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MVFC Week 1 FCS Playoffs Preview
The playoffs are upon us. Unlike most conference bloggers (of which there are tens of us), my job hasn’t really changed. I am still previewing four games this week because over half our league is in the postseason, including my Panthers at 6-5. This must be what it is like to be a Syracuse basketball fan. You can just lose and lose and lose, but if you get a couple of impressive wins, you are in! Hopefully the similarities with the Orange continue into the playoffs. Syracuse tends to make a good go of their double-digit seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Five MVFC teams are in action this week over four of the eight first round games. Another awaits in round two as a seeded team with a bye. One of the games pits two league teams (USD and SIU) against each other. In another, the Valley team will be a huge favorite (Mo State vs. UT-Martin). Another is more competitive, with the Valley team being a smaller favorite (SDSU vs. UC-Davis). And the last has the MVFC team on the road against a top five team as decided underdog (UNI vs. EWU). Previews of the four MVFC games are below. I’ll also take a quick look at the other four playoff games further down the page.
#14 UC Davis (8-3, Big Sky At-Large) @ #11 South Dakota State (8-3, MVFC At-Large) – 2pm – ESPN+
This game features teams from the two top leagues in the country. Both finished 8-3, with FBS wins on opening weekend and mixed results in league play. The Aggies got here with a season opening 19-17 win over Tulsa, who is currently 5-6 out of the American. That is probably the highlight of their resume, as the remainder of their slate mostly has them beating the teams you should beat (with one exception) and losing to the teams you should lose to. Their 17-14 victory over Weber State (won on a TD in the final 30 seconds) was probably their key win, as a loss probably would have seen the Aggies and Wildcats swap places on this bracket. They had a real head scratcher of a loss to Idaho State, a team that did not win any of their other games and finished 1-10. But they won their next three games before losing by double-digits to Eastern Washington and Sacramento State to finish the year. The Aggies are a good team but have proven to be a cut below the Big Sky’s elite quartet. Other than nonscholarship San Diego and 6-5 Weber State, UCD did not beat a team with a winning record and lost to a squad that finished 1-10. After an 8-1 start that avoided any of the Big Sky’s top teams, they hung in with EWU before ultimately losing by multiple scores and got blown out by Sac State in the last two weeks of the season. They did not play Montana or Montana State. Davis has used two QBs this year, and freshman Miles Hastings had been starting for them down the stretch. Junior Hunter Rodrigues and his stache played most of their last game against Sac State, though. The two have combined for over 2200 yards and 14 TDs, but also 11 interceptions. UCD has also used several runners, but the clear lead back is Ulonzo Gilliam Jr who has carried 191 times for 825 yards and 5 TDs. Pierre Strong has one fewer carry for SDSU but has amassed over 1300 yards and 15 TDs. Chris Oladokun has 20 TDs to only 5 picks and has thrown for somewhat more yardage as well. Like Davis, South Dakota State hasn’t been without their struggles in the league. After a 42-23 season opening win over Colorado State, SDSU has gone just 6-3 against FCS opponents with losses to Southern Illinois, UNI and South Dakota. They also have arguably the best single win of any FCS team with their victory over NDSU, and they’ve blown out most of their weaker opponents. I think the Jackrabbits are the better team here. Davis is a steady, solid team but if the ‘Jacks are at their best I don’t see Davis going into Brookings and coming out with a win. That said, the million-dollar question is whether SDSU will be at their best. They’ve lost twice at home and have looked flat at times. If they don’t get the crowd they’re hoping for on a Thanksgiving weekend, will they be able to summon the energy for their best performance? They came out sluggish as a seed against UNI in 2019 and ended up losing to the Panthers, 13-10. If they bring their A-game, I think they’ll be fine. I think we know what to expect from Davis. SDSU is the wildcard here.
