Unseeded teams primed for playoff runs
(STATS) - The benefit of having bye in the first round followed by a home game in the second round has one glaring negative for the eight seeded teams in the FCS playoffs:
In another week, a team will arrive in town with a playoff win on its resume and the talent to keep the momentum going.
Since the FCS playoffs expanded from 16 teams to 20 teams in 2010 and then to 24 in 2013, an unseeded team has advanced to the semifinals in four of the five years, with Georgia Southern in 2010, New Hampshire in 2013 and Sam Houston State last year coming all the way from the first round with three wins. Sam Houston also did it in 2012 but had a first-round bye when only five teams were seeded, and it won three straight games to reach the national final.
This year, the unpredictable nature of FCS results, launched by Montana's win over four-time defending national champion North Dakota State in the first game of the season, should bring an uneasy feeling to all eight seeded teams, even though they are pleased to be resting up this week following the long regular season.
Still, there are numerous teams playing in the first round which have a realistic chance of making a deep run in the playoffs.
Here are 10 possibilities in reverse order of the strongest one:
10. New Hampshire (7-4) - A four-game winning streak after a 3-4 start got the Wildcats into the playoffs, and now they can rely on their postseason experience. Coach Sean McDonnell's team has a highly experienced quarterback, Sean Goldrich, and their path isn't absurd: a Colgate team the Wildcats have already defeated, a James Madison squad that's not as dangerous without injured quarterback Vad Lee and then perhaps a fourth-seeded McNeese State team which hasn't won a playoff game since 2002.
9. William & Mary (8-3) - Like New Hampshire, the Tribe would gain from familiarity within CAA Football in the second round, once they dispatch Duquesne in the first round. The Tribe have a strong running attack and a tough defense. Plus, they just lost to Richmond last Saturday and are motivated to get a second shot at the rival Spiders. The winner of that second-round game, however, would likely head to Illinois State for the quarterfinals, and the second-seeded Redbirds (who first face the Dayton-Western Illinois winner) haven't lost a home game since 2012.
8. Southern Utah (8-3) - As the first outright Big Sky Conference champion to be sent on the road for a first-round game, the Thunderbirds should not be pleased to be starting the postseason at Sam Houston, a program that's been to national finals in 2011 and '12 and the semifinals last year. But the Thunderbirds are talented nonetheless and have faced tough road assignments this season at Utah State, South Dakota State, Montana State and Portland State. A win over Sam Houston would give the Thunderbirds a shot at taking down the only unbeaten team in the FCS, McNeese State.
7. South Dakota State (8-3) - The Jackrabbits have prepared well for the playoffs through their Missouri Valley Football Conference schedule, and they're the only FCS team to beat Illinois State. But the regionalization of the playoffs has led to them receiving a difficult first-round road trip to Montana and that would be followed by a visit to North Dakota State, which has beaten them eight straight times, including in two of the last three playoffs. If they win those two games - somewhat possible - they would probably face Portland State or Northern Iowa in the quarterfinals. However, first things first - the Griz.
6. The Citadel (8-3) - The Bulldogs aren't simply a nice little story as they make their first playoff appearance since 1992. They just beat an SEC team (South Carolina) and their triple option offense, which ranks second in the FCS in rushing yards per game, can be a nightmare for opponents. The Southern Conference used to be much better than the Big South, but not anymore, and the Bulldogs first travel upstate to Coastal Carolina, which has a team full of playoff experience. If The Citadel wins that matchup, then it gets a rematch across town with a Charleston Southern team to which it lost in September. It's not even worth talking about who would come after that because the Bulldogs must first earn the title of "best FCS team in South Carolina."
5. Sam Houston State (8-3) - Coach K.C. Keeler's team got better and better last season as it overcame a 1-3 start en route to a national semifinal run, so he is hoping to have the Bearkats on a similar tract this year because they've won eight of nine games since opening 0-2. A first-round playoff game against Southern Utah is difficult, but they play well at home and easily eliminated the Thunderbirds in the playoffs two years ago. It can be argued that the Bearkats, ranked sixth in the STATS FCS Top 25, have the second-best team in their quarter of the draw. But the team they would face in the second round is one which handled them earlier this month, Southland Conference champ McNeese State. Two big wins could lead to a trip to James Madison in the quarterfinals.
4. Coastal Carolina (9-2) - Those dreams of advancing past the quarterfinals - where the Chanticleers have been eliminated the last two seasons - must first survive the mini tournament within South Carolina. Like The Citadel, the team they host in the first round, they have lost to their potential second-round opponent this season, Big South champ Charleston Southern. But quarterback Alex Ross is again leading the Chants' experienced team, and this year they wouldn't have to go through North Dakota State in the quarterfinals. Still, a potential trip to top-seeded Jacksonville State would be daunting as well.
3. Northern Iowa (7-4) - The Panthers are on a five-game winning streak and are a solid 4-2 against Top 25 teams this season. They rely too much on the run game, but so does potential second-round opponent Portland State. First up in the first round is Eastern Illinois, and the UNI Panthers are too good to lose to those Panthers. A quarterfinal matchup with Missouri Valley rival North Dakota State is possible, although a trip to Portland State beforehand would be just UNI's second road game since Oct. 24.
2. Montana (7-4) - A first-round win over South Dakota State and a second-round win over North Dakota State would be astounding for a team that was 3-3 at one point following a home loss to Weber State. But the Griz have been to the playoffs more than any other FCS program and first-year coach Bob Stitt's team has gotten back on track since quarterback Brady Gustafson returned from injury. It's a step-by-step process, of course, because the Griz may not survive South Dakota State in the first round. But this team has gotten dangerous at the right time.
1. Chattanooga (8-3) - The Mocs have been growing as a program under Russ Huesman and this might be their time in the playoffs even though they begin in the first round. Few FCS quarterbacks can take control of a game like senior Jacob Huesman and the Mocs defense is physical enough to stop Fordham and star running back Chase Edmonds. If they do that, they have to go to top-seeded Jacksonville State in the second round. They lost to the Gamecocks by three points to open the season and also lost to them by a field goal last year. With such experience, taking down No. 1 is possible. If so, then one of the three South Carolina teams (Charleston Southern, Coastal Carolina or The Citadel) would follow in the national quarterfinals.
OK, no team should ever get ahead of itself. That's why we're doing it for the FCS playoff field.
But it feels like the unseeded teams are ready to create havoc again this year.