Only three weeks remain in the 2023 FCS regular season. Several matchups this weekend will play a part in how the playoff bracket looks, so we bumped up our number of games to discuss.
Let’s predict some scores.
2023 Record: 52-26
2019-2022 Record: 337-158
No. 24 William & Mary at No. 23 UAlbany
Get the ice baths ready. This one will be a 60-minute fight in the trenches.
UAlbany is No. 4 in rushing yards allowed per game (86.2) and is the No. 5 overall graded defense on PFF, led by some dudes up front like Anton Juncaj and AJ Simon, who have a combined 28.5 tackles for loss. They help keep Dylan Kelly clean, who already has 108 total tackles. W&M wants to run the ball behind a big o-line, ranking No. 10 in the FCS with 225.6 rushing yards per game.
UAlbany will be fixing to stop the run and make Darius Wilson beat them with his arm. He had one of his better passing days last week, but W&M is not as comfortable if the ground game can’t get going. On the flipside, UAlbany offers a more explosive attack with QB Reese Poffenbarger (2,161 yards, 22 TDs, 6 INT). W&M has a ferocious d-line led by Nate Lynn and John Pius, who have a combined 15.5 sacks.
The offensive lines will be key here. For W&M, it’ll be to establish the run. For UAlbany, it’ll be to keep Poffenbarger clean. At home and with a more explosive offense, I’ll lean toward UAlbany.
Prediction: UAlbany 28-21
Elon at No. 5 Delaware
Delaware looks to keep its unbeaten FCS record intact this week.
Standing in its way is a 4-4 Elon team that isn’t out of the playoff hunt just yet. The Phoenix already knocked off a No. 5 team earlier this year, beating William & Mary 14-6 in late September. Can they do it again? Probably not. Delaware is just rolling right now despite injuries to its QB room. Standout starter Ryan O’Connor has missed the last couple of games. Zach Marker stepped in just fine, but he also got dinged up last week.
Whoever starts this week, whether it’s another new starter or O’Connor or Marker returning, he has a number of impressive playmakers to work with. Marcus Yarns has been a great complement to the passing game, rushing for 700 yards and 13 scores. Elon has yet to score over 30 points in a game this year, and that’s not a great spot to be trying to keep up with the high-powered Delaware offense.
Prediction: Delaware 31-21
No. 2 Furman at No. 14 Chattanooga
The SoCon’s auto-bid will be won in this matchup. A Furman win puts the Paladins on track for a high playoff seed while Chattanooga is sweating on Selection Sunday at 7-4. So this very well could be a must-win game for the Mocs.
Furman, despite being undefeated vs. the FCS, hasn’t exactly blown the doors off of opponents. But it is more of a grind-you-down type of team, using a strong defense, a power rushing game, and an efficient passing attack to rack up wins. They’ll need to do that again vs. an offense that can really get rolling, led by Chase Artopoeus’ 2,383 passing yards and 18 TDs.
Watch for Furman to control the clock here behind the legs of Dominic Roberto with Tyler Huff moving the chains on key third-down conversions. Establishing the run and grinding down a Chattanooga defense that ranks 54th in rushing yards allowed per game (146.4) will be key.
Prediction: Furman 31-28
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No. 25 Mercer at The Citadel
Mercer is in a great position to make the playoffs after beating No. 10 Western Carolina last week. The Bears can now hit eight wins if they handle business at The Citadel and vs. Samford. It’s not going to come easy, as The Citadel can be good for one upset a year and Samford’s passing attack can create headaches.
Mercer’s offense has come alive after a 10-point performance in a loss to Chattanooga, scoring 31 points on Wofford and 45 on WCU. Ty James continues to play like an elite WR and is boosting his NFL Draft stock, nearing 1,000 yards receiving and seven touchdowns.
Too much Mercer here, who is motivated not to come up one win short of the playoffs again.
Prediction: Mercer 35-14
No. 9 South Dakota at No. 10 Southern Illinois
After the hype of the No. 1 SDSU at No. 4 USD game resulted in a 37-3 blowout SDSU win, how do the Coyotes respond emotionally this week? Is the motivation high to win out and still earn a solid playoff seed? Or was it a deflating loss, where the same energy is hard to muster this weekend? Ask UND what can happen after an emotional rivalry game.