My Prediction: I think Davis can win this game. They’re 8-3 out of the Big Sky for a reason. But SDSU is also capable of blowing out the Aggies. I think the Jackrabbits will pull away in the second half for a 31-20 victory. The winner gets a date with fourth seeded Big Sky Champion Sacramento State.
#16 UT Martin (9-2, Ohio Valley Champs) @ #12 Missouri State (8-3, MVFC At-Large) – 3pm – ESPN+
The Valley’s outright second place finisher, Missouri State, was hoping their body of work would warrant a top eight seed. Instead, the Bears drew the champions of a depleted Ohio Valley Conference in the first round. The OVC was left with just seven schools for this season after the departures of Jacksonville State and Eastern Kentucky to the A-Sun (and for JSU, ultimately, Conference USA). JSU was by far the league’s most successful team recently, and Eastern Kentucky was the league’s most successful team historically. The Ohio Valley is notorious for playoff failure, and while they have had some more success recently, the league went winless in the postseason from 2001 to 2012. Discounting Pioneer League wins and OVC-on-OVC matchups, the league’s membership (as it will stand starting next year) has a total of one playoff win since 1996. Austin Peay (who will also leave for the A-Sun next year) and Southeast Missouri State, who have had success lately, were supposed to take up the league’s mantle this year but instead it was UT-Martin who emerged at 9-2, winning the league by a game over SEMO. This is the Skyhawks’ second ever playoff appearance, and the first since 2006. They opened the season with a blowout loss to FBS Western Kentucky before reeling off nine consecutive victories. They were one win away from finishing with an undefeated record against FCS teams before they lost their final game to a bad Southeast Missouri team. Martin put up a gaudy record, but it is hard to tell just how good they are. Their nine consecutive wins came against a string of mediocre-to-bad teams and their one-point win over Austin Peay (6-5) is probably their best result. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Martin isn’t talented, it just means that they remain unproven against some of the more accomplished FCS squads. QB Keon Howard is a dual threat, as he threw for over 1800 yards, 15 TDs and 7 picks, and also ran for 472 yards and ten more touchdowns. UTM has two guys with over 125 carries as Peyton Logan and Zak Wallace have combined for over 1700 yards and 17 TDs on the ground. Martin’s defense is OK but not great, as they have given up some large point totals but have also had some solid performances. Missouri State has a very different resume. The Bears are battle tested, having played four games against teams in the playoff field and winning three of them (while taking #2 NDSU to the wire). They have a high-powered offense, having put up no fewer than 20 points against any FCS team this year (and that 20-point game came at NDSU). Their second lowest total was 31 against South Dakota. They also have their own dual-threat QB in Jason Shelley who threw for over 3000 yards and 19 TDs to 6 picks, while adding 345 yards and 10 TDs on the ground. Kevon Latulas and Tobias Little combined for over 1200 yards on over 200 carries, adding 12 TDs. It is safe to say, UTM hasn’t seen an offense like this since at least week one against Western Kentucky. The Bears’ defense is not as strong but is good enough to compliment this offense. UTM is going to have their hands full in Springfield.
My Prediction: Missouri State has had some bad days, most notably a 41-33 loss to 3-7 Youngstown State. However, unless they just lay a total stinker offensively, I don’t think UTM has what it takes to keep up with the Bears. I have MSU winning 38-14. The winner will go to Montana State to play the 8th seeded Bobcats.
