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FCS Playoffs Quarterfinals Preview

We are down to the final eight, and an easy argument could be made that nearly all of them are title contenders. Sam Houston is the defending champs, NDSU and JMU are NDSU and JMU, Nova only has one FCS loss and beat JMU, Montana has been nearly unbeatable with their starting QB healthy, Montana State nearly ran the table on the Big Sky, and SDSU is just a few months separated from a near miss of a national title. East Tennessee State is also playing. Two of this week’s games feature Valley teams while the other two feature teams from Montana. The possibility of an all-great plains final four is out there. Here is my preview of the weekend, starting with the Valley games. In the past I’ve used the STATS rankings because I wanted to delineate where the unseeded teams were on the scale, but now that 88% of the field is seeded, I’ll just go with the seeds instead of rankings.

#7 East Tennessee State (11-1) @ #2 North Dakota State (11-1) – 11am Saturday – ESPN2

That ESPN chose this to be their lone FCS national broadcast on Saturday is somewhat puzzling as it looks like the biggest mismatch of the weekend on paper. North Dakota State is absolutely rolling. They’re playing their best football of the year at the best possible time. The Bison still aren’t getting a ton from their passing game, but they don’t need it. Their defense and their running games are performing at an elite level. North Dakota State got here with a 38-7 win over Southern Illinois in round two. They put up 389 rushing yards while holding SIU to 281 yards….mostly through the air. That followed a 52-24 victory over South Dakota in the regular season finale in which the Bison ran for 303 yards. Before that, NDSU beat Youngstown State 49-17 and put up 454 yards on the ground. All of that came in response to a loss to South Dakota State. It seems the Bison have rebounded well from that defeat. East Tennessee State has followed a different route to get to the same place. They needed two very late touchdowns (sandwiching a successful onside kick) and a two-point conversion to get past Kennesaw State last week, 32-31. They got a seed by virtue of their SoCon championship which they won after a last second field goal sailed wide to preserve a 38-35 win over Mercer on the final week of the season. A 27-20 win over VMI and a 17-13 win over Furman were also recorded by the Bucs in the final weeks of the season (which followed their lone loss, 21-16, to Chattanooga). In the last eight weeks, ETSU has gone 7-1 with five wins by a TD or less. If this game does come down to the wire, the Bucs know how to finish a close game. The question is whether they can get to that point. I’m not feeling good about that. ETSU has been only OK against the run this year and I don’t know how they will fare against the Bison rushing attack. A trip to Fargo is no fun either, especially in the bitter cold they’ve been experiencing lately even with the game being played in a dome. The Bison are rolling, and I just don’t think they’ll be able to keep this one close.

My Prediction: I think NDSU will literally run away with this one. I predict a 45-10 final.

South Dakota State (10-3) @ #5 Villanova (10-2) – 1pm Saturday – ESPN+

Last week, South Dakota State travelled to the west coast for a game against fourth seeded Sacramento State. This week, they’ll go the opposite direction to the east coast to take on fifth seeded Villanova. Should the Jackrabbits win, there is a good chance they’d be headed due south for a contest with top seeded Sam Houston State. Throw in their first-round home game against UC Davis, and the ‘Jacks will have managed to play a game in the north, south, east and west on consecutive weeks. These teams have a lot in common. Both had very strong seasons, and both managed to get a W against one of the top seeded teams in the playoffs. ‘Nova beat James Madison, while SDSU beat NDSU. Neither looked particularly dominant in their second-round playoff victories as both got out to double-digit first half leads before hanging on for a 5-point win. For Villanova, they led Holy Cross 14-0 at halftime before hanging on for a 21-16 win. South Dakota State built a 24-0 lead in the second quarter against Sacramento State before holding on for a 24-19 win. The Wildcats have had a low-key stellar defense this year. They’ve pitched two shutouts and have held eight opponents to 16 points or less including Holy Cross last week. QB Daniel Smith has thrown for 22 TDs (and nine picks) and ran for seven more. Three running backs have combined for over 1700 yards and 13 TDs. Not many folks consider Villanova a serious title contender, but there is no reason why this group can’t make it to the title game. Once you’re there, anything can happen. They have a good, balanced offense and a stellar D. As for SDSU, well if you’re reading this you likely already know about South Dakota State. They’ve had their ups and downs this year but with a healthy Isaiah Davis they have one of the best one-two running back punches in the FCS. The Jackrabbits are capable of scoring in bunches with a good, mobile QB and a great set of pass catchers to go with their stable of runners. This looks like a great game in the making.

