There is some great individual talent in this game. The Sacred Heart RB duo of Malik Grant (1,288 yards and nine TDs) and preseason All-American Julius Chestnut (who missed time due to injury but has 487 rushing yards in four games) is elite. And Holy Cross has one of the better linebackers in the FCS in Jacob Dobbs (112 tackles, 15 TFLs, and eight sacks).
Depth is a concern for the Patriot League and NEC champs in the postseason. But the Patriot League has made the quarterfinals before with Colgate. If there is a team this year from a one-bid league that can make a run, it’s Holy Cross. The Crusaders are 9-2 with an FBS win and a dominating victory against the second-place team in the Big South, Monmouth. They ran through the Patriot League unchallenged this season, so No. 5 seed Villanova should be on alert after they roll Sacred Heart in the first round.
Prediction: Holy Cross 38-21
Davidson at Kennesaw State
The top two rushing offenses statistically in the FCS square off. Davidson is averaging 348.4 rushing yards per game and Kennesaw is averaging 275.5. The option attacks should result in a quickly-played game.
KSU feels it should have been a seed with its undefeated record against the FCS. The Owls can prove that next week at No. 7 ETSU, but they first have to take care of non-scholarship Davidson. They shouldn’t have any issues doing that as long as they play clean football.
Prediction: Kennesaw State 38-14
Stephen F. Austin at UIW
The former Southland Conference mates are both hot heading into the postseason. UIW is on a four-game winning streak. SFA is on a five-game winning streak.
Cameron Ward is lighting it up for UIW, throwing for 3,839 yards, 38 TDs, and 10 interceptions. Kevin Brown offers some balance, rushing for 848 yards and 12 TDs. SFA’s Trae Self has been solid and probably overshadowed by other QBs putting up monster numbers. He has thrown for 2,958 yards, 25 TDs, and seven interceptions. He has one of the best WRs in the FCS in Xavier Gipson (68 catches for 1,266 yards and 14 TDs).
Both football programs are on the rise and look to be routine playoff contenders. And both can put up points. SFA has been more consistent defensively, though, ranking No. 14 with 17.9 points allowed per game. The Lumberjacks will get a fourth-quarter stop when it matters most in an entertaining game.
Prediction: SFA 38-35
UC Davis at South Dakota State
UC Davis enters the playoffs on a two-game losing streak, losing 38-20 to EWU and 27-7 to Sac State. The Aggies have played solid defense all season, but their offense is lacking consistency that hasn’t been helped by QB injuries.
SDSU is the most dangerous unseeded team. And if not for a Hail Mary loss at South Dakota on Nov. 13, the Jackrabbits are a seed. Now healthy again, this is the same-look team that made it to Frisco in the spring, minus freshman All-American QB Mark Gronowski due to injury and instead having transfer Chris Oladokun, who has been solid with 2,450 yards passing, 20 TDs, and five interceptions.
The Jacks will have to be road warriors for a return to the championship game, but they first will get a chance at a final home game (unless upsets happen on their side of the bracket). Win or go home should be enough motivation for an SDSU squad that has looked tired the last two weeks. The Jacks pull away for a two-score win.
Prediction: SDSU 24-10
Northern Iowa at Eastern Washington
This is one of the better games in the first round. UNI’s defense is nasty with dudes on all three levels. It will probably be the best defense EWU’s high-scoring offense has seen all year. The Eagles’ two losses came against tough defenses (Weber State and Montana State). Those are Top 10 passing defenses, though, where UNI is 48th defending the pass (212.4 YPG).
Running the ball on this defense won’t be easy, although Eric Barriere and Co. are most lethal passing the ball. Voting for the Walter Payton Award has ended, but if Barriere wants to leave his legacy as one of the best QBs in subdivision history, the playoffs are where he can leave his mark.
UNI’s offense has cooled off in the back half of the season unless scoring 41 against a struggling WIU defense has gotten it back on track. But I don’t see the Panthers scoring enough points to get a win, even if they can keep EWU under 30 points for just the second time this season.
Prediction: EWU 28-17
UT Martin at Missouri State
UT Martin went 11 weeks of the regular season without losing to an FCS opponent. But its strength of schedule was 57th. Mo State, meanwhile, had the No. 4 SOS.
The Bears had an argument to be a seed. They instead are playing in the first round, yet should be happy with their draw. Mo State shouldn’t have an issue against the Skyhawks, who lost in Week 12 at SEMO (31-14). UT Martin is No. 60 defending the pass (220.0 YPG) while Missouri State has the No. 15 passing offense (283.6 YPG). QB Jason Shelley (the MVFC Offensive Player of the Year) and WRs Tyrone Scott (6-foot-3) and Xavier Lane (6-foot-4) are problems for defenses.
Prediction: Mo State 41-17
Southern Illinois at South Dakota
After beating rival SDSU on a Hail Mary that solidified its spot in the bracket, the Coyotes looked out of gas in a 52-24 loss at NDSU last week. SIU knows how that feels, as the Salukis went from one of the hottest teams in the FCS in the first 1.5 months of the season to losing three of their last four games. A 35-18 home loss to YSU last weekend is a head-scratcher, and SIU was one of the last two teams to make the postseason.
There is still something about the Salukis that gives me confidence, though. Maybe it’s because they got hot in the spring playoffs and were a factor. And those same names are still around. That playoff experience and veteran roster will help pull out a close win.
Prediction: SIU 28-27
Florida A&M at SLU
SLU’s offense hasn’t faced a defense quite like FAMU’s. And FAMU’s defense hasn’t faced an offense quite like SLU’s.
The Lions own the No. 2 FCS passing offense (413.7 YPG) and the No. 1 scoring offense (48.0 PPG) behind the huge right arm of Cole Kelley, the reigning Walter Payton Award winner, and a finalist again this season. FAMU has the No. 8 scoring defense (15.1 PPG) and the No. 4 total defense (257.5 YPG). The Rattlers have two finalists for the Buck Buchanan Award — pro prospect safety Markquese Bell and LB Isaiah Land, who has 25.5 TFLs and 19 sacks. Their defense is No. 8 defending the pass, allowing 168.9 YPG.
FAMU hangs its hat on its defense, but the offense has improved as the season’s progressed. This is a balanced team. Teams like SLU that are all offense, don’t emphasize defense, and are fine winning regular-season games 45-42 typically hit a wall in the playoffs. We’ll see if FAMU, whose strength of schedule is 110th, is as good as its record. But defense wins in the postseason, and the Rattlers prove it Saturday.
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.