I still think the Yotes are a good ball club. But they’re in a tough spot here. SIU is also really good, plays well at home, and has a terrific defense (second-highest graded unit on PFF behind only SDSU).
SIU’s offense gets a boost with the return of Ro Elliott, who was PFF’s top-graded FCS running back before he was sidelined with a turf toe injury. SIU eyes a playoff seed as well, and a home win here would be huge for its resume.
Prediction: SIU 28-20
No. 11 North Dakota State at No. 1 South Dakota State
RELATED: What’s At Stake For SDSU vs. NDSU?
Man on man, NDSU is outmatched against SDSU. The Bison were outmatched in Frisco, and it is difficult to point to where they have an edge on Saturday. SDSU looks one year better than last year’s squad. NDSU, besides its passing attack led by the standout play of Cam Miller, doesn’t look as good as the 2022 NDSU team.
Football is a funny game, though, and not everything happens just as things on paper will tell us it’ll happen. If this game was in the Fargodome, I’d honestly consider picking NDSU to win while still predicting SDSU to win the natty. I think the Bison should throw the kitchen sink at SDSU on Saturday (similar to what SDSU has done against NDSU in the past), knowing how much this game means for their own playoff positioning and how much it’d mean for the program as a whole to end the four-game losing streak.
But with this one in Brookings, in front of an ever-growing rabid SDSU fan base that can smell blood after years of being in NDSU’s shadow, against a superteam in SDSU, led by a big senior class who is licking its chops to put NDSU down potentially one more time, and also led by a head coach that will certainly make sure his team is mentally ready for this one, it’s just hard to visualize NDSU pulling out a win.
The talent gap is even wider than it was last year. The Bison will need to have a perfect game plan offensively and execute it perfectly to get an advantage on PFF’s No. 1 FCS defense, potentially scheming up some gadget plays that you hit on or give a look you haven’t shown on film yet.
And defensively, what can NDSU do differently than Frisco to slow down a same-look SDSU offense with a new-look secondary and a d-line that lost its best DE from last year and lost veteran DT Will Mostaert last week to injury? Can NDSU’s base defensive alignment hold up to stop the run? And if the Bison do load the box, can the corners/nickels/OLBs, who got picked on by South Dakota and Missouri State pass-catchers, match up with the Janke twins, Griffin Wilde, and Zach Heins with no help over top?
Somehow, NDSU will have to muck it up and throw SDSU completely off its game. In front of a home crowd and a senior class looking to keep the Dakota Marker, it’s tough to envision the Jackrabbits having an off game Saturday.
Prediction: SDSU 41-27
Northern Arizona at No. 6 Montana State
Montana State might be mentally and physically gassed after two straight road trips to Top 10 teams. Last week’s loss at Idaho certainly stunted some momentum and knocked MSU off the No. 2 spot in the rankings. While NAU can be a get-right game for MSU, it also isn’t a game where the Bobcats can catch their breath while easily rolling to a win. A lethargic MSU team could get caught.
Because hey, NAU may be 3-5, but those three wins are all against ranked opponents.
We could also see a very motivated MSU team, out to prove it is still a title contender. And style points will matter in a competitive playoff seed race. After getting taken totally out of its offensive rhythm last week, expect an emphatic team rushing performance on Saturday.
Prediction: Montana State 45-24
Tennessee State at Charleston Southern
Keep an eye on this Tennessee State team. The Tigers could be building their way to a 9-2 finish with eight D1 victories, putting themselves in position for playoff consideration.
Tennesse State has hit on some big FCS transfers in the last couple of years. QB Draylen Ellis (from Austin Peay) has thrown for 868 yards and five TDs with two interceptions. LB Monroe Beard III (from Arkansas-Pine Bluff) leads the team with 89 tackles. And DL Terrell Allen (also from Austin Peay) is playing like a man possessed, totaling 46 tackles, 20.5 TFLs, 13.5 sacks, eight QB hurries, and five forced fumbles.
