The FCS playoffs are underway! We're down to 16 teams playing to determine a true football national champion.
Who are the top favorites? Who are the long-shots?
Sam Herder ranks his favorites to win the national title of the remaining teams in the field. This list will get knocked down from 24 to 16 to eight to four and then it's national title time.
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IMPORTANT: There's a 99 percent chance multiple people will arrive in my mentions without reading this very important message. This is NOT a ranking of the 24 best teams in the playoffs. The postseason is all about matchups. If your potential second-round game is against NDSU, you're probably not going to be very high on this list. If you get sent to a No. 7 or 8 seed after a first-round win, you have a better chance of advancing further in the playoffs. Just because a team is ranked higher than another team doesn't mean they are better, it just means they have a better opportunity to advance further. Make sense? I sure hope so.
Nicholls has had a fantastic 2019 season. The team has some talented dudes and this program continues to ascend after some rough years. But let's be realistic here, the Bison are just on a different level. The Colonels didn't do a whole lot in their first-round win against UND to suggest they can knock off the top team in the FCS. Their strong run defense can maybe disrupt the Bison off of their bread and butter power-run offense, but it'll take a super-human effort to fully stop NDSU and also get enough points on the board to pull off this upset. Had it drawn a better matchup, this team is good enough to reach the quarterfinals. Nicholls did beat No. 8 seed UCA 34-14 earlier this season. The gap NDSU has on a majority of FCS teams will be apparent on Saturday, though.
The Hawks looked impressive in a dominating first-round win against Holy Cross. But finding that offensive success is a whole different animal against No. 2 seed JMU. Pete Guerriero ran for 200+ yards and three touchdowns last week. The question is can the offensive line create those holes against the best defensive line in the FCS? JMU ranks first in the subdivision with 62.8 rushing yards allowed per game and a staggering 2.1 yards allowed per carry. Monmouth is one of the better unseeded teams. But this matchup just isn't ideal.
14. Kennesaw State
"Another Owls win wouldn't shock me, but I don't see a potential second-round trip against a physical Weber State team going all that well." That's how I ended my thoughts on KSU in this article last week. Wofford was the popular pick, so the Owls proved a lot of doubters wrong in the first round. But no one should be shocked KSU got that win. A victory at No. 3 seed Weber State would be a much bigger surprise, though. The Wildcats are ninth in the FCS with 107.3 rushing yards allowed per game. Their defensive line is among the best in the FCS and will be the toughest challenge for KSU's OL.
13. Southeastern Louisiana
The Lions' hotness and coldness was on full display in the first round. Down 31-14 at halftime, SLU came back to win 45-44. When this team is clicking, the Lions are a scary opponent for anyone. They'll face another hot and cold team in No. 6 seed Montana. Expect an entertaining game, but the Griz have a big-time home-field advantage in their favor.
Boy, the Great Danes looked pretty dang good against a solid CCSU team, winning 42-14 last week. Redshirt freshman QB Jeff Undercuffler is the real deal and had six touchdown passes. Now it's a tough trip across the country to No. 5 seed Montana State. The Bobcats finished the regular season in blazing fashion. They also have a tendency to not play as well when they're favored in a game. Albany can make this interesting, but it's hard to pick against MSU at home.
11. Austin Peay
Austin Peay's historic season continues after a 42-6 thrashing of Furman. Now it's on to face No. 4 seed Sacramento State. The Hornets are new to the playoffs as well, so we'll see how they handle an unfamiliar stage. This is another game where I don't see a blowout happening. But I do think a week off is huge for Sac State to get healthy, especially QB Kevin Thomson, who's been terrific before missing some action late in the regular season. The Govs will have to play their best game of the year to knock off the Hornets.
10. Northern Iowa
UNI feels like it got snubbed from a seed. While I disagree with that (UNI and SDSU have identical resumes and the Jacks beat UNI 38-7 a couple of weeks ago), the Panthers have a perfect opportunity to prove it by heading back to Brookings. But their offensive performance against San Diego, a 17-3 win, doesn't instill a whole lot of confidence in me. Plus, UNI has a number of key players who are injured and beat up while the Jacks had a week off to get some standout players back. I just don't know if this team has enough juice to beat SDSU. And if the Panthers do, a tall task at JMU would be next.
