FCS playoff preview: Best teams, top players and first-round score projections

NCAAF

The first-ever (and, most likely, the only) spring FCS playoffs are upon us, with eight games on Saturday, all on ESPN3. It has been a wild couple of months of wild finishes, ultracompetitive games, unexpected storylines — North Dakota State losing twice, VMI winning the Southern Conference, etc. — and, because this is still the 2020-21 season and COVID-19 testing and tracing remain vital pieces of the machine, lots of postponements and cancellations.

At the moment, all 16 playoff teams are cleared to play, but everything below comes with a giant and constant disclaimer that this could change at any moment and that virtually everything is subject to change.

That said, let’s dive in.

The favorites have looked just vulnerable enough to lead us to believe the next four weeks could get pretty chaotic. Here’s everything you need to know in advance, from title contenders to best players to first-round score projections.

The bracket

The bracket released on Sunday featured four seeded teams — No. 1 South Dakota State, No. 2 Sam Houston, No. 3 James Madison and No. 4 Jacksonville State — placed in four-team quadrants, with the other 12 teams filled in with geography somewhat in mind. That has inadvertently produced a bottom-heavy bracket.

Here are the bracket pairings laid out using the current Stats Perform FCS top 25:

  • Holy Cross (3-0) at No. 2 South Dakota State (5-1)

  • No. 14 Southern Illinois (5-3) at No. 3 Weber State (5-0)

  • Sacred Heart (3-1) at No. 5 Delaware (5-0)

  • Davidson (4-2) at No. 8 Jacksonville State (9-2)

  • No. 11 VMI (6-1) at No. 1 James Madison (5-0)

  • No. 12 Missouri State (5-4) at No. 7 North Dakota (4-1)

  • No. 9 Eastern Washington (5-1) at No. 6 North Dakota State (6-2)

  • No. 10 Monmouth (3-0) at No. 4 Sam Houston (6-0)

With these rankings, one sees a lot more strength in the bottom half of the bracket than the top. The four-team cluster involving Jacksonville State features only two ranked teams, and while No. 2 SDSU and No. 3 Weber State are bunched together up top, they’re the only two teams ranked higher than 14th. Meanwhile, the bottom half of the bracket features eight teams all ranked 12th or better. If North Dakota State is able to suddenly discover its offense and make a run toward its ninth national title in 10 seasons, the Bison will potentially have to beat teams ranked ninth, fourth, first and second to do so.

The favorites

You could also call this group “the top three seeds and the team that always wins this tournament.”

South Dakota State. Coach John Stiegelmeier’s Jackrabbits earned the top seed despite a Feb. 27 loss to North Dakota. That tells you something about the overall respect given to the Missouri Valley — the FCS’ version of the SEC also earned four of six at-large bids — but it’s also an acknowledgment that in their past two games, SDSU beat two playoff teams by double digits on the road: They annihilated SIU 44-3 in Carbondale on March 20, and after a couple of cancellations, they handled rival NDSU 27-17 in Fargo to win the Dakota Marker for just the second time since 2009.

SDSU is playing brilliant defense (it has allowed 47 total points in its past four games), and Stiegelmeier teams always run the ball with abandon. Pierre Strong Jr. and Isaiah Davis have combined for 825 yards (6.2 per carry) and seven touchdowns in six games. Davis had 22 carries for 150 yards against SIU, Strong had 11 for 95 (including a 53-yard TD) against NDSU and quarterback Mark Gronowski had 29 for 229 in the two games combined. The Jackrabbits are rolling, though as with most of the top teams, their passing game isn’t necessarily dominant.

James Madison. The playoff committee gave Curt Cignetti’s Dukes a nice boost of “DISRESPECT!!” fuel by giving them the No. 2 seed despite their No. 1 poll ranking and unbeaten record. They’d been doing just fine without that extra jolt; after narrowly surviving an upset bid from Elon on March 6, they beat William & Mary and a top-15-at-the-time Richmond team by a combined 61-16 in their past two games. Their easy 23-6 win over Richmond likely knocked the Spiders from the playoff field.

