Friday Night Spotlight – FCS Playoff Quarterfinals

There are two subdivisions of NCAA football at the Division I level. The one we’ve primarily talked about all season is the FBS subdivision, for Football Bowl Subdivision. All the teams at that level play out the regular season, hoping for an invite to the College Football Playoffs by making it through the season unscathed (but with a strong schedule). Outside the “top” four teams, however, the remaining teams are relegated to playing in a bowl game – if they reach bowl eligibility – or simply staying home for the holidays.

In the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision), however, there is an actual playoff to determine the NCAA champion.[1] The two subdivisions schedule games against each other during the season, which are often used as schedule filler or tune-up games early in the season for the FBS teams. This past season, seven FCS teams were able beat FBS teams, with Temple’s loss to Villanova the biggest upset.[2]

More Playoff Teams, Please!

In the FCS, there is a 24-team playoff at the end of the regular season. The champions from the 10 participating conferences[3] – Big Sky, Big South, Colonial Athletic Association, Missouri Valley Football Conference, Northeast Conference, Ohio Valley Conference, Patriot League, Pioneer Football League, Southern Conference, and Southland Conference – all qualify their regular season champions. 14 at-large qualifiers from those conferences also make the tournament.

The top eight qualifiers are seeded 1 through 8, with the remaining 16 teams are paired based on geographical proximity, with teams from the same conference not facing each other prior to the third round (unless they did not meet in the regular season for some reason). All games prior to the National Championship are played at campus sites, with the best team[4] playing host.

This weekend marks the third weekend of the FCS playoffs (the quarterfinals), and the eight seeded schools have made it through thus far. They are:

  • North Dakota State (12-0) (Missouri Valley Football champions)
  • Weber State (10-2) (Big Sky champions)
  • Eastern Washington (10-2) (Big Sky at-large)
  • Kennesaw State (11-1) (Big South champion)
  • South Dakota State (9-2) (Missouri Valley Football at-large)
  • UC Davis (10-2) (Big Sky at-large)
  • University of Maine (9-3) (Colonial champions)
  • Colgate (10-1) (Patriot League champions)

North Dakota State is the defending champion, and they have won six of the last seven FCS National Championships (James Madison won in 2016 after defeating NDSU in the semifinals).

The Games at Hand

Now that I’ve provided the background for the FCS, let’s do a round-up of the four games on the slate this weekend, with one game on Friday and the others kicking off on Saturday:

(7) Maine Black Bears at (2) Weber State Wildcats

Friday, December 7, 8:00pm EST, Stewart Stadium, Ogden, Utah

The Maine Black Bears won the Colonial Athletic Association regular season title after going 7-1 in the conference and 9-3 overall. They played two games against FBS teams during the season, and are one of the seven teams that notched a victory, defeating Western Kentucky 31-28 on September 8 (they lost the other game to Central Michigan 17-5). They entered the playoffs ranked #8 in the FCS and defeated Jacksonville State, the champion of the Ohio Valley Conference, 55-27 last week.

The Weber State Wildcats shared the Big Sky regular season title with Eastern Washington and UC Davis, and clinched the automatic berth because they defeated Eastern Washington during the season. After being ranked 8th in the FCS preseason poll, they dropped after losing to FBS team Utah during Week 1 and conference foe Northern Arizona during Week 5, but they managed to enter the playoffs ranked #3 in the FCS (behind North Dakota State and Kennesaw State). They defeated Southeast Missouri State 48-23 in their game last week.

The game will feature two Top 20 defenses; Maine ranks 9th, surrendering an average of 295.3 yards a game, while Weber State is 20th at 320.3 yards per game. Weber State has a fairly balanced offense, averaging 152.3 rushing yards and 173.0 passing yards per game, which places them towards the middle of the pack in FCS. Maine, on the other hand, relies more on the passing game, with 209.2 passing yards per game versus 134.3 rushing yards. It should be a balanced game, and should be an exciting game to kick off the action this weekend.

(8) Colgate Raiders at (1) North Dakota State Bison

Saturday, December 8, 12:00pm EST, Fargodome, Fargo, North Dakota

The Colgate Raiders won the Patriot League, going 6-0 in the conference, and 10-1 overall. Their one loss on the season was against Army, which dropped them down to #9 in the FCS rankings. They recovered nicely last week in their first playoff game of the season, defeating James Madison – the last team besides North Dakota State to win a championship – 23-20.

