'Tis the season: FCS playoff bracket released, analyzed by FCS Nation
It’s official – the FCS playoff bracket is out.
The road to Frisco will commence on Thanksgiving Weekend with eight first-round games. The top eight seeds await those winners in the second round.
Here’s a breakdown of the seeded teams, the at-large selections and their matchup, and the snubbed teams:
1) South Dakota State – This comes as no surprise. The defending national champions are sitting at 11-0 on the season with seven ranked wins. They ran the gauntlet of the deepest conference in FCS football, the Missouri Valley Conference, which got six teams into the field this year. The left side of the bracket runs through Brookings.
2) Montana – Also unsurprising, the Griz claim the No. 2 seed after thwarting rival Montana State 37-7 to close the regular season 10-1. Their lone loss came to Northern Arizona, but this version of the UM team is unrecognizable from that early-season loss. The right side of the bracket goes through Missoula.
3) South Dakota – The final predictable seed, the Yotes entered the final week of the regular season ranked No. 5 in the country. Two teams ahead of them, Montana State and Furman, concluded their seasons with losses to fall behind. This catapulted the team from Vermillion up the rankings and earns them a favorable seed.
4) Idaho – Now for the much more subjective seeds, the Vandals come in fourth and perhaps the largest beneficiary of MSU and Furman floundering. With a head-to-head win over the Bobcats this season, and one of their two FCS losses coming to Montana in a down-to-the-wire game, their resume stands out. Not to mention they hung 63 points on rival Idaho State to finish their regular season.
5) Albany – Out of nowhere this season, the Great Danes went from 3-8 to 9-3, earning a bye and a seed. Quarterback Reese Poffenbarger has been the catalyst for them this season, beating ranked Villanova and then-ranked William and Mary with an offense that averages nearly 30 points per game.
6) Montana State – Despite an end to the season that includes losses to Idaho and Montana, the Bobcats are still a team that could make a national championship run if they get hot. Highly ranked all season long with all of their losses coming to top-4 seeds, MSU can’t be dismissed.
7) Furman – Though a head-scratching loss to Wofford sent them from a possible two-seed down to seven, the Paladins are glad to still have a seed. And, with a stinker out of their system, could be a dangerous playoff team. They were undefeated against the FCS up until that point with three ranked wins.
8) Villanova – The final seed goes to the Wildcats who picked up a major win Saturday to close the season. They knocked off Delaware in a big way to win the CAA and get a bye, in turn sending the Blue Hens down a difficult path to success in the FCS playoffs. However, they played a relatively weaker schedule than all of these seeded counterparts, only beating one team in the field of 24.
Gardner-Webb – One year after making their first-ever FCS playoff appearance, the Runnin’ Bulldogs are back in the field again. At 2-4 midway through the year they were in danger of not being considered, but they rattled off five-straight wins to cap off a 7-4 campaign, which included a victory over #13 UT-Martin.
Mercer – The Bears make their first-ever FCS playoff appearance, so this matchup will highlight two fairly new members of the field. Though they have no wins over 2023 playoff members, they played in an increasingly difficulty SoCon and their only losses were to ranked teams, including FBS-ranked Ole Miss.
Preview / Prediction: This game could go either way, but it depends on which version of each team shows up. That’s true for any contest, but especially this one that appears 50/50 on paper. However, I’ll give Mercer the edge being at home and the fact that their defense is a bit stouter. Gardner-Webb scores lots of points, but their defense can be porous. I expect the Bears to limit them and score enough to come out on top.
Duquesne – Winners of the NEC, the Dukes made things interesting down the stretch. They could have closed out the conference on Nov. 11 but lost to Stonehill to set up a winner-take-all game against Merrimack this past Saturday. They won that one 26-14 to make the field after finishing 7-4.
Youngstown State – The Penguins are a play or two away from having a much better record and being considered much fiercer. They had close results in a three-point loss to South Dakota and a three-point loss to Northern Iowa. But they still finished 7-4 in the toughest conference in the country, earning a bid.
Preview / Prediction: I expect Youngstown State to come out and roll at home in round one. They are battle tested and as a result, much better than their record shows. Plus, with all due respect to the NEC, its level of play is not up to par with that of the premier FCS conferences at this point in time.
N.C. Central – A loss to Howard kept the Eagles out of the Celebration Bowl played between the winner of the MEAC and the SWAC, but they’ll happily take their first-ever berth into the FCS playoff field. With a true talent at QB in Davius Richard, NC Central puts up points in bunches, eclipsing 30 points scored in eight of their 11 games this season.
Richmond – The Spiders are hot right now, entering the playoffs with an 8-3 record and six-straight wins. Their team at the beginning of the season which lost to Hampton and Morgan State while struggling with Stony Brook is nowhere to be seen as this more dominant version of Richmond has settled in.
Preview / Prediction: Give me the Eagles on the road in this matchup, as I think the chip on their shoulder will propel them to victory. Being left out of the Celebration Bowl, they are essentially being given a second chance at postseason football and will want to make the most of it. Plus, Richard will be the best player on the field.
Nicholls – The Southland Conference was down this season, and it appeared that Incarnate Word would walk across the finish line with the crown. Instead, Nicholls ran through the competition to secure the AQ and turn some heads. QB Pat McQuaide has been playing well for them and they’ll need more where that came from.
