The final week of the FCS regular season is here. What exactly the playoff bracket looks like on Sunday is currently muddy. But maybe the seed picture and the at-large bubble clear up when the results are in. Maybe. Right now, there are several teams still in seed contention, while the bubble looks much more competitive than in past seasons.
Let’s dive into several matchups with playoff implications, provide quick thoughts, and predict some scores.
RELATED: FCS Bracketology 5.0
2023 Record: 65-34
2019-2022 Record: 337-158
No. 4 Montana State at No. 3 Montana
A slobberknocker is in store as the brawl sees its stakes at an all-time high.
Montana State’s No. 2 FCS rushing offense (302.1 YPG) squares up against Montana’s No. 4 rushing defense (84.8 YPG). MSU gashed the Grizzlies last season to the tune of 439 yards on the ground in a 55-21 win. One could argue the 2023 rushing attack is even better with a loaded RB room and QBs Tommy Mellott and Sean Chambers doing their thing behind an elite o-line. One could also argue that, despite not having as much star power, the 2023 version of Montana’s defense is better than the 2022 version.
The momentum Montana brings into this game is real. After a sluggish September, the Griz seem to be getting better every week. Clifton McDowell has gone from settling the QB position with fine play, to being a QB who can hurt you with his legs and complete the easier reads passing, to now being an absolute playmaker with his legs, scrambling ability, and making more impressive throws.
Combine that with some veteran players in the front seven defensively like Alex Gubner, Braxton Hill, and Levi Janacaro who won’t want a repeat of last year, a Bobby Hauck-led squad playing with an edge, and an unglued home crowd feeding energy into the team, and Montana comes out on top.
Prediction: Montana 30-28
Drake at Butler
Drake can clinch the Pioneer Football League auto-bid with a win over Butler, or if Dayton beats Davidson. Drake is 7-0 in the PFL standings, while Davidson is 6-1. Butler sits at 5-2.
Drake’s defense carries them to one more win on Saturday, a unit that has allowed 7, 3, and 14 points in the last three games. Finn Claypool is a problem on the d-line, totaling 46 tackles, 16 TFLs, and 10.5 sacks.
Prediction: Drake 24-21
Duquesne at Merrimack
The NEC auto-bid goes to the winner here. Duquesne could have sealed the AQ last week, but it suffered its first conference loss vs. Stonehill. Merrimack, in its first season eligible to make the postseason after transitioning from D2, is 4-2 in league play.
Last week served as a wake-up call for Duquense, so expect a sharper performance on Saturday. Darius Perrantes has to take better care of the ball, though, throwing for more than 2,000 yards with 18 TDs to 17 interceptions.
Prediction: Duquesne 28-21
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No. 2 Furman at Wofford
Furman needs to take care of business to seal a Top 3 playoff seed. The Paladins have been playing without captain and starting QB Tyler Huff for the last 1.75 games due to a shoulder injury. He’s likely to be back for the playoffs. But fear not. The offense has been in good hands as redshirt freshman Carson Jones played great last week, going 18/23 for 226 yards and four TDs in a dominating win over VMI.
Wofford is 1-9, but it has only 10, 14, and 3-point losses to Chattanooga, Mercer, and Western Carolina, three playoff-worthy teams in the conference.
The Paladins already have clinched the SoCon’s auto-bid. There is still a ton on the line for seeding purposes, though. Furman is a mature football team, so I don’t expect a letdown performance a day before Selection Sunday.
Prediction: Furman 31-10
No. 24 Lafayette at Lehigh
Lafayette can earn the Patriot League’s auto-bid if it beats Lehigh, or if Lehigh beats Lafayette and Georgetown beats Holy Cross. If Lafayette loses and Holy Cross wins, Holy Cross will get the AQ.
Lehigh is 2-8 overall, while Lafayette is 8-2. The Leopards suffered their first FCS loss two games ago, but they responded by beating Fordham 24-16, an impressive defensive effort.
Jamar Curtis looks to add to his 1,167 rushing yards (No. 5 in the FCS) and nine TDs on Lehigh’s No. 96 FCS rushing defense (183 YPG).
Prediction: Lafayette 28-14
No. 14 Western Carolina at VMI
WCU was one of the hottest teams in the FCS, but a three-game slump took some shine off of the Catamounts. A 29-17 loss to Furman in a Top 10 matchup wasn’t a bad result, but losing at home to then-unranked Mercer 45-38 saw a slide down the polls. And answering with a narrow 28-25 win over struggling Wofford wasn’t overly impressive. Last week’s performance, though, routing ETSU 58-7, showed off the explosive WCU offense we raved about earlier in the season.
