Strap in, because even though there are two weeks left of the 2023 FCS regular season, the playoffs have already begun for some teams.
Let’s look into these matchups and predict some scores.
2023 Record: 59-30
2019-2022 Record: 337-158
No. 1 South Dakota State at No. 22 Youngstown State
A closer game than expected may be in store here.
YSU is going to throw absolutely everything into this game, knowing it can leave no doubt that it deserves a playoff bid if it knocks off the No. 1 team in the land. SDSU, meanwhile, is coming off back-to-back rivalry games, it’s an 11 a.m. CT kick for the road team, and the Jackrabbits can probably afford a loss and still get the No. 1 seed if they beat Missouri State next week. A 10-1 SDSU team owning six ranked wins is a better resume than anyone else in the seed discussion.
YSU will be full throttle. And human nature may see SDSU stepping off the gas some compared to previous games.
But … the Jacks are on a mission. They are too talented and too focused on the task at hand with a loaded senior class looking to run it back one last time. YSU will give them its best shot and a physical contest, but SDSU turns a slow start into a two-score lead in the final quarter.
Prediction: SDSU 31-21
No. 10 North Dakota at No. 6 South Dakota
USD has shown it can win games in many ways. It can jump on you early and sit on its lead. The Coyotes can win a high-scoring game at home. Or they can win a defensive slugfest on the road. Only SDSU has topped USD this year in its FCS schedule.
The Yotes are out to secure a Top 5 playoff seed. UND, battling through injuries, looks to get back to a high level of play. The Fighting Hawks are 2-1 since running roughshod over NDSU, but it has been three straight underwhelming performances.
Home-field advantage may be the difference here. UND doesn’t play great on the road. And USD’s defense will feed off of a solid crowd, giving the FCS’ No. 4 unit (16.1 points allowed per game) another boost. The Yotes have the No. 1 tackling grade on PFF, making it a tough unit to find success against.
Prediction: South Dakota 28-21
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Elon at Richmond
This could very well be an unofficial playoff play-in game.
Two teams tied at 5-1 in the CAA, the winner will have a good argument for a postseason bid. If Elon wins, it should beat Hampton next week to finish 7-4 with two wins over Top 5 teams at the time — William & Mary and Delaware. If Richmond wins and then beats W&M, who has dropped out of the polls, the Spiders will be 8-3. While it would be lacking a win over teams in the playoff field, an 8-D1-win squad will stand out on the bubble.
Elon is a more tested team, playing a Massey strength of schedule ranked 29th compared to Richmond’s 85th. Its win over No. 5 Delaware last week came on the road.
Both squads carry serious momentum in this final stretch of the regular season. Richmond’s offense has gotten rolling as part of its four-game winning streak, scoring 42, 24, 33, and 44 points. But boy, Elon sure looked good against a Delaware team that was riding high. The Phoenix held a two-score lead for large chunks of the second half before winning 33-27. They keep it rolling and earn another impressive road win.
Prediction: Elon 28-27
No. 4 Idaho at Weber State
Idaho looks to secure a Top 3 seed if it wins out. Whether the Vandals are No. 2 or 3 will be determined if Montana beats Montana State next week. Furman will also be a factor in the Top 3 seed race.
The Vandals have to handle business first, though. As the youths say, mess around and find out. And Idaho nearly found that out last week.
Idaho led winless Northern Colorado by only a score until a late pick-6 made it a 27-13 win. That’s potentially a needed wake-up call. The Vandals have two unranked opponents left at Weber State and vs. Idaho State. They won’t be able to just waltz their way to two more wins and a Top 3 seed. Weber has really fallen back this season, now sitting at 4-5 after being one of the more consistent playoff contenders in the FCS. But the offense has shown a little more sign of life since inserting freshman QB Richie Munoz.
Expect a more locked-in Idaho squad this weekend. Style points don’t hurt in a competitive seed race. Weber still has some nice individual talent, but the Vandals will prove to be on a different level.
Prediction: Idaho 35-17
SEMO at No. 21 UT Martin
A biggie in the Big South-OVC as UT Martin, Gardner-Webb, and SEMO each have one loss in league play. UT Martin has lost to Gardner-Webb, while SEMO and G-W do not play each other.
It’s been a wild season for SEMO, a playoff squad last year. Redhawks, 4-5 overall, lost three heartbreakers in a row during the non-conference, two to ranked teams (SIU, Central Arkansas). Standout QB Paxton DeLaurent has also been sidelined in recent games and is likely done for the year with a shoulder injury. A 21-20 loss last week to Robert Morris (now 3-6) really hurts.
It sets up for a home win for UT Martin, who is 4-0 at Hardy M. Graham Stadium and 7-2 overall. The offense is led by RB Sam Franklin, who is No. 4 in FCS rushing yards (1,095).
SEMO will lean on All-American RB Geno Hess, but it will be a tough go finding success against UT Martin’s rush defense that only allows 92.3 yards per game, which ranks No. 7 in the FCS.
