The Valley didn’t do so well in round one of the playoffs, with three teams getting knocked out. We knew a Valley team would lose the SIU-USD game, and most figured a UNI loss to EWU was more likely than not. However, I am surprised that Missouri State is not playing Montana State this week. It’s a bummer too, because I really think MSU could have had a good shot in that game. We’ll never know. Still, there are three Valley teams alive this week and once again two are playing each other. NDSU begins its quest for a ninth title in eleven years by hosting SIU at the DakotaDome, while SDSU hits the road to take on Sacramento State. The other six games are sans Valley members, but I’ll take a look at those too. My preview of the week is below.
#21 Southern Illinois (8-4) @ #3 (2-seed) North Dakota State (10-1) – 2:30pm – ESPN +
I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I am a bit surprised to see SIU here. After they lost three out of four games to end the year, including a home loss to Youngstown State, I figured the Salukis were down for the count. I also thought South Dakota was a good team on the rise, and they would ride a strong crowd to a win in their first home FCS playoff game ever. But the Salukis came out ready to go, while USD was slow out of the gates. By the time the Coyotes could put a couple drives together, SIU had built a multiple possession lead and cruised to a win. A key stat in that game was the Coyotes’ -4 turnover margin. The Salukis forced four turnovers while committing none. That mostly comes down to Nic Baker not taking risks or making mistakes, making the smart play, and letting the game come to him. It was the right strategy in the Dakotadome, but in the Fargodome, SIU might have to put themselves out there a bit more to have a shot. How many times have the Bison lost an FCS playoff game in Fargo? The answer is once, to James Madison, who is one of two teams to win a national title other than NDSU in the last decade (both of which will be playing for bowl berths as soon as next season). While the Bison don’t have the services of an NFL caliber QB like they did in their previous eight title runs, there are a couple reasons why that probably doesn’t matter. One, Cam Miller has been pretty good since stepping in under center. Two, the Bison are built to win with great defense and by running you into the ground. NDSU has been held below 200 rushing yards just three times this year and have erupted for just under 800 rushing yards over their previous two games. Defensively, they’ve averaged 12 points allowed per game, and never allowed more than 27 points in a single game. Simply put, an upset here would be one of the biggest in FCS playoffs history. The Salukis have an extremely tall task ahead of them.
My Prediction: I don’t have a lot of faith in SIU this week, but I didn’t last week either. While I was mildly surprised that they handled USD in the Dakotadome, I would be substantially more surprised if they pulled this one off. I have the Bison winning 48-17.
#11 South Dakota State (9-3) @ #8 (4-seed) Sacramento State (9-2) – 8pm – ESPN+
This is the most popular upset special of the week. After all, Sacramento State is one of the most vulnerable of the seeds, SDSU is a national championship contender, and the Jackrabbits are coming off a blowout of UC Davis in round one. There is solid reasoning here. Sacramento State did run the table in one of the nation’s two best leagues, winning it outright, and certainly earned their four seed. However, they missed two of the Big Sky’s best teams (Montana State and Eastern Washington). They did beat UC-Davis (who proved to be a tier below the Big Sky elite at nearly every opportunity) and Montana, but the Griz were using their backup QB. They also got blown out by UNI who ended up sixth in the MVFC. This is not the same Sacramento State team that lost to UNI, though, nor is it the same one that struggled against Dixie State to open the season. After their loss to the Panthers, Sacramento State changed their offense and the points flowed freely for the remainder of the season. Mobile QB Asher O’Hara threw 53 passes against the Panthers. None found the end zone, but three found their way into the hands of UNI defenders. After throwing a total of 84 passes in the Hornets’ first three games (in which they went 1-2), O’Hara has thrown a total of 54 in their eight Big Sky contests. The QB has continued to be a rushing threat (he ran for 656 yards and 9 TDs, ending up as Sac State’s leading rusher on the season), but passing duties have been handed over to Jake Dunniway. Dunniway threw for 2245 yards and 11 TDs giving the Hornets a productive if not predictable dual threat under center. Don’t judge the Hornets by their early performances, this is not the same team. SDSU has one guy do both the running and the passing from under center. Chris Oladokun threw for over 2500 yards and 22 TDs to just 5 picks. Pierre Strong ran for 1,489 yards and 16 TDs, and Isaiah Davis is also back in the fold after missing time with an injury. That gives SDSU a one-two punch on the ground that they didn’t have in most of their losses this year. Don’t discount the long trip as a factor here either. A flight to California isn’t nothing and it rules out SDSU’s comfort in playing in a bad climate.
