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In the FCS Huddle: Numbers don't lie for FCS playoff teams

You sometimes hear people in sports utter the phrase, "Statistics are for losers."

You might know some of those Thanksgiving turkeys.

While it's true that sometimes statistics add up to puzzling numbers, the 20 teams that are headed to the FCS playoffs will agree some of their favorite stats have turned them into winners this season.

As the playoffs begin this weekend, with four first-round games, here are statistics that the qualifiers hope to build on while they travel The Road to Frisco:

Albany - Behind quarterback Dan DiLella, Albany ranks No. 1 in the Northeast Conference and No. 9 in the FCS in passing efficiency at 153.48. The Great Danes have thrown for 28 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. DiLella has completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 24 TDs and eight interceptions.

Appalachian State - The Mountaineers don't plan to beat themselves. Their 48 penalties are the fewest among the playoff teams. At less than 4.4 per game, they rank sixth in the FCS.

Central Arkansas - The Bears have had a plus turnover margin for seven straight seasons, but this year's has been the best during that time. They are plus-12, which ranks 12th nationally.

Eastern Kentucky - The trend for the Colonels in recent seasons also is turnover margin. With a minus total, they're mediocre. With a plus number - like plus-16 this season - they've had big seasons. They're tied for fourth nationally in turnover margin.

Georgia Southern - Indeed only Wofford's rushing game has been better than the Eagles' triple option in the FCS. But what gives the Eagles good field position and keeps the offense going plays a big part in their success. Their 26.2-yard kickoff return average - thanks, Laron Scott - ranks third nationally and their 48.8-percent third-down efficiency (62 of 127) ranks fifth.

James Madison - Put up your Dukes and play defense. In rugged CAA Football, coach Mickey Matthews' squad ranks first in rushing defense (95.5 ypg), total defense (305 ypg), scoring defense (19.3 ppg) and first downs allowed (186).

Lehigh - The Mountain Hawks defy the fact that playoff teams think run first. Behind quarterback Chris Lum, they are the only playoff team among the top 13 in the FCS in passing offense, ranking fourth with 342.4 yards per game. In contrast, seven of the top 13 teams in rushing offense are in the playoffs.

Maine - Opponents struggle to pass against the Black Bears. Buoyed by both a strong pass rush and secondary, they lead the CAA in passing defense (190 ypg) and are second in pass defense efficiency (112.3) and interceptions (17).

Montana - Hulking tackle Jon Opperud and the Grizzlies protect their quarterbacks. They have thrown the ball 338 times, but allowed only eight sacks. Among playoffs teams, that's only one sack fewer than Georgia Southern and Wofford, a pair of option teams which have combined for only 209 pass attempts.

Montana State - No playoff team gets after opposing quarterbacks more than the Bobcats. They have collected 38 sacks, led by sophomore defensive end Brad Daly's 10. They've allowed only 14 sacks.

New Hampshire - Redshirt senior quarterback Kevin Decker has fueled the CAA leader in total offense. At 441.9 yards per game, the Wildcats also rank eighth in the FCS.

Norfolk State - Two is better than one as the Spartans have kicked a FCS- leading 25 field goals. Ryan Estep is nearly automatic under 40 yards (20 of 21) and Everett Goldberg is 5 of 8 from 40-plus. They've combined to make 25 of 29 attempts (86.2 percent).

North Dakota State - Opponents can't beat the 10-1 Bison if they can't score. In the FCS, only unbeaten Sam Houston State has allowed fewer points and touchdowns than the Bison, who have allowed 14.9 points per game. Four of their first five opponents scored 10 or fewer points.

Northern Iowa - When the Panthers get to the red zone, they know what to do with the ball. They have scored 94.6 percent of the time - on 35 of 37 opportunities - to lead the nation. It's includes 25 touchdowns.