RB Desmond Reid, who was playing like a Walter Payton Award finalist, has been sidelined. But QB Cole Gonzales still leads the explosive offense, including throwing for nearly 400 yards and five scores last week.
WCU can’t get caught this week at VMI. A loss will spell trouble. A win to finish 8-3 overall with two ranked victories should get the Catamounts into the bracket.
Prediction: WCU 42-24
- Playoff Auto-Bid Scenarios
- Teams Still In Playoff Seed Contention
- Interview With FCS Playoff Committee Chair Kent Haslam
Charleston Southern at Gardner-Webb
Gardner-Webb can clinch the Big South-OVC auto-bid by beating Charleston Southern. UT Martin, who plays Samford in a non-conference game, would get the AQ if CSU wins.
It’s a big result for the at-large pool.
The Big South-OVC would likely be a two-bid league if Gardner-Webb wins Saturday, as UT Martin is already 8-2 overall. If G-W loses, the Big South-OVC would be a one-bid league with UT Martin getting the auto-bid and G-W getting left out of the bracket with a 6-5 record.
CSU is just 2-8, but it has several competitive losses. Gardner-Webb rides a four-game winning streak as its offense has heated up, scoring 35, 38, 45, and 35 points in those wins.
Prediction: Gardner-Webb 35-24
Monmouth at No. 12 UAlbany
UAlbany will be a part of a tiebreaker for the CAA auto-bid with a win. The Great Danes will also be in position for a seed at 9-1 vs. the FCS, featuring two ranked wins, including over a Villanova team eyeing a seed if it wins Saturday.
UAlbany first needs to stop the FCS’ top rusher Jaden Shirden (1,429 yards). Good thing for UAlbany is it suits up the top tackler in the FCS at LB Dylan Kelly (135) and two players in the top eight in TFLs: AJ Simon (17) and Anton Juncaj (16.5).
Prediction: UAlbany 31-21
No. 10 Villanova at No. 7 Delaware
Delaware and Villanova are both 8-2 overall and 8-1 vs. the FCS with one ranked win. The winner here has a good shot at a playoff seed at 9-1 vs. the FCS and two ranked wins. The loser is still likely in the bracket.
Delaware has been a Top 10 team for several weeks. The Blue Hens were as high as No. 5 before suffering a surprising loss to Elon two games ago. That seemed to have woken them up, as the Blue Hens throttled Campbell 45-7 last week. Starting QB Ryan O’Connor returned to action against Elon and didn’t play sharp. Last week was much better, throwing for 246 yards and four TDs.
The momentum is building for Delaware, who hasn’t beaten Villanova in a fall game since 2011. But it will face a stiff test. Villanova has a stout defense, only allowing 18.7 points per game and 109.1 rushing yards per game. Its passing defense ranks No. 21, allowing 182.0 yards per game. Delaware gets over the hump, though, in front of its home crowd.
Prediction: Delaware 28-27
Central Arkansas at No. 15 Austin Peay
The victor here earns the UAC’s auto-bid. It’s a result that certainly other FCS teams on the bubble want to monitor. If UCA wins, Austin Peay will have an argument for an at-large bid with eight D1 wins, making the UAC potentially a 2-bid league. If Austin Peay wins, UCA would finish with six D1 wins, likely knocking it out of playoff contention and making the UAC a one-bid league.
UCA has had so many epic, down-to-the-wire finishes this season. That’s also led to gauging this team to be difficult. Austin Peay has been more consistent, winning eight in a row after a 0-2 start.
I’ll go with the home team here. Austin Peay appears ready to make a statement that not only is it a playoff team, but it has an argument to be a seed.
Prediction: Austin Peay 28-27
Illinois State at No. 13 North Dakota
If UND wins, it is likely in the playoff bracket at 7-4 and its dominant head-to-head win over NDSU. ISU is out at 6-5. If ISU wins, it will be considered for a bid at 7-4, but it wouldn’t have a win over a team in the playoff field and has a head-to-head loss to bubble team Eastern Illinois. That could spell trouble. It most certainly spells trouble for UND, who would be left out at 6-5.
UND hasn’t shown quite the level of play since the NDSU win, but last week’s close loss at Top 5 USD showed the Fighting Hawks are a playoff-worthy team. The offenses and defenses have taken turns recently on who’s playing well. In front of a home crowd and playing an ISU team that may be without its starting QB Zack Annexstad, UND plays a complete game and gets the W.
