The Jacksonville State University Gamecocks defeat the Panthers of Eastern Illinois 27-20 to claim the Ohio Valley Conference championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA FCS football playoffs. ..Jacksonville State Gamecocks running back Troymaine Pope
AP Photo
October 18, 2015

(STATS) - Just when it appeared North Dakota State had the look of being the true No. 1 in the FCS, the Bison suffered the most stunning loss of the season Saturday against South Dakota.

The 24-21 thriller only heightened the feeling that the 24-team national playoffs will be outstanding following this wide-open regular season.

The postseason is not too far off, either, as the field will be announced five weeks from Sunday on Nov. 22.

Even though the playoffs will decide who finishes No. 1, during the season, the prospect of holding down those bragging rights still matter to those with a stake in it.

While there's debate across the FCS, the list of candidates is dwindling, and NDSU's loss should strengthen Jacksonville State's hold on the top spot in the STATS FCS Top 25 over the likes of Coastal Carolina, Illinois State and James Madison.

It's all subjective, of course, but results and strength of schedule are the biggest factors, and a strong cross-section of national voters take them into consideration before the release of the rankings each Monday.

The first few weekends of the season were particularly unsettled. An unusually high 10 teams garnered first-place votes after the first full weekend of the season, and when Jacksonville State moved to No. 1 for the first time in program history on Sept. 14, the voting was perhaps as tightly contested as it's ever been.

In last Monday's Top 25, the top five teams, including NDSU, still claimed at least one first-place vote.

Jacksonville State's case for No. 1 has been made with its first two games, a top-10 road win over Chattanooga and an overtime loss at Auburn, which has been followed by four straight pedestrian wins, including 42-13 at Tennessee Tech on Saturday. Another easy win appears on tap against Austin Peay, so the back-to-back matchups against Eastern Kentucky on Oct. 31 and at Eastern Illinois on Nov. 7 will probably be needed to solidify the 5-1 Gamecocks' status, as their Ohio Valley Conference doesn't have a strong history in the playoffs.

Coastal Carolina had a bye this weekend after falling a spot behind NDSU to No. 3. The Chanticleers (6-0) have become one of the more consistent teams in the nation under coach Joe Moglia and their nonconference schedule was pretty solid, including road wins over Furman and South Carolina State and home defeats of Western Illinois and Bryant. Their toughest games ahead are on the road in the Big South against Charleston Southern and Liberty, so they will earn a ton of respect if they run the table, which almost happened last regular season.

Fourth-ranked Illinois State had gradually hit on all cylinders, with tight wins at Eastern Illinois and Youngstown State and at home against Northern Iowa its key results. Add in a 38-2 rout of Missouri State on Saturday and the Redbirds have a piece of first place in the Missouri Valley, the toughest FCS conference.

The only top 5 team that can say it's beaten an FBS opponent is No. 5 James Madison, which won at SMU. The Dukes have the best record in the FCS at 7-0 - their bye isn't until Nov. 7 - but as well as quarterback Vad Lee and Co. are playing, their schedule hasn't been overwhelming. Their second-best win was at home against Stony Brook in CAA Football.

Everybody has his opinion on who should be No. 1 - hey, somebody might even want to put Harvard and its FCS-best 19-game win streak in there - but the resumes are so even that it's basically a case of nobody being right or wrong. Illinois State may have had the toughest schedule to date as a product of playing in the Missouri Valley. Jacksonville State can cling to what has been a growing margin in the No. 1 voting. Coastal Carolina and James Madison can say they're unbeaten.

It seems like the voters have the order right. Fortunately, the postseason will clear it all up.

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SECOND AND 10

Ten more observations from the FCS weekend:

- Is it possible Montana and Montana State, who are 3-3, will both be shut out of the playoffs? Montana State has been awful defensively within the Big Sky, allowing an average of 54.3 points in its three losses. Montana is the better team, but it also has the tougher remaining schedule, including a trip to Bozeman on Nov. 21. The Big Sky race is so different than expected with Southern Utah, Portland State and Weber State, who went a combined 7-17 in conference games last season, in it and Montana State, Northern Arizona, Cal Poly and Idaho State, who went a combined 22-10, not in it.

