Alright folks. The 2017 FCS Playoffs are here. We've shown you the best FCS highlights, broken down the matchups, and previewed every game. Now, on FCS Playoffs Eve, our four FCS writers make their final predictions. Read on:
Our four staff writers who contribute FCS work have put their heads together, and these are the predictions folks. Sam Herder, Chase Kiddy, Brian "B-Mac" McLaughlin and Jim "The Ox" Oxley will take a shot at the brackets. Fans who would like to throw their two cents worth in are encouraged to send a personal message on Twitter to @BrianMacWriter with a snapshot of your bracket. Brian will score it along with the info below and we'll have a contest. You can also email a snapshot of your completed bracket to firstname.lastname@example.org.
First, let's look at the games:
FIRST-ROUND MATCHUPS (Saturday)
Lehigh at Stony Brook (PREVIEW)
San Diego at Northern Arizona (PREVIEW)
Samford at Kennesaw State (PREVIEW)
Central Conn. St. at New Hampshire (PREVIEW)
Monmouth at Northern Iowa (PREVIEW)
South Dakota at Nicholls (PREVIEW)
Furman at Elon (PREVIEW)
West. Illinois at Weber St. (PREVIEW)
THE FCS SEEDS (These eight will host on Dec. 2)
1. James Madison (11-0) vs. Stony Brook/Lehigh
2. North Dakota State (10-1) vs. NAU/San Diego
3. Jacksonville State (10-1) vs. Kennesaw/Samford
4. Central Arkansas (10-1) vs. New Hampshire/CCSU
5. South Dakota State (9-2) vs. UNI/Monmouth
6. Sam Houston State (10-1) vs. Nicholls/South Dakota
7. Wofford (9-2) vs. Elon/Furman
8. Southern Utah (9-2) vs. Weber St/WIU
Now let's take a look at each round's picks, with explanations below that:[divider]
FIRST ROUND PICKS
SECOND ROUND PICKS
QUARTERFINAL ROUND PICKS
SEMIFINAL ROUND PICKS
SAM'S TAKE: I've learned my lesson when it comes to picking against the Bison. In 2015, I didn't even predict them to reach Frisco.
I also didn't think they had a chance at Iowa last season. NDSU always seems to prove me wrong in the rare times I pick against them. But I'm following my gut here and calling it like I see it: James Madison will repeat as national champs.
I believe NDSU owns the better offense. JMU, though, has the better defense. And the way the Dukes shut down the Bison's passing attack last season makes me unsure of how many points NDSU can get in this year's matchup. It's going to be a grind-it-out, not-so-pretty defensive battle in Frisco between these two teams.
Elsewhere in the bracket, it would not surprise me to see three MVFC teams in the semifinals. Whoever wins the SDSU-UNI game should make the final four. And keep an eye out for USD. Quarterback Chris Streveler will run and throw wild against Nicholls State and Sam Houston State. A USD at JSU game will be a battle. But three straight plane rides down south and a terrific Gamecocks defense will be too much for the Coyotes to overcome.
Elon-Furman, Kennesaw State-Samford and Weber State-Western Illinois are all going to be fantastic first-round games. That potential SDSU-UNI second-round game is going to be a doozy too, especially in Brookings weather in December. But as most of us predicted all season, the collision course between NDSU and JMU seems to be likely in the end. The Dukes, quite honestly, have a tougher path as the No. 1 seed. They might have to go through a CAA team and then possibly two straight MVFC opponents to make Frisco. Meanwhile, the Bison's toughest task might be a gritty Wofford team that pulls out close wins against inferior opponents, a JSU team that struggles offensively and has never been to the Fargodome or a USD team they defeated 49-14 a couple weeks ago.
There's going to be plenty of surprises and close games as the bracket takes care of itself. But a rematch for the ages looms in Frisco, Texas.[divider]
CHASE'S TAKE: JMU or North Dakota State? North Dakota State or JMU?
Honestly, if these guys played 10 times, each team would probably win at least four games apiece. To some extent, picking a winner in this game is just flipping a coin. Which reality will manifest? Take your pick. There's the Bison, who have probably got revenge on their mind. JMU didn't just eliminate them from the playoffs last December; they stole the headlines, the trip to Frisco, the mantle of top FCS program.