JMU’s offense has been unconvincing at times, but it’s rounding into form. In Percy Agyei-Obese and Jawon Hamilton (121 combined carries, 659 yards, nine TDs), they have the engine for a stellar run game, but quarterback Cole Johnson has been inconsistent. He was briefly benched and kept his job only when backup Gage Moloney had to miss time in COVID-19 protocol; he was excellent in JMU’s past two wins, though, going 32-for-47 for 455 yards. That’s been more than enough when combined with the best defense in FCS. JMU is allowing 9.8 points per game and 3.2 yards per play, and the duo of Mike Greene and Mikail Kamara up front has combined for 12.5 tackles for loss, five sacks and five QB hurries in just five games.

Sam Houston. You could make a strong case that the Bearkats should have been the top overall seed. In six Southland games, K.C. Keeler’s squad outscored opponents by an average of 45-18. The Bearkats have standout performers everywhere you look, from running back Ramon Jefferson (475 rushing yards, 6.5 per carry) and receivers Cody Chrest, Jequez Ezzard and Ife Adeyi (a combined 1,295 receiving yards, 20.6 per catch!) to defensive end Jahari Kay (8 TFLs, 5.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles) and linebacker Trevor Williams (9 TFLs, 2 sacks). This might be the fastest, most aggressive team in the field of 16.

The biggest hurdle for the Kats, besides a brutal draw — they might have to get past both of FCS’ annual powerhouses, JMU and NDSU, to get to the finals — might be how their free-wheeling attack translates outside of the Southland. Nearly every team in this tournament plays solid ball control with good defense and a clock-friendly run game, but Southland games are video-game-level track meets. Can SHSU survive a few old-fashioned rock fights?

North Dakota State. They don’t do “transition years” in Fargo, but this is pretty close. Since losing quarterback Trey Lance to the NFL draft after a single showcase game in the fall, NDSU is 5-2 with a couple of dominant, elite wins (25-0 over Missouri State, 34-13 over North Dakota) but also a couple of discouraging losses. SIU ran the score up on the Bison in Carbondale on Feb. 27, winning 38-14, and in last week’s big rivalry game against SDSU, they couldn’t keep up; SDSU scored twice in the fourth quarter to break a 17-17 tie, and NDSU could manage only a punt and an interception.

The defense has had more sketchy moments than we’re used to, but the offense is the issue. Quarterback Zeb Noland has completed just 51% of his passes with five touchdowns to six interceptions, and given an extended audition last week against SDSU, freshman Cam Miller went 9-for-16 with an interception and two sacks. When the Bison have had to pass this spring, it hasn’t gone all that well. Could that change over the next month? Could NDSU rip off four wins with good old physicality and defense? Of course. But the odds aren’t nearly as strong as normal.

The second-tier contenders

With all four favorites displaying some vulnerability this fall — even SHSU messed around and thought about losing to Northwestern State — pretty much everybody heads into Saturday convinced they’ve got a chance to make some noise. These five teams might be particularly realistic in thinking that.

Delaware. You could make the case that Delaware has proved as much as anyone else in this bracket and should be considered a favorite. The unbeaten Blue Hens outscored five opponents by an average of 33-12, quarterback Nolan Henderson (71% completion rate, 9-2 TD-INT ratio) has been better than most of the favorites’ QBs, and they have both the customary awesome run game (Dejoun Lee: 6.5 yards per carry) and standout defensive ends (Chase McGowan and Tommy Walsh: 9.5 TFLs, four sacks in five games). They’re one of only four teams in the field to have won a national title this century, and they’re in the friendliest portion of the bracket. If you’re looking for a dark horse, you could do much worse.

Jacksonville State. JSU’s season began in Tallahassee on Oct. 3. With a win on Saturday, it will have officially stretched into May. The Gamecocks lost to Florida State and suffered a 13-10 upset to Austin Peay but have otherwise run the table. They run the ball well, and with DJ Coleman, Jaylen Swain and Chris Hardie (combined: 30 TFLs, 17 sacks), they have one of the most havoc-friendly defensive fronts in FCS. Quarterback will be key, however: In the loss to APSU, Zion Webb went just 9-for-26 with two sacks and four INT.

