(STATS) – A FCS playoff rematch between James Madison and North Dakota State is the one so many people have been wanted this year – ESPN executives, for certain.
But there are plenty of places in which a meeting between the last six FCS champions (JMU last season and NDSU from 2011-15) is not the popular matchup to end the 24-team playoffs – such as in Jacksonville, Alabama, Conway, Arkansas and Brookings, South Dakota, to name a few.
While No. 1 seed James Madison and No. 2 North Dakota State have a distinct advantage with home games through the semifinals, the top two seeds have met in the final only once since the championship game moved to Frisco, Texas, in 2010 (Sam Houston State versus NDSU in 2011).
Here are other teams that plan to factor into the picture come Jan. 6:
Central Arkansas (10-1) – Like last season, the fourth-seeded Bears are tough to run against and score upon. But they’re particularly balanced this season as they rank sixth in the FCS in points per game and seventh in yards per game, up from 19 and 23, respectively, a year ago – led by quarterback Hayden Hildebrand, the Southland Conference player of the year. Coach Steve Campbell’s squad should get at least two home games, and it has won nine straight on its striped field.
Jacksonville State (10-1) – The third-seeded Gamecocks rank second in the FCS in total defense, sitting right between James Madison and North Dakota State in a particularly telling statistic among playoff teams. Running back Roc Thomas and defensive end Darius Jackson were the Ohio Valley Conference’s preseason players of the year and lived up to it in the regular season. But it’s helped a lot that first-year quarterback Bryant Horn has come on strong down the stretch. The team’s veteran players went to the national final two years ago.
Northern Iowa (7-4) – As they usually do in the second half of the season, the Panthers are surging into the playoffs, with wins in five of their last six games. Their physical run game has revved up with the return of junior Marcus Weymiller and the defense has become opportunistic to set up the offense. The Panthers also have been hardened by a tough road schedule, including a 38-18 win at South Dakota State. But quarterback Eli Dunne missed the regular-season finale with a sternum injury.
Sam Houston State (10-1) – With Central Arkansas jumping ahead of Sam Houston early in the Southland race, the Bearkats haven’t quite been in the limelight. The sixth-seeded team is ranked No. 1 in the FCS in points and yards per game, although the Bearkats’ defense has yet to prove it is on a national championship level, so quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe and Co. have to jump on opponents early in games, as they often do. Special teams are a difference maker as the ‘Kats have been excellent on returns (three touchdowns) and defensive lineman P.J. Hall has blocked 14 kicks in his career.
South Dakota (7-4) – Following a 6-0 start to the regular season, the Coyotes lost four of their final five games in the Missouri Valley, but they wouldn’t have to face a conference opponent in at least the first three rounds of the playoffs. The problem is, they likely would play all of their playoff games on the road, and that could wear on them. Dual-threat quarterback Chris Streveler and an aggressive defense have to get the early season magic back.
South Dakota State (9-2) – This is the trendy pick for a champ other than James Madison or North Dakota State. The Jackrabbits won’t have to play at North Dakota State, where they’ve been eliminated in three of the last five playoffs (although a potential semifinal at James Madison isn’t a better option). Coach John Stiegelmeier’s squad is red-hot, beating three playoff teams (including NDSU) in a five-game winning streak. Its offense gets it done regularly behind quarterback Taryn Christion, although the defense has to tighten more against the run.
Western Illinois/Weber State/Southern Utah Survivor – The matchup between Western Illinois (8-3) and Weber State (9-2) is the strongest pairing of the first round and the winner gets maybe an even better opponent in eighth-seeded Southern Utah (9-2), which earned the Big Sky’s automatic bid. Each has a too-often overlooked starting quarterback. Any one of those veteran teams could find itself playing in a quarterfinal at James Madison. The defending champ hasn’t trailed in the second half of a game since September, so the Dukes will feel an added burden if it happens in a do-or-die game.
Wofford (9-2) – The Terriers’ flexbone option offense poses a problem for any team in a short turnaround of playoff preparation. Plus, the experience of reaching the national quarterfinals last year is evident with the Southern Conference champ, who displayed its composure by going 7-1 in games decided by seven points or less. If there’s a woeful shortcoming with the No. 7 seed, it’s the lack of a passing game. As is possible this year, coach Mike Ayers led the Terriers into a quarterfinal-round game at North Dakota State in 2012 (a 14-7 Bison win).