Southern Illinois – Don’t be surprised if the Salukis make a nice run this postseason. With some of the top teams in the country, they hung tight, losing 14-7 against South Dakota and 17-10 against South Dakota State. Their defense locks up when needed – they just need the offense to come along with them consistently.
Preview / Prediction: Nicholls didn’t beat anyone outside of the Southland this season – I don’t expect that to change. Southern Illinois is a team capable of beating anyone in the country if they are firing on all cylinders and get a relatively easy first-round matchup at home.
Sacramento State – The Hornets make the field over UC-Davis who they lost to Saturday to both finish 7-4 – raising questions as to how they made it. Perhaps it was their Power 5 win over Stanford that punched the ticket. In any case, they are a point-scoring unit that can put them up in a flurry if you don’t execute your defensive game plan.
North Dakota – After outbidding Weber State for a home game in round one last year but still having to go on the road, the Fighting Hawks are glad to get a Big Sky team in Grand Forks. They have two wins over teams in the field this season, one of them being against NDSU which many considered the end of the Bison’s reign.
Preview / Prediction: Despite knocking off one of the most historically successful programs in FCS history, UND fizzled out to end the season as though that win took everything out of them. The next week they were blanked, then went to OT with winless Indiana State before beating Murray State, losing to USD and squeaking past Illinois State. For that reason, I’ll go with Sacramento State to win this game, but I expect it to be a great battle, perhaps the best of the first round.
Drake – The Pioneer League, which does not give out football scholarships, probably had other frontrunners this year. Butler and St. Thomas were both formidable, but it was the Bulldogs who came out with the AQ. Typically in low-scoring games, their defense shines as the impressive piece to their puzzle.
North Dakota State – For the first time in a long time, the Bison faced much adversity this season but were still good enough to make the tournament. They cleaned up against teams from three other conferences beating Eastern Washington (Big Sky), Maine (CAA) and Central Arkansas (UAC). This further proves the strength of the MVFC.
Preview / Prediction: This is going to be an absolute throttling. NDSU has so much to prove and play for and they will be uber-motivated. Meanwhile, when Drake played legitimate teams like North Dakota and SDSU, they lost 7-55 and 7-70, respectively. Expect it to be lopsided.
Chattanooga – Another fringe team, the Mocs were selected with a 7-4 record that included a then-ranked win over Samford and a ranked win over Mercer. They hung tight with Furman on Nov. 4 but lost on a field goal. Unpredictable, the Mocs had just enough to get in.
Austin Peay – The newly formed United Athletic Conference’s first-ever AQ, the Governors were 9-2, beating ranked Central Arkansas on Saturday to seal the deal. That was one of two wins over teams in the tournament, also besting Gardner-Webb. They have a knack for winning close games, winning an OT game and a double OT game.
Preview / Prediction: in what will be another intriguing first-round matchup, I choose the Governors to come through with the win. They’ve proven resiliency, consistency and get the home game – plus, Chattanooga’s “tune up” contest before the playoffs was a gigantic loss to Alabama; not sure how that helps them moving forward. Only one Tennessee-based squad can move on, and I’ll take the one with just a lone FCS loss.
Lafayette – The Leopards have lots of tight wins over less-than-stellar teams, but the fact of the matter is, they’ve held on almost every time. With a 9-2 record, the Patriot League crown and just a single FCS loss, this team comes in with no reason to believe they don’t belong.
Delaware – They had their chance to claim the CAA and played one of their worst games of the season, but still, the Blue Hens make the field with an 8-3 record and that atrocity behind them. Delaware has a balanced attack with an offense scoring over 30 points per game and a defense holding teams to just 20.
Preview / Prediction: Don’t let the non-seed fool you – Delaware was ranked amongst the FCS’ top 25 all year long and could’ve ended up with a seed had they beat Villanova. On that day they just played a bad game and that’s all it came down to. They should roll over Lafayette before making the cross-country trek to Montana in the second round.
1) Eastern Illinois – The first team left out of the field; the Panthers had eight wins in what was a resurgent season – their best since the Jimmy Garoppolo era. However, they didn’t have enough substantial wins. They beat one-win Indiana State, one-win McNeese and Northwestern State, who eventually forfeited the rest of their season due to the death of a player. You can only play who is in front of you, but that haunts the EIU in 2023.
2) UT Martin – Once looking like a lock for the tournament, the Skyhawks lost two of their final four games to skid to a halt. Though they ended with eight wins, their losses said more about them in the end, including a stinker of a regular-season finale where they lost to Samford in a down year.
3) UC Davis – The Aggies had a case, especially after beating Sacramento State on Saturday to end with the same record as them. However, the Hornets got in over them. This exact same situation happened to Davis last year when it had a better standing than Montana but was still left out of the field. Perhaps their two FCS losses coming against bottom-tier Big Sky teams in Eastern Washington and Northern Arizona did them in.
4) Holy Cross – When you schedule two FBS opponents, you make things hard on yourself. Lots of times, those turn into two losses, and they did for the Crusaders this year, losing to Boston College by just three and Army by just three. Those almost wins would’ve made things entirely different for Holy Cross.