As the FBS winds down the final version of its BCS system, the FCS is set to commence its Playoffs. Now in its 35th year, it's a pretty good model. So good, in fact, that the tournament is expanding to 24 teams this year.
The FCS seeds eight teams, all of whom get the benefit of a bye week while the first round is played. From there, the higher seed will have home-field advantage until the Jan. 4 national championship game in Frisco, Texas, home of the MLS' FC Dallas. That home edge is a major boost to teams like No. 1 seed North Dakota State and No. 5 Maine, whose home-field advantages are renowned across the country.
College football fans looking forward to an FBS playoff should tune in for the next month while their teams prepare for bowl season. The FCS Playoffs is not without its flaws (we're looking at your losing record, Lafayette), but it is a good baseline for what the FBS playoffs could look like in the future, should they expand from the current four-team structure debuting in 2014.
Let's take a look at this year's participants.
North Dakota State wins. They’ve got five consecutive wins over FBS opponents and the last two national titles. They’ve been there before, and nothing this season has suggested that they can’t get there again. If you’ve heard of any FCS program the last few years, you’ve heard of the Bison. They’re the Alabama Crimson Tide of the FCS postseason, and anyone else looking to figure into the mix will be an underdog.
This year, they won 24-21 at the Big 12's Kansas State and then beat up on most of their opponents the rest of the way. USA Today computer-ranker Jeff Sagarin has the Bison ranked 25th among all Division I teams, ahead of six FBS schools currently ranked in the BCS' top 25. The Bison are known most of all for their defense, and this year they've allowed only 11.5 points per game. Senior quarterback Brock Jensen, last year's FCS postseason MVP, commands a run-heavy offense that ranks No. 23 in yardage.
If NDSU wins the title, they will be the first undefeated FCS champion since Marshall won it all in 1996.
No. 5 Maine? The Black Bears have never hosted a Playoffs game in Orono, but they will this season, when either Lafayette or New Hampshire treks up. They have one of the CAA’s top quarterbacks in Marcus Wasilewski (68.9 completion percentage) and a veteran team that could be their best in recent memory. If the 10-2 Black Bears ever had a shot, it was this season.
Fellow CAA squad No. 7 Towson entered the season with much higher expectations than Maine's, but they lost a bit of their cachet along the way. Even so, at 10-2, they have to be considered dangerous, and junior tailback Terrence West (1,865 yards rushing) has the talent to play at any level. They won’t hesitate to try and ride West all the way to Frisco.
No. 3 Eastern Washington burst onto the scene just a few years ago, as they took a step forward from a good Big Sky program to one of the FCS elites. It is no surprise that they’re back, and they have the experience to hang around next month. Their offensive firepower is as good as anyone's (ask Oregon State), and they’ve proven that they can play with the best in this field.
No. 2 Eastern Illinois scores points, grabbing everyone’s attention with a decisive win over FBS San Diego State early on. They have just one loss, to potential MAC champion NIU. The only other one-loss team in the bracket is unseeded Fordham.
No. 8 Montana is a tough one to predict. They were rocked by a Northern Arizona team that didn't have any business beating them, but then narrowly lost to Eastern Washington late in the season. They stuttered in recent years, but they will be a tough out for North Dakota State should they match up in the quarterfinals.
The dark horses
No. 4 Southeastern Louisiana is perhaps the hottest team in the country, having beaten three top-25 (and two Playoffs) teams in the last four weeks. There's a lot of be said for playing well at the right time, and they certainly are. It's their first Playoffs appearance though, so how they handle the big stage remains to be seen.
You might argue that No. 6 McNeese St. is the best team that the Southland Conference has to offer, except for the 41-7 shellacking that SE Louisiana handed them, at home nonetheless. Still, the Cowboys can put up points in bunches with quarterback Cody Stroud at the helm of a balanced attack.
Some FCS fans may be wondering if Sam Houston State was given an at-large bid on reputation. The Bearkats have made the FCS Championship two years in a row, and while they sputtered at the end of the regular season with two straight losses, they know how to win at this time of year.
Bethune-Cookman gets it done with defense, boasting the No. 2 overall defense in the country. Not many teams at this level rely on their defensive unit.
Tennesee State's resume is a bit of a mixed bag. They scored an impressive win against fellow Playoffs team Jacksonville State, but lost to three others.
New Hampshire was one of Maine’s few losses this season. They have played well under pressure and will be ready to host Patriot champion Lafayette. With a win there, they will get another chance at Maine, but any march to Frisco will go through the mighty FargoDome.