Prediction: UND 28-21
No. 20 UIW at HCU
UIW may be in a tough spot. It scheduled a non-D1 game in the non-conference. Then last week’s game against Northwestern State was called off due to NW State canceling its season. With Nicholls earning the Southland auto-bid, UIW hopes for an at-large bid to return to the postseason.
But the best UIW can finish is 8-2 with seven D1 wins, no ranked wins, and a strength of schedule in the 80s. How does that stack up against several 7-win teams with at least one ranked win and a tougher SOS? Does overall record and name recognition by making the semifinals last year help UIW? Possibly. But the Cardinals first have to beat HCU. I think they do so, but by how much could be a factor in how committee members view them.
Prediction: UIW 35-17
No. 8 Sacramento State at UC Davis
A fascinating scenario will play out no matter the winner.
If Sac State wins, would an 8-3 team with no ranked wins, three FCS losses, and an FBS P5 win over Stanford be enough for a seed? If UC Davis wins, both teams finish 7-4. Does UC Davis take Sac State’s spot in the playoffs? Do they both get in? Do they both get left out?
The return from injury for UC Davis RB Lan Larison has been a difference-maker. He’s just exceptional with the ball in his hands, rushing for 101, 136, and 264 yards in his three games back, including six TDs in the last two contests. If Sac State can at least contain Larison with a talented front seven and get off the field on third downs, the Hornets should have enough offensive firepower of their own to seal a bid into the bracket.
Prediction: Sac State 28-24
Richmond at William & Mary
Richmond will be a part of a tiebreaker for the CAA auto-bid with a win. If the Spiders don’t get the AQ, an 8-3 squad with no wins over teams in the bracket will be nervous on Selection Sunday.
They face a W&M team that has underperformed. The Tribe is currently 6-4 after preseason Top 5 national love. It would be considered for a playoff bid with a win at 7-4, but no ranked victories will be a tough sell to the committee. W&M has been up and down as far as wins and performances. Richmond, meanwhile, rides a five-game winning streak after a 2-3 start. The Spiders have dominated their last three opponents, winning 33-10, 44-13, and knocking Elon out of postseason consideration last week with a 38-24 win. They do the same to W&M this week.
Prediction: Richmond 35-28
No. 9 North Dakota State at No. 22 Northern Iowa
UNI was one of the hottest teams in the FCS a week ago. But after a puzzling road loss at Missouri State, the Panthers need to beat the Bison to get into the playoffs at 7-4 and three ranked wins. NDSU played its best half of football in the final two quarters last week vs. SIU, rolling the Salukis for its first ranked win of the season. The Bison are now in a scenario where they could possibly get a playoff seed if they win Saturday, finishing 8-3 and back-to-back ranked wins, although there may be four teams battling for that No. 8 seed.
Prisoner of the moment Saturday, when NDSU was rolling and UNI was struggling, had me saying the Bison will win this week. But it could be a tough matchup for NDSU. UNI is at home. Its back is against the wall, which is when the program plays its best. Statistically, NDSU is No. 10 in FCS passing defense (169.2 YPG) going up against UNI’s No. 18 passing offense (260.8 YPG). But there have been some weaknesses exposed throwing against NDSU’s DBs and LBs, who have gotten picked on through the air vs. USD, Missouri State, and SDSU. The Bison had their worst coverage grade against SDSU two games ago at 49.8 on PFF. If Theo Day, who has faced inconsistencies, is on, this could be the toughest passing attack for the Bison to stop. NDSU’s d-line played its best game last week and will need to do so again to help slow it down.
I thought UNI would win this game two weeks ago. Last week almost changed my mind. But I’ll stick to it now and say UNI wins in a somewhat higher-scoring game as both Day and Cam Miller have big games.
Prediction: UNI 35-31
Idaho State at No. 6 Idaho
Idaho was in line for a Top 2 seed last week. All it needed to do was beat two unranked opponents. Welp, Weber State ruined those plans by knocking off Idaho. But … the Vandals can still get a seed if they win Saturday. An 8-3 record with a few ranked wins, an FBS win, and two FCS losses is a seedable resume this year.
After barely beating Northern Colorado two weeks ago and losing at Weber last Saturday, this game makes you wonder a bit more. Idaho State is 3-7, but it has been so much more competitive under first-year head coach Cody Hawkins. The Bengals have one-score losses to FBS San Diego State, ranked Montana, Weber State, and UC Davis.
Idaho should have had a wake-up call against Northern Colorado. Instead, the Vandals hit snooze and lost to Weber. Now, the alarms should be ringing loud to handle business this Saturday to earn a bye.
Prediction: Idaho 31-17