The second round of the 2021 FCS playoffs is set for Friday and Saturday.
All year, Senior FCS Analyst Sam Herder has given his thoughts and score predictions. Now it’s playoff time, and the final eight teams will be determined after this week’s games.
Let’s predict some scores.
Spring 2021: 53-25
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EWU at #6 Montana
We get only one regular-season rematch in the second round this year, which is nice. There was potential to have four rematches if the results went a certain way. The good news is this should be the best game in the second round. The bad news is only one of these two teams that are probably Top 8 in the FCS will make the quarterfinals.
EWU beat Montana 34-28 on Oct 2. in front of an ESPN2 audience. The game was in Cheney, and this time around it’s in Missoula. Montana QB Cam Humphrey was knocked out of that contest in the second half as EWU came back from a 21-10 third-quarter deficit to win. Humphrey missed the next three games as Montana’s national momentum came to a halt, losing one more game to Sac State on Oct. 16. But the Griz are now on a five-game winning streak with Humphrey back playing in the last four. He’s thrown for 233 yards, 280 yards, and 220 yards in the final three games, including a 29-10 win against then-No. 3 Montana State.
The Montana offense is rolling. And the defense continues to be terrific, led by All-American-level talent Justin Ford, Patrick O’Connell, Jace Lewis, and Robby Hauck. But when you have the best QB in the FCS like EWU has with Eric Barriere, you have a chance to win any game against any defense in any environment. Plus, the Eagles are coming off of their best defensive effort of the season, holding UNI to nine points in the first round.
Many things point to a Montana win — home field, bye week, momentum, the “it’s hard to beat a team twice” theory. This isn’t an easy prediction as the result can go either way, but I gotta go with the Griz.
Prediction: Montana 31-28
Holy Cross at #5 Villanova
Holy Cross plays tough, hardnosed defense, allowing 18.3 points per game. Jacob Dobbs, a 2019 HERO Sports Freshman All-American and 2020-21 Sophomore All-American, is one of the top linebackers in the FCS and has 130 tackles, 17.5 TFLs, and 9.5 sacks this season. If the Crusaders can slow the game down and turn it into a low-scoring affair, they have a chance.
Doing so is easier said than done. Villanova can get it done on the ground with stud RB Justin Covington. Daniel Smith is a great dual-threat QB with good outside weapons in Jaaron Hayek and Rayjoun Pringle. Nova’s defense isn’t too shabby either, allowing 15.1 PPG. Forrest Rhyne is another elite FCS linebacker and Christian Benford has been a standout DB for multiple seasons. This is a super talented Villanova team with experience and nice depth.
The Wildcats may need to grind out a win, but that talent and depth will prevail in the second half.
Prediction: Villanova 24-7
UT Martin at #8 Montana State
Who’s going to start at QB?
That’s the big question for both teams entering Saturday’s matchup. MSU’s starting QB Matthew McKay announced Thursday he has entered the transfer portal. He is no longer a part of the team. McKay led the Bobcats to a 9-2 record while throwing for 2,021 yards, 16 TDs, and three interceptions. But he showed signs of regression in the back half of the regular season. On the other side, UT Martin’s Keon Howard has had a strong year, throwing for 1,811 yards, 15 TDs, seven interceptions, and rushing for 10 TDs. He missed the regular-season finale and the first-round win at Missouri State with a foot injury.
Backup Dresser Winn has stepped in, and he went 23-43 for 272 yards, two TDs, and one interception against Mo State. MSU may look to Tucker Rovig as QB1, the 2019 starting QB who led the Bobcats to the semifinals. Word is it will be Tommy Mellott, though, a Butte, Montana native who has been used as a running QB this season. And the rumor mill speculates McKay wasn’t expected to start Saturday anyway.
The Skyhawks surprised many across the country with their 32-31 first-round victory. They proved doubters wrong. But they are a better matchup for MSU. Whereas Mo State likes to move the ball through the air and with speed, UT Martin has a more balanced approach and wants to establish the run with a good RB duo of Peyton Logan and Zak Wallace.
The Bobcats have the edge in style of play. They are more physical than Mo State, won’t commit six turnovers, and have the better home-field advantage. UT Martin needed those turnovers to beat the Bears by one point. The Skyhawks do catch MSU just days after its starting QB leaves the team, but don’t expect that to change MSU’s game plan much.