Northern Iowa (6-5, MVFC At-Large) @ #4 Eastern Washington (9-2, Big Sky At-Large) – 3pm – ESPN+
While it is debatable whether UNI earned their way into the playoffs with their 6-5 record, if the Panthers somehow win the National Title there can be no debate. That ish would be earned. With the way the bracket is set up, if the seeds hold UNI would need to singlehandedly eliminate the entire STATS top 5 (mostly in consecutive weeks on the road) to win the championship. That is maybe the toughest draw in FCS playoffs history, but beggars can’t be choosers. The real losers here are Eastern Washington who have arguably the best player in the nation, finished 9-2 with an FBS win (UNLV) and no bad losses (by one to Weber and by 3 to Montana State), and beat two teams in the playoff field (one of which is seeded in Montana, the other is UC-Davis). Not only was that not deemed good enough for a seed, but it put them into a spot in the bracket where they would need to beat the top four ranked teams other than them, mostly on the road, to win the title. That would include a trip to Wa-Griz to face Montana, a team they already beat this season, in round two. That is rough. The Eagles are very, very good and are downright elite offensively. They never scored fewer than twenty points a game this season and averaged over 46 points per contest. Walter Peyton Award finalist Eric Barriere has thrown for over 4,200 yards and 40 (FORTY!) touchdowns to only six interceptions. He has also run for 224 yards and three more touchdowns. But the Eagles can beat you on the ground too, as running back Dennis Merritt has 812 yards on 168 carries with 14 touchdowns. As you might imagine, EWU has a slew of talented receivers. Ten different humans have caught touchdowns for Eastern Washington this year. Defensively, Eastern is not as solid but they don’t have to be. This isn’t a bad defense, it is average. And that is more than enough for this offense. Eastern Washington is one of a handful of teams capable of winning the National Title coming from the opening rounds. UNI is…..not as big of a threat offensively. Theo Day’s passing yard total of 2,127 is almost exactly half of Barriere’s, and his 15-10 TD-INT ratio is slightly worse than EB’s 40-6 mark. You’d think UNI would make up for it on the ground, but they come up short relative to the Eagles there too. The Panthers’ lead back Dom Williams has just 678 yards and 4 TDs, although he Vance McShane and Bradrick Shaw combined for over 1400 yards and 12 TDs. UNI’s bread and butter is its defense, which has been streaky but also dominant at times and is coming off a 12-sack, 5-turnover game. UNI is capable of big things when it plays at its best, and they did blow out the champions of Eastern Washington’s league on the road. They’ll need to be able to run the ball and get an outstanding performance from their defense to have any chance here.
My Prediction: EWU’s offense was elite in pretty much every game they played this year. UNI’s defense was elite sometimes, but it struggled against some of the better Valley teams. They shut down teams in several games, but gave up 34 to South Dakota, North Dakota State and Missouri State. They’ve shown they can shut down an average offense, but are susceptible to a good one, and EWU is as good as it gets. UNI can win this. They will need an elite defensive performance to slow the Eagle offense down enough to give the Panther offense a chance to keep pace. While I have seen UNI beat enough good teams this year to think it is possible, I don’t know that I think it is likely. I have Eastern Washington winning 38-21, pulling away late in the 3rd quarter. But if UNI does win, the Valley’s dominance can no longer be questioned. The winner of this game will play at 6th seeded Montana in the next round.
#21 Southern Illinois (7-4, MVFC At-Large) @ #17 South Dakota (7-4, MVFC At-Large) – 5pm – ESPN+
And you thought the MVFC football season was finished. South Dakota, Southern Illinois and 2nd seeded North Dakota State form an MVFC triumvirate that is guaranteed to get at least one Valley team into the quarterfinals (and also eliminate two before that stage). For SIU, it represents a chance to play an entire, full MVFC schedule as the Coyotes and Bison are the two Valley teams they did not see in the regular season. This is the first FCS playoff game ever in the Dakotadome. The Coyotes have been to the playoffs once before, but had to spend their 2017 run down south where they beat Nicholls in round one before losing a shootout to Sam Houston in round two. This time the games will be played in familiar territory against familiar opponents, at least through the first two rounds. The winner of this game will go to Fargo, where South Dakota just got curb stomped last week. Southern Illinois is staggering