The beauty of a 24-team football playoff system is it leaves no doubt who the best team in the FCS is. Yes, matchups matter. Especially when it's not a true 1-24-seeded bracket. But in the end, the best teams always rise to the top.
So which team is that this year? The popular pick is No. 1 James Madison meeting No. 2 North Dakota State in Frisco, Texas, for the national championship. But each playoff seed has strengths that could carry them to win it all. They also have weaknesses that could spell doom.
So let's take a look at why the 1-8 seeds can and can't hoist the national title.
No. 8 Southern Utah
Why the Thunderbirds can: SUU is just a solid team overall that doesn’t get much national attention out of the Big Sky because it’s not a flashy team. A strong defense and capable offense makes the Thunderbirds a competitive team nationally. Not to mention being 5-0 at home and on a seven-game winning streak.
Their second round game against Weber State/Western Illinois is going to be a battle. A win sends them to James Madison for the quarterfinals. And you never know what can happen there, especially when SUU has scored 47 or more points in its last three games.
Why they can’t: Upsets happen all the time in the FCS playoffs. But predicting the defending national champs to be upset in the quarterfinals by the No. 8 seed might be too much of a hot take. Besides Oregon, the Thunderbirds haven’t played anyone this season that’s going to be as challenging as JMU.
No. 7 Wofford
Why the Terriers can: Strong defense and a running game can take you far in the postseason. And that’s exactly what Wofford, ranking No. 19 in total defense and No. 7 in rushing offense, has. Another key attribute the Terriers have that benefits them in the playoffs is pulling out close games. Seven of their nine wins have come within a touchdown or less.
Wofford is sharp on defense. The offense is a physical ground-and-pound option look that is tough to prepare for. It’s the type of team built for an early upset.
Why they can’t: Standing in Wofford’s way of making a deep run is No. 2 North Dakota State, who is on a mission to return to Frisco. The Bison are No. 8 in stopping the run and No. 3 in total defense. A one-dimensional team isn’t going to beat NDSU. The Terriers do have the type of offense that goes on long, methodical drives, which can quiet down a Fargodome crowd.
But often times, players who have never experienced playing in the Dome’s playoff environment get rattled to start the game before settling in. And Wofford’s offense isn’t built to come from behind.
No. 6 Sam Houston State
Why the Bearkats can: SHSU has been blown out in the semifinals or quarterfinals every season since 2015 after putting up gaudy statistics during the regular season. The Bearkats have been on the receiving end of jokes because of this. But this is the most experienced SHSU team in years.
The offense has playmakers everywhere, led by NFL quarterback prospect Jeremiah Briscoe. He has an arsenal of weapons, making the offense tough to prepare for. And if the offense can get going and control the tempo, and the defense can just hold on in games, this might be the year the Bearkats get over the hump.
Why they can’t: Simply put, the Bearkats haven’t beaten a tough FCS opponent yet this season. When a team with a good record from a weaker conference gets seeded, that’s when you seed upsets happen. And in its first game in the playoffs, SHSU will probably run into South Dakota, a strong team from the best conference in the FCS.
Can the Bearkats put up points? Of course. But if their defense has given up 31 points to Prairie View A&M, 35 to Abilene Christian and 33 to Houston Baptist, it’s scary to think what Walter Payton Award frontrunner Chris Streveler and the second best offense in the FCS (519.8 YPG) can do. (SHSU is first with 544.6 yards per game.)
No. 5 South Dakota State
Why the Jackrabbits can: Three names: Taryn Christion, Dallas Goedert and Jake Wieneke. The quarterback, tight end and wide receiver combination is good enough to beat anyone in the FCS. And as shown in the 33-21 win against NDSU, the Jacks’ defense can rise to the occasion and the run game can get it done as well.
SDSU is the hottest team in the FCS right now, winning five in a row with the last four coming against ranked opponents. The passing game has hit its stride. Plus this is a veteran group with playoff experience. The Jacks made it to the quarterfinals last season, the furthest for them in the FCS playoffs. They came into this season with national title aspirations. The Bison have been the main hurdle in recent years, but are on the opposite side of the bracket this year.
Why they can’t: Even if NDSU was on the same side as the Jacks, they still match up well with the Bison. But the one hurdle this postseason on the top half of the bracket isn’t such a good matchup: JMU. The Dukes’ defense as a whole is solid, but the secondary is just filthy. They've allowed only four passing touchdowns all season, which is first in the FCS, and are No. 2 in holding opponents to 145.6 passing yards per game.
