Every week of the 2019 FCS season, Sam Herder will update his playoff power poll and top 15 favorites to win the national championship. This is somewhat similar to my STATS Top 25 Poll except that it won't include any Ivy League and HBCU teams.
It's also a bit different because in most polls if a team loses, they drop some spots. In this ranking, that may not always be the case as this is a look ahead to who has the best chance to win it all in January. The beauty of the FCS is one loss doesn't derail the hope of hoisting that trophy in Frisco, Texas.
This is a big-picture look at the national scene and doesn't worry as much about the week-to-week movements in a typical Top 25 poll.
The Top 2 teams mean I expect them to play in Frisco with No. 1 being the winner, 3-4 means a semifinal appearance, 5-8 means a quarterfinal appearance and 9-15 means I think those teams will reach the second round.
15. Montana State
Last week's ranking: 9
There are major, major concerns with Montana State offensively. Until those are fixed, this program isn't going to take that next step. And I just don't know if things can be fixed in the second half of a season. But here's the deal … the Bobcats are 5-2 against the FCS and should win their next two games against SUU and Northern Colorado, who are a combined 3-14. They then just need to split the final two games at UC Davis and versus Montana to hit eight wins. I think MSU can beat UC Davis. We'll see about the Griz. Eight wins and the Bobcats are in. We know they're going to put in a good bid to host in the first round. And they'll probably win that first-round home game to reach the second round, which is why MSU is ranked No. 15 here.
14. North Dakota
Last week's ranking: Unranked
The Fighting Hawks have three wins against ranked opponents at home: SHSU, UC Davis and just recently Montana State. Only MSU is currently ranked at No. 14, although we could see SHSU back in the rankings again. They also have road losses to two teams who won't be in the playoffs: EWU and Idaho State. The 55-20 loss at Idaho State is especially an eyesore. But UND sits at 5-3 with three games remaining in a 12-game schedule. On paper, the Hawks will go 2-1 with a loss at No. 3 Weber State and wins against Northern Colorado and Southern Utah. At 7-4, UND has an above-average chance at the playoffs with hopes of MSU being in the playoffs and SHSU making the playoffs as well. The Hawks could also just make the committee's decision on them easier by knocking off Weber. But that's a tall order. If UND gets in at 7-4, I feel like they'd put in a good bid to host a first-round game. And the Hawks have been awesome at home. If the committee sticks to its regionalization guns, though, I don't like UND's chances getting past the second round.
13. Stony Brook
Last week's ranking: Unranked
Stony Brook is back in this ranking after a huge and dramatic win at No. 5 Villanova. The Seawolves are now 5-2 against the FCS with the two losses being in overtime against No. 2 JMU and then a 20-14 loss versus New Hampshire. Now, time will tell if they stay in the Top 15. That's obviously up to the team and if it can avoid this mess of CAA teams beating up on each other. Stony Brook can finish the season 4-0 and it wouldn't surprise me. It can also finish 0-4 and it wouldn't surprise me. Richmond, Towson, Delaware and Albany have all shown flashes of promise and disappointment. Can Stony Brook separate from that middle-of-the-CAA pack?
Last week's ranking: 12
Wofford is right on the verge of cracking this ranking with five straight wins. Furman's game against the Terriers on Nov. 16 is going to be massive. I just still like the potential of this Furman team and how good it can be when things are clicking. The 17-point loss to The Citadel a couple of games ago still makes me unsure if this team can make it past the second round. The Paladins are still 5-1 against the FCS, though, and are in play for a seed.
11. Central Arkansas
Last week's ranking: Unranked
UCA is 5-1 versus FCS competition with an FBS win against Western Kentucky. I have the Bears as a seed if the season ended today. This team certainly has a good chance to finish the season 4-0 with games against Lamar, Southeastern Louisiana, SFA and UIW. The Bears need to avoid those Southland letdowns, though. With how good its resume is, I'm still unsure if UCA can reach the quarterfinals. Some of the close wins make me hesitant. The Bears have beaten both Abilene Christian and Northwestern State by a score of 31-30. ACU is decent at 5-4, but NW State is 1-7. UCA's 29-25 win against SHSU this last week was impressive.
10. Illinois State
Last week's ranking: 11
I've cooled off on the Redbirds since their disappointing showing at home against NDSU, a 37-3 loss. But the Bison have made many quality FCS teams look bad this year. Since that loss, Illinois State has won three straight games by 14 points or more. The team is 6-1 against the FCS. Now, these next two games versus UNI and at SDSU are going to tell us a lot. But I think the Redbirds are playoff-bound and good enough to reach the second round.
Last week's ranking: 5
Nova is 0-2 since losing standout running back Justin Covington. One loss was a competitive game at James Madison until the Dukes rolled in the fourth quarter. But after a bye week, the Wildcats were stunned on their homecoming by Stony Brook, who scored touchdowns with 4:45 and 1:32 remaining and then hit a field goal as the clock expired to win 36-35 after trailing 35-20. Nova is now 6-2 overall and against FCS foes. A seed is still in play with games remaining against UNH, Richmond, LIU and Delaware. But this team is trending in the wrong direction and has gone from a Top 5 team to a Top 10 team.
