Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The test drive was successful a year ago. Now FCS playoff teams are really anxious to take the field for a spin.
Last year's expansion of the FCS playoffs to 24 teams plenty of interesting results, even if the championship game ended the same way as the previous two seasons, with North Dakota State capturing a third straight national titles.
Not only did the field change from 16 teams playing in the first round with eight receiving byes to the second round, instead of the funky 20-team setup with eight playing in the first round and 12 on byes, but the results validated the need for a larger playoff system.
Teams in the first round mattered. Among those teams, New Hampshire went on to win three games and reach the national semifinals, while Coastal Carolina and Jacksonville State both won two games each, knocking off seeded teams on the road in the second round on their way to the quarterfinals. In fact, road teams went an impressive 9-13 in the postseason before the action shifted to Frisco, Texas, for the championship game.
All eight of Saturday's first-round games involve at least one nationally ranked team. and there are four games involving a pair of Top 25 teams. There are quality teams galore.
Let the postseason party begin.
Last Week's Record: 40-19 (.678)
This Season's Record: 627-186 (.771)
Saturday, Nov. 29
All Times ET
FCS Playoff First Round
Sacred Heart (9-2) at Fordham (10-2)
Kickoff: noon (ESPN3)
What to Know: If this matchup looks familiar, it's because these teams met in the first round of last year's playoffs, with Fordham winning the first-ever meeting at home, 37-27. Both teams are back with many of the same veteran standouts.
Fordham quarterback Mike Nebrich passed for 413 yards and three touchdowns in last year's meeting, and Sacred Heart will be hard-pressed to stop a similar Rams' passing game. Brian Wetzel (1,047), Tebucky Jones Jr. (999 yards) and Sam Ajala (953) are primed to give the Patriot League champions three 1,000-yard wide receivers for the second straight season. Nebrich and freshman running back Chase Edmonds (1,539 yards and 21 touchdowns on the ground) appear to be back to 100 percent after they were eased up late in the regular season. The Rams' 42.2-point average is tied for third-best the FCS.
Their defense surrenders 21.6 points per game, but that number is inflated by losses to their two toughest opponents, Villanova and Army. Otherwise, it's 16.7. Defensive end Brett Biestek (18 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks) and cornerback Ian Williams (two interceptions, 11 pass breakups) are their defensive playmakers.
Sacred Heart, which won the Northeast Conference title for the second consecutive season, is coming off a bye with the chance to heal up heading into the postseason. The Pioneers surrender only 2.4 yards per carry and have a star in each defensive unit with defensive tackle Troy Moore, outside linebacker James Rentz and safety J.D. Roussel.
Running back Keshaudas Spence slumped down the stretch, which brought the speedier Sean Bell more into the picture. So much depends on quarterback RJ Noel (21 touchdowns but 13 interceptions) being mistake-free. He has terrific chemistry with wide receiver Tyler Dube (72 receptions, 14 touchdowns).
The winner will face top-seeded New Hampshire on Dec. 6.
Prediction: Sacred Heart needs to establish the run game and keep Nebrich and Co. on the sideline. The Rams simply have too much offense. Fordham, 35-24.
Indiana State (7-5) at Eastern Kentucky (9-3)
Kickoff: 1 p.m. (ESPN3)
What to Know: The visiting Sycamores are in the FCS playoffs for the third time, and the first time since 1984. Meanwhile, Eastern Kentucky, a two-time national champion, is making its 21st playoff appearance - which trails only Montana (23).
But history won't matter to the Sycamores, who are a tested team out of the powerful Missouri Valley Football Conference, having played seven nationally ranked FCS teams - with wins over playoff qualifiers Liberty and Northern Iowa - after earning an early season win at FBS member Ball State.
Indiana State, which has turned around its fortunes from a 1-11 finish a year ago, stakes its hopes to three-year starting quarterback Mike Perish, who often faces pressure but limits the errors (eight interceptions in 444 pass attempts). Ohio Valley Conference teams aren't generally known for their defense, so the Sycamores hope to get better results out of a struggling run game.
The Sycamores have a stud on defense in Connor Underwood, who has 21.5 tackles for loss, 12 sacks and three forced fumbles. He will set his sights on stopping the run as much as the pass because EKU ranks 16th nationally in rushing yards per game (229.4). Kentucky transfer Dy'Shawn Mobley (1,395 yards, 19 touchdowns), the OVC offensive player of the year, has led the way. The Colonels utilize two quarterbacks, Jared McClain and Bennie Coney, but they have combined for more interceptions (16) than touchdown passes (12).
Like Indiana State, EKU has a win over an FBS opponent, Miami of Ohio. What coach Dean Hood's squad has done is make strong adjustments at halftime because it has outscored the opposition 117-33 in the third quarter.
The winner will head to No. 8 seed Chattanooga on Dec. 6.
Prediction: Indiana State is the more tested team, but in one of the tightest matchups of the first round, the Colonels gain a little from being home. Eastern Kentucky, 31-28.
Morgan State (7-5) at Richmond (8-4)
Kickoff: 1 p.m. (ESPN3)
What to Know: History favors the host team in this matchup even more than Indiana State-Eastern Kentucky.