My Prediction: One factor that needs to be considered is the travel for SDSU. Trips to opposite coasts on consecutive weeks is not easy. Still, I will rep the Valley and pick SDSU in this one. It should be quite a game. I have the Jackrabbits 27-20.


That is it for Valley games this week, but I’ll also take a look at the other two playoff games on the docket this week below.

#6 Montana (10-2) @ #3 James Madison (11-1) – 6pm Friday – ESPN2

On paper this should be the game of the week in the FCS. However last week, I thought both James Madison and Montana’s games would be very good as well, and they really weren’t. James Madison silenced the Walter Payton Award winner in a 59-20 victory over Southeastern Louisiana and Montana pulled away in the third quarter of a 57-41 win over a very good Eastern Washington team. There is no doubt these are two of the premiere programs in the championship subdivision. Montana has been FCS royalty for years. James Madison has been solid for years as well and has emerged as probably the second best program in the FCS behind NDSU over the last decade. The Dukes have parlayed that into a Sun Belt invite and will be headed to the FBS soon. This might be their last year of FCS playoffs eligibility. There isn’t a lot to say about the matchup here. These are just two solid teams. Montana has an outstanding defense, and James Madison is not too shabby themselves. Both have above average offenses. Either of these teams could win the national title and nobody would bat an eye, and the likely semifinal matchup at NDSU for the winner will be must see TV for FCS football fans. This will be an outstanding Friday night showcase for the FCS on ESPN2 and I expect the JMU fans to bring it. The Griz lose their sizable homefield advantage playing this one in Virginia, and that is why I will give the edge to the Dukes. I’ll go with JMU by a score of 27-24.

#8 Montana State (10-2) @ #1 Sam Houston State (11-0) – 7:30pm Saturday – ESPN+

Incarnate Word put the fear of God into Sam Houston State last week as they fell just one yard short of either tying the game or going ahead (with a two-point conversion) in the final seconds. One might take that as a sign that Sam Houston is ripe for the picking by a good team like Montana State. And maybe they are. But I could also make the argument that UIW was just a bad matchup for Sam Houston. In UIW you have a “fight fire with fire” situation. When it is at its best, the Incarnate Word offense can score in bunches. The UIW defense is just OK. That profile might sound familiar to Sam Houston fans as it more-or-less describes their deal as well. Sam Houston is presumably better at that type of game than UIW, but the Cardinals played great on Saturday and nearly beat them at their own game. Montana State presents a very different style of play and a very different challenge. UT-Martin was clearly overmatched in Bozeman last week, but the Bobcats couldn’t pull away until the fourth quarter of a 26-7 win. The Skyhawks had the ball with a chance to take the lead twice when the score was 13-7 in the second half. But they were never truly on the cusp of stealing that game. UTM scored no offensive points in the game (their TD was a defensive score), and the Montana State defense shut them down. The MSU offense struggled though. So, we have a team with one of the top defensive units in the country and a struggling offense, taking on a team with one of the most high powered offenses in the land but an inconsistent defense. On one side of the ball an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. On the other side, a stoppable force meets a movable object. Fascinating. I haven’t picked many upsets in this playoffs, so I am due. I am going to pick the BOBCATS by a score of 24-23 because as a Bears and UNI fan I have always been a fan of good defense.

That is all for this week’s preview. Good luck to NDSU and SDSU this weekend and GO VALLEY!

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