Conference play opens up for the most part this weekend, and will be in full motion by next weekend. Saturday's FCS slate is loaded with good matchups, some of which may have a direct effect on the FCS Playoff bracket released in November.
There may be another chance or two for FCS over FBS wins, and some of these FCS conference matchups look like total tossups. So let's not waste any time getting to the best FCS vs. FCS games on Saturday … and why:
(NOTE: All times Eastern)[divider]
THE BIG FIVE
SAMFORD (2-1) AT WESTERN CAROLINA (2-1)
3:30 P.M. ON ESPN3
Western Carolina is an interesting SoCon team to watch. The Catamounts look a lot more like their 7-win 2015 team than they did last fall, and Detrez Newsome is leading the nation in rushing currently (461 yards). And don't forget, this is the same guy who rushed for 100 yards in a game against two SEC teams in 2015 — Texas A&M and Tennessee.
On the flip side, Samford has one of the top offenses in the FCS and Devlin Hodges didn't look too shabby throwing against the Georgia Bulldogs last week. You have to figure this game is going to be a shootout, probably 40s. It'll be entertaining to watch, and don't be surprised if we look back at this game in November, knowing this one had an influence on the FCS Playoff qualifying list.[divider]
TENNESSEE STATE (3-0) AT UT-MARTIN (2-1)
5 P.M. ON ESPN3
Tennessee State is one of only four FCS teams this weekend that are aiming for 4-0, the others being James Madison, Liberty and North Carolina A&T. The Tigers are really rocking right now, and have incredible talent on the roster. And … so does Tennessee-Martin.
The Skyhawks didn't exactly roll over for Ole Miss two weeks ago, trailing only 17-16 going into halftime, only to have the "depth factor" kick in later in the game.
UT Martin's Ladarius Calloway, the FCS' No. 2 rusher behind Detrez Newsome (mentioned above in Western Carolina game), hung 188 rushing yards on Ole Miss in that game. Bottom line? If there is a challenger to Jacksonville State this year in the Ohio Valley Conference, these are two of the strongest candidates to do it. The winner of this one, I think, is a shoo-in for an FCS playoff berth in November. [divider]
UC-DAVIS (2-1) AT WEBER STATE (2-1)
7 P.M. ON BIG SKY LIVE STREAM
We are three and a half weeks through the FCS season (I say "three and a half" because of Week Zero early on) and we have North Dakota at 1-2, Eastern Washington 1-2, Montana State 0-2 and Montana 2-1 but not exactly looking invincible.
Yes, those traditionally strong Big Sky teams could certainly bounce back, but the usual favorites have struggled some, leaving the question: Who might fill that void like Portland State and Southern Utah did back in 2015?
I'll go ahead and make the case that UC-Davis and Weber State are two teams that might bust through this year. Weber State's playing pretty good defense right now, holding opponents to 266 yards per game, good for Top 15 in the FCS. UC-Davis has the No. 4 passer in the nation in Jake Maier, so something's going to give here.
You have to give UC-Davis coach Dan Hawkins a thumbs up so far … he has created a buzz at his alma mater after his days coaching at Boise State and Colorado.[divider]
7 P.M. ON ESPN3
Who are we kidding, Villanova could easily be 3-0 with an FBS win over Temple. The Owls needed a 49-yard field goal late to put away the Wildcats, and 'Nova QB Zach Bednarczyk torched Temple for 382 yards through the air. So the point is? This Villanova team is pretty good, and seems to be — after three weeks — the biggest potential CAA threat to James Madison.
On the flip side? This game is in New York, not at Villanova. The Great Danes held the biggest grudge last year after the FCS Playoff bracket was announced. They'd won 7 games, beaten an FBS school for the first time and even had knocked off two teams that made the FCS Playoff bracket — but they weren't invited to the dance.
Albany is hungry and this is the best opportunity on its schedule to prove it belongs in the FCS Playoffs this time. This should be a barn burner, and it appears we won't know about the status of Albany star RB Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks (knee) until game time — but freshman Karl Mofor has filled in well so far this year.[divider]
NICHOLLS (2-1) AT SAM HOUSTON STATE (2-0)
7 P.M. ON ESPN3
I'm going to call this one the biggest matchup of the week, and there's good reason for the label. If anyone in the Southland Conference wants to end the Sam Houston State juggernaut, this is one of the rare opportunities to do it — but Nicholls will be on the road, mind you.
Sam Houston State still clearly has one of the top offenses in the FCS, and it is a diverse attack. The Bearkats can hit you through the air or via the ground game, so pick your poison. However, they've also given up 65 points in two games, so there's an opportunity there if a team can maybe hold the Bearkats to the 30s.
That's really the big test, can an FCS team do that when Sam Houston State is healthy? Nicholls might very well be that team. The Colonels had Kevin Sumlin and Texas A&M's fingernails down to nubs in the fourth quarter two weeks ago, tied late.
Oh, and one other thing. Do you like score comparisons? Nicholls beat Prairie View A&M 44-13 last week. Sam Houston beat Prairie View A&M 44-31 two weeks ago. See what we mean?[divider]
ALSO CURIOUS ABOUT …
Liberty at Jacksonville State: Usually when an FCS program is flying the coup to the FBS, its games lose their luster to me. But I am curious to see what Jacksonville State does here. Maybe the Gamecocks are beatable in the OVC? Maybe, maybe not.
Southern Illinois at Memphis: One of two possibilities of an FCS over FBS win this week, though FBS baby Coastal Carolina being beaten by Western Illinois this weekend would hardly feel like an upset. Coach Nick Hill has the Salukis looking good right now. This SIU game at the Liberty Bowl just seems ripe for an upset to me.