Morgan State, under rookie coach Lee Hull, is appearing in the playoffs for the first time after emerging from a five-way tie for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title. Plus, no MEAC team has won a postseason game since 1999.
During the MEAC's lengthy drought, Richmond pocketed the 2008 national title and CAA Football teams have dominated in the postseason.
Morgan State tested itself on the road this season and features running back Herb Walker Jr. (1,288 yards, 13 touchdowns) in heavy doses. But he was much better in the first half of the season, so the Bears need quarterbacks Robert Council and Moses Skillon, who both run the ball, to be exceptional.
The Bears are strong against the pass and need pass rusher Chris Robinson (14 sacks) to get to Richmond QB Michael Strauss because their secondary could be under fire.
Actually, Richmond might switch it up a bit because Morgan State allowed 206.4 rushing yards per game in the regular season - second-worst in the MEAC. The Spiders have two tough running backs in Seth Fisher and Jacobi Green despite their offense preferring to let Strauss air it out to wide receivers Reggie Diggs, Brian Brown and Rashad Ponder, who have combined on 190 receptions.
Richmond's defense is senior-laden. Linebacker Eric Wright is the leading tackler after finishing second on the team for two straight seasons.
The winner advances to the second round at No. 7 seed Coastal Carolina on Dec. 6.
Prediction: After finishing just short of the playoffs a number of times at Liberty and Richmond, Spiders coach Danny Rocco will enjoy his postseason debut. Richmond, 28-16.
Southeastern Louisiana (9-3) at Sam Houston State (8-4)
Kickoff: 2 p.m. (ESPN3)
What to Know: Intraconference matchups usually don't happen in the first round, but Southland Conference co-champions Sam Houston State and Southeastern Louisiana didn't meet in the regular season, so the NCAA selection committee has made it happen in a dandy choice. In fact, the two teams met in the second round of the playoffs a year ago, with Southeastern prevailing at home, 30-29, on a last-minute touchdown.
Southeastern entered the season ranked third and has been trying to get back to an elite level since back-to-back losses in mid-September. All three of the Lions' losses have come on the road.
There's no denying what the Lions want to do - put the ball in the hands of quarterback Bryan Bennett and let him make plays. He's been a little more dangerous as a runner (655 yards, 13 TDs) as he's completed only 52.3 percent of his passes in a senior season that hasn't matched his exploits of a year ago. Sam Houston is strong against the run and Bennett will have to contend with defensive end P.J. Hall, only a freshman but a future All-American.
Southeastern linebacker Isiah Corbett didn't finish the season with a flourish, but he's the headliner on an experienced defense. Sam Houston will go right at the Lions with their speed, especially senior running back Keshawn Hill, who is coming off a 242-yard, two-touchdown effort against Central Arkansas, and dual- threat signal caller Jared Johnson, who is terrific in the open field.
Bearkats first-year coach K.C. Keeler knows all about the playoffs, having won the 2003 national title and appearing in two other finals at Delaware.
The survivor of this matchup will play in the second round at No. 3 seed Jacksonville State on Dec. 6.
Prediction: Sam Houston has won 26 of its last 27 games at Bowers Stadium. Oh, is this a rugged assignment for the Lions, but they will get it done. Southeastern Louisiana, 28-24.
San Diego (9-2) at Montana (8-4)
Kickoff: 4 p.m. (ESPN3)
What to Know: San Diego, from the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League, has nothing to lose in its first-ever FCS playoff game. Few people outside the Toreros' program probably expect them to win at national power Montana, which is appearing in the playoffs for a record 23rd season.
Last year's first PFL playoff team (Butler) was shut out at home. Plus, in an ominous barometer, USD just had an eight-game winning streak snapped at home by another Big Sky team, Cal Poly, 34-3.
Like Cal Poly, Montana will look to run the ball on the Toreros. Workhorse Jordan Canada (1,011 yards, nine TDs) has raised his play recently and combines with the speedy San Diego native Travon Van in a nice 1-2 combination (Van also lines up at wide receiver). Fifth-year quarterback Jordan Johnson, though recently hobbled by an ankle injury, is used to playing in the big games, and he will work behind an offensive line that will be bigger and likely better than USD's defensive line. The Grizzlies' plus-16 turnover margin leads the FCS.
On defense, Montana will unleash pass rushers Zach Wagenmann (13.5 sacks) and Tyrone Holmes (6.5 sacks) on Toreros quarterback Keith Williams, who will try to seek safe throws to wideouts Brandon White and Reggie Bell.
Running back Jonah Hodges (1,194 yards) has emerged as USD's all-purpose threat and he will need to eat up yards in different ways to keep the Toreros in the game. When they get to the red zone, they have scoring on 90.2 percent of their opportunities.
The winner will head to the red turf at No. 4 seed Eastern Washington for a second-round game on Dec. 6.
Prediction: San Diego won the only previous at home in 1958. But the Toreros won't find it sunny and 75 in Missoula. Snow is in the forecast. Montana, 37-7.
