The 2023 FCS playoffs are here.
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.
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The order of teams does take bracket positioning and matchups into consideration when analyzing how far a team can advance. It isn’t an exact ranking of the best teams 1-24.
Drake earned the Pioneer Football League’s auto-bid into the FCS playoffs for the first time. Its reward? A trip to NDSU and the Fargodome in what will likely be the most lopsided result in the first round.
Duquesne won the NEC and heads to Youngstown State in the opening round. It’s a familiar matchup, as YSU beat Duquesne 31-14 last year, and the two meet up against next fall.
Lafayette reaches the bracket out of the Patriot League. Patriot teams have won first-round games in recent memory, but Saturday isn’t the best matchup to do so at Delaware, a team ranked in the Top 10 last week.
Nicholls is a run-first team out of the Southland Conference. But it runs into a Southern Illinois team that is among the best in the FCS in rushing defense. A tough road trip for the Colonels.
Gardner-Webb at Mercer will be one of the more competitive first-round games. Mercer at home gives the Bears a slight edge. But many picked Eastern Kentucky to beat Gardner-Webb in last year’s opening round, and the Runnin’ Bulldogs said, “Not so fast.”
As stated above, Mercer hosting Gardner-Webb should be one of the more fun first-round matchups. Mercer is at home and is enjoying a four-game winning streak heading into its first FCS playoff berth. A potential first-ever postseason win would be rewarded with a trip to juggernaut SDSU, the least favorable second-round draw.
Delaware has a favorable first-round home game vs. Lafayette. But a second-round road trip to No. 2 seed Montana looms. The Blue Hens may run into a buzzsaw there, especially after an underwhelming November.
Richmond enters the postseason at 8-3 and on a six-game winning streak. The Spiders get a home game, but they welcome an NC Central squad that was ranked in the Top 10 a couple of weeks ago.
16. NC Central
NC Central was the favorite to repeat as Celebration Bowl champs. But after losing to Howard a couple of weeks ago, the Eagles were knocked out of the CB picture and into the FCS playoff picture. While not the preferred postseason route, they now look to answer the popular social media question of how the best MEAC/SWAC teams would compete in the FCS playoffs. NC Central has already defeated three CAA teams this year: NC A&T, Campbell, and then-No. 25 Elon. The Eagles head to Richmond looking for its fourth CAA win. But a matchup at No. 5 seed UAlbany in the second round isn’t as favorable.
15. Southern Illinois
SIU’s run defense looks to hold down Nicholls’ rushing attack in the first round. The Salukis will be favored at home. Heading to No. 4 seed Idaho next week is a tough draw, though.
Now we’re getting to a point in this ranking where teams’ exits from the bracket have a larger window.
Starting with Chattanooga. The Mocs go to Austin Peay this weekend, a team that was in the hunt for a playoff seed. The winner then heads to No. 7 seed Furman, who Chattanooga played in November and only lost 17-14. The Mocs’ season could very well end this weekend. It could also very well advance to the quarterfinals.
13. Youngstown State
YSU gets a favorable first-round home matchup vs. Duquesne. With a win, the Penguins would go to No. 8 seed Villanova. That could be an intriguing game, although Nova has ended the regular season hot and will likely be favored by a score.
12. Sacramento State
Sac State at UND is one of the more intriguing first-round matchups. The winner goes to No. 3 seed South Dakota. Sac State has the talent, and it could go on a decent run if things click. But going to UND is not an easy place to get a win.
11. North Dakota
UND getting the home bid is key this year, hosting a Sac State squad that hasn’t dealt with adversity well. A good crowd will be a factor. UND’s playoff exit has a wide window, though. The Fighting Hawks hit their peak midseason and haven’t gotten back to that point yet. A loss to Sac State would not be a shocker. But UND could also beat the Hornets and then go to No. 3 seed South Dakota and be confident in getting a win, a place the Fighting Hawks lost 14-10 just a couple of weeks ago.
10. Austin Peay
Austin Peay felt it should have been a Top 8 seed. It didn’t happen, and they likely would have been the No. 9 or 10 seed if the bracket seeded teams 9-16 (a good chance this happens next fall). But the Govs can’t be too upset about their draw. They get to host Chattanooga, one of the last teams to make the field. If they win, they then travel to No. 7 seed Furman, who limped its way into a seed after losing to Wofford. Austin Peay could make a nice run here.
9. Furman (No. 7 seed)
Furman gets the winner of Chattanooga (who it beat 17-14 in November) and Austin Peay (a seedable team). The Paladins are coming off of a puzzling loss to Wofford, which dropped them from the No. 2/3 seed to No. 7. Furman’s outlook on its postseason success depends on the health of QB Tyler Huff and RB Dominic Roberto, two leaders on the offense who did not play vs. Wofford.
