The FCS playoff bracket is set. As expected, the Missouri Valley Football Conference led the subdivision with five teams. That’s been the case the last few years. But instead of the 2015 debacle of having all five teams on one side of the bracket, the playoff committee basically did the opposite this year.
A Valley team is represented in all four corners of the bracket with the only potential early rematch coming in the second round between Northern Iowa and No. 5 South Dakota State. Surprisingly, South Dakota got sent down to what we can call a “South” pod, going to Nicholls State in the first round with the winner playing Sam Houston State.
Going off of previous years, it was assumed USD would be matched up with North Dakota State in a potential second round game. And maybe most importantly, SDSU and NDSU won’t meet up unless it’s in Frisco.
All in all, the bracket is very, very favorable for the MVFC. Let’s break it down.
No. 2 North Dakota State
A lot of people predicted the Bison to be the No. 3 seed behind James Madison and Jacksonville State. But it turns out when the committee said they look hard at strength of schedule, they’re telling the truth. There’s no question NDSU’s resume was the second best.
The Bison now have homefield advantage if they keep winning. And that’s huge. There’s the Fargodome. And then there’s the Fargodome in the playoffs. Teams who have never played in the Dome before tend to struggle and be rattled right away. James Madison is obviously the lone exception, but even the Dukes needed a couple possessions to adjust to the noise.
NDSU plays the winner of San Diego (who came to Fargo last year) and Northern Arizona. It’s a safe bet to say NAU wins and comes to the Fargodome for the first time. As far as the other seeds on NDSU’s side of the bracket, No. 7 Wofford came to Fargo in 2012, No. 6 Sam Houston State did in 2015 and No. 3 JSU never has before. It’s accurate to say the Fargodome gives the Bison a 7-point advantage in the playoffs against teams unfamilar with the surroundings.
The only time NDSU will see a MVFC team is in the semifinals against unseeded USD or in Frisco. How it looks right now, it seems the No. 2 seed has an easier path to Frisco than the No. 1 seed, JMU.
It may turn out that NDSU’s biggest competition on its side of the bracket is an unseeded team from the Valley: USD. It’s really surprising that the Coyotes didn’t win the bid to host a first-round game. But a trip to Nicholls State looks to be a win. Then it gets interesting. USD is going to a popular “darkhorse” team.
It’s been a frequent tweet saying that SHSU and JSU dominate their conferences, but wouldn’t finish in the top half of the MVFC. Now it’s time for USD to prove that. An upset is there for the taking at SHSU. Then it’d be on to JSU, where another upset is possible. Winning three straight road games against playoff teams is not something that happens often. But with USD’s draw, we could see it happen with a return trip to the Fargodome in the semifinals.
No. 5 South Dakota State
Thank goodness the committee realized the Jackrabbits are a 4-5 seed. SDSU is probably the hottest team in the FCS right now and it’d be a shame to send them to Fargo for the fourth time since 2012. Two early conference losses meant a seed was going to be hard to attain. But five straight wins, including against No. 2 ranked NDSU and grinding out a tough win at USD this weekend has them looking good heading into the postseason.
The Jacks have national championship aspirations. As they should with that offense. But the road is tough. A likely second round game against Northern Iowa looms. The Panthers came to Brookings in October and pounded SDSU 38-18. And it’s probably not going to be great December weather in Brookings. UNI likes to run the ball. SDSU obviously likes to pass and possesses the most dangerous aerial attack in the FCS. That’s going to be a tough game if the weather resembles last year’s first round game in Brookings against Villanova.
If they pass that test, the Jacks would head to No. 4 Central Arkansas, a favorable game against the Southland champs. A win there, and then it’s on to No. 1 JMU in the semifinals. Watching SDSU’s passing attack against JMU’s elite secondary would be a fantastic battle.
UNI hosts Monmouth, which might be a bloodbath. The Panthers are no doubt confident, winning five of their last six games. As described above, they will walk into Brookings with the belief they will win that game. Remember unseeded Youngstown State last season who made a deep run? If there’s an unseeded team capable of doing that this year on the opposite side of the bracket as USD, it’s UNI.
If SHSU bows out of the playoffs early, then we’ll look back and say the Leathernecks deserved to be seeded and not the Bearkats. WIU finished 8-3 with a dominating FBS victory. That’s very, very close to being good enough for a seed. Instead, the Leathernecks will have to be road warriors some more. They went 6-1 on the road this season and were 2-2 at home.
WIU goes to Weber State in the first round. A win there would send the team back into Big Sky Conference territory against No. 8 Southern Utah. No doubt this team is good enough to win both those games. But back-to-back trips to Utah isn’t going to be easy. If the Leathernecks grab two wins, it’s onto the quarterfinals and a juicy game against JMU. We all know what happened the last two times the Dukes faced a MVFC team. And it’d be interesting to see how this year’s team stacks up against a solid WIU team.
This is unquestionably the best bracket the MVFC has had in years. If SDSU continues to roll, USD quarterback Chris Streveler creates havoc on the southern defenses and NDSU takes care of business, we could see three teams in the semifinals. Will it actually happen? Maybe. Maybe not. But one thing is for sure – with the Valley teams spread out, the conference can show just how good it is this year without beating up on each other early in the playoffs.