Five must-see games in FCS college football this weekend
By CRAIG HALEY
(Stats Perform) - The FCS playoffs have been decreased from 24 to 16 teams in the spring season, but there may be a benefit to it.
With teams scheduled to play only four to eight regular-season games, there's a playoff feel each week. Any win goes a long way toward capturing a conference championship, and a loss stings a bit more on a playoff resume.
Following are five must-see games on the FCS schedule between Feb. 26-28 (all times ET; TV subject to change):
Southern: No. 11 Wofford (1-0) at Chattanooga (0-1, 0-0), noon Saturday (ESPN+)
Wofford won 35-34 in the 2019 matchup by denying a Chattanooga pass attempt to end overtime. The three-time defending champion Terriers cruised past Mercer 31-14 to begin their SoCon schedule, and the offense, behind quarterback Jimmy Weirick, was 5 of 5 on red zone opportunities (four touchdowns, one field goal) just one season after it ranked third in the FCS with a .935 percentage. The Mocs lost a 13-10 heartbreaker at Western Kentucky in their only fall game and had their SoCon opener postponed due to COVID-19 issues within the VMI program. In 2019, workhorse running back Ailym Ford led FCS freshmen in rushing yards per game (108.1), and he's had over 20 carries in seven of his 11 career games.
Missouri Valley: No. 3 South Dakota State (1-0) at No. 14 North Dakota (1-0), 1 p.m. Saturday (ESPN+/MidCoSN2)
They're playing inside the Alerus Center, but it may as well be a steel cage with both going for a second straight win over a nationally ranked MVFC opponent. Although this is their 86th all-time meeting, the long-time rivals have faced off only twice since 2003 - SDSU triumphs in 2010 and '13. The last time the Jackrabbits allowed fewer rushing yards than in last Friday's 24-20 win at UNI (28) was their 2013 win at UND (21). The Fighting Hawks know about run defense as well, having limited Southern Illinois, which averaged 232.4 rushing yards and 5.1 yards per carry in 2019, to 90 and 2.6, respectively, in a 44-21 ambush.
Big Sky: No. 12 Eastern Washington (0-0) at Idaho (0-0), 6 p.m. Saturday (Pluto TV Channel 1060/SWX)
While a mere 6-10 in the Big Sky since returning from the FBS level, the Vandals opened their 2019 conference schedule by beating Eastern Washington 35-27. They built a 28-0 halftime lead and defensive end Charles Akanno earned national defensive player of the week. EWU quarterback Eric Barriere is a leading contender for the Stats Perform FCS Walter Payton Award and has averaged 390.5 yards of offense and accounted for eight touchdowns in two games against Idaho. This may be the most critical Eagles' game because none of their six opponents (including the Vandals a second time at EWU) had winning records overall or in the Big Sky in 2019.
Southland: No. 18 Southeastern Louisiana (0-0) at No. 17 Sam Houston (0-0), 7 p.m. Saturday (ESPN+)
Sam Houston, whose 99 wins in the 2010s decade were the second-most in the FCS, weren't far off from making the 2019 playoffs, leading in the fourth quarter or overtime in three of its five losses, which were by a combined 22 points. Since 2000, only one other Bearkats' team allowed fewer points per game (17.8) and only two others fewer yards per game (330) than the 2019 unit. That excellence is expected again, but it's needed against a Southeastern team that made the playoffs while leading the Southland in yards per game (484.8, the Lions' highest average since 2004) and points per game (36.6).
Ohio Valley: No. 23 Tennessee Tech (1-0) at No. 16 Jacksonville State (3-1, 0-0), 4 p.m. (ESPN+)
After opening its 99th season with an upset of 2019 OVC co-champ Austin Peay, the Golden Eagles enter JSU Stadium with their first national ranking since 2011. Jacksonville State is fairly automatic at home - a combined 41-4 in the regular season (46-7 overall) since 2012. TTU's dual-threat quarterback Bailey Fisher had a career-high 121 rushing yards in a 2019 win over the Gamecocks, but he'll be chased by defensive end D.J. Coleman, who has a ridiculous 17 QB hurries in his last four conference games. Junior signal caller Zion Webb came off the bench to help direct the Gamecocks' fall-ending FBS win at FIU.
Updated February 25, 2021