In 2016, it was unseeded Youngstown State who made it all the way to the FCS national title game. Last year, it was unseeded New Hampshire, Weber State and Kennesaw State making a run to the quarterfinals with the last two coming within one possession of advancing to the semifinals.
Who's going to be that team this year?
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The eight seeds in the 2018 bracket shouldn't feel all too comfortable with an easy second-round game. But these three programs out of the 16 unseeded teams are most likely to make a deep run in the playoffs.
This is the obvious one. The 2016 national champs and 2017 runner-ups went 8-2 this year against FCS opponents but were not given a first-round bye. College coaches are always looking for reasons to motivate 18-22-year-old college students, and you can bet Mike Houston will get the juices flowing.
The Dukes face a familiar CAA foe in Delaware, who is battling injuries at quarterback. A win there pairs them with No. 8 seed Colgate, a team that went 9-0 versus FCS opponents and has a tremendous defense, but also has the weakest schedule out of all the seeds.
Chances are high JMU is going to be favored to win that game, and if the Dukes do, it'd be a return trip to the Fargodome where this team won in the 2016 semifinals.
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The Panthers always seem to be the best 7-4 (in this case 6-5) team in the playoffs. They'll host a Lamar team some felt shouldn't be in the bracket and are the most heavily favored first-round team to win with a 27.5-point spread.
From there, it'd be a trip to sixth-seeded UC Davis. The Aggies are a more finesse team that doesn't always match up well in the postseason with the black-and-blue style of UNI. A Panther win would be a big upset, but not impossible and would then be followed by a likely trip to Eastern Washington in the cold. That would again be in UNI's favor, although the Eagles have shown the ability to run the ball this year as well as sling it around.
The one thing about the Panthers, though, is struggling on the road. They went 2-4 away from the UNI-Dome this season with the last two road trips resulting in a 37-17 loss to Western Illinois and 31-10 loss to Youngstown State, both non-playoff teams.
What JSU team will we see in the playoff? The one that beat Murray State 42-15, Tennessee State 41-14 and took No. 2 Kennesaw State to five overtimes before losing 60-52? Or the one that lost to SEMO 37-14 and narrowly beat a two-win UT Martin team 21-14?
The individual talent on the roster is obvious. Utilizing that talent is another thing. But the Gamecocks look to be playing their best football in the final weeks of the regular season. If that carries over, a home win against ETSU should happen. Then it'd be on to No. 7 seed and CAA champion Maine.
Not many would expect the OVC champion to beat the CAA champion, but JSU can gain some national respect back by doing so after being on the wrong end of an unseeded squad knocking off a seeded team the last two years.
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