My Prediction: This is everyone’s favorite pick for their upset special this week. I am obviously going to do it too because this is MVC Beat not Big Sky Beat, but I gotta say that it might not be as straightforward as some think. SDSU has been up and down this year, and they’ve put up some mediocre performances. I don’t care what your schedule looks like, you don’t run the table in the Big Sky without being a pretty good team. SDSU has an opportunity here to make another run, but they better be looking squarely at the opponent in front of them. I have SDSU 27-24.
AROUND THE FCS
That’s it for the pair of games involving Valley teams, but there are six more playoff games on the schedule (I know, I was surprised too). Here is a quick look at some of the other games going on this week in the Championship Subdivision.
#24 Holy Cross (10-2) @ #6 (5-seed) Villanova (9-2) – 6pm (Friday) – ESPN+
Patriot League Champions Holy Cross won a thriller in round one, 13-10 over Sacred Heart, to advance to this game with the CAA co-champions. The level of difficulty for the Crusaders will be cranked up several notches for this game relative to their last. While they destroyed the Patriot League, Holy Cross had some highs and lows in nonconference games this year. They opened the season with a win over FBS UConn, an extreme rarity for a squad from the Patriot League. They followed that with a two-touchdown loss to Merrimack, one of the worst teams in one of the worst leagues (the NEC). They blew out a decent Monmouth team and stormed through the Patriot League, but almost lost to Sacred Heart last week. My point in telling you all this is that it seems there are multiple versions of Holy Cross and I don’t think we got the best one last week. Their QB Matt Sluka was responsible for 261 of their 288 yards on his own, and they pulled out the W over unranked Sacred Heart with a last-minute TD. That kind of performance isn’t going to cut it against Villanova who won one of the better leagues in the nation with a 9-1 FCS record (including a win over James Madison). Villanova has a QB who threw 22 TD passes (and ran for 7 more), and a trio of running backs who gained over 1,600 yards and scored 10 TDs between them. I think we’ll see a better version of the Crusaders, but it probably won’t be enough. I have Nova winning 41-20.
#4 Eastern Washington (10-2) @ #5 (6-seed) Montana (9-2) – 8pm (Friday) – ESPN+
This is one of those weird matchups that happens when you regionalize and don’t fully seed the playoffs. Eastern Washington went 9-2, beat two playoff teams, had no bad losses, beat an FBS team and has a Walter Peyton award nominee under center. That was not deemed enough for a seed by the FCS playoffs committee, so the Eagles hosted a game on opening weekend. Fine. But after winning that game they will have to go on the road and play a team they have already beaten this year and has the same record as them. Montana also had an FBS win and no bad losses but also beat only one playoff team and lost to EWU straight up. It seems cruel and unusual for the committee to not only leave EWU off the seed line, but then send them into one of the toughest environments in FCS football to play a team they’ve already beaten. Its like their earlier win over Montana didn’t even matter. All that said, this should be the game of the week. It is probably the only game that features two bona fide FCS National Championship contenders. And while if you’re reading this you already know this, Montana is one of the best places in the country to watch an FCS football game. The Eagles have an elite offense, the Griz have an elite defense. It should be a great game. That said, I watched EWU’s offense get slowed by UNI’s defense last week. I favor Montana. I think the UM defense vs the EWU offense is a wash, and I think the Griz offense is better than the Eagles defense. That home crowd is worth at least a touchdown too. I’ll go Griz 27-20.
#10 Kennesaw State (11-1) @ #9 (7-seed) East Tennessee State (10-1) – 1pm – ESPN+
If this game were a Friends episode it would be called “The One Where We Find Out if KSU is Really Any Good”. These two league champions have combined for a gaudy 21-2 record including an 18-1 record against FCS competition (ETSU also has a win over Vanderbilt if you’re trying to figure out how those numbers work). Massey ratings of 19 (ETSU) and 29 (Kennesaw) show that both of these teams did not play the toughest schedules, although the Bucs’ was deemed a bit tougher. The SoCon is no longer the power it used to be, but it is still noticeably better than the Big South where the only other team (other than Kennesaw) that even had a pulse was Monmouth. Kennesaw beat Monmouth in dominant fashion on the final week of the season to claim the autobid, then blew out non-scholarship Pioneer League champs Davidson in round one to get here. While Kennesaw is certainly a good team, ETSU will provide the biggest test their triple option offense has seen since at least week 2 against Georgia Tech. ETSU also won their league autobid on the final week of the season with an exciting win over Mercer. The SoCon offers more of a challenge than the Big South, and the Bucs were thusly rewarded a seed (the win over Vanderbilt helped too). ETSU does not run an option offense but does likes to run the ball nonetheless. RB Quay Holmes has 1431 yards and 16 TDs to go with 968 yards from backfield mate Jacob Saylors. QB Tyler Riddell has 2134 passing yards and 16 TDs to 3 picks himself. The winner of this one is likely getting NDSU, who neither matches up well against. The Bison are built to stop the run. But we won’t worry about that now. I think ETSU is the better team here, but there is no telling how a team will respond to the triple option. Still, I’ll go with ETSU by a score of 28-21.
