The FCS playoffs have arrived at a final four composed of three seeded squads in South Dakota State, Sam Houston, and James Madison, rounded out by unseeded Delaware.
Naturally, each team has taken a distinct path to the national semifinals set for Saturday on ESPN and ABC. Navigating the spring season and its weekly uncertainty has been a long road for all, but now, these four are a win away from the road ending in Frisco.
Here’s how the four semifinal teams got to this point:
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No. 1 South Dakota State (MVFC auto-bid)
Key regular-season wins: at Southern Illinois, at North Dakota State
Playoff wins: vs. Holy Cross, vs. Southern Illinois
Semifinal opponent: Delaware
Developing into a premier FCS program in the 2010s, the Jackrabbits have been knocking on the door of Frisco throughout the last several years. This week’s game in Brookings marks SDSU’s third semifinals appearance in the last four seasons. Longtime head coach John Stiegelmeier has his most well-rounded crew yet, one that could finally kick down that Frisco door. Offensively, the Jacks are led by freshman quarterback sensation Mark Gronowski and All-American running back Pierre Strong, Jr.
On a team with youth at QB, Stiegelmeier identified this Jackrabbit team’s leadership as a potentially Frisco-quality difference-maker in 2020-21.
“The leadership makes us different [this year],” Stiegelmeier told HERO Sports. “They’re the guys that laid down the seven goals for the season. Who would have ever thought that the second goal would be ‘COVID-free’? I mean, what the heck is that? We’ve been COVID-free for 15 weeks in a row. And so the leadership, coupled with their vision for what they want, they’ve really accomplished six of the seven goals for the most part. Obviously, everybody probably has in the back of their mind or on a piece of paper a national championship. Well, we’re a ways from that, but that’s the other goal they had.”
No. 2 Sam Houston (Southland auto-bid)
Key regular-season wins: vs. Nicholls, at Incarnate Word
Playoff wins: vs. Monmouth, vs. North Dakota State
Semifinal opponent: James Madison
Uncontroversial take incoming: Sam Houston has safely cemented its place as a Southland Conference titan (that is, before its pending departure for the reborn WAC). This strong stature (#SouthlandStrong, anyone?) was achieved starting with national title appearances in 2011 and 2012, both prior to K.C. Keeler’s arrival as head coach in Huntsville. Keeler unsurprisingly kept the Bearkats in the regular mix at the top of the Southland, but ugly playoff exits (namely, a 65-7 thrashing at James Madison in the 2016 quarterfinals) led to a reimagining of how SHSU should be constructed to win not only in its conference, but also deep in the postseason under the national spotlight.
Earlier this season, Sam Herder featured Keeler’s strategy to better equip his team to tackle the FCS “Big Three” schools in the playoffs, and the progress made in that regard was on display in the Kats’ quarterfinal triumph over North Dakota State. Sam Houston has long possessed the offense to make a run all the way; that is unchanged this spring with the triumvirate of quarterback Eric Schmid, running back Ramon Jefferson, and wideout Jequez Ezzard headlining the Bearkat charge. It’s the improved SHSU defense that stifled the Bison last week and gives Keeler and company a real shot at staying perfect at Bowers Stadium in the playoffs while advancing to Frisco once again.
No. 3 James Madison (CAA at-large)
Key regular-season win: vs. Richmond
Playoff wins: vs. VMI, vs. North Dakota
Semifinal opponent: Sam Houston
The Dukes’ singular key regular-season win sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the other semifinalists’ resumes, but that was the reality of their schedule in the CAA South division for the spring. Fortunately, all that goes out the window in the playoffs, especially when a team is coming into its own down the stretch as JMU is doing.
The Dukes, feeling slighted at losing out on the CAA’s automatic bid to fellow unbeaten Delaware and at receiving the third seed, have a prime opportunity to justify their frustrations at Sam Houston. They had their No. 1 poll ranking questioned by many throughout the regular season, but in postseason victories in Harrisonburg over VMI and North Dakota, the CAA South winners looked the part.
JMU will test SHSU’s ascending defense with its stable of tailbacks led by Percy Agyei-Obese, but if it wants to come anywhere near replicating the fireworks produced in the 2016 quarterfinal between the two, it will need another big day from freshman wide receiver Antwane Wells, Jr. (career highs of seven receptions for 143 yards vs. UND).
Delaware (CAA auto-bid)
Key regular-season wins: at Rhode Island, at Villanova
Playoff wins: vs. Sacred Heart, at Jacksonville State
Semifinal opponent: South Dakota State
The Blue Hens are the new kids (back) on the block among this spring’s final four teams. While SDSU, SHSU, and JMU have frequented the semis in the past decade to varying degrees of success against the likes of NDSU, Delaware is making its first semifinal showing since 2010, when it was coached by UD alumnus Keeler. The prospect of a national championship showdown with Keeler is a hot-button subject in Newark, but the Hens have to worry about top-seeded South Dakota State before any further Frisco frivolity.
To stack up with the Jackrabbits, Delaware will need continued stellar output from QB Nolan Henderson. While the UD rushing game has stalled in recent weeks, Henderson has shouldered the load — and it was to great success at Jacksonville State. Emphasis is on shoulder, though, as Henderson bruised it (non-throwing) pretty well at JSU, exiting for multiple plays before returning to action heavily taped and bandaged.
While the Hens’ offense looks to regain balance as Henderson returns to optimal strength, their defense brings its standout resume to Brookings. Coordinator Manny Rojas has dialed up the right looks out of UD’s 3-4 scheme to make a sizable turnaround from 2019 in tackles for loss and sacks. Success in such stats will be necessary to slow Gronowski and perhaps bait him into throwing into the coverage of safeties Kedrick Whitehead and Noah Plack.