The defending FCS champion Bison are undefeated on the season, and are led by Walter Payton Award finalist Easton Stick. The senior quarterback is third in the nation in passing efficiency, and has thrown for 2,180 yards and 22 touchdowns (and only five touchdowns). He’s also added 405 more yards on the ground (with 11 rushing touchdowns). He’s now 46-3 as a starter at NDSU and is hoping to win his second championship in three years at the school. The Bison have been ranked #1 all season, and defeated Montana State 52-10 last week.

Chances are that NDSU wins this game; they are simply the better team. Colgate rushes for nearly 200 yards per game, while NDSU averages over 275 rushing yards per game. Plus, the Bison are lead by a quarterback with a 0.939 winning percentage, so I have to give the edge to the Bison in this one.

(5) South Dakota State Jackrabbits at (4) Kennesaw State Owls

Saturday, December 8, 2:00pm EST, Fifth Third Bank Stadium, Kennesaw, Georgia

The Jackrabbits finished second behind NDSU in the Missouri Valley Conference, going 6-2 in conference and 9-2 overall. They entered the season ranked #3 in the FCS rankings, and entered the playoffs as #5. Senior quarterback Taryn Christion is 5th in passing efficiency after throwing for 2,693 yards and 29 touchdowns. Last week, they defeated Duquesne 51-6.

The Owls have been ranked #2 for most of the season, and qualified for the playoffs after blitzing the Big South in dominating fashion, going 5-0 in conference play (and 10-1 overall). They surrendered a total of 41 points in those five conference games, including two shutouts. Their only loss on the season was a 24-20 defeat to FBS team Georgia State during Week 1. They defeated #13 Wofford 13-10 in the second round of the playoffs last week.

Kennesaw State is led by their own Walter Payton Award finalist in quarterback Chandler Burks. The senior rushed for 871 yards and 29 touchdowns on the season while leading the 2nd most proficient rushing offense to 356.3 yards per game on the ground. This one should be an interesting contrast in offensive styles, and the winner will most likely have the honor of traveling to Fargo next week.

(6) UC Davis Aggies at (3) Eastern Washington Eagles

Saturday, December 8, 4:00pm, Roos Field, Cheney, Washington

The Aggies finished the regular season ranked #7 in the FCS, with a 7-1 record in the Big Sky (10-2) overall. That conference loss was to the Eagles in the second-to-last game of the season. The non-conference loss was to Stanford of the FBS, and UC Davis was in the group of seven FCS teams that defeated an FBS team, defeating San Jose State 44-38 during Week 1 action (San Jose State finished 1-11, so they were pretty terrible). Last week, they defeated Northern Iowa 23-16 in the second round of the playoffs.

The Eagles entered the playoffs ranked #4 in the FCS, and had the same record as UC Davis (and Weber State), and shared the Big Sky crown. While Weber State received the automatic bid for the conference – due to their win over the Eagles during the season – Eastern Washington was still rewarded with their lofty seed. Their non-conference loss was also to an FBS team, a 59-24 loss to Washington State. Last week during the second round, they defeated #14 Nicholls 42-21.

This rematch could lead to an all-Big Sky semifinal on one side of the bracket. The Aggies will be seeking revenge for that regular season loss, while the Eagles will know if Weber State will be looming should they win. That should make this one a compelling matchup – their earlier matchup was a 59-20 blowout in the same stadium – on the non-NDSU side of the bracket.

Hope you enjoy the games this weekend! We’ll be back next week to talk about the FCS semifinals, as well as the first of many bowl games that begin next week.

Until next time…

[1] The College Football Playoff is not officially sanctioned by the NCAA but still awards the title of National Champion to its victor.

[2] Temple finished 8-4 on the season, including its 19-17 loss to Villanova on September 1, and will be playing in the Independence Bowl. The other six FBS losers (San Jose State, UTEP, Kansas, East Carolina, Western Kentucky, and Colorado State) combined for 15 wins during the season and won’t be going to bowl games (obviously).

[3] The Ivy League, Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and Southwestern Athletic Conference do not participate in the tournament. They Ivy League doesn’t for academic reasons, while the MEAC and SWAC champions play in the Celebration Bowl to celebrate historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

[4] As determined by seeding or record.

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