#18 Southeastern Louisiana (9-3) @ #2 (3-seed) James Madison (10-1) – 1pm – ESPN+
For me, this is one of the more intriguing games of the week. While Southeastern’s resume isn’t eye popping, the stats attributed to reigning Peyton Award winner Cole Kelley are. The Lions are coming off an easy first round win over Florida A&M in which Kelley added four more TD passes to his ledger. That brings his total to 42 TD passes on the year, with another 16 scores on the ground. In addition to being his team’s leading passer and rusher, Kelley is the Lions’ leading receiver, kicks extra points and is second on the team in tackles. Those last three things aren’t true. Still, Kelley’s presence is what makes this game so dang intriguing to me. While Kelley is one of the FCS’s best players, James Madison is one of its best teams. What both Kelley and the Dukes have in common is that neither will likely be representing the FCS next season. Kelley will graduate, while James Madison is moving on up to the Sun Belt. My question for JMU is, can you take North Dakota State with you? I’m just kidding, but also I’m really not. James Madison is one of three programs to win a National Championship in the last decade. They are looking for another before they move on to a place where they will never have a chance to win one again. A place where they could literally win all their games and not even sniff the playoffs. The Dukes have a pretty good QB themselves. Cole Johnson has 32 TDs to just 2 interceptions and has thrown for almost 3,000 yards. The two QBs in this game have 74 TD passes, and 95 total TDs between them. Safe money says that number crosses the century mark in this one. I have the Dukes by a score of 38-27.
#18 UIW (10-2) @ #1 (1-seed) Sam Houston State (10-0) - 2pm - ESPN+
The defending champs are soon to ride off into the sunset to enjoy the piles of money and glory that are coming their way in Conference USA. Before that happens, though, they are looking for their second national championship in one calendar year. I feel confident without looking it up that no FCS football program has done that before. The Bearkats didn’t have the nation’s toughest schedule, but they absolutely torched their way through it nonetheless. They scored at least 21 points in each game, and at least 35 if you don’t count their 21-20 victory over Stephen F Austin without the services of starting QB Eric Schmid. Schmid racked up over 2,200 yards passing with 26 TDs to 7 interceptions, while the running back duo of Ramon Jefferson and Noah Smith combined for over 1400 yards and 16 TDs on the ground. Schmid was the team’s third leading rusher with 292 yards and three TDs. Sam Houston can beat you several ways offensively, and the defense has been quite good too. Although they did struggle a bit against the two best offenses they faced in Central Arkansas (35 PA) and Eastern Kentucky (28 PA). The Bearkats are good, possibly even good enough to win another title, but they are not invincible. It is unlikely Incarnate Word will be the team to knock them off their pedestal, but the Cardinals can score. Their low point total on the year was 20 in a loss to McNeese State, and they averaged 39 points per game. I expect them to get their points in this one. The question is whether they can stop Sam Houston. I’m going to guess probably not. I have the Bearkats advancing 42-24.
#16 UT Martin (10-2) @ #7 (8-seed) Montana State (9-2) – 3pm – ESPN+
So this one kind makes me sad because I was really looking forward to the Missouri State-Montana State matchup that was set up for this slot before the Bears were upset by Martin. Good for the Martin though, they earned it. I might say good for Montana State too, as I think this is a much better matchup for them than Missouri State. I said that last week when comparing UTM to Mo State as well, though, so maybe I am just wildly underestimating the Skyhawks. We know the headspace UTM is in after the W. They’re cool, calm and confident. It is hard to say where Montana State’s heads are at. I had them as a possible #1 seed before they lost to Montana on the final week of the season. That knocked them all the way down to the point where they narrowly avoided needing to play on the opening weekend. Recently, one of their QBs entered the transfer portal too. At the end of the day, Montana State’s defense does work. They gave up ten or fewer points six times this year and averaged just 13 ppg against. The Skyhawks have proved their mettle in beating Missouri State, but a loss by the Bobcats here would still be their worst loss of the season. It is supposed to be unseasonably warm in Bozeman on Saturday, so the environment won’t do much to favor MSU. Still, I expect the Bobcat defense to lock down and get a W to set up a great game with Sam Houston State. UT-Martin won’t beat two MSUs in a row. Give me Montana State 21-7.
And that is it for this week. I’ll see you again on Monday for the recap. GO VALLEY!