Weber State. Weber State was a preseason top-five team and is unbeaten. The Wildcats haven’t allowed more than 23 points in a game all year. Why aren’t they one of the favorites? Because they haven’t played like it. They’ve gone down to the wire with four straight opponents, none of which were in the playoff hunt. They certainly won’t be cowed in close-and-late situations, but the offense desperately needs sharpening. The passing game is all or nothing, and the Wildcats have fumbled seven times and scored TDs on only nine of 16 red zone trips. Clutch play is great, but WSU enjoys playing with fire a bit too much to be a favorite.

North Dakota. The last time we saw the Fighting Hawks, they were getting bullied by NDSU in the trenches on March 20. They’ve had four consecutive games either postponed or canceled since. The positive spin is that they’ll be well rested. The negative spin: They’re rusty. We’ll see. They’ve got star power, though. With running back Otis Weah and a quick-pass attack, they can stretch you horizontally before hitting you with the big play. They want to attack you defensively, which tends to produce both turnovers (12 takeaways in five games) and occasional big-play issues. The Hawks are a total wild card.

Eastern Washington. While most of the nation’s top teams have struggled at times behind center, EWU boasts the best passer in the subdivision. Eric Barriere is throwing for 365 yards and three touchdowns per game, with the duo of Talolo Limu-Jones and Freddie Roberson (combined: 1,191 yards, 15.5 per catch) primarily on the receiving end. Since an opening-week loss to Idaho, the Eagles have outscored five opponents by an average of 45-24, and their game-of-contrasts matchup with NDSU is easily the headliner in the round of 16.

The bracket busters

It’s fair to worry about the four-round staying power of each of these four teams, but they have shown more than enough upside to create serious chaos.

Southern Illinois. The Salukis will likely have to beat two top-five teams just to reach the semifinals, but that’s not an intimidating thought: Nick Hill’s squad beat two top-five-at-the-time teams (North Dakota State and Northern Iowa) earlier this season. After back-to-back losses knocked the Salukis onto the bubble, they survived a 55-48 track meet with the Southland’s Southeastern Louisiana to play their way into the field. QB Stone Labanowitz was 20-for-24 for 328 yards, and SIU rushed for 423 yards to boot. They won’t do that level of damage against Weber State, but they have upside and plenty of confidence.

Monmouth. Like Delaware, Monmouth has done everything asked of it. In a minuscule three-game spring season, the Hawks outscored opponents by an average of 42-18, and with the Big South title on the line, they destroyed a good Kennesaw State by 25. Tony Muskett is throwing for 241 yards per game (primarily to Terrance Greene Jr. and Lonnie Moore) with eight TDs to no INTs, Juwon Farr is rushing for 141 yards per game with nine scores, and a defense led by linebacker Eddie Hahn V is averaging eight TFLs and eight passes defensed per game. Can’t ask for much more than that.

Missouri State. Bobby Petrino’s first MSU squad has almost literally played two seasons: an 0-3 fall campaign that featured losses to Oklahoma and Central Arkansas (twice) and a stirring 5-1 spring run that earned them a share of the MVFC title. The Bears have won four in a row since a shutout loss to NDSU, and while they are in no way dominant — those four wins were by a combined 24 points, and they haven’t topped 30 points in a game all season — they’re battle-tested. Their defense attacks from every angle, too: 11 players have at least 2.5 TFLs.

VMI. Behold, the story of the spring. The Keydets hadn’t finished with a winning record since 1981 and hadn’t won a SoCon title since 1977. That’s past tense for a reason. They leaped to a 5-0 start, and after an injury to quarterback Reece Udinski and a loss to ETSU provided some doubt, they locked up a playoff bid with a 31-17 win over rival The Citadel. New QB Seth Morgan has topped Udinski in terms of both completion rate (76%) and yards per completion (11.8), and while the Keydets have a huge task ahead against JMU, they do provide an interesting matchup: JMU destroys your ground game, but VMI is happy to lean on a quick passing game for efficiency. Does the Cinderella story end on Saturday, or are we just getting started?

The long shots

Sacred Heart. After a season-opening loss to Duquesne, SHU took advantage of a revenge opportunity, beating the Dukes in overtime to secure the NEC title. Running back Julius Chestnut (717 yards, 7.7 per carry) is terrifying, and linebackers Chris Outterbridge and DeAndre Byrd are everywhere. Can they throw a scare into Delaware in prime time?

