High external expectations are good for a football team. It means you’ve done something in the past to warrant those expectations, and it means you have a fan base that cares.
It also likely means you aren’t going to meet those expectations every week. For some of the top FCS teams last week, shaky performances have left a portion of their fan base concerned.
Seven Top 10-ranked teams last week had one-score wins. Two others (Montana and North Dakota) suffered close losses to Top 10 teams, and South Dakota State was the only one with a comfortable win.
Let’s talk about those teams and where they go from here.
All Is Well In Brookings
This article doesn’t necessarily pertain to SDSU because the Jacks had a 55-7 win last week against Dixie State. But since all of the other Top 10 teams in last week’s rankings are being mentioned, we might as well touch on the Jacks quickly.
SDSU, ranked No. 2, continues to look like the best team in the FCS. Even with injuries to shutdown cornerback Don Gardner, star running back Isaiah Davis, and expected breakout wide receiver Landon Wolf, the Jacks have cruised through their non-conference schedule with dominating performances against FBS Colorado State, non-D1 Lindenwood, Indiana State, and Dixie State.
Things pick up with full MVFC play. SDSU gets SIU, UNI, NDSU, and UND all in Brookings.
Moving On From An L
The beauty of the FCS playoffs is one regular-season loss doesn’t derail you. Two Top 10 teams last week lost. But their goals are still attainable.
The No. 4-ranked Griz lost 34-28 at No. 6 Eastern Washington Saturday night, bumping Montana to No. 6 in this week’s poll.
The bad news for the Griz is a Top 2 playoff seed and home-field advantage is likely gone, and the injuries are starting to become significant. Starting quarterback Cam Humphrey left the game in the fourth quarter with what looked like a bad ankle/foot injury. Head coach Bobby Hauck doesn’t discuss injuries with the media, but it would be a surprise if Humphrey returns to the field in the coming weeks.
The good news for the Griz is the schedule is favorable, and a playoff seed is still very much in reach. They host Dixie State this week, host Sac State, go to Idaho, host Southern Utah, go to Northern Colorado and Northern Arizona, and then host rival Montana State. Montana should be able to run the table until the Brawl of the Wild. If the Griz beat MSU and finish 10-1 with an FBS win, that’s potentially a Top 5 seed depending on what happens elsewhere in the country.
No. 10 UND played inspired football defensively last week when hosting No. 5 NDSU. But the Bison found a way to win 16-10, knocking UND back to No. 13 in this week’s poll.
The Fighting Hawks have no time for emotional hangovers. They are 2-2 overall and 2-1 against the FCS. The magic number to hit for a Valley team to make the playoffs is seven D1 wins. Six wins make it possible, but unlikely this season. UND needs to go 5-2 down the stretch to feel good about making the bracket.
Three of those wins will probably come at home against Illinois State, Youngstown State, and Western Illinois. Which means UND needs to go 2-2 on the road. Those four road games? At South Dakota this week (who is just a few spots out of being ranked in the Top 25), at No. 8 Southern Illinois, at No. 15 Missouri State, and at No. 2 SDSU.
Saturday’s game at USD is as close to a must-win as a team can have in early October.
A Win Is A Win, Right?
Seven teams in last week’s Top 10 won by one possession.
EWU fans are probably the only group in this section fully satisfied with a close win last weekend. The Eagles went from No. 6 to No. 4 after beating then-No. 4 Montana 34-28 in a thrilling game. They enter the top tier of the FCS along with SHSU, SDSU, JMU, NDSU, and Montana.
They also enter the discussion for a Top 2 seed. The Eagles are 5-0 (3-0 against the FCS, an FBS win, and a non-counter win). As shown Saturday, EWU plays incredibly well at home, and the toughest opponents on the remaining schedule are mostly in Cheney.
The Eagles host ranked Weber State and Montana State along with unranked Idaho. They have road trips to Northern Colorado (this week) and Portland State with the biggie coming Nov. 13 at UC Davis. The Aggies are currently No. 7 and are also 5-0 with an FBS win. If both teams stay clean, the seeding implications for that matchup will be massive.
The top-ranked Bearkats took a gamble last week resting All-American QB Eric Schmid against rival SFA. The reason being Schmid has taken some big hits in recent weeks and SHSU wanted to give him a week off to heal some aches and pains.
Not to be dramatic, but the decision could have seriously altered the course of SHSU’s season. SHSU won 21-20, but needed two fourth-quarter TDs to do it after trailing 20-6. A loss would have erased the chance of a Top 2 seed, which would have resulted in a likely road semifinal game, which can be the difference between reaching Frisco and falling one game short. If JMU was the No. 2 seed in the spring and SHSU was No. 3, would the Bearkats have made that incredible second-half comeback? Homefield is a difference-maker late in the postseason.
But with all of that said, SHSU still won Saturday. Its fans can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing a close win against a rival (and a rankable team in SFA too) with your star QB out is a good win. However, the importance of getting a Top 2 seed is big, as explained in the paragraph above. It looks like we’re heading toward a scenario where at least four teams will have a legit argument for a Top 2 seed.
SHSU can’t control how many ranked teams are in its conference. So what’s the best way to convince the playoff committee to seed your zero-loss resume with one ranked win higher than a zero-loss resume with four ranked wins? Start dominating inferior opponents.