into the playoffs having lost three out of their last four games. After climbing to 6-1 and getting as high as #3 in the national rankings, SIU lost to UNI and Missouri State and ended the season with a 35-18 home loss on senior day to 3-7 Youngstown State. They were chosen as the second-to-last team in the playoff field, and may have missed the dance entirely had most every bubble team not lost last week. SIU has struggled to stop the run during their rough stretch. They gave up 126 yards to UNI’s Bradrick Shaw, then a total of 237 against Missouri State. Last week, the Penguins’ Jaleel McLaughlin put up 185 yards on 25 carries and three scores. Saluki QB Nic Baker has put up 2800 yards with 25 TDs against 11 picks. But he has managed just three touchdowns and five interceptions in their three recent losses. On the ground, SIU has split about 230 carries between three guys (Javon Williams Jr, Justin Strong and Donnavan Spencer). They’ve combined for over 1300 yards and 17 touchdowns. SIU is a balanced team who is above average but not outstanding on both offense and defense. South Dakota also comes into this one coming off a disappointing performance, as they were never really competitive at the Fargodome in their opportunity to play for a conference title. They lost 52-24 to NDSU, and they were down 28-0 before you could blink an eye. USD is in the field by virtue of the “Vermiricle”, a last second Hail Mary victory over archrival SDSU. The Coyotes have now won two consecutive games in the series that has been dominated by the Jackrabbits over the last two decades. Freshman QB Carson Camp has been a big part of USD’s success, throwing for over 2000 yards and 17 TDs to 4 picks. Camp didn’t play most of the Yotes loss to Illinois State, and USD has gone 7-2 in FCS games with him under center, only losing at NDSU and Missouri State. The Yotes also have a stable of running backs (Nate Thomas, Travis Theis, Michael Mansaray, Shomari Lawrence), and all are all freshmen like their QB, as is their top receiver (Carter Bell). Similar to SIU, the Coyotes are above average on both offense and defense, but elite at neither. These seem like an evenly matched pair on paper.
My Prediction: The Salukis are seemingly in a funk. Sometimes, teams use these things as a wake up call and snap out of it in time for the postseason. Sometimes, it swallows them whole. This is basically a coin toss game on paper, but I like the Coyotes at home in their first FCS playoff game in the Dakotadome. I anticipate there will be more life at USD than some of the other places hosting Thanksgiving weekend games and the Coyotes will ride that to a win. I have South Dakota winning, 27-20, setting up a rematch in Fargo.
AROUND THE FCS
That is it for the Valley postseason action this week. Here is a quick look at the other playoff games.
Sacred Heart (8-3, NEC Champs) @ #24 Holy Cross (9-2, Patriot Champs) – 11am – ESPN+
The regional nature of the early rounds of the tournament almost always gets us one of these. Here we have a matchup of two champions of one bid leagues. Sacred Heart comes from the NEC, which is probably one of the two weakest leagues in the Championship Subdivision. There have been some standout teams from this league that have been competitive in the first round of the playoffs in the past, but I don’t see anything particularly special about the Pioneers. They lost to league runners-up Bryant, Ivy champs Dartmouth (41-3), and a 3-8 MEAC team in Howard. None of their opponents even sniffed the FCS playoffs. They just don’t seem like they pose much of a threat. Holy Cross comes from the Patriot League. It also one of the less competitive FCS leagues, but there is certainly more to be impressed with on the Crusaders resume. Holy Cross actually has an FBS win, 38-28 on the opening weekend over UConn. They also handled a Yale team that finished .500 in the Ivy League and beat Monmouth (who was one win away from winning the Big South) 45-15. While they have a real head scratcher of a loss to Merrimack (who finished near the bottom of Sacred Heart’s NEC), Holy Cross steamrolled the Patriot League. They won their league games by an average score of 42-13 and their smallest margin of victory was 19. Sacred Heart played most of the year without star running back Julius Chestnut, who returned three weeks ago and has logged two straight 100-yard games. If the Pioneers are going to win this one, he will need to have a big day. Holy Cross uses two quarterbacks in sophomores Marco Siderman and Matthew Sluka. They have similar passing stats, but Sluka is much more of a running threat, finishing with 13 rushing TDs. Neither of these teams are threats to win the national title, but this could be a pretty good game. I give Holy Cross the edge and I have them pulling away for a 31-17 win.
