Last season saw three unseeded FCS playoff teams advance to the quarterfinals with second-round wins. While these can be considered upsets against Top 8 teams, they weren’t all that surprising. The same could be said this Saturday, where we could see a few more seeded teams go down that wouldn’t be all too shocking.
Four of the eight games feature opponents in the same conference, three of which are rematches from the regular season. While it doesn’t exactly make the FCS playoffs feel like a national tournament, it does make for exciting and close games early in the bracket.
So which teams are on upset alert? We’ll ranked the potential upsets from least likely to most likely.
8. San Diego vs. No. 2 North Dakota State
The Toreros are once again the Cinderella story of the playoffs. A non-scholarship program, San Diego defeated a Big Sky Conference team in the first round for the second year in a row. USD’s 41-10 dismantling of Northern Arizona makes the Toreros seem like a better team than last year, where their run ended quickly last season at the hands of NDSU, 45-7.
They gave the Bison trouble early in last year’s game. NDSU led just 7-0 midway through the second quarter, and that touchdown was off a pick-six. USD can make it interesting and hope to stay within striking distance with quarterback Anthony Lawrence (33 touchdowns, two interceptions) avoiding mistakes like he has all season. But to go four quarters with the Bison in the Fargodome will be too much to handle, as shown last year.
COMPARE: Toreros vs. Bison
7. New Hampshire vs. No. 4 Central Arkansas
The Wildcats didn’t do a great job of answering the critics who said they shouldn’t have made the playoffs. UNH squeaked by Central Connecticut State 14-0 and were held to just 61 yards rushing. While the CAA is stronger overall than the Southland, going to Central Arkansas and getting a win is going to be tough.
The Bears have won 10 straight and are strong defensively, allowing 17.18 points per game. UNH’s defense is solid as well, but no FCS team has slowed down quarterback Hayden Hildebrand and the UCA offense yet.
COMPARE: Wildcats vs. Bears
6. Stony Brook vs. No. 1 James Madison
These two CAA teams last met Oct. 3, 2015, a 38-20 JMU win. Now, some are calling this the unofficial conference championship game. Stony Brook went 7-1 in conference play and the Dukes were 8-0. The Seawolves are hot right now, winning six straight games and defeating Lehigh convincingly 59-29 in the first round.
JMU is ready for another run at the national championship. Although they’re technically not a familiar foe, since Dukes head coach Mike Houston and his system have never squared off against Stony Brook, defeating a CAA opponent in the playoffs will be no easy task.
COMPARE: Seawolves vs. Dukes
5. Kennesaw State vs. No. 3 Jacksonville State
Kennesaw State’s only loss this season was the regular season opener to Samford. The Owls got their revenge in the first round, winning 28-17. Their triple-option offense is an absolute headache to stop and it ran for 329 yards last weekend. JSU’s defense is its strength, but Chandler Burks has his offense rolling right now.
Last season, the Gamecocks were the No. 3 seed and fell in the second round to Youngstown State. This year’s offense is nowhere close to being as explosive and the defense will be relied on to win this game. If JSU finds itself in a close battle with KSU, the Owls could find a way to win in the fourth quarter.
COMPARE: Owls vs. Gamecocks
4. Northern Iowa vs. No. 5 South Dakota State
The Panthers did it before this season. And it wasn’t just a win in Brookings, it was a butt-kicking. UNI won 38-18 and out-rushed the Jackrabbits 218-52 while holding the ball twice as long on offense. Conditions look to be better on Saturday than the mid-October game. If the Panthers can get another strong performance from running back Marcus Weymiller, they can keep SDSU’s prolific offense off the field.
On the flipside, the Jacks have won five straight since that loss and are playing their best football of the season. The passing attack is at the level it was last season. Then again, maybe the Panthers just have SDSU’s number in Brookings. The last time the Jacks beat UNI at home was 2013.
COMPARE: Panthers vs. Jackrabbits
Two evenly-matched option offenses usually results in 50/50 games. Wofford has pulled out close game after close game, including the season opener in a 24-23 win against the Paladins. These two teams obviously know how to run the football, but they’re both used to stopping the run as well.
The Terriers average 250.6 rushing yards per game and allow 115.4. Furman averages 240.3 and allows 137.5. The key here could be balance. Wofford averages just 109.6 passing yards per game while Furman's PJ Blazejowski has thrown for 183.7 yards per game with 18 touchdowns.
COMPARE: Terriers vs. Paladins
2. South Dakota vs. No. 6 Sam Houston State
USD quarterback Chris Streveler is averaging 301.2 yards passing per game and adding 55.8 yards on the ground as the Coyotes are scoring 37.8 points per game. SHSU quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe is throwing for 353.9 yards per game and the offense is averaging 45.9 points. The Coyote defense allows 24.2 points per game and the Bearkats allow 28.5.
In other words, this could be a track meet and whoever has the ball last could score the game-winning touchdown. It’s another plane ride down south for the Coyotes, who defeated Nicholls 38-31 in the first round. SHSU beat the Colonels 66-17 earlier in the season. Streveler is playing like the best player in the FCS. He’s going to have his way with the Bearkats. It’s a matter of how many stops the USD defense and its inexperienced secondary can get.
COMPARE: Coyotes vs Bearkats
1. Weber State vs. No. 8 Southern Utah
Weber State pulled out a 50/50 game against Western Illinois in the first round. Now it’s another evenly-matched game Saturday. SUU won 32-16 earlier this season. Weber State has won six straight since. The 21-19 win last week against the Leathernecks, who arguably could have gotten a seed, was especially impressive defensively. WIU's big three of Sean McGuire, Steve McShane and Jaelon Acklin were held in check for the most part, something not many MVFC teams were able to do.
The Thunderbirds are 5-0 at home. Weber State is 5-1 on the road. The mid-October game was played at Weber State when SUU pulled away in the second half. This is going to be another great game between two strong Big Sky teams. One that could go either way.
COMPARE: Wildcats vs. Thunderbirds