Holy Cross. The Crusaders will be underdogs from here on out, but you have to say they were the class of the Patriot League. They outscored three opponents by an average of 29-12, allowing 1.5 yards per rush (4.0 without sacks) in the process. If they can keep SDSU’s run game in check, they could make the Jackrabbits sweat for a while.

Davidson. The Wildcats ended San Diego’s long Pioneer League winning streak to secure a bid, and while losses to Elon and Presbyterian render them extreme underdogs, their offense makes them unique outs: They are averaging 61 rush attempts for 294 yards per game. They also have at least one standout defender in end Jonathan Hammond (8.5 TFLs, 4 sacks).

The 10 best players

You’ve probably caught on that just about every team in this field has an awesome running back and awesome defensive end. Those positions rule the roost in this list, though we start, as always, with a QB.

QB Eric Barriere, EWU. Barriere will cross 8,500 career passing yards in just 2.5 seasons on Saturday; he has lived up to all preseason hype and then some.

DE Mike Greene, James Madison. A 285-pound wrecking ball, Greene has 8 TFLs in five games and has to be considered the favorite for the Buck Buchanan Award (FCS’ best defender).

RB Otis Weah, North Dakota. Even in a field of great halfbacks, Weah stands out. He’s a home run threat, and despite being listed at 5-9, 195 pounds, he runs like he’s 225.

RB Pierre Strong Jr., SDSU. A 1,000-yard rusher in both 2018 and 2019, the junior from Little Rock, Arkansas, has an outside chance of doing it a third time if SDSU makes a long playoff run.

S Nicario Harper, Jacksonville State. The Southern Miss transfer has patrolled the Gamecocks’ secondary beautifully, recording three INTs, three breakups and 1.5 TFLs, to boot.

RB Julius Chestnut, Sacred Heart. In four games, Chestnut has yet to gain fewer than 168 rushing yards in a game, and in just 27 career games he’s approaching 3,000 yards. Absolute machine.

DE Jahari Kay, Sam Houston. The senior from Laney College recorded at least one sack in four of six games and scored on a pick-six against Nicholls, too.

RB Percy Agyei-Obese, JMU. Really, this space is for both Agyei-Obese and Jawon Hamilton. In the past 21 games, the Dukes’ running back duo has produced 2,850 yards and 33 TDs.

WR Jakob Herres, VMI. How do you survive a QB injury with title hopes intact? By having a star receiver who can carry heavy weight. Herres is averaging nearly 10 catches and 120 yards per game.

RB Dejoun Lee, Delaware. A standout return man for years, the Army transfer has taken over as a load-carrier on offense and is averaging 114 rushing and receiving yards per game.

First-round projections

All games are Saturday on ESPN3, all times below are Eastern and all lines and projections are supplied by Caesars by William Hill.

Monmouth at Sam Houston (12 p.m.)
Projected score: Sam Houston 35.3, Monmouth 25.8 (Caesars line: SHSU -9.5, over/under 61)

Davidson at Jacksonville State (2 p.m.)
Projected score: JSU 31.8, Davidson 10.8 (JSU -21, over/under 42.5)

VMI at James Madison (2 p.m.)
Projected score: JMU 29.8, VMI 15.8 (JMU -14, over/under 45.5)

Holy Cross at South Dakota State (3 p.m.)
Projected score: SDSU 34.5, Holy Cross 10.5 (SDSU -14, over/under 45)

Eastern Washington at North Dakota State (3:30 p.m.)
Projected score: NDSU 30.8, EWU 23.8 (NDSU -7, over/under 54.5)

Missouri State at North Dakota (4 p.m.)
Projected score: UND 26.0, MSU 18.5 (UND -7.5, over/under 44.5)

Southern Illinois at Weber State (4 p.m.)
Projected score: WSU 25.8, SIU 21.8 (WSU -4, over/under 47.5)

Sacred Heart at Delaware (7 p.m.)
Projected score: Delaware 31.3, Sacred Heart 11.8 (UD -19.5, over/under 43)

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