No. 2 North Dakota State (MVFC auto-bid)
Key regular-season wins: at North Dakota, vs. Missouri State
Regular-season loss: at South Dakota State
Playoff wins: vs. Southern Illinois, vs. East Tennessee State
Semifinal opponent: James Madison
NDSU is back in the FCS semifinals after missing the final four last season. The Bison sit atop the FCS in scoring defense, surrendering a mere 11 points per game. That dominance has allowed NDSU’s offense to find its way, as the team seems to have settled in on using both Cam Miller and Quincy Patterson at quarterback. While Miller has regained the primary-starter role, Patterson has seen time periodically, often in running-quarterback sets.
While QB changes and trends get the shine, North Dakota State is unapologetically run-first on offense, which has helped Patterson get back on the field. The philosophy’s success is reflected in NDSU’s position on the national leaderboard for team rushing yards per game (it rolls up 281.3 a contest), which ranks second and is sandwiched by option offenses in Davidson (first) and Kennesaw State (third).
The Bison were tripped up by rival South Dakota State in the Dakota Marker. The tantalizing possibility of a rematch in Frisco exists, but third-seeded James Madison visits the Fargodome Friday night with sights set on nixing that before SDSU and Montana State even kick off Saturday.
No. 3 James Madison (CAA Football at-large)
Key regular-season wins: at Weber State, at William & Mary
Regular-season loss: vs. Villanova
Playoff wins: vs. Southeastern Louisiana University, vs. Montana
Semifinal opponent: North Dakota State
JMU beat injury-riddled Montana 28-6 to reach the FCS semifinals for the fifth time in six years. Dukes quarterback Cole Johnson turned the corner in last season’s playoffs; this fall, his play has ascended to the level of just missing the Walter Payton Award ceremony held at the annual FCS awards event. Johnson’s 176.93 passing efficiency leads the FCS. His production has rocketed since JMU endured injuries at running back and offensive line that have altered its typically run-oriented attack under Curt Cignetti.
In their final season in CAA Football, the Dukes’ lone loss was a narrow one to Villanova, who was eliminated by South Dakota State in the quarterfinals. With Nova out of the picture, standing in JMU’s way is SDSU’s nemesis, North Dakota State. JMU’s 2016 national title run included a semifinal triumph at NDSU that disrupted the Bison’s streak of Frisco appearances and wins.
In order to prevent NDSU from earning a chance at starting a new one, James Madison could use some takeaways and ball security in the Fargodome. The Dukes’ remarkable +21 turnover margin rules the subdivision.
No. 8 Montana State (Big Sky at-large)
Key regular-season wins: at Weber State, at Eastern Washington
Regular-season losses: at FBS Wyoming, at Montana
Playoff wins: vs. UT Martin, at Sam Houston
Semifinal opponent: South Dakota State
Montana State has a compelling argument for best storyline of the playoffs, at least among squads remaining. Days before its playoff opener vs. UT Martin, Matthew McKay, reportedly about to lose his starting-QB job, enters the transfer portal and leaves the program entirely mid-season. MSU blocks out that noise enough to defeat UTM and advance to a quarterfinal at defending champion Sam Houston.
The Bobcats then proceed to become the first team to beat SHSU in over 20 games played by the Bearkats, as “Touchdown Tommy” Mellott’s star is born. Mellott, a freshman, caught a scoring pass in addition to his two touchdown runs and passes each to dash Sam Houston’s hopes of a repeat title.
Entering a home semifinal vs. SDSU, MSU’s decisive Brawl of the Wild loss to Montana feels like long ago, when in fact it concluded the regular season with our Sam Herder in attendance.
Montana State supports Mellott with a defense bolstered by 2021 HERO Sports FCS First Team All-Americans in defensive lineman Daniel Hardy and linebacker Troy Andersen.
South Dakota State (MVFC at-large)
Key regular-season wins: at FBS Colorado State, vs. North Dakota State
Regular-season losses: vs. Southern Illinois (OT), vs. Northern Iowa, at South Dakota
Playoff wins: vs. UC Davis, at Sacramento State, at Villanova
Semifinal opponent: Montana State
In fairness to SDSU, when the Jackrabbits meet Montana State in their semifinal, they will bring a worthy storyline as well. How about a defending national runner-up, via a championship game played in May of this year, storming through the next season’s playoffs unseeded?
That is South Dakota State’s tale entering Bozeman. The Jacks lost out on a seed, let alone the MVFC auto-bid, by dropping close calls to Southern Illinois and South Dakota, the latter by way of a Hail Mary. Yet they have an FBS blowout win and a victory over NDSU to their name.
This postseason, SDSU has played in its home central time, battled in pacific and eastern time while traveling to both coasts, and now joins mountain time at MSU. If the miles don’t catch up to them, the Jackrabbits could well be on their way to a second consecutive Frisco trip. They have Isaiah Davis at their luxury if Pierre Strong Jr. (concussion protocol) is not 100% at running back in time for Saturday.
NEXT: Semifinal Predictions
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