Prediction: Montana State 27-17
SLU at #3 James Madison
JMU is 10th in the FCS in passing defense, allowing 172.9 YPG. The secondary has given up big plays through the air at times, though. Notably, Villanova’s Daniel Smith throwing for 258 yards on 16 completions in JMU’s only loss of the season. SLU’s No. 2 passing offense will try to pick that secondary apart with reigning Walter Payton Award winner Cole Kelley at QB.
Kelley has thrown for 4,727 yards, 42 TDs, and seven interceptions this season. The Dukes can’t drop seven into coverage, and the d-line has to keep its rush lanes and make sure the ends do not get too far upfield because Kelley’s legs have to be respected as well. The 6-foot-7, 260-pounder has 480 yards on the ground and 16 TDs. SLU is pass-happy, yes, but the Lions can keep a defense off-balanced as Kelley does a nice job of tucking the ball and getting 6-10 yards up the middle.
JMU’s defense will have the advantage in the trenches. Offenses like SLU’s have o-lines that are built to “get in the way” of defensive linemen rather than “punch you in the mouth.” If the Dukes can overwhelm the SLU offensive line, that will get the passing attack out of rhythm.
This game is a chance for JMU QB Cole Johnson to show he’s also one of the top signal-callers in the FCS. Johnson has thrown for 2,953 yards, 32 TDs, and two interceptions. With JMU starting three redshirt freshmen on the interior of the o-line and having some key injuries at RB, Johnson will need to have another sharp performance versus a defense allowing 30.5 PPG. Most importantly, because SLU’s defense is going to give up yards, the Dukes need to finish drives with TDs and not field goals, something they have struggled with this season.
This won’t be a comfortable win for JMU. The Dukes are built to win in the playoffs more than the Lions, though. Until that formula to win an FCS national title changes, I will always lean the more balanced team offensively and defensively. JMU is No. 4 in scoring offense and No. 9 in scoring defense. SLU is No. 1 in scoring offense and No. 84 in scoring defense.
Prediction: JMU 48-28
UIW at #1 Sam Houston
Already this early in the playoffs, UIW will be SHSU’s toughest test to date this season. The Cardinals are riding a five-game winning streak, including a 35-28 OT win in the first round against SFA. Cameron Ward is lighting defenses up with his arm, throwing for 4,167 yards, 42 TDs, and 10 interceptions. Kevin Brown has been key at RB, averaging 6.5 yards per carry for 892 yards and 12 TDs.
SHSU, the defending national champs, have a common opponent in SFA. The Bearkats beat their rival 21-20 but did it without starting QB Eric Schmid. UIW and SHSU are quite familiar with each other as former Southland Conference mates.
In the past, this would be a 50/50 game as SHSU was built to win games 45-35, similar to how UIW is currently constructed. But after emphasizing physicality and tougher defense, the Bearkats match up better with these kinds of teams. In the spring, SHSU beat Nicholls 71-17 and UIW 42-14. With the likes of Jahari Kay, Trace Mascorro, Joseph Wallace, and Jevon Leon across the d-line, SHSU should be able to disrupt UIW’s offense enough as the Bearkats shouldn’t have any trouble offensively getting points on the board.
Prediction: SHSU 41-24
SDSU at #4 Sac State
SDSU looked like a top team in the bracket last week, beating UC Davis 56-24 as the RB duo of Pierre Strong Jr. and Isaiah Davis rushed for a combined 402 yards while the defense forced six turnovers. Strong is a mid-round 2022 NFL Draft prospect, Davis is back healthy and fresh after missing several games due to injury, and the offensive line played like the unit in the spring that was praised as the best in the FCS. The Jacks are loaded for another run at Frisco, but the road warriors mentality as an unseeded team begins in California this weekend.
Sac State is the No. 4 seed for a reason. The Hornets haven’t lost to an FCS opponent (Northern Iowa) since Sept. 11. They went 8-0 in the Big Sky, including beating Montana in Missoula 28-21 and winning at UC Davis 27-7. Sac State is stronger against the run than UC Davis, ranking No. 21 in the FCS by allowing 114.0 rushing yards a game. Josiah Erickson is a big-time disrupter on the edge, totaling 53 tackles, 17.5 TFLs, and nine sacks.
The Hornets can also be dangerous on offense through the brain of head coach and offensive guru Troy Taylor along with talent across the skilled positions. After trying to find an identity behind center early in the season, Sac State is using a two-QB system with the arm of Jake Dunniway (2,245 yards passing, 11 TDs, three INT.) and the legs of Asher O’Hara (who leads the team with 655 rushing yards and nine TDs). O’Hara has also completed 84 passes for 855 yards, six TDs, and three interceptions.