Liberty (8-4) at James Madison (9-3)
Kickoff: 4 p.m. (ESPN3)
What to Know: The Interstate 81 Showdown is much anticipated in Virginia. JMU is one of the CAA schools with a national title (2004), while Big South co- champion Liberty is appearing in the playoffs for the first time, powering into the postseason by handing previously unbeaten Coastal Carolina its first loss last Saturday.
JMU holds a 12-5 series lead, including a 27-24 win in their most recent meeting at Liberty in 2011.
Liberty must slow down JMU dual-threat quarterback Vad Lee, which is easier said than done. Defensive tackle Chima Uzowihe was the one who blocked a game- ending field goal attempt to lift the Flames over Coastal Carolina, and he's been getting it done up front all season, giving safety Jacob Hagen (a national-high eight interceptions) the ability to dominate on the back end.
Freshman quarterback Stephon Masha has stepped in for star quarterback Josh Woodrum (leg infection) the last two games and is coming off a strong outing against Coastal. Still, the Flames will want running back D.J. Abnar and wide receiver Darrin Peterson to do the heavy lifting. They have combined on 25 touchdowns.
Lee has been this year's most-accomplished FBS transfer in the FCS. The former two-year starter at Georgia Tech ranks fifth in the FCS in passing yards (3,323) and fourth in total offense (341 ypg). He's guided rookie coach Everett Withers' squad to a seven-game winning streak heading into the playoffs.
The Dukes' defense isn't as strong as past seasons, but there are terrific individual pieces led by safety Dean Marlowe and defensive end/linebacker Sage Harold. The Dukes give up points - 29.3 per game - so they rely on their ability to score in bunches.
The winner is off to a second-round matchup at No. 6 seed Villanova on Dec. 6.
Prediction: Liberty needs Woodrum back in the saddle or the quarterback matchup is decisive. James Madison, 28-21.
South Dakota State (8-4) at Montana State (8-4)
Kickoff: 4 p.m. (ESPN3)
What to Know: To return to the playoffs for a third straight season, South Dakota State - 5-4 at one point - had to rally with three Missouri Valley Conference wins to end the regular season. Montana State held on as the Big Sky's third representative after getting pounded by rival Montana, 34-7, last Saturday.
Still, it's a highlight game for the first round. Explosive plays are expected.
The visiting Jackrabbits feature sensational running back Zach Zenner, who ranks fourth in FCS history in career rushing yards (6,163) and career all- purpose yards (7,751). But the entire offense has found a higher level with the recent return of quarterback Austin Sumner from an early season injury, and few wide receivers have been hotter than freshman Jake Wieneke, who has 1,318 receiving yards and 15 touchdown receptions this season, including 508 yards and six TDs over the last three games.
After missing the playoffs last season, Montana State is back in the field for the fourth time in five seasons and has a senior-led squad. But the key for the Bobcats is having redshirt sophomore Dakota Prukop (17 passing TDs, 13 rushing) back from an ankle injury that has sidelined him in two straight games. His ability to roll out and take off with the ball sets up the pass. Jake Bleskin is ready to go if Prukop remains slowed by the injury.
SDSU's defense features linebacker T.J. Lally. The Bobcats have a standout of their own in Alex Singleton, but their defense has been inconsistent.
The winner of this potential high-scoring matchup will have a second-round clash at No. 2 seed North Dakota State, the three-time reigning FCS champion, on Dec. 6.
Prediction: Zenner off right tackle, Zenner off left tackle ... yes, a rainy/snowy forecast calls for a lot of Zenner. South Dakota State, 28-24.
Stephen F. Austin (8-4) at Northern Iowa (8-4)
Kickoff: 8 p.m. (ESPN3)
What to Know: Look who is lurking in the first round: A pair of opponents who both posted wins over teams who were ranked in the Top 10 at that time - SFA against Southland rivals Southeastern Louisiana and McNeese State, and UNI against Missouri Valley foes Illinois State and North Dakota State.
UNI comes from the tougher conference and has more momentum with a five-game streak. During that time, All-American running back David Johnson has been soaring, including a career-high 205 rushing yards against Missouri State last Saturday. Plus, the Panthers have changed their look with mobile QB Brion Carnes having taken over the offense.
Defensively, the Panthers gobble up sacks (47) like they're Thanksgiving turkey. Brett McMakin, Xavier Williams and Isaac Ales each has at least eight sacks.
That's going to put pressure on Stephen F. Austin quarterback Zach Conque. Fortunately for the Lumberjacks, the son of coach Clint Conque is big and mobile, and he's really raised his play in the second half of the season. That makes senior running back Gus Johnson (1,601 rushing yards, 22 total TDs) even more effective - not that he needs it.
Opponents are averaging 405.1 yards and 27.2 points per game against SFA. That might be a difference maker in this matchup. If not, UNI has one in place- kicker Michael Schmadeke, who is 24-for-26 on field goals, making every attempt within 48 yards.
The winner will advance to a second-round game at No. 5 seed Illinois State on Dec. 6.
Prediction: Johnson versus Johnson is a great matchup of running backs. UNI just has too many advantages elsewhere. Northern Iowa, 33-21.