Davidson (8-2, Pioneer Champs) @ #10 Kennesaw State (10-1, Big South Champs) – 1pm – ESPN+
Here we have another matchup of conference champions from one-bid leagues. I am not typically this bluntly mean, but I am going to give it to you straight here. Davidson is probably the worst team in the FCS playoffs. It isn’t their fault as they don’t offer scholarships. The Pioneer League has had a handful of legit top-25 caliber teams in recent years. Usually when that happens, it’s the USD Torreros who are repping the league. However, Davidson has now won the league title twice in a row. In the spring, the Wildcats kept it close for about a quarter and a half before Jacksonville State pulled away in their playoff game. This time their opponents will be Kennesaw State, who won the Big South title and went unbeaten through the FCS. KSU has a gaudy record, but it came against less than stellar competition. The Owls played just one FCS team with a winning record, Monmouth, who they beat 49-17 to win the Big South title. Kennesaw is a good team, but it is difficult to say just how good they are due to their competition in their league. We may need to wait until next week to get an answer to that question, as a win over the Pioneer League champs would not move the needle much. This will probably be the shortest game in the FCS playoffs. Both teams prefer to run the ball. Davidson threw it just 125 times total this year and scored 40 of their 52 TDs on the ground. The Owls are even more run happy. Employing the triple option offense, KSU threw the ball a total of 124 times. In their league title clinching win over Monmouth, KSU threw it just six times and ran it 67 times for 471 yards. Quarterback Xavier Shepherd is both their leading passer and rusher with almost 1,200 passing yards and 836 on the ground. He is personally responsible for 33 of his team’s 44 scores this year. I don’t think Davidson is going to be able to slow down KSU’s offense. The Owls will wear down the Wildcats. I have them winning 42-14.
#20 Stephen F. Austin (8-3, AQ7 At-Large) @ #13 Incarnate Word (9-2, SLC Champs) – 2pm – ESPN+
SFA was one of five or six teams sitting directly on the bubble going into the final week of the season, and they were the only squad of that group who won. As such, their inclusion in the FCS playoffs (despite only one win against an FCS team with a winning record) was not a surprise. They were not even listed as one of the last two teams into of the field. I have a feeling that even if the bubble had performed well, the committee was keen on the Lumberjacks. They aren’t a bad team, they just didn’t get many chances to prove themselves. The AQ7 was supposed to be a great league, but schools like Jacksonville State and Central Arkansas were letdowns. SFA wasn’t bad, it was just that their best performances came in losses. They lost by six points to Texas Tech, and they lost by just one to the nation’s #1 team in Sam Houston State (who was playing with their backup QB). They beat OK teams like EKU and Central Arkansas by multiple scores. And while they did slip up for a mediocre loss to Jacksonville State, other than that they were quite solidly consistent. Incarnate Word stepped up and won a Southland Conference that has been absolutely decimated by realignment. Considered one of the better leagues in the FCS as recently as 2019, and home of the 2020 spring champs, the league was left with just six members when Central Arkansas, Sam Houston, Stephen F Austin, Abilene Christian and Lamar bailed before the season. UIW performed so well that they played themselves right off the sinking ship, and claimed a spot in the WAC for next season to replace Sam Houston (who is going to the BIG TIME to play New Mexico State in the C-USA). UIW also did not play a particularly challenging schedule, and they lost to the likes of Youngstown State and 4-7 McNeese State. However, they won both games against a decent Nicholls team and beat league favorite Southeastern Louisiana to claim the league’s automatic bid. That UIW is hosting this game is somewhat surprising, as they are not known to have a large fanbase. But while UTSA may be the talk of San Antonio with an 11-0 record, only one team in town still has a chance at a National Title. The ‘Jacks like to sling it. Trae Self has almost 3,000 yards and 25 TD passes (with 7 picks) and is also their second leading rusher with 281 yards and 3 TDs. They have just 13 rushing TDs and their top running back failed to eclipse 600 yards. UIW is similar with QB Cam Ward throwing for nearly 4000 yards and 38 touchdowns to ten interceptions. Kevin Brown and Marcus Cooper combined for 218 carries and 1,358 yards with 19 TDs on the ground, though, so they do have a more fleshed out running game than SFA. This seems like a relatively even match on paper and is a tough one to call. I’m going to go with Incarnate Word in a shootout, 41-34. The winner gets a trip to top seeded Sam Houston State.
