Separation Saturdays are underway in the final stretch of the 2023 FCS regular season. Postseason positioning continues to ramp up, and implications are certainly high this week.
Let’s predict some scores for a handful of the best matchups.
2023 Record: 49-22
2019-2022 Record: 337-158
No. 1 South Dakota State at No. 4 South Dakota
RELATED: What’s At Stake For USD vs. SDSU?
SDSU has been winners of many tackle football games in recent years. Its players have won a good number of playoff games. And the players have enjoyed a national title win. Something they haven’t experienced, though, is winning in Vermillion. That’s right, the last time SDSU won at USD was in 2017.
If that’s not enough motivation, the No. 4 next to South Dakota should do it.
But USD has something to prove as well in the motivation department. “Is South Dakota really the fourth-best team in the FCS?” has been asked, even at 6-0 vs. the FCS with two ranked victories and a win in Fargo.
The Coyotes look the part of a Top 5 team. They are good in all areas. QB Aidan Bouman is playing at a high level, RB Travis Theis is a beast, LBs Brock Mogensen and Stephen Hillis are dudes, and the lines are solid. But the scale of evaluation ramps up to the highest level when compared to the No. 1 team in the land.
SDSU, frankly, is just better in all of those areas. Mark Gronowski is a gamer at QB, he has three receivers who can go over 100 yards in any game, Isaiah Davis is a top FCS running back behind the best FCS o-line, the SDSU d-line is starting to generate more pressure, and the Jackrabbits are stacked at linebacker.
SDSU can just come at you in so many different ways on offense. And nothing comes easy against its defense. The film backs that up too, as PFF has the Jacks as the No. 1 graded offense and defense in the subdivision.
USD will have to play its best game of the year to get a win, even at home. But it’s hard to see SDSU having an off game Saturday. The energy and focus will be on point. And when the Jacks are on, they are the best team this subdivision has seen in the 2020s.
Prediction: SDSU 35-24
Mercer at No. 10 Western Carolina
WCU can’t mess around here. A week after a tough loss to Furman in a Top 10 matchup, WCU needs to stay in the good graces of the playoff committee as it fights for a seed. The Catamounts are No. 9 in the committee’s rankings. They will be favored to beat Mercer, Wofford, ETSU, and VMI to finish 9-2 overall and 9-1 vs. the FCS. With some upsets and/or the Top 8 teams knocking each other off, WCU hopes to climb into that Top 8 and earn a first-round bye.
Mercer has plenty to play for, though, and will present a challenge. Ty James is a special, special talent at WR for the Bears. At 5-3, a win on Saturday sets up for a potential 8-3 finish and a playoff bid. Mercer has fallen just short of the postseason in recent years. Will they prove they’re over that hump with an upset Saturday?
Perhaps a slow start is in store for WCU. Going from hosting a Top 5 team to an unranked team may not bring the same juice for young men. But once that offense gets rolling, led by Cole Gonzales, AJ Colombo, a massive offensive line, and potentially a healthier Desmond Reid, Mercer is going to struggle to keep up. Reid and Colombo are the highest-graded FCS players at their positions on PFF. This team is out to prove it’s still among the best in the FCS.
Prediction: Western Carolina 42-28
Monmouth at No. 22 William & Mary
W&M’s slide has been astounding. From preseason No. 4 with veterans back on its quarterfinal squad, to now hanging onto its ranking by a thread. The Tribe is 4-2 with two unranked FCS losses, including last week’s 34-24 home loss to Towson, who was 2-4 entering the game. Things don’t get any easier when a dangerous Monmouth team comes to town.
W&M’s offensive struggles shouldn’t overshadow what has been a legit defense, which makes last week’s 34 points allowed to Towson puzzling. Nate Lynn and John Pius are some stalwarts on the d-line. But Towson went for 208 yards rushing last week.
That leads us to Monmouth, and more notably Jaden Shirden, a top-tier FCS running back. If he can break through the first line of defense, he’s an absolute menace in the open field. Shirden has rushed for 922 yards and six touchdowns this season, averaging 6.1 yards per carry. This is after a 1,700-yard season a year ago.
Monmouth is 3-4 overall and 2-2 in the CAA. Two of its losses are by one score. I see the Hawks putting one more nail in W&M’s Top 25 coffin.
Prediction: Monmouth 28-21
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No. 2 Montana State at No. 9 Idaho
RELATED: What’s At Stake For Idaho vs. MSU?
Back-to-back road trips for MSU with a super late arrival home last weekend, plus some injuries on the MSU defense. Can the Bobcats get their bodies right going into an electric atmosphere? And on the other side, you have an Idaho team that has had a week to prepare and mend some glaring weaknesses from its loss to Montana.
The Bobcats will be challenged, indeed.
They are battle-tested, though, now entering their fourth road trip at a Top 10 ranked team. And boy have they passed the tests so far. A close loss at No. 1 SDSU proved they are ready to be a legitimate national title threat. A 40-0 win at No. 10 Weber State was an emphatic statement at the time. And last week’s 42-30 win at No. 3 Sac State showed off a dominant fourth quarter where they led 42-24 until a late Hornets score.