Last week's ranking: 8
Even with a strength of schedule that Massey ranks 110th in the FCS (this is me acknowledging that yes, KSU got screwed and had some good teams back out of games) (and this is also me acknowledging that that has nothing to do with one's SOS), the Owls are likely going to go undefeated against FCS competition and get a seed. And hey, I do think this is a solid team with good defense and a tricky offense to defend. My only disagreements when it comes to the Owls is when coaches, who obviously watch a ton of film on teams they don't play and spend hours researching and working on spreadsheets to determine who has the best resumes around the country, rank KSU as a Top 4 team. I think KSU will make the quarterfinals. And I think that's fair and a compliment to say a team will make it as far as it did last year after graduating a big and talented senior class. I just don't see an appearance in the semifinals happening, especially if the Owls get a No. 7 or 8 seed that I think the committee will give them like they did with Colgate last year, who had a similar resume.
Last week's ranking: 10
I kept the Panthers in the 9-15 range in this ranking because they haven't been able to get past the second round in recent years. But looking at their schedule, UNI can play itself into a seed. The Panthers have been hot these last two games and they can get a huge road win at Illinois State on Saturday if this play continues. Then it should be a win the next week against Indiana State and another win two weeks later to close the regular season versus WIU. The key game is the one between those two. The Panthers travel to SDSU and have been a thorn in the Jacks' side these last two seasons with wins. SDSU may be without QB J'Bore Gibbs for a few weeks or longer. We'll see if this weekend against the Redbirds can be the start of a big regular-season finish for UNI.
Last week's ranking: 7
Well, the Griz proved me wrong and showed they were able to rebound from a disappointing loss with their backup quarterback in to defeat EWU 34-17. Montana is 6-1 against the FCS and in contention for a seed. While the Sac State loss showed this team probably isn't ready to take that giant step forward as a legit national title contender just yet, the Grizzlies still look capable of taking a big step and reaching the quarterfinals. They should be 8-1 against the FCS heading into the final two games, which is where the Griz can determine if they're seeded or not. They host Weber State and travel to Montana State. Cam Humphrey showed he's a solid backup QB. He can play, going 20-29 passing for 176 yards and a TD against EWU. But Dalton Sneed is a special player and his health is key in Montana's playoff outlook.
5. Weber State
Last week's ranking: 6
Weber just keeps on winning and is now 6-0 against FCS competition. The defense is still one of the best in the FCS. And hey, while I've long said I don't trust this offense versus defenses the caliber of NDSU, JMU or SDSU (or Maine last year), the Wildcats are averaging 37.8 points per game in those six FCS wins. (Weber scored zero points against San Diego State and 13 points against Nevada.) I still like this team to advance to its third straight quarterfinals. And Saturday will tell me if it's ready to crack the Top 4 because Weber plays, well, the No. 4 team in this ranking.
Last week's ranking: 4
Sac State continued its tremendous play with a 38-14 win at Cal Poly, a game that could've had the word "trap" in front of it. This team is just flat-out solid. Whether it's in all of the statistical categories or watching the team perform on the field, there aren't a lot of holes in this team. The one that sticks out the most is the pass defense, which allows 249.3 yards per game to rank 84th in the FCS. But the Hornets have the offensive firepower and defensive line play to overcome that (4th in the FCS with 9.5 tackles for loss per game and 3rd with 4 sacks per game). A big test comes Saturday against No. 3 Weber State.
Last week's ranking: 3
You can read my thoughts on SDSU's performance against NDSU and outlook moving forward right here. That'll go more in-depth. In short: the Jackrabbits are a legit, talented and complete team. The defense is outstanding. The running game with the backs and OL still produced even when the Bison had little fear of a passing attack. But that right there is the key for SDSU. As of this typing, the severity of QB J'Bore Gibbs' knee injury is unknown. With him, the Jacks are no doubt good enough to win a national title. Without him, SDSU showed it's still a pretty damn good team. But boy, the ultimate goal of a win in Frisco gets a whole lot tougher when the offense is considerably more limited with a backup in.
Last week's ranking: 2
The lead-up to the NDSU-SDSU game and the drama that ensued on Saturday sucked up a lot of the oxygen in the FCS. But there was James Madison, looking real good in a 27-10 win against No. 16 Towson to remain undefeated against the FCS. The Dukes are living up to preseason expectations. And anyone who still isn't buying the hype is just going off of emotion instead of facts and observing the play on the field for themselves. JMU ranks seventh in the FCS with 38.9 points per game and sixth with 16.1 points allowed per game. The Dukes are doing it against the 21st toughest schedule in the subdivision, according to Massey. For reference, NDSU's strength of schedule is 16th. Let's not forget just how loaded this team is.
Last week's ranking: 1
NDSU is 8-0 and has wins against No. 24 UND, No. 7 Illinois State, No. 9 UNI and No. 4 SDSU (in the current STATS poll). No question the Bison have the best playoff resume and are the favorites once again to win it all. But SDSU did make the Bison look human and had chances to knock them off in the fourth quarter with the Jacks' third-string QB. Even Missouri State was able to slow down the Bison offense a couple of Saturdays ago. Yet NDSU is still rattling off wins. Maybe the Bison won't coast to another national title like they did in the 2018 playoffs. But until a team actually finishes the job and defeats NDSU, it's hard to doubt the Bison and where they'll be on Jan. 11.
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