The FCS playoffs are underway! We're down to eight teams playing to determine a true football national champion.
Who are the top favorites? Who are the long-shots?
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IMPORTANT: 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.
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." That's from last week's article. It's going to take a lot more than lining up in a phone booth and try to out-Bison the Bison to get a win. The Redbirds are fantastic on defense and the offensive line and James Robinson are dominating. Plus, the MVFC program is familiar with the Fargodome. But a one-dimensional offense, and really a one-dimensional rushing attack within the rushing attack (hand the ball off to Robinson, who has 78 attempts for 507 yards and 3 TDs in the 2 playoff wins), and that's not a great recipe to beat NDSU and advance further in the playoffs.
7. Northern Iowa
The Panthers were a popular pick as a potential unseeded team that could make a decent playoff run. But a majority of people still figured the field would go chalk with all eight seeds advancing to the quarterfinals. UNI proved it is that team to make a run. Behind another dominating defensive effort and the offense making the necessary plays when it matters most, the Panthers beat No. 7 seed South Dakota State 13-10 in Brookings, a place they lost 38-7 less than a month ago. Now UNI heads to No. 2 seed JMU. The Dukes are considered a Tier 1 FCS team in 2019 for a reason. It'll take a monstrous effort to knock them off.
6. Austin Peay
Austin Peay is legit. The Govs proved that Saturday with a dismantling of No. 4 seed Sac State. But the path to a national title is still a long shot. First, they have to go to Bobcat Stadium and play Montana State, one of the hottest teams in the FCS right now. Even with a win, it's then on to likely play the No. 1 Bison. And that's just to get to Frisco for a chance at the title.
5. Montana State (#5 seed)
The Bobcats have the defense, the running game and now appear to have the balance on offense to make a deep playoff run. They'll be challenged Saturday against Austin Peay, but are favored to win at home. The big obstacle to reach Frisco then is NDSU in the semifinals. How much have the Bobcats closed that gap from last year's blowout loss in the Fargodome? Enough to get a win? I'm not sold on that just yet. The path to a national title for the Bobcats is tougher than the other two Big Sky teams still in the bracket.
4. Weber State (#3 seed)
The Weber State-Montana game is a tossup, and the betting lines seem to agree. The Wildcats have been terrific at home, going 18-2 since 2017. Is that home-field advantage that much of an equalizer to a Montana team that beat Weber State 35-16 in Missoula a few weeks ago? We'll see. With a win, a likely road trip to JMU follows. That's back-to-back tough games to punch your ticket to the national title game.
3. Montana (#6 seed)
As I said above, the Griz defeated Weber State a few weeks ago, and the final score doesn't indicate how much of a blowout this was. Doing it on the road is a whole different deal. The Griz looked as good as they have in years in their second-round 73-28 win against Southeastern Louisiana. They are also 3-3 on the road (one came against Oregon). Can Montana win back-to-back road games against the No. 3 and No. 2 seeds to reach Frisco? I think the Grizzlies go 1-1 in this scenario.
2. James Madison (#2 seed)
The Dukes said enough with the BS and responded to a 21-21 tie with Monmouth with quite the run to finish the game, winning 66-21. JMU will want a better start, though, as it's going to get tested a bit more than the Bison on its side of the bracket to make it back to Frisco. UNI and Weber State/Montana can pose serious threats if the Dukes aren't on their A-game. But, for the most part, this team has been a focused group in the second half of this season. And the Dukes are built for a long playoff run and match up really well with an assumed game versus NDSU in Frisco. They play great defense, especially against the run. The offense spreads you out, has a physical running game with a mobile quarterback and big-play threats at receiver. It's a matchup many of us expect to see in Texas.
1. North Dakota State (#1 seed)
I don't think the Bison were "exposed" on Saturday. In fact, their game against Nicholls went about as I expected. I predicted a similar game to the second-round matchup against San Diego from a few years ago, where the Bison offense took a while to get going against a defense better than it was given credit for. In the end, NDSU defeated Nicholls 37-13 in a performance that left the players unsatisfied, according to head coach Matt Entz. That tells you the level of expectations this team has. The Bison still have a favorable path to Frisco. And once there, it looks like we're in store for another close game between them and the Dukes.
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