SHSU brought a great passing attack to Bridgeforth Stadium last season in the quarterfinals and were shut down. Going there in the semifinals is going to be a tough draw for the Jacks.
No. 4 Central Arkansas
Why the Bears can: Hayden Hildebrand is an underrated quarterback because he doesn’t exactly face the toughest defenses every week in the Southland Conference. But his numbers (2,768 yards, 27 touchdowns, 7 interceptions) are eye-opening. And as a senior, he has experience in the playoffs.
A lot of people say the top teams in the Southland aren’t close to the same level as the playoff teams from the MVFC. Yet the Bears took down Illinois State last season in the first round. UCA has the benefit of hosting two playoff games and are 5-0 at home. In fact, the Bears haven’t lost to an FCS team all season.
Why they can’t: The reasons the Bears won’t win a national championship are all the reasons above. They were 9-2 heading into last season’s playoffs and Illinois State was 6-5. The Bears barely edged the Redbirds 31-24. SDSU, the potential matchup in the quarterfinals, is a different beast than Illinois State.
And for how good Hildebrand has been, he hasn’t faced a defense quite like James Madison’s, who the Bears would likely face in the semifinals. SHSU’s Briscoe broke passing records last season, but went 13-44 for 143 yards and two interceptions in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
No. 3 Jacksonville State
Why the Gamecocks can: JSU has dominated the Ohio Valley Conference for years now. When it’s time to face a team from the MVFC, though, the Gamecocks have been beaten soundly. But this season could be different.
There’s a chance people are downplaying how good this team is. The defense is probably the best unit JSU has had. And if stud running back Roc Thomas gets going, the Gamecocks are going to be in position to win a lot of postseason games.
Why they can’t: The 2015 Gamecocks were supposed to be the team to beat NDSU with some of their big guys up front being SEC transfers. They ended up getting manhandled by the Bison. Unless things have changed drastically, JSU just can’t match up physically with a team like NDSU or JMU.
The defense is terrific, but it can’t single-handedly win you a game in the semifinals or title game. Offensively, the passing game doesn’t appear to be a threat, making Thomas the No. 1 priority to stop. And the Bison and Dukes have the kind of defense where one player won’t be able to run wild.
No. 2 North Dakota State
Why the Bison can: NDSU is deeper, healthier and just an overall better football team than they were a year ago at this time. Despite season-ending injuries to several all-conference and all-American level players, the Bison have reloaded and found new stars, such as running back Ty Brooks and linebacker Jabril Cox.
Even with a few bad games, quarterback Easton Stick has taken his game to the next level. The passing game has improved as a whole after being shut down by JMU in the semifinals. And with all three games leading up to Frisco being in the confines of the Fargodome, it’s hard to find a team on this side of the bracket that can come in and upset NDSU. Once in Frisco, defensive tackle Nate Tanguay and linebacker Nick DeLuca, who were injured last season, are going to making a difference in stopping JMU’s rushing attack.
Why they can’t: The Bison could face a tough quarterfinal opponent in Wofford. The Terriers are a team that plays good defense and runs an option offense. If NDSU can get that win, there’s a favorable matchup waiting in the semifinals. A game against JMU in the title game, though, is going to be a battle.
The Dukes are the one team in the FCS that can physically go toe-to-toe with the Bison. While NDSU won’t have to worry about chasing running back Khalid Abdullah around anymore, the challenge this season would be finding a way to score on JMU’s defense. If Richmond, who averaged 30.9 points per game this season, can only score 13 points against the Dukes, NDSU’s offense may not be able to score enough to win the game.
No. 1 James Madison
Why the Dukes can: JMU owns the nation’s best defense and a national-championship-winning quarterback, Bryan Schor. Great defense and good quarterback play takes you a long ways in the playoffs. The Dukes haven’t lost to an FCS team since Mike Houston started as head coach last season.
With home-field advantage, it’s going to take a great day by the opponent and a very bad day for JMU for the Dukes to lose at home. And once in Frisco, a potential rematch with NDSU gives them a chance to prove they are the top dogs in the FCS.
Why they can’t: To win a national championship, the Dukes might have to defeat a CAA opponent and then three straight MVFC teams. The road to Frisco appears much tougher than NDSU’s.
And if they do make it to Frisco, the Dukes can’t afford to have their offensive struggles continue against the Bison, who aren’t far behind JMU as the top defense in the subdivision. NDSU is motivated this season. And anytime the Bison have had the opportunity to exact revenge in the playoffs, it’s resulted in statement wins.