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.
RELATED: Full Bracket Predictions
8. Southern Illinois
What a story for the Salukis this season. From thinking its playoff chances were screwed with a 4-3 record and its last two opponents opting out, to winning a late-scheduled non-conference game the day before Selection Sunday, to being the last team selected into the bracket, to beating a Weber State team many of us thought should’ve been seeded. It’s been quite the ride.
SIU will face its doubts again as it goes back on the road to take on the top team in the country, South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits beat SIU 44-3 in Illinois in late March. While these playoff rematches from blowout regular-season games usually result in more competitive contests, it’s still going to be a tough task for the Salukis to pull off the upset. Every quarterfinal game is going to be close. This one just seems like the least likely to result in a seed losing.
7. North Dakota
UND looked like the team receiving No. 1 votes earlier this season with its first-round 44-10 demolition of Missouri State. Now the Fighting Hawks travel to the team that has been slotted No. 1 most of this spring, James Madison. The Hawks and their fans will hear about their road woes ad nauseam this week. But it is a factor. Beating the Dukes in Bridgeforth Stadium will take their best performance of the season. The question is can the Fighting Hawks play their best ball away from the Alerus Center?
6. Sam Houston (No. 2 seed)
Monmouth is a good team, so the close first-round game wasn’t a surprise. Still, the Hawks nearly pulling off the upset doesn’t inspire confidence in SHSU being able to beat North Dakota State, even if the Bearkats are now 14-0 all-time in FCS playoff games at Bowers Stadium. If they do win, the path to Frisco gets tougher with a JMU squad likely coming to town in the semis. As I said last week, SHSU is a “prove it” team. Until the Bearkats beat an FCS power in the playoffs, it’s hard to predict the Bearkats to do so.
5. Jacksonville State (No. 4 seed)
Just for JSU to make a return trip to Frisco, it will have to beat Delaware, a top CAA team, before making a likely road trip to the No. 1 seed SDSU. The Gamecocks had one of the more convincing wins in the first round, beating Davidson 49-14. Delaware was the opposite, finding itself in a battle against Sacred Heart, winning 19-10. So this is more of a 50/50 game than I anticipated a week ago.
JSU is another “prove it” team. The Gamecocks were the No. 3 seed in 2014 and lost right away, the No. 1 seed in 2015 and made it to Frisco, the No. 3 seed in 2016 and lost right away, and the No. 3 seed in 2017 and lost right away. They have only won multiple playoff games in a year twice, in 2013 and 2015. Can you judge a present-day team based on past seasons? No. But you can judge a program. JSU needs to prove it’s over that hump.
The Blue Hens will have to play better than they did against Sacred Heart to get a road win at JSU. But I still view this squad as the team that went 4-0 in a tough CAA North division rather than a team that was nearly upset in the first round. A trip to Frisco most likely requires two victories on the road. Delaware is a popular pick to beat JSU this weekend. Then it would be on to the No. 1 seed SDSU if the Jacks beat SIU. If the Blue Hens play to their abilities Sunday, they should feel confident about reaching the semifinals.
3. North Dakota State
The Bison rushed for 422 yards and scored 35 straight points in a 42-20 first-round win against Eastern Washington. SHSU presents a tougher challenge, but we’ll see how well the improved Bearkats defense stacks up for all four quarters. NDSU should be feeling good as it heads to Texas this weekend after a much-needed jolt offensively and defensively in the second half versus EWU.
This is their first road playoff game (not counting Frisco) since 2010. Expect the Bison to reach the semifinals, where it would likely be a second-straight road trip to JMU. The Dukes are as good at stopping the run as SIU or SDSU, the two teams to beat NDSU this year. If the Bison can’t run the ball, they are in trouble.
2. James Madison (No. 3 seed)
VMI made it interesting last week, but it never felt like JMU lost control of the game despite the 31-24 score. The Dukes led 21-3 at halftime and 31-17 with two minutes left in the fourth. They will get challenged by a UND squad that looked terrific in the first round after several weeks off. There’s a reason UND received first-place votes earlier this spring. JMU has the defense to contain the Fighting Hawks and their rushing attack, though.
And then in the semis, it would be a trip to SHSU or a home game against NDSU. Getting the Bison at home would be a great game. If they had to go on the road, JMU should like its matchup against SHSU to book a return trip to Texas.
1. South Dakota State (No. 1 seed)
SDSU gets a home game this weekend against an SIU team it beat 44-3 on the road a month ago. With a win, it would be another home game against either Delaware on its second-straight road trip or JSU. It’s a favorable path to Frisco, but by no means is it a cakewalk. First off, the Salukis have all sorts of momentum. And, as they say, beating a team twice isn’t easy.
It should be a more competitive game, like when EWU beat UC Davis 59-20 late in the 2018 regular season, then edged the Aggies 34-29 a few weeks later in the quarterfinals. The Jackrabbits don’t seem to be the type of team to overlook SIU, though. Everything has been clicking. And if things continue to click, SDSU is the best team in the country.