#22 Florida A&M (9-2, SWAC At-Large) @ #18 Southeastern Louisiana (8-3, SLC At-Large) – 6pm – ESPN+
I’d like to welcome the SWAC back to the playoffs! For the first time since 1997, a SWAC team will be participating in the postseason tournament. That is because the SWAC effectively plays its own postseason. Two squads play in the SWAC Championship game every year, with the winner playing the MEAC Champion in the Celebration Bowl. Beyond that, several SWAC games are typically scheduled the week of the first round of the playoffs (including the Southern-Grambling Bayou Classic) making their participants ineligible for the playoffs. So, to have a SWAC team in the playoffs you have to have a team that did not win either SWAC division title. They also can’t have a game scheduled after the end of the typical FCS regular season. And they must still have a profile worthy of being included. For several years this did not happen. But along came Florida A&M, Deion Sanders, and a very particular set of circumstances. FAMU lost their season opening game to Deion Sanders’ Jackson State Tigers by one point. Then (after a non-DI win and an FBS loss) they proceeded to reel of eight consecutive FCS wins to finish with an 8-1 Championship Subdivision record. But they were not able to catch Jackson State for their SWAC division title. Although their SOS was downright abysmal, their quantity of wins paired with most of the other bubble teams getting beat was enough to get them safely into the field of 24. This is a case of another team that is hard to pin down. They haven’t beaten any really noteworthy teams, but they’ve also won handily in most of their games. So how good is this team really? Well, we are about to find out because the Rattlers will be playing on the road against a squad with one of the best quarterbacks in the country. After the Southland mass exodus last year, Southeastern Louisiana was left as the prohibitive favorite. They were looking like it for most of the year too, starting 7-1 with just a 45-42 loss to C-USA’s Louisiana Tech and looking like they would roll to a Southland title and a possible seed. Instead, they lost 55-52 to UIW to lose the autobid, and then 45-42 to Nicholls to lose any claim to the league title. They were considered a bubble team but got in relatively easily when the bubble collapsed last Saturday. The Lions aren’t really into the whole “defense” thing. But they do like to score themselves. Reigning Walter Payton Award winner Cole Kelly comes in with 4,382 passing yards with 38 TDs and 6 interceptions. He is also the Lions’ leading rusher by far with 442 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground. That makes him responsible for 54 touchdowns this year, and at times the Lions have needed just about every point they can get. FAMU can score too, but they’ve also played more consistent defense holding SWAC opponents to just over 15 points per game this year. Rasean McKay has thrown for over 2,200 yards and 20 TDS to just four picks. Bishop Bennett is their lead back with 957 yards and 5 TDS. He is one of three backs who have combined for over 1700 yards and 12 TDs. This is a tough one to call because it is very hard to say how good FAMU is. We know both teams are going to score. Southeastern is going to get theirs, and their defense seemingly can’t stop anybody. I think this will be a shootout. I am going with SE Louisiana to pull it out in the end, 52-40. The winner will play third seeded James Madison next weekend.
And that is it for this week’s preview. Enjoy the week, Valley fans. It is one of my favorites of the year. We sit around, feast on turkey, and give thanks that our schools play a real playoff instead of a series of meaningless exhibitions to end the season. GO VALLEY!