- The preseason predictions for national individual awards were North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz (offensive), Indiana State linebacker Connor Underwood (defensive) and Harvard's Tim Murphy (coach). Wentz is having a strong season, but midway through October, Lee at James Madison, Fordham running back Chase Edmonds and Eastern Washington wide receiver Cooper Kupp appear to be the favorites.The defensive award is more up for grabs, although Underwood doesn't appear to be among the most serious candidates. Murphy is halfway home to a second straight unbeaten season at Harvard. If that happens again, he could become the favorite, although Portland State's Bruce Barnum and James Madison's Everett Withers are building cases as well.

- There's a big reason Edmonds is the FCS leader in touchdowns (19) and ranks second in rushing yards (1,046). At 5-foot-9, he's working in the land of the giants as the Rams' starting offensive line goes 6-8 (right tackle Sam Marlin as well as tight end Phazahn Odom), 6-5 (right guard John Boyd, center Ben Hartman and left tackle Anthony Coyle) and 6-4 (All-America left guard Garrick Mayweather).

- As Princeton fell from the ranks of the unbeaten, it left seven teams without a loss: James Madison (7-0), Coastal Carolina (6-0), Dayton (6-0), Jacksonville (6-0), McNeese State (6-0), Dartmouth (5-0) and Harvard (5-0). The longest losing streak in the FCS was snapped for the third straight week, this time Nicholls at 23 games as it beat Houston Baptist 38-17. It left seven winless teams: Cornell (0-5), Delaware State (0-6), Howard (0-6), East Tennessee State (0-6), Wagner (0-7), Austin Peay (0-7) and Mississippi Valley State (0-7).

- North Carolina A&T was left as the last unbeaten team in the MEAC title race by dispatching Bethune-Cookman 24-14 and getting help from Hampton's road win at Morgan State. Senior running back Tarik Cohen has rushed for more than 100 yards in four of the Aggies' five wins. The Aggies, of course, are motivated by last year's disappointing end, when they had control of the MEAC race heading into the final day of the regular season but lost to rival North Carolina Central and fell into the five-way tie for first place.

- With the likes of Dartmouth, North Carolina A&T, Southern Utah and Western Illinois knocking on the door of the Top 25, New Hampshire's run of 162 straight appearances in the rankings - the longest active streak in the FCS - is probably still safe despite a 34-18 loss at No. 24 William & Mary. Teams usually don't fall out of the rankings from the No. 19 spot and the Wildcats (3-3, 1-2 CAA) were helped by No. 16 Montana State, No. 21 Liberty and No. 23 Southeastern Louisiana losing.

- Just like last season, Sam Houston State has gotten it together after a sluggish start. Senior quarterback Jared Johnson's confidence hasn't been shaken despite him sharing time with UAB transfer Jeremiah Briscoe. The Bearkats (4-2) still control their fate in the Southland Conference because they will face front-running McNeese State and Central Arkansas, but both of those games will be on the road.

- Bo Pelini knows pressure, having faced the wrath of dissatisfied Nebraska fans in seven seasons there. But his veteran team's upperclassmen are really feeling pressure following back-to-back losses. They couldn't end the Penguins' playoff drought since 2006 when their squad collapsed in November 2013 and last year after great starts. At 3-3, Youngstown probably has to win four of the final five games in the Missouri Valley Conference.

- There's something to be said for players learning on the second unit and just needing the opportunity for playing time. Like Fordham in the Patriot League, Sacred Heart (4-2) graduated a large senior class (26) after earning its second straight Northeast Conference co-title and playoff appearance. But the RJ Noel-to-Tyler Dube passing combination is as good as ever and linebackers James Rentz and Kellen Sperduto are superb, providing just enough veteran savvy to lead the newcomers in what continues to look like a terrific conference race.

- The team of the week has to be South Dakota after its 24-21 win at No. 2 North Dakota State ended the Bison's Missouri Valley-record 26-game home winning streak. Quarterback Ryan Saeger came up huge in the win, which pulled fourth-year coach Joe Glenn within two of his 200th career victory.