Fordham hasn’t looked the same without quarterback Michael Nebrich, but the Rams have really turned the corner this season and should have enough in the tank to take on NEC champions Sacred Heart. The Walter Payton Award (an FCS version of the Heisman) candidate came back on Saturday to throw for 395 yards and five touchdowns, proving that he is ready for the postseason challenge. The Rams have not lost with a healthy Nebrich in the lineup, and they have a chance to surprise everyone this postseason.
The South Dakota State Jackrabbits are unranked and won’t host a game in this bracket, but even at 8-4, they have a legitimate chance to knock off 9-2 Northern Arizona. They already have a win over Southeastern Louisiana, and two of their four losses came at the hands of Big Ten Nebraska and FCS favorite North Dakota State. The Jackrabbits finished second in the MVC this fall, and they have been a consistently good team over the last few seasons.
The Northern Arizona Lumberjacks went 9-2 this season, but the Big Sky runners-up aren’t as good as their record looks. Their win over Southern Utah (which finished 8-4) on Saturday was marred by a blown call that allowed NAU to tie the game up at 10-all after a ball bounced into a receiver’s hands for a 25-yard touchdown on third-and-10 in the fourth quarter. That play changed the momentum and changed Southern Utah's strategy late. All but a few of their wins this season have been close ones, and they are far from a lock to win over South Dakota State on November 30th.
Places nobody wants to play
While the very-sub-zero winters of North Dakota won't be much of an issue for visitors to the North Dakota State's domed home field, the other northernmost entrants in this tournament will host chilly and potentially snowy matchups. Temperatures for Montana, Eastern Washington, and South Dakota State are all expected to drop within the next 10 days, and snow is on the forecast during that stretch in all three. Compared to FBS bowl games normally played in sunny climates, this version of the postseason is no vacation destination.
Eastern Washington University
Most dangerous, perhaps, is EWU's "Inferno" in Cheyney, Washington. The bright red turf and frigid weather can disorient even the most hardened teams from the northeast.
Just happy to be here
South Carolina State has beaten one team with a winning record, and there was some speculation they wouldn't be invited to the Playoffs this year. They look like a one and done, except ... Furman received the SoCon's auto-bid, and though that's historically a pretty competitive conference, 2013 was very much a down year. With NDSU waiting for whoever manages to come out on top, this looks like the weakest first-round game of the bunch.
Coastal Carolina has seen a football revival in the last couple of seasons under head coach (and former Ameritrade CEO) Joe Moglia, winning the Big South in back-to-back years. Don't let their 10-2 record fool you, though. They played a soft schedule.
Southern Utah comes into the Playoffs aided in part by the Big Sky's reputation. The FCS committee said they would weigh FBS wins in their consideration, and they appear to have done that here. The Thunderbirds took out South Alabama, but that's not saying much.
The late-season loss to Furman probably should have sunk Samford, but they're in, and they'll get Jacksonville State in a battle for the right to face the high-flying offense of Eastern Illinois. The Gamecocks didn't play much of a schedule this year, and their only two games against good teams (Eastern Illinois and Tennessee State), they lost. They should be able to handle Samford, but that's as far as they will go.
Speaking of Samford's opponent, Jacksonville State made it a three-bid year for the Ohio Valley Conference, a feat that wasn't well received by FCS fans. A smackdown from Eastern Illinois was bound to happen, but the loss to Murray State in the middle of the year was ugly. Fun fact: the Gamecocks played in three overtime games this year, going 2-1 in those contests.
Butler and Sacred Heart won the Pioneer League and NEC, respectively, to earn their bids to this tournament. With no scholarships and one of the smallest football budgets in FCS, Butler may need a miracle to take down Tennessee State and advance. It’s a similar situation for Sacred Heart, which plays in the limited-scholarship NEC — they’ve earned their bid, but expect Fordham to take care of business in The Bronx.
For Lafayette, however, their bid to this tournament was earned through a technicality, not just skill. Fordham was clearly the Patriot League’s jewel this season, but their early adoption of scholarships left them ineligible to be crowned conference champions. Instead, the Rams were granted an at-large invite, while the Leopards squeaked in with a losing record as the technical champion of the league. The FCS Playoffs have never before invited a team with a losing record, something that irked fans on Selection Sunday.
Chris Lane: Eastern Illinois 27, North Dakota State 24
Brian Ewart: North Dakota State 41, Eastern Illinois 35