Another challenge awaits, as Idaho’s offensive skilled players are as good as it gets in the FCS. They will go after an MSU defense that will be without starting linebacker Danny Uluilakepa. Safety Dru Polidore was playing with a club on his hand last week. And nickelback Level Price Jr., the No. 3-graded FCS cornerback on PFF, is day-to-day.
The best way to help your coverage is a good pass rush. And that may be the difference on Saturday.
Idaho’s o-line isn’t up to that top-tier standard just yet. That was evident vs. Montana. And that’s not too ideal against MSU’s elite defensive line. Idaho’s pass-blocking grade on PFF is 120th in the FCS. Montana State’s pass-rush grade is 33rd, while its 21 team sacks are the fifth most. Montana State’s coverage grade is 26th on PFF going up against the No. 4-graded passing offense. I’d expect Idaho to solve some of its o-line woes schematically in the last two weeks of prep. Whether that be an extra blocker, moving the pocket for Gevani McCoy to throw on the run, or simply getting the ball out of McCoy’s hands quicker.
And oh, we haven’t even mentioned the Bobcats on offense. MSU just grinds opponents down on the ground, and its passing game continues to get it done when needed. The Vandals are 74th on PFF in its run-defense grade going up against the top FCS rushing attack.
MSU just has that “it” factor about its team this fall. The Bobcats are on a mission, and another road win is critical to set up their best path to a national title.
Prediction: Montana State 38-31
No. 8 UIW at Lamar
As the kids say, mess around and find out.
UIW hopes it doesn’t need to learn that lesson after some underwhelming performances vs. unranked opponents.
Those performances were reflected in the FCS playoff committee keeping an undefeated vs. the FCS UIW team out of their Top 8. The Cardinals beat unranked Abilene Christian 27-20. They beat now 1-7 SLU 33-26. They beat now 1-6 Texas A&M-Commerce 28-11. And last week, UIW was down 24-7 against winless McNeese before coming back to win 35-24. Richard Torres, who is the third-string QB, played terrific after being inserted into the lineup in the second half to spark the comeback.
Now, UIW takes on a much-improved Lamar team under first-year head coach Peter Rossomando. Lamar is 4-3 overall and 3-0 in the Southland following a 1-10 season last year and a 2-9 record in 2021. Robert Coleman has played well, throwing for 1,339 yards, nine TDs, and three interceptions. The defense is allowing 22.4 points per game, which ranks No. 35 in the FCS.
UIW is dealing with several injuries to key players, including its starting QB Zach Calzada. He was held out last week for precautionary rest with a non-throwing arm injury. Chances are better he’ll give it a go this week.
I’ll repeat: This year’s UIW team can’t help who they play, but they can help how they play if they want to prove they are a Top 8 team in the FCS playoffs. They’ll need to start giving Southland opponents the ol’ Sam Houston treatment. UIW has more talent than Lamar, they just need to show it on the field for all four quarters.
Prediction: UIW 45-28
No. 5 Delaware at Towson
Delaware just keeps on rolling.
The Blue Hens have yet to lose to an FCS opponent this fall as their offense is lighting it up and the defense has seen some new starters step up. Even with starting quarterback Ryan O’Connor sidelined last week with an upper-body injury, the Blue Hens still put up 47 points in a dominating win over Hampton. Backup QB Zach Marker threw for 239 yards and a touchdown in the W.
Towson is not to be taken lightly, though. The Tigers may be 3-4, but two of those wins came against then-Top 15 teams in a 54-51 overtime victory over New Hampshire and last week’s 34-24 win over W&M. Towson may not make the playoffs this fall, but it will certainly be a factor in the postseason race out of the CAA. Pete Shinnick has things going in the right direction in his first season at the helm.
O’Connor’s status is uncertain. And road trips in the CAA are rarely easy. Delaware will be pushed, but with its momentum and Top 5 playoff rankings, the Blue Hens can’t afford an upset loss if they want to hold onto its high standings with the playoff committee.
Prediction: Delaware 38-21
Tarleton State at No. 18 Central Arkansas
Watch UCA Football and you shall be entertained.
The Bears are 5-2, have some phenomenal athletes, and there always seems to be some fourth-quarter drama in their games. They have won their last three contests by two, five, and three points, all featuring some sort of fourth-quarter comeback. ShunDerrick Powell is nearing 1,000 yards rushing. Will McElvain has thrown 16 TDs to three interceptions. And David Walker is up to eight TFLs and 5.5 sacks.
Tarleton has some talent as well, led by Kayvon Britten’s 755 yards on the ground and nine TDs. The Texans can put up some points, but they can be turnover-prone. And the defense is gettable. Tarleton (5-3) is going to be a factor in the FCS down the road, assuming it isn’t in the FBS. They are funding football well and are drawing great crowds. The Texans rank fifth in FCS average home attendance (19,064).
This one’s on the stripes, though.
Going to UCA and getting a win will be too much. There’s just something about their fourth-quarter clutch gene that makes the Bears hard to pick against. Expect some more second-half shenanigans in a fun game.
Prediction: Central Arkansas 45-35