If the Tigers do their thing, they should get a win on a CSU team that has been competitive within its 3-5 record.
Prediction: Tennessee State 31-24
No. 19 Austin Peay at Eastern Kentucky
Wild fourth quarters just seem to be in the UAC’s DNA. And I expect some wackiness here.
Two legit quarterbacks duel it out. Austin Peay’s Mike DiLiello has been a big portal get the last two seasons, and this year he’s thrown for 2,279 yards, 21 TDs, and eight interceptions, plus five rushing scores. Parker McKinney is a veteran and a record-holder in several categories at EKU. He has thrown for 2,003 yards, 14 TDs, and 10 interceptions this fall along with three rushing TDs.
Austin Peay has won six in a row after an 0-2 start. Meanwhile, EKU’s 4-4 record is deceiving. Two of those losses were to FBS programs, and another was a close game against ranked WCU, one of the hottest FCS teams at the time. EKU is 3-0 in conference play.
Whoever has the ball last might be the winner here. With a home crowd behind them and some clutch play by McKinney, EKU pulls off the win. Throwing four interceptions in the last two games, the veteran gets back on track to lead his team to a key victory.
Prediction: EKU 38-35
Nicholls at No. 8 UIW
Nicholls has flown under the radar due to its non-conference. It is 0-4 in the non-con with two FBS losses, only a 14-point loss to Top 10 Sac State, and a four-point loss last week to a SEMO team that has returned many players from last year’s playoff squad. But the Colonels are 3-0 in Southland play, 4-0 if you count the Northwestern State forfeit.
And they’ve handled conference opponents better than UIW has. Nicholls has beaten its three Southland foes by 21, 31, and 20 points. UIW has defeated its four conference opponents by 7, 17, 11, and 10 points. Two of those opponents are common in McNeese and Texas A&M-Commerce.
UIW’s close games have been harped on plenty already as the Cardinals have battled through injuries. Several starters have been out, including QB Zach Calzada. Who’s in and who’s out this week may be game-time decisions.
But this seems like a game where the offensive inconsistencies finally catch up to UIW.
Nicholls has played solid defense this year, holding its Southland opponents to 10 or fewer points in every game. And while UIW has played really well defensively too, grading out as the seventh-best FCS defense on PFF, Nicholls has just enough offense to grab an early lead and hold onto it behind the running of Collin Guggenheim.
I’ve picked UIW to win all year. But they’ve been waiting to get knocked off with its inability to pull away from opponents they are favored to beat. That bites them this week.
Prediction: Nicholls 28-27
No. 7 Sacramento State at No. 4 Montana
Sac State has had Montana’s number recently, owning a 3-game winning streak. But Sac may run into a hornet’s nest Saturday. Montana has a knowledgeable fan base who certainly will remember what happened last year in the loss to the Hornets, featuring a controversial call late in the game and a targeting call earlier on QB Lucas Johnson that all aided in Montana’s 2022 downward spiral.
Montana’s defense is starting to feast on opposing QBs, helped by a healthy Riley Wilson. The Hawaii transfer has had 4.5 sacks in the last two games. And that pressure will be amplified at home, feeding off of a frenzied crowd and on an o-line that can get flustered and a step slower due to the noise.
It’ll be interesting to see how much both teams go to their true freshman quarterbacks in this high-stakes game. Sac State inserted Carson Conklin into the game last week vs. Idaho State, and he went 14/21 for 235 yards and three TDs. Montana brought in Keali’i Ah Yat against Northern Colorado, who finished 9/13 for 89 yards and a TD.
Montana’s offense can sometimes get choppy and lose its flow. A 2-QB system isn’t always the answer to remedy that. But its defense has come to play recently. The Grizzlies are one of the better tackling teams, owning the sixth-best tackling grade in the FCS on PFF. And they will need a good tackling day against a super athletic Sac State team that can make you look silly in space if you aren’t breaking down individually or swarming to the ball as a unit.
The Griz keep their hot play going, boosted by their great home-field advantage.
Prediction: Montana 35-24