9. Central Arkansas (#8 seed)
I laid out most of my thoughts on the UCA-Illinois State game below. It comes down to this: Can the UCA defensive line physically win the battle against the ISU offensive line? If it can't, the Bears are going to lose. I don't care how much speed UCA has. If the Bears can't be physical, they are going to suffer the same fate as SEMO last week. This team is too up and down for me to put a whole lot of trust in. So I lean the Redbirds very narrowly.
8. Illinois State
The Redbirds are going to black-and-blue their way offensively through the playoffs until someone stops it. That's not an ideal way to win games against an NDSU or JMU type of team. But ISU drew a favorable draw in No. 8 seed UCA. People roll their eyes at these kinds of statements, but the proof is there that the physical style of MVFC teams typically beats out the speed of southern teams. We saw that last week against SEMO when the Redbirds threw for 52 yards and ran for 340 yards with James Robinson earning 297 of them. It was just a butt-kicking in the trenches. Can the Bears stop the run even when they know it's coming?
7. South Dakota State (#7 seed)
I don't see UNI's offense being much of a threat to SDSU. And I think the Jacks can do just enough offensively to get this win. But I don't like the quarterfinal matchup at James Madison next week. Fully healthy, the Jacks can do some serious damage in the playoffs. The ceiling for the current squad is the quarterfinals, in my opinion.
6. Sacramento State (#4 seed)
The Hornets should get pushed by Austin Peay, but a win is still expected. The postseason is new territory for this program, but Sac State is so well-coached under Troy Taylor that I'm not sure that will be a factor. The potential quarterfinal game against Montana State is where I get concerned, though. Yes, the Hornets beat MSU 34-21 in October. The Bobcats are playing at a much higher level now and I believe have what it takes to knock off Sac State next week.
5. Montana State (#5 seed)
Something tells me MSU is going to have to grind out a close game against Albany this week. The Bobcats are at their best when they aren't expected to win. So I think Saturday is going to be a battle. But the following week? I've got the Bobcats beating Sac State in a much better showing. MSU has built its team the right way to win games in the playoffs: play good defense and run the hell out of the ball. I think we see a performance against the Hornets like we saw against Montana. The fun probably stops there, though, with a trip to Fargo in the semifinals.
4. Montana (#6 seed)
Montana State proved it's a better team than Montana last week. But again (I hope you guys didn't scroll past the long italicized paragraph), this isn't a ranking of the best teams. This is a ranking of who has the best path to a national title. And the Griz's path is a little clearer than their rival's, but it's still not a great one. Montana would have to win at Weber State, which I think the Griz can. They hammered the Wildcats just a few weeks ago, but Weber is a different animal at home. And even with a quarterfinal win, Montana would then fly across the country and play at James Madison. That's a brutal two games just to have a chance at a national championship.
3. Weber State (#3 seed)
The Wildcats get a couple of games at home, which is just huge. This team is 17-2 in Ogden since 2017. That 2017 season ended with a heartbreaking quarterfinal loss at top-seeded JMU 31-28, a game in which Weber had every chance to win. Last year ended with a home loss in the quarterfinals to Maine. Weber's route to a national title is a tough one. It's likely to see Montana visit for a clash in the quarterfinals. And then it'd be another trip to JMU. That'd be a battle, but the Dukes are just too loaded this year. I can see the Wildcats taking the next step and reaching the semifinals, but the season ends there.
2. James Madison (#2 seed)
The bottom half of the bracket has plenty more landmines than the top half. UNI or SDSU could be scary teams for the Dukes in the quarterfinals. The semifinals would likely be a dangerous Weber State team or an explosive Montana team that has looked fantastic at times this season. But JMU is too talented, experienced and well-coached to fall short of Frisco. Once there, I think the Dukes are right there with NDSU. It'd be another epic game, it's just hard to pick against the Bison right now.
1. North Dakota State (#1 seed)
This appears to be the most favorable road to Frisco NDSU has ever had. You couple that with the Bison historically playing their best football in December, and that's a scary thought for a 12-0 team. I think NDSU rolls to Frisco. Once there, expect another close battle with the Dukes of JMU. I've seen multiple brackets with JMU winning it all. And for good reason. They are extremely talented and match up well with the Bison. I wouldn't even call it a risky pick to have JMU beating NDSU in Frisco. But the Dukes will face stiff competition in the bracket and that will give me a better gauge on them. Until then, the Bison are healthy, hungry and loaded for another national title. Until they give me a reason to pick against them, I'll avoid doing so.
NEXT: Second-Round Favorites
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