Prediction: UT Martin 35-21
Samford at No. 23 Mercer
It’s about that time for the SoCon to eat its own and potentially cost a team a playoff bid.
Mercer, who has a Week 12 bye, can likely seal a playoff bid by beating Samford and finishing 8-3 overall and 8-2 vs. the FCS with a ranked win over WCU. Samford isn’t completely out of the playoff mix at 5-4. If the Bulldogs beat ranked Mercer tomorrow and knock off ranked UT Martin next week, they will have an argument to get in at 7-4, although scheduling a non-D1 in the non-conference could come back to bite them.
Mercer has been left on the playoff bubble with seven wins in back-to-back seasons. That trend may happen again. Samford is playing well, winning four of its last five. The loss was a 27-21 battle against now-No. 2 Furman. Michael Hiers is still slinging it around for the Bulldogs, leading the No. 6 FCS passing offense (302.2 YPG). Mercer allows 219.2 passing yards per game, ranking 70th in the subdivision.
This may spell “upset.”
Prediction: Samford 35-31
No. 11 Southern Illinois at No. 12 North Dakota State
A potential playoff play-in game here for a conference that is looking to get six bids.
Cam Miller needs to have a big day through the air and on the ground. He’s shown off a strong and efficient arm as PFF’s No. 2-graded overall FCS QB, and he has such a good feel in the read-option and does a great job getting to the edge. SIU’s defense is legit, graded as the No. 2 overall FCS unit on PFF while ranking No. 3 in rushing yards allowed per game (83.3). The Bison have yet to get a running back over 100 rushing yards in a game this fall, making this a crucial performance for Miller and his WRs.
SIU’s offense has lacked explosiveness, so NDSU may not need to get into the 30s to win here. But Nic Baker is a veteran QB, and he can make some magic happen when he’s on.
The Fargodome, honestly, is the difference in making this pick. While it probably won’t be a raucous, sold-out environment, it’s still good for maybe a three-point difference on Saturday. Which, in this low-scoring contest, looks to be enough.
Prediction: NDSU 24-21
No. 7 NC Central at Howard
The MEAC race could get interesting if Howard pulls off the upset. Right now, NC Central is 3-0 in league play while Howard, SC State, and Morgan State are 2-1.
NC Central is just rolling right now at 8-1 overall. It’s unlikely to happen, but a Central loss could really disrupt the FCS playoff bubble. So this is a game to monitor for fans of bubble teams. Howard and NC Central tied at the top of the MEAC last season at 4-1, but Central’s 50-21 head-to-head win got them a Celebration Bowl appearance and then a Celebration Bowl win.
Howard has a talented running back room. They could potentially take advantage of the Eagle’s No. 67 rushing defense (163.8 YPG). But NC Central can do the same and then some. Howard allows 201.8 rushing yards per game, ranking 111th in the FCS. Latrell Collier and QB Davius Richard may have themselves a day, controlling the clock and pulling away for a win with some damage on the ground.
Prediction: NC Central 31-14
Eastern Kentucky at Central Arkansas
Austin Peay is atop the UAC standings at 4-0. UCA and EKU are 3-1. UCA may need to win out to make the playoffs, beating EKU and winning at Austin Peay next week. An at-large bid doesn’t seem likely if the Bears split and finish 7-4 with only six D1 wins. EKU is 4-5 overall and 4-3 vs. the FCS, so it’ll also have to win out and hope Austin Peay falters down the stretch for a shot at the bracket.
I expect this one to come down to the wire, as UAC games this fall typically do. EKU has had six games decided by one score, going 3-3 in those contests. UCA has had four one-score games, going 3-1 in them.
I’ll take the Bears at home. They are 4-1 on the stripes, it’s Senior Day, and they know what’s at stake in the playoff picture. It very well could come down to who makes the clutch plays late in the game. UCA has shown a better ability to do so.
Turnovers will also be crucial in a fun quarterback battle between veterans. UCA’s Will McElvain has thrown 20 TDs to three interceptions. EKU’s Parker McKinney has thrown 17 touchdowns to 10 interceptions.
Prediction: Central Arkansas 28-27
Lamar at Nicholls
Nicholls is in the driver’s seat for the Southland auto-bid after last week’s win over UIW. The Colonels are 5-0 in conference play, while UIW is 4-1 and Lamar is 4-1. Nicholls can lock up the AQ with a win on Saturday.
Lamar isn’t the team to have a hangover against, though. The Cardinals have enjoyed a tremendous turnaround under Pete Rossomando, going from 1-10 last year to 5-4 this fall.
How Nicholls is playing right now, stopping the Colonels is no easy task. They rolled up 335 yards on the ground last week against a UIW defense that was graded in the Top 10 on PFF. Put Jaylon Spears and Collin Guggenheim behind a physical offensive line, and Nicholls can control the clock and tack on another conference W, clinching its first playoff berth since 2019.
Prediction: Nicholls 31-24
NEXT: FCS Bracketology 4.0