8. Villanova (No. 8 seed)
Did anyone really want the No. 8 seed?
Nova will certainly take the bye. And it should like its matchup against likely YSU in the second round. A trip to the quarterfinals is promising, but waiting there will be No. 1 SDSU, the heavy favorite to repeat as national champs.
7. UAlbany (No. 5 seed)
UAlbany is built well for playoff success. Great quarterback play and a legit front seven. The Great Danes get the winner of NC Central at Richmond. No gimme, but a matchup that would favor UAlbany. A potential quarterfinal trip to No. 4 seed Idaho is juicy, featuring a battle between two of the best young QBs in the FCS Reese Poffenbarger vs. Gevani McCoy, plus UAlbany’s terrific d-line going up against an average Idaho o-line. The Kibbie Dome may be the difference there.
6. South Dakota (No. 3 seed)
USD is the No. 3 seed, yet many seem to doubt its ability to reach the semifinals. That’s because its side of the bracket is loaded. And the Coyotes are in the toughest corner of the bracket. They face the winner of Sac State-UND, two tough outs. And if they win there, a home quarterfinal looms against either No. 6 seed Montana State (once the No. 2 team) or NDSU (one of the hottest teams right now).
5. North Dakota State
The Bison’s window of possible exits in this year’s bracket is large. It could very likely close next weekend at Montana State in front of a rowdy crowd and at a stadium where MSU hasn’t lost since 2019. It could also very likely stay open until the semifinals. The Bison may continue their hot play and beat an MSU squad losing momentum. They could then beat a familiar South Dakota team on the road in the quarterfinals (or potentially host UND or Sac State). And then they’d take their shot one more time in Montana in the semifinals against the No. 2-seeded Grizzlies. It’s not the best draw to make a run to the semifinals, which keeps NDSU just outside of the Top 4. But then again, one could reasonably pencil out the Bison’s path to the round of 4.
4. Montana State (No. 6 seed)
MSU has a week off to heal its wounds physically and mentally after getting whipped by rival Montana. It also gives the Bobcats time to figure things out internally. At one point this season, the Bobcats looked to be on a collision course with SDSU in Frisco. But after two losses and a concerning effort last weekend, their season can go many ways. It can end right away in the second round as the red-hot Bison come to town. Or MSU can wake up and rally after a humbling loss at Montana, similar to 2021, and make a run. NDSU is the most beatable version of the Bison in years, and then a quarterfinal matchup at No. 3 seed USD or at home vs. UND/Sac State isn’t a terrible draw. A week off, a home crowd next weekend, and a talented roster with a ton of playoff experience gives us a glass-half-full approach on where MSU goes from here.
3. Idaho (No. 4 seed)
The ups and downs of a football season were felt by Idaho this fall. The Vandals were the hottest team in the FCS at one point. Then a home loss to Montana took some shine away. They answered by beating No. 2 Montana State, putting themselves back in position for a potential No. 2 playoff seed. But a loss at unranked Weber State put Idaho in jeopardy of not even getting a seed. Idaho then walloped Idaho State, got some other Week 12 results to go its way, and was rewarded with a No. 4 seed on Selection Sunday. The Vandals will be challenged in potential matchups vs. SIU and No. 5 seed UAlbany (whose d-line will be a problem), but they should like their path to the semifinals. Jason Eck returning to Brookings to face SDSU sure would be fun.
2. Montana (No. 2 seed)
No one’s analysis of Montana in September aged well. Although one could argue the analysis of the Grizzlies not being very good in the opening month was a correct viewpoint, which means the kudos just continue to increase as Montana has gotten better every week. A marvelous coaching job and a locker room taking ownership over how the year will finish. Whether it’s the QB play going from bad to serviceable to terrific, the o-line getting better, the playmakers stepping up, or the defense upping its play and generating more pressure, the Griz have gone through a sensational in-season transformation. And now they get home-field advantage until Frisco? Good luck, visiting teams. This squad looks built to meet up with SDSU in the natty.
1. South Dakota State (No. 1 seed)
The Jackrabbits are 11-0 heading into the playoffs. They didn’t just beat seven ranked teams in the regular season, they beat five of them by at least three scores. Safe to say the defending champs are loaded to repeat. It also helps to be on the “easier” side of the bracket. SDSU has the NFL talent, the senior experience, the depth, the physicality, the defense, the o-line, the QB play, the best FCS RB, the home-field advantage … you name it … to win another national title. Idaho could present a challenge in the semis. And a potential championship bout vs. Montana is no easy task. So it’s not a cakewalk, but SDSU looks to be on a mission to celebrate on the Frisco stage again.