I actually like the strategy No. 3 JMU had last weekend. The Dukes purposely kept it a close game at No. 25 New Hampshire so not only would they get the road win, but poll voters would slide UNH up their ballot, which in turn makes JMU’s playoff resume look better. And that’s exactly what happened with UNH being ranked No. 22 this week.
Kidding, of course.
The Dukes uncharacteristically did not play well. The offense turned it over, including a fumble that was returned for a 93-yard UNH TD. Yet JMU still found a way to win 23-21 with a Kris Thornton go-ahead TD catch midway through the fourth quarter.
As stated in the SHSU section, style of wins are important in a close race for the Top 2 playoff seeds. So while UNH is a tough place to play and a win is a win, the Dukes need to rinse themselves of those types of performances and run through their remaining schedule. As the Top 25 sits right now, JMU has two more chances at ranked wins — this week against No. 11 Villanova and on Oct. 23 at No. 9 Delaware.
The Dukes have a great shot to run the table and finish 11-0 with four ranked wins. Sounds like a top playoff seed, right? In the past, yes. But with uncertainty on how the committee would view an undefeated and defending national champs SHSU team with a bad SOS, plus with the potential to have an unbeaten EWU, and/or UC Davis, and/or SDSU with FBS wins, a Top 2 seed isn’t a lock. Statement wins will help JMU’s resume.
North Dakota State
It’s impossible to please a fan base that has been spoiled with eight national titles in 10 years. So on paper, going to a raucous environment and pulling out a win against the No. 10 team in the country is good, right?
After beating UND 16-10, some Bison fans are treating it like a great win no matter how it looked. Others think the sky is falling and the offense needs an overhaul. The reality is it’s somewhere in the middle.
UND’s defense is really strong and played its heart out. But NDSU’s offensive performance is a legitimate concern in the big picture. Why did the Bison lose three games in the spring? There are a few reasons, but No. 1 was the lack of a downfield passing threat. After the Bison rarely looked to attack UND downfield and Quincy Patterson went 4-of-10 passing for 48 yards, it’s fair to question if the spring offensive woes maybe aren’t gone after it seemed like they were in the non-conference.
NDSU hosts No. 16 UNI this week, who has a top defense in the FCS. The Bison go to No. 2 SDSU in early November, another top defense in the country. Later on, NDSU is going to run into other elite defenses at some point in the playoffs, whether it be JMU, SHSU, or Montana. The Bison have an incredible defense in their own right. Maybe even the best. But the offense is going to have to show something more if NDSU wants to win games deep in the playoffs. Especially since there’s a possible scenario the Bison only get one home playoff game before hitting the road in the quarterfinals. Even at 10-1, NDSU could get a No. 5 seed, depending on who that loss is to and what happens with the other top teams.
SIU is a popular sleeper pick after a breakout spring season that saw a dominating win against NDSU and a two-touchdown lead at SDSU in the quarterfinals before the Jacks came back to win. The Salukis looked strong through the first four games, beating up on inferior FCS opponents and nearly knocking off Kansas State.
Last week, though, SIU (ranked No. 7 then and No. 8 now), squeaked out a 31-30 overtime win at Western Illinois, who has one win on the season. The Leathernecks attempted a two-point conversion for the win but were stopped behind the line of scrimmage.
Does that mean the hype around SIU is too high? Or is this like JMU’s win at UNH, where you escape with a win and just be happy you got the road W even if you were expected to win more decisively?
Well, we’ll find out real quick as the Salukis play four-straight ranked opponents with high playoff aspirations — at SDSU, vs. UND, at UNI, vs. Missouri State.
At 5-0 with an FBS win against Tulsa, UC Davis has emerged as a team looking to threaten the top tier for a national title run. There’s reason to be skeptical, though. The Aggies beat Weber State 17-14 in Ogden a week after JMU went there and won 37-24 (a game more decisive than the final score shows). And last week, UC Davis edged Idaho 27-20 at home. Idaho is 1-3 with one non-counter win, two FBS losses, and one FCS loss.
The counterargument is UC Davis found a way to pull out close wins without standout QB Hunter Rodrigues, who got knocked out of the Weber game. He should be back in the lineup soon.
UC Davis, who moved from No. 8 last week to No. 7 this week, may not want to play with fire against its upcoming unranked opponents like it did with Idaho. Because the Aggies are really in a good spot to set themselves up nicely in the playoffs. One letdown performance and an unexpected loss knocks them down in the seeding picture.
UC Davis plays at Idaho State, vs. Northern Colorado, at Cal Poly, at NAU, vs. EWU, and vs. Sac State. That EWU game could decide a Top 4 seed for the winner.
Delaware has stayed at No. 9 after last week’s 20-15 home win against UAlbany, who is now 0-4 with other losses to NDSU, Rhode Island, and Syracuse.
The performance didn’t inspire much outside confidence in the Blue Hens being able to return to the semifinals. Star QB Nolan Henderson is battling ongoing injuries and is expected to see limited action throughout this season.
Delaware, who is still sitting fine with a 3-0 FCS record, can alter doubts with a good performance and win at No. 18 Rhode Island. The Blue Hens also host James Madison later this month and Villanova to end the regular season.
With the big games still to come, they are a bit of an unknown right now. Where do they sit nationally? Where do they sit in the CAA? Is the showing against UAlbany (who’s not too bad of a team despite being winless) a concern? Or will the overall very talented roster be fine, even with a limited Henderson? We shall see.
NEXT: FCS Bracketology 4.0