road trip or against No. 5 Villanova, who is inexperienced on this stage. The toughest matchup of the seven remaining teams for SHSU is JMU and its passing attack. And the Dukes are on the other side of the bracket. SHSU matches up better against NDSU than JMU in Frisco, but it would be hard to pick against the Bison in that stadium.
1. NDSU (#2 seed)
NDSU has been a machine in its last three games since losing at SDSU. The rushing attack has found its dominant form, QB Cam Miller is operating efficiently, and the defense has been one of the best in the subdivision all season. They have the most favorable quarterfinal game against ETSU. The looming semifinal game against JMU or Montana would be a helluva game, but NDSU has the Fargodome to its advantage and would be the favorite to win. And once in Frisco, picking against NDSU has a zero percent success rate.
That’s not to say the Bison are riding high all the way to yet another championship, though. While playing like the top team in the FCS recently, they haven’t done it against elite teams. Is the offensive line that much better than the one we saw have a meh performance against SDSU? Are the younger cornerbacks ready to defend elite WRs from JMU or SHSU? Is Miller good enough in big games when NDSU won’t be able to run the ball for 200 yards in one half? NDSU may be without two of its best targets as All-American tight end Noah Gindorff is having surgery on a lower-leg injury and All-American wide receiver Christian Watson is week-to-week with a hamstring injury. The Bison are the favorite to win it all, but they aren’t exactly clear of any big question marks to answer down the stretch.
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.