SDSU is a wildly popular pick as an unseeded team to win in the second round. I lean the Jacks too, as they looked like a machine against UC Davis. I don’t think it will be quite the destruction resembling last week, though.
Prediction: SDSU 31-24
Southern Illinois at #2 NDSU
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SIU ended NDSU’s FCS-record 39-game winning streak with a 38-14 win in Carbondale during the spring season. So there’s that juicy storyline heading into this second-round game, although Bison fans don’t appear to be too juiced up for this one.
It’s basically been a foregone conclusion that NDSU would make the semifinals untested, and that’s when fans felt they needed to be at the Fargodome to make a difference. But the last time NDSU played an MVFC opponent in the playoffs with a few thousand empty seats, it resulted in a 9-3 2019 quarterfinal win over Illinois State, an ugly game with no energy. NDSU being at home in the playoffs used to be at least a TD advantage. That’s not the case until the semis when fans sell out the Dome.
So there’s one reason to believe SIU can keep this game much more competitive than past second-round games where the Bison have won 37-13, 52-10, 38-3, 45-7, and 37-6. Another reason is the Salukis have a very talented roster. This is the same-looking team that beat NDSU in the spring and was a threat in the playoffs. SIU has athletes at every position, is balanced, and is experienced.
The Salukis are a threat to get hot with its offensive weapons. However, they have been trending down in the latter part of this season while NDSU is trending up. The Bison are better on the d-line than the spring to defend SIU’s rushing attack, and the young cornerbacks have settled in. Their play is key in slowing down an offense that will take its shots downfield. Offensively, NDSU’s best two games have been its last two games. QB Cam Miller’s play will be the difference in whether NDSU wins a national title or not, but he won’t have a huge role in this game if NDSU’s No. 3 rushing offense can take advantage of SIU’s No. 77 rushing defense.
Prediction: NDSU 34-21
Kennesaw State at #7 ETSU
Not including the reduced spring bracket with no byes and only four seeds, seeded FCS teams went just 5-3 in 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2019. They were 8-0 in 2018. Trends tell us more than one seeded team will fall this weekend. The second-most popular pick behind SDSU beating Sac State is Kennesaw State beating ETSU.
Which is interesting.
A chunk of the FCS online community didn’t like seeing the Buccaneers as a seed over EWU. But I didn’t see anyone outside of KSU clamoring the Owls should have been a seed. Plus, ETSU has been ranked ahead of the Owls for a majority of this season, something very few neutral observers had a problem with. So it seems many who are picking KSU to beat ETSU has less to do with KSU and more to do with, “Well, I doubt the seeds go 7-1, so ETSU is the next likely seed to lose.”
I don’t know how good Kennesaw is. I don’t know how good ETSU is. Both are good, but how good? Compete with NDSU in the quarterfinals good? Or good enough to beat their second-round foe and then lose by 3-4 scores to NDSU? Assuming the Bison beat SIU, of course.
KSU’s offense has gotten better throughout this season, scoring 45 points or more in three of its last four games. QB Xavier Shepherd leads the FCS with 23 rushing TDs, and he’s efficient when asked to pass the ball, going 73-118 for 1,296 yards, 15 TDs, and three interceptions. The Owls traditionally play solid and disciplined defense, and that’s the case again this season, ranking No. 16 in scoring defense (18.4 PPG). They are No. 15 in stopping the run, allowing 108.9 rushing yards a game.
Holding up against the run is key, as ETSU has two elite RBs in Quay Holmes (1,431 rushing yards, 16 TDs) and Jacob Saylors (968 rushing yards, 10 TDs). QB Tyler Riddell doesn’t get enough props for his play, though. He’s completing 63.8 percent of his passes for 2,134 yards, 16 TDs, and three interceptions. The offensive line is playing at a high level, as evidenced by outplaying Vanderbilt in the trenches during a 23-3 win to open the season. Yes, it’s Vanderbilt, but few FCS teams dominate the line of scrimmage like that against a Power Five opponent.
The Bucs are fine against the run, ranking No. 38 by allowing 130.5 rushing yards a game. They see the option offense in the SoCon, so the players and coaches know how to scheme it up. A more balanced offense, familiarity defending the option, a week off, and home-field advantage all give ETSU a slight edge.
Prediction: ETSU 28-27
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