The great thing about the 24-team FCS playoff bracket is every week there’s at least one game you can look at and say, “this has big postseason implications.”
Whether it’s a Week 1 game between the Missouri Valley Football Conference and the Big Sky Conference that could be a factor in how many at-large bids the two conferences get in November. Or a November game that knocks a team from a seed or a playoff berth altogether. Every week molds the picture of what the field is going to look like.
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We get a special treat from the FCS this season with a 13-week calendar. This means most teams are playing 12 games.
Not including FCS vs. FBS games, these are the most important matchups of every week with the biggest playoff implications:
This game may not jump off the page right away. Heading into Week 1, it's doubtful South Dakota will be ranked in the Top 25 and it's 50/50 on if Montana will be. But both teams have a good amount of returning starters and are eyeing a return to the playoffs.
Last year, four Big Sky teams made the playoffs compared to three MVFC teams despite the Valley winning the Big Sky-MVFC Challenge Series 5-3. This is one of 10 games in the 2019 series, a game that can sway Montana or USD's playoff hopes as both teams look to be in that 7-win range this season.
Major shout-out to JSU for beefing up its nonconference schedule recently. The Gamecocks look like a legitimate national title contender this year, but needs to prove that against non-Ohio Valley Conference opponents. Chattanooga is going to present a big challenge coming off a 6-5 season.
The Mocs return a majority of their offense with QB Nick Tiano and WR Bryce Nunnelly a dynamic duo in the passing game. Chattanooga has the talent to return to the playoffs. But its nonconference slate includes tough games against JSU, FBS Tennessee and James Madison before the grind of the SoCon schedule. A win here for either team is huge in the long term.
Back-to-back biggies for the Gamecocks. This is a premier nonconference game in the FCS. It'll be a chance for EWU to show it has the roster to return to Frisco. And JSU can cement itself as a Top 5, maybe even a Top 3 team in the FCS.
JSU's Zerrick Cooper vs. EWU's Eric Barriere is going to be a must-see QB battle. And while this is an early season matchup, the result will be looked at when the playoff seeds are being decided.
We'll find a lot out about these two teams with this game. UC Davis was painfully close to making it to the semifinals last year. And with the way Maine played at EWU, a trip to Frisco for the Aggies was likely. This is a team that returns mostly everyone on its high-powered offense besides NFL wide receiver Keelan Doss.
On the other side, NDSU's starting lineup took a big hit on graduation day. But the Bison are a rare FCS team that can reload while only returning seven total starters on offense and defense. Will NDSU continue to be the class of the FCS? Or will the gap shrink in 2019? This game, which should be between Top 10 ranked teams, will tell us a lot about the national title picture.
New JMU head coach Curt Cignetti heads back to his former school as the Dukes try to get revenge for last year's 27-24 loss to the Phoenix. Both teams return a ton of starters as JMU looks to get back into the national title picture and Elon wants to remind people just how good of a program it is.
This is the second game in a three-game road trip for the Dukes. Elon will be coming off a game against FBS Wake Forest. A tight race is expected once again in the CAA. The importance of this game in the conference standings and for playoff positioning is massive.
ETSU showed it's now a program that's going to be a factor in the Southern Conference title race, winning a share of the 2018 championship with Wofford and Furman. The SoCon standings were a mess last year, making it extremely tough for the playoff committee. Furman, for example, went 6-2 in the conference and 6-4 overall but was left out of the field.
With what they have coming back for starters, Wofford and ETSU are going to be favorites to win the conference championship. It might be even tougher to do so this year than last season, though, making this game a huge one.
Speaking of messy conference standings, the CAA had a ton of teams in playoff contention late into the season. At one point last year, 7-8 teams had arguments to be in the field if the regular season ended that day. Elon and Delaware were two of those teams and will be in the hunt again in 2019.
The CAA made history last year with six teams in the playoff bracket. Will the conference's performance (going 1-4 in the first round) impact the playoff committee's mind this time around, though? That probably depends on what the bubble looks like. But a CAA team will feel much more comfortable in the Top 4 of its conference standings than at No. 5 or 6. This game should cause a big movement in those standings.
Expect SHSU to bounce back in a big way coming off a disappointing 6-5 season last year. Both sides of the ball return a large number of its starters and the offense should be more consistent with quarterback Ty Brock in his second year behind center.
Nicholls has its big names back as well after winning the Southland Conference title, although the offensive and defensive lines will have some new names. This league was as unpredictable as ever in 2018. Week after week, a team in the top half of the standings would lose to a team in the bottom half. Nicholls and SHSU will have to avoid those upsets. But there's no doubt this game could prove to be the difference in who holds up the conference title.
SDSU continues to close the gap on the Bison, but just aren't quite there yet by season's end. The Jackrabbits are loaded entering 2019, and if they can find a solid replacement for Taryn Christion at QB and fill some holes in the secondary, getting past that quarterfinal-to-semifinal hump is realistic.
To do that, SDSU needs a favorable seed. These two rivals have battled for the conference title the last few seasons. The Bison have won the last two outright while sharing the championship with the Jacks in 2016. Experience is on SDSU's side this year with the Bison replacing a ton of starters. But is this the season the Jacks can hold the MVFC title to themselves and potentially earn that Top 2 playoff seed?
The Owls have run roughshod over the Big South, going undefeated in 2017 and 2018. The offense will see an overhaul in new starters this year, potentially allowing a team like Monmouth, who finished 4-1 in the conference standings last year, to close the gap.
The Big South wasn't deemed strong enough to get two teams into the postseason in 2018 despite Monmouth going 8-3 overall. Things would certainly get interesting if KSU does lose this game. The Owls don't have a strong schedule this year and could still go 9-2, but what happens if Monmouth gets the Big South auto bid? That could make for an interesting playoff scenario. But then again, KSU could just keep its conference winning streak alive after reloading with some strong recruiting in recent years. This is a sneaky interesting game.
While the Jackrabbits have competed at the top of the MVFC the past few seasons, they have suffered an untimely loss that ultimately cost them the conference title and a higher playoff seed. The Jacks could earn a huge win a couple of weeks prior by beating the Bison in Brookings again. Another challenge awaits, though.
Illinois State certainly has the firepower to be a Valley championship contender this year. This game could not only eliminate a team's chances at the title, but also could secure a playoff seed for the winner if they keep their noses clean in the final two weeks. Both teams look to be that good in 2019.
Something tells me this game is going to decide the SoCon championship. Don't sleep on Furman this year. The Paladins return a huge number of starters, especially on offense. And Wofford should be as strong as it has been in recent years with a loaded offense as well.
As stated above, these two teams shared the conference title last year at 6-2. Only one, Wofford, made the playoffs. You don't have to worry about putting your fate in the playoff committee's hands if you win the auto bid.
The 118th Brawl of the Wild turned out to be a playoff qualifier game, just like I predicted in this article a year ago. Montana State won in dramatic fashion to finish the regular season 7-4 and get a playoff bid while Montana ended its season at 6-5.
These teams will be vying for playoff positioning again a day before the bracket is announced. Hell, with its schedule and returning talent, the Bobcats could be in the discussion for a seed. And Montana has gone without a playoff appearance long enough. Both programs are back on the rise to where they belong. Stakes were at an all-time high last year. Expect the same in 2019.
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