Old Dominion - The Monarchs have the punting game down. Jonathan Plisco's 46.1-yard average ranks second in the nation, which leads to the Monarchs' 37.8-yard net average (ninth nationally). On punt returns, they lead the CAA in punt return yards (240), punt return average (10.4) and punt return touchdowns (two).

Sam Houston State - It's easy to think running back Timothy Flanders first with the Bearkats, but their ability to stop the run is second to none in the FCS. They have allowed a mere 59 rushing yards per game on a minuscule 2.3 yards per carry. The No. 1 playoff seed also has the nation's top scoring defense (12.6 ppg) and is No. 2 with a plus-24 turnover margin.

Stony Brook - Let's play pinball (oops, does that show our age? OK, PlayStation). The Seawolves lead the FCS in scoring offense (39.6 ppg) and touchdowns (59). Running backs Miguel Maysonet and Brock Jackolski have scored 16 touchdowns each.

Tennessee Tech - The Golden Eagles don't punt often, but when they do, they do it right. Nick Campbell has a pedestrian 39.6-yard average, but the Golden Eagles' net total of 37.6 yards per punt is first in the Ohio Valley Conference and 10th in the FCS. Only nine punts have been returned for 29 yards, a 3.2-yard average that is sixth-best nationally.

Towson - You try stopping Terrance West on third down. The Tigers lead the nation in third-down efficiency, converting 74 of 140 attempts for 52.9 percent. They're even better on fourth downs - 13 of 22, or 59.1 percent.

Wofford - Wingbone right, wingbone left, wingbone up the middle. The Terriers, behind junior fullback Eric Breitenstein, rank No. 1 nationally in rushing yards per game (356.2). That's 37.5 yards per game better than the No. 2 team, Georgia Southern, and a whopping 68.8 yards better than No. 3 Stony Brook.

COACHING CAROUSEL

The list of head coaching openings at FCS schools is growing.

Bob Spoo retired at Eastern Illinois and Ron McBride retired at Weber State, while six others have been let go in the last two weeks: Western Carolina's Dennis Wagner, Fordham's Tom Masella, Columbia's Norries Wilson, Massachusetts' Kevin Morris, Southeastern Louisiana's Mike Lucas and South Dakota's Ed Meierkort.

Of course, UMass is leaving the FCS for the Bowl Subdivision next year.

The most surprising move is South Dakota's. Meierkort's contract wasn't renewed despite the Coyotes going 54-35 in his eight seasons.

Richmond also will be interviewing candidates. It seems doubtful that interim head coach Wayne Lineburg will keep the job after going 3-8 this year, with eight straight CAA losses to end the season.

FCS AWARDS

Finalists for all four FCS national awards were announced this week. The awards page can be found at: http://www.sportsnetwork.com/merge/tsnform.aspx?c=sportsnetwork&page= cfoot2/fcsawards/index.aspx

FCS PLAYOFF PROJECTION

In the FCS Huddle has been projecting the FCS playoff field every week since the preseason. Here's our predictions for the playoffs: http://www.sportsnetwork.com/fcs/FCS_Bracket.pdf

JUST THE PICKS

Last Week's Record: 43-15 (.741)

Season Record: 573-198 (.743)

X-Predicted Winner

All Times EST

Thursday, Nov. 24

88th Turkey Day Bowl at Cramton Bowl, Montgomery, Ala.

Tuskegee (4-5) at X-Alabama State (7-3), 4 p.m.

Saturday, Nov. 26

NCAA Division I FCS Playoff First Round

X-No. 17 James Madison (7-4) at Eastern Kentucky (7-4), noon

No. 19 Norfolk State (9-2) at X-No. 10 Old Dominion (9-2), 1:30 p.m.

Albany (8-3) at X-No. 22 Stony Brook (8-3), 2 p.m.

X-No. 15 Central Arkansas (8-3) at No. 21 Tennessee Tech (7-4), 3 p.m.

XXXVIII Bayou Classic at Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans

Southern (4-6) at X-Grambling State (6-4), 2 p.m.

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