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TOP 25 SCOREBOARD

No. 1 Jacksonville State (5-1, 3-0 OVC), beat Tennessee Tech (2-5, 1-3), 42-13

No. 2 North Dakota State (4-2, 2-1 Missouri Valley), lost to South Dakota (3-3, 1-2), 24-21

No. 3 Coastal Carolina (6-0, 1-0 Big South), Idle

No. 4 Illinois State (5-1, 3-0 Missouri Valley), beat Missouri State (1-5, 0-3), 38-2

No. 5 James Madison (7-0, 4-0 CAA), beat Elon (2-5, 1-3), 51-0

No. 6 Chattanooga (5-1, 3-0 Southern), beat VMI (1-6, 0-3), 33-27

No. 7 South Dakota State (5-1, 2-1 Missouri Valley), beat No. 11 Youngstown State (3-3, 1-2), 38-8

No. 8 Eastern Washington (4-2, 3-0 Big Sky), beat Idaho State (2-5, 1-3), 45-28

No. 9 Sam Houston State (4-2, 4-1 Southland), beat Abilene Christian (2-4, 2-3), 49-21

No. 10 Fordham (6-1, 2-0 Patriot), beat Holy Cross (2-4, 0-2), 47-41, in OT

No. 11 Youngstown State (3-3, 1-2 Missouri Valley), lost to No. 7 South Dakota State (5-1, 2-1), 38-8

No. 12 Northern Iowa (2-4, 0-3 Missouri Valley), lost to Western Illinois (4-2, 3-0), 24-19

No. 13 Richmond (5-1, 3-0 CAA), beat Rhode Island (1-6, 1-3), 37-12

No. 14 Eastern Kentucky (4-2, 3-0 OVC), beat Southeast Missouri State (2-5, 1-2), 27-10

No. 15 McNeese State (6-0, 5-0 Southland), beat Central Arkansas (3-3, 3-1), 28-13

No. 16 Montana State (3-3, 2-2 Big Sky), lost to No. 17 Portland State (5-1, 2-1), 59-42

No. 17 Portland State (5-1, 2-1 Big Sky), beat No. 16 Montana State (3-3, 2-2), 59-42

No. 18 Harvard (5-0), beat Lafayette (1-6), 42-0

No. 19 New Hampshire (3-3, 1-2 CAA), lost to No. 24 William & Mary (4-2, 3-1), 34-18

No. 20 Montana (3-3, 2-1 Big Sky), Idle

No. 21 Indiana State (4-2, 2-1 Missouri Valley), beat Southern Illinois (2-4, 1-2), 39-36

No. 22 Liberty (3-4, 0-2 Big South), lost to Monmouth (3-4, 1-1), 20-17, in OT

No. 23 Southeastern Louisiana (3-3, 2-2 Southland), lost to Stephen F. Austin (2-5, 2-3), 28-27

No. 24 William & Mary (4-2, 3-1 CAA), beat No. 19 New Hampshire (3-3, 1-2) 34-18

No. 25 Villanova (3-3, 2-1 CAA), beat Albany (2-5, 1-3), 37-0

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A LOOK AHEAD

The biggest matchups next Saturday involve conference unbeatens - Richmond at James Madison in CAA Football and Western Illinois at Illinois State in the Missouri Valley.

The schedule includes: Big Sky - North Dakota at Montana and Portland State at Cal Poly; Big South - Coastal Carolina at Monmouth; CAA - New Hampshire at Delaware and Villanova at Towson; Ivy - Yale at Penn (Friday night) and Princeton at Harvard; MEAC - Morgan State at North Carolina Central and Norfolk State at Bethune-Cookman; and Missouri Valley - North Dakota State at Indiana State, Northern Iowa at South Dakota State and Youngstown State at Southern Illinois.

Also: Northeast - Saint Francis at Bryant, Central Connecticut State at Sacred Heart and Duquesne at Robert Morris; Ohio Valley - Tennessee State at Eastern Kentucky; Patriot - Lehigh at Fordham; Pioneer - Jacksonville at Drake, Morehead State at Campbell and Butler at Dayton; Southern - The Citadel at Furman and Chattanooga at Wofford; and Southland - Central Arkansas at Lamar.

There's a FCS-FBS game but it's a mismatch - winless Wagner at BYU.

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