The FCS spring playoffs have arrived. The 16-team bracket will determine the best team playing this season.
Who are the top contenders to win the national title? Who are the long-shots?
Sam Herder ranks his favorites to win the championship out of the remaining teams in the field. This list will get knocked down from 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.
RELATED: Full Bracket Predictions
16. Holy Cross
The Patriot League champs get sent to No. 1 seed SDSU in the first round. Holy Cross lost 44-27 in the 2019 first round to Monmouth, who went on to lose 66-21 to James Madison in the second round.
15. Sacred Heart
The NEC champs feature a top running back in the FCS in Julius Chestnut. But Sacred Heart goes up against the No. 3 scoring defense in the opening round. Delaware is allowing just 11.6 points per game.
VMI is one of the best stories in the FCS this spring. But it’s going to run into a buzzsaw against an angry No. 3 seed James Madison. The Dukes are coming off of their most impressive performance of the season, a 23-6 win against No. 11 Richmond. They’ll want to send a message, and their defense will be flying around to slow down an explosive VMI passing offense.
Davidson’s option offense can give a defense trouble, especially if that team isn’t used to seeing that type of attack. However, defense has been the strength for No. 4 seed Jacksonville State. JSU is allowing just 81.0 rushing yards per game, which is No. 11 in the FCS.
Monmouth looked really good in its 42-17 win against Kennesaw State. Monmouth also hammered KSU in 2019 and didn’t fare well against a seeded team in the playoffs, losing 66-21 to James Madison. The Hawks are matched up with No. 2 seed Sam Houston. Expect a more competitive game compared to the JMU loss. But SHSU plays extremely well at home and has the run defense that will give Monmouth a tough time finding offensive success.
11. Southern Illinois
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the playoff field is SIU getting in and the MVFC having five total teams in the bracket. The next-biggest surprise was JSU getting a seed over a team like Weber State. So maybe it makes sense that the Salukis head to Weber State in the first round. This should be a great game and is an opportunity for SIU to show it belongs in the field. It’ll be the opposite kind of opponent for SIU compared to Southeastern Louisiana, who the Salukis beat 55-48 to secure a playoff bid. Weber is a veteran, black-and-blue program with deep playoff runs. The Wildcats rarely lose in their stadium, owning a 22-2 home record since 2017.
10. Missouri State
Missouri State goes to North Dakota in a battle between the MVFC co-champs. This is a great matchup and one we wanted to see this last weekend when Youngstown State opted out and UND and Mo State had open dates. Being on the road flips the outcome for the Bears. The Fighting Hawks are a different team at home, as shown by beating SDSU earlier this season. It’ll take their best performance of the season for the Bears to win in Grand Forks.
9. Eastern Washington
EWU is tasked with going to the Fargodome and taking on NDSU. This Bison team is mortal, though, losing two regular-season games for the first time since 2015. Eric Barriere is the type of mobile quarterback that gives NDSU’s defense trouble. This will be one of the better first-round games as these two teams have had classic bouts in the past — 2010 playoffs, 2016 regular season, 2018 national title game. This looks to be a 55/45 type of game favoring NDSU.
8. North Dakota
UND last played on March 20. Will there be rust? Probably not, honestly. SDSU looked great last weekend against NDSU after four weeks between games. JMU looked great in a March 27 win against William & Mary after three weeks off and against Richmond on April 17 after another few weeks off. The Fighting Hawks should come out on fire at home, where they haven’t lost since 2018. Playing fellow MVFC co-champ Mo State isn’t ideal, but UND is in a good spot to win its first-ever FCS playoff win. A quarterfinal game at JMU is a different story.
7. Jacksonville State (No. 4 seed)
JSU gets a good draw in the first round versus the Pioneer champ Davidson. The Gamecocks have the defense to shut down the opposing option rushing attack. The quarterfinal is where it gets tough. Delaware very well could be the best team out of the CAA and is 5-0. JSU is a “prove it” type of team and doesn’t have a great history living up to its seed. The defense has played great. But the offense is up-and-down, and Delaware owns one of the top defenses in the FCS. The Blue Hens will be the best team JSU has played this spring, and it’s hard to ignore a JSU loss to Austin Peay a few weeks ago.
6. Weber State
Weber State feels snubbed from a seed, costing the Wildcats two home playoff games. Now their path to Frisco is a daunting one. SIU will present a challenge in the first round. But the Wildcats will be favored to win at home. Then it’s a road trip to No. 1 seed SDSU. The Jacks look like the best team in the FCS, and Weber’s grind-it-out style of play will make a road win tough. This may be another playoff game where the defense only allows 17 points and the offense can’t get over 10 points.
5. Sam Houston (No. 2 seed)
This isn’t your SHSU team that got blown out in the playoffs in the mid-2010s. Yes, the Bearkats still have a high-flying offense. But they are also tougher on defense with the ability to stop the run. First, SHSU can’t overlook a talented Monmouth team in the opening round. It would be easy to do so with a potential home game against NDSU on the horizon. Although NDSU isn’t close to being the powerhouse it was in previous years, no one wants to see the Bison in the postseason. SHSU is another “prove it” team like JSU. The Bearkats need to show they are over the playoff hump before I pick them to be over the hump.
4. North Dakota State
NDSU could be right back in Frisco in a few weeks. The Bison could also lose in the first round versus EWU. Who knows, which makes this postseason the most intriguing in years. It’s tough to bet against a team that always plays its best in the playoffs, winning eight of the last nine titles. But the Bison have looked championship-worthy in only 1.5 games this season — against UND and the first half against Missouri State. For an unseeded team, they probably like their corner pod. NDSU doesn’t have to go to JMU or SDSU for a quarterfinal game. As mentioned above, SHSU isn’t the team of old, but it still is a favorable matchup for the Bison to win and reach the semifinals. Then again, Eric Barriere and the EWU offense present the type of challenge that could end NDSU’s season in the first round.
Delaware received a great draw for an unseeded team. The CAA’s AQ plays Sacred Heart in the first round and then would head to No. 4 seed JSU in the quarterfinals. The Blue Hens should be favored to win that game at JSU. JMU may have gotten the seed, but you can make the argument that Delaware has looked like the best team in the CAA. The Blue Hens have the defense and the offensive balance to make a serious run. Getting back-to-back road wins — at JSU and at SDSU — will make for a tough time reaching Frisco, though.
2. James Madison (No. 3 seed)
JMU looked motivated in its last two decisive wins. Now it has even more bulletin board material with getting the No. 3 seed, although an objective look at the resumes will make you realize it is logical why they didn’t get a top-two seed. While being on the loaded side of the bracket, JMU’s corner pod isn’t too bad. JMU should first take care of VMI. UND likely will go to Harrisonburg for the quarterfinals, and the Fighting Hawks do not play well on the road. And then there is a chance JMU hosts a semifinal game if EWU or NDSU knock off No. 2 seed SHSU. Even if SHSU wins in the quarterfinals, JMU will like its chances on the road and make a return trip to Frisco.
1. South Dakota State (No. 1 seed)
The road to Frisco is paved nicely for the Jackrabbits, unlike I-29 in the winter. They should hammer Holy Cross in the first round. Weber State is a formidable opponent in the quarterfinals, but its offense won’t threaten SDSU much. And then in the semis, the Jacks will either host JSU in a favorable matchup or face a Delaware team on its second-straight road trip. The time is now for this program. SDSU is the most complete team in the FCS. This is its best chance to win a national title after having a few championship-quality teams in the past. If the Jacks play clean football and execute at a high level, they are the best team in the FCS.