That's not to say the Bison aren't still a massively respected football team, but Fargo is no longer the undisputed capital of the FCS. That's motivation you can't buy. NDSU has built its reputation — and, by association, the Missouri Valley's reputation — on tight, physical defense.
However, I think its the offense that's probably more intriguing this season. Easton Stick has been awesome, and the Bison are averaging almost 40 points a game in the best conference in FCS football; pairing that sort of offensive capability with a suffocating defense is the sort of balance that should scare most teams.
JMU isn't most teams, of course, and it's maybe the only team that can go toe-to-toe with NDSU in every phase of the game. As most JMU fans have loudly documented over the past three months, the Dukes' offense isn't quite as good this year as it was in 2016. But JMU does have more depth than everyone else, and they probably have the best defense in FCS, too. Plenty has been made of JMU's absurd 23-game win streak. It takes a sublime combination of consistency, depth, talent and luck to pull that off.
That should frighten everyone, since JMU hasn't been all that lucky this season. So which team wins the big one? Both are certainly capable; this is the sort of match-up that would probably go to seven games, were it a series. In a game that could go either way, though, give me the team with the edge in depth, special teams, and home run potential. I'll take JMU to win the game, though I think the real winners here are probably football fans.[divider]
BRIAN'S TAKE: Boy oh boy do we have some good first-round games. Two are rematches (Elon/Furman and Kennesaw/Samford, with both being close games in the regular season when Elon and Samford won those). And we also have a potential barn burner in Utah with Weber State playing host to a dangerous Western Illinois team. The rest of the first weekend is pretty cut and dry and all four of us in the HERO Sports crew agreed on the winners — as you can see above.
In the second round, I think we're going to begin to see the Missouri Valley Football Conference begin to float to the top. As far as really good potential matchups, don't be surprised if Western Illinois and South Dakota give Southern Utah and Sam Houston State fits, and the potential of a Furman-Wofford rematch is there, too. Don't be surprised if Valley teams like Western Illinois and South Dakota State give James Madison a run for its money in Harrisonburg, Va. in the quarters and potentially the semifinals, either. While several of the MVFC teams would face higher seeds ahead of them on the bracket, they may be the stronger teams when the games actually roll around. We've seen that before.
Overall? I think North Dakota State has a path to Frisco that has fewer potential land mines than James Madison has, but the Dukes are tough at home. In the end, I think it's Bison-Dukes in Frisco in January and I think game organizers may wish they could fit another 10 to 15,000 seats somewhere around the stadium, because they could probably sell them.
When it comes to who wins it all? A few weeks ago I was starting to lean North Dakota State with my pick, but James Madison has just kept it steady and I've drifted back in that direction — by a hair. This battle would be epic, closer than last year's game in the Fargodome, and I think would come down to a field goal or something. Maybe a 17-14 type of game, as both these teams can play some serious, physical defense.
That's my take. Again, all complaints should be mailed to: Santa Claus, PO Box 1234, North Pole.[divider]
OX'S TAKE: It feels like the entire FCS landscape penciled in JMU and NDSU in the championship game months ago. While I've predicted that here, it doesn't mean the road to get there will be without surprises or awesome games. Do I want to see James Madison's defense go up against SDSU's offensive weapons?
You bet I do. Do I want to see South Dakota get another crack at NDSU? 100 percent. But in the end, I think it will be like we expected at the start of the season — a JMU-NDSU showdown in Frisco. And I can't wait. Both of these defenses are the real deal (JMU allowing 9.0 PPG, NDSU 12.3), and both offenses have struggled at times (struggled being a relative term, as both teams average over 35 points a game).
JMU hasn't been able to run the ball with the same dominance they did last season when Khalid Abdullah carried them past the Bison. NDSU has struggled to move the ball at times, too, in the gauntlet of the MVFC. Expect both quarterbacks — Bryan Schor and Easton Stick — to need do a lot of work on the ground. Both are capable runners, with Stick a little more involved in the running game plan and Schor a good improviser.
The Bison will be looking to force Schor into bad throws (he has thrown a few picks this season — 11 to be specific) while JMU will look to slow down an offense that really spreads the ball around to a lot of running backs and receivers. In the end, this one's about as close as it gets on paper. We're talking about two powerhouses who are both deserving to be here and deserving to leave as champions. But only one will, and I'm going with the Bison in this game that's practically a coin flip.