Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Take a good look at the FCS playoff
bracket for the 2013 playoffs, and what do you see?
Sure, there are a handful of teams in the playoff field that in the preseason
were predicted to be far from it. That's the nature of football - there are
always bound to be some surprises.
What certainly jumps right off the bracket is the potential for some
incredible second-round and late-round matchups. If the selection committee
had this in mind when the members sat down and drew up the newly expanded
field of 24 teams, they hit the nail right on the head. Indeed, there are some
Whether the matchup could potentially be between bitter conference rivals or
just an outstanding offense versus a top-notch defense, the potential is
there. That is, of course, dependent on what transpires in the first round.
Let's start with Northern Arizona and South Dakota State. The winner of this
first-round matchup gets third-seeded Eastern Washington in Cheney on Dec.
7. Northern Arizona, a fellow Big Sky Conference member, didn't get a look at
the Eagles during the regular season. But should the Lumberjacks make it past
the Jackrabbits, it'd be an exciting defense-vs.-offense battle, not to
mention the conference similarities.
Sam Houston State hosts Southern Utah this weekend for a chance to advance and
face Southland member Southeastern Louisiana. The Bearkats, a playoff-
weathered team, lost to the Lions during the regular season, but would love a
shot at redemption.
They have to first get through the Big Sky-tested Thunderbirds, who are young
but surprised more than a few people to get into this position. Sam Houston
State is the third Southland team in the playoff field, and the only one
playing this weekend. The back-to-back national runners-up would sure love to
prove they're better than their record during the season.
Should New Hampshire get past Patriot League champion (and the first sub-.500
playoff team ever) Lafayette, the Wildcats will head up north one state to
face CAA Football rival Maine. The Wildcats just defeated the Black Bears in
New Hampshire, 24-3, last weekend, but playing in Maine may be a different
The Black Bears won the CAA title outright and had already clinched the
conference's automatic bid prior to playing New Hampshire, so the consequences
of the loss weren't severe (Maine is still the No. 5 seed in the playoff
field). But would the Bears love another shot at defeating the Wildcats in
front of a raucous Orono crowd? You bet they would.
Looking even further down the road, a Montana/North Dakota State quarterfinals
matchup would draw many viewers, as two of the nation's top defenses would
How about the possibility of an Eastern Illinois and Towson matchup in the
quarterfinals? Towson running back Terrance West trying to keep pace with
Eastern quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo would lead to a mushroom cloud-
like explosion of offense.
How about this matchup to send shivers down your spine: Eastern Illinois
versus Eastern Washington for a shot at the national title. Gives you chills,
right? Vernon Adams against Garoppolo seems like the ultimate clash.
This, of course, is all hypothetical. "What if's" are prevalent in sports, and
there's no exception here. But it's clear that either the stars aligned
perfectly for this season's playoffs, or the selection committee recognized
some truly fantastic potential for this postseason.
Let's sit back and watch it all unfold in this first-ever 24-team field.
The following is a game-by-game breakdown for the FCS first-round playoff
field and the final two regular-season games involving Southwestern Athletic
Conference teams (all times ET):
Thursday, Nov. 28
Stillman (6-4) at Alabama State (7-4)
Kickoff: 4 p.m. ET
What to Know: Ah, the 90th annual Turkey Day Classic. This game is a reminder
that traditions in college football run just as deep as any other level in the
country. And really, isn't Thanksgiving Day synonymous with football anyway?
Typically the Turkey Day Classic is played between Alabama State and Tuskegee,
but this year it's Stillman visiting Alabama State's house. The Hornets, at
7-4 overall, had a decent season facing a Southwestern Athletic Conference
schedule that got tougher as the year went on.
The SWAC endured a rough patch at the beginning of the season, but several
teams in the East Division righted themselves and finished just behind
East winner Jackson State - the Hornets included. Both Alabama State and
Alcorn State accumulated 7-2 records in the conference, right behind Jackson
State's 8-1 mark.
Alabama State had a successful 7-3 campaign going in 2012 before losing to
Division II Tuskegee. Considering the game is nationally televised on ESPNU,
the Hornets will be seeking a better result in the spotlight against Stillman.
Alabama State is led by junior running back Isaiah Crowell, a Walter Payton
Award candidate who has rushed for over 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns while
battling through a few injuries that slowed his season a bit. He and backfield
mate Malcolm Cyrus have combined for 21 of the team's 25 rushing scores.
Quarterback Daniel Duhart was effective, completing 143-of-264 pass attempts
this season for 1,717 yards and 16 touchdowns with just six interceptions. It
was a rough start to the season for the Hornets, who suffered two straight
losses to Jacksonville State and Jackson State, then two more losses to start
November to Kentucky and Southern. A six-game winning streak in the middle of
the season helped the Hornets along.
Stillman isn't an easy team to beat, however. The Tigers average 28.8 points
per game while only surrendering 21 per contest. They also maintain a 6.1-
yards-per-play average and outgain their opponents 404.2 to 298.7 yards
We'll see if the Hornets can handle the uptempo style of the Division II
Tigers on Turkey Day.
The Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Alabama State 27, Stillman 20
Saturday, Nov. 30
Lafayette (5-6) at No. 15 New Hampshire (7-4)
Kickoff: noon ET
What to Know: This first playoff game could accurately be called "the battle of
playoff teams that snuck in by the skin of their teeth," although the name
itself probably won't catch on.
Both Lafayette and New Hampshire desperately needed wins in the final week of
the regular season to earn their spots on the national stage, and both needed
to do so against higher-ranked competition. Lafayette defeated Lehigh on the
road (where Lehigh had not lost a game all season) to win the Patriot League
title and the automatic bid, while New Hampshire downed rival (and previously
No. 4-ranked) Maine at Cowell Stadium to stay perfect at home and earn a 6-2
record in CAA Football.
New Hampshire has now made a nation-leading 10 consecutive playoff
appearances. And for the first time since the 2005 season, when the Wildcats
were ranked No. 1 in the country, New Hampshire will be hosting a playoff game.
It's against the only team in FCS history with a losing record to make the
But that in no way describes the Leopards. Lafayette, under field direction of
freshman quarterback Drew Reed, has won four if its last five games, including
against previously unbeaten Fordham in Week 12 and Lehigh this past Saturday.
Reed's efficiency has been apparent this season. This past Saturday, the
freshman completed 20-of-27 pass attempts for 378 yards and three touchdowns
with no turnovers. Turnovers are characteristically the problem of a young,
inexperienced player on the college level, but Reed, aside from the Fordham
contest, has overcome that stereotype.
Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, the Wildcats have found success with either of
their two quarterbacks under center. Against Maine, regular starter Andy
Vailas went down with an injury, so Sean Goldrich stepped in and completed 5-
of-8 passes for 38 yards and a touchdown and orchestrated the victory. And if
the effectiveness isn't there through the air, the Wildcats will turn to their
ground game, which finished the regular season averaging 196.4 yards per game,
which ranks third in the CAA.
Both teams got hot at the right time this season. But New Hampshire's success
at home can't be ignored. Three of New Hampshire's five wins this season at
home came against Top 25 squads, and the Leopards haven't beaten a non-
conference opponent this year.
New Hampshire is a program that has been starved of a home playoff matchup for
the past eight years, and has only hosted a postseason game five times in its
history. The usual friendly confines of Cowell Stadium will be even more so
this weekend for the Wildcats with the home crowd.
The Sports Network Predicted Outcome: New Hampshire 28, Lafayette 20
No. 19 Tennessee State (9-3) at Butler (9-3)
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET
What to Know: Not only does Butler become the first Pioneer Football League
team to make the postseason with the league's first automatic bid, but the
Bulldogs were handed possibly the surprise of the Sunday selection announcement
- a home playoff game.
Butler won the league's automatic bid after San Diego declared itself
ineligible due to concerns of potential violations in the way the university
awards need-based financial aid to its players. Over growing concerns that the
program was going against league rules, the Toreros withdrew from the playoff
That's not to say Butler wasn't deserving, however. The Bulldogs won the
automatic qualifier in a ranking tiebreaker with Marist, and enjoyed a
successful season in PFL play, going 7-1 in the league. The Bulldogs are
also 5-1 at home in 2013.
Butler quarterback Matt Lancaster, last season's PFL offensive player of the
year, has thrown for 2,639 yards this season with 19 touchdowns and six
interceptions. He has added 12 touchdowns rushing on 117 season carries. He and
running back Trae Heeter have made a dangerous combo this season, combining for
25 rushing touchdowns.
But Tennessee State is a team completely different than any PFL squad Butler
has faced this season, although an Ohio Valley Conference squad hasn't won a
playoff game since 2000.
The Tigers pride themselves on stingy defense and blanket coverage of downfield
receivers. That's pretty evident in the team's scoring defense, as the Tigers
rank sixth nationally in allowing just 16.8 points per game to opponents.
That's impressive, considering the OVC competition Tennessee State has faced.
In a Nov. 16 contest against Murray State - the Tigers' final regular season
game - Tennessee State held the Racers without a third-down or fourth-down
conversion, and to just 24 rushing yards all game.
The Tigers defense is a nightmare for opponents. Tennessee State has held nine
opponents to under 20 points this season, which means Lancaster will have his
hands full trying to make plays. There's nothing for Butler to lose, and
everything to gain in the PFL's first playoff appearance in history.
The Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Tennessee State 30, Butler 17
No. 12 Bethune-Cookman (10-2) at No. 11 Coastal Carolina (10-2)
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET
What to Know: Bethune-Cookman and Coastal Carolina will meet in the playoffs
for a second consecutive year, with the Wildcats seeking some revenge for last
year's playoff exit.
Coastal Carolina survived the matchup with Bethune-Cookman last season,
advancing 24-14, which extended the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference's playoff
losing streak to 17 straight postseason losses since 1999. With two MEAC teams
in this year's field, there's a greater chance one team makes it through the
Bethune-Cookman's offense needs to keep rolling in order to have a shot in
this one. The Chanticleers rank third in the FCS in points per game, averaging
42.6 this season. Much of that offensive production comes from senior running
back Lorenzo Taliaferro, who finished the regular season tied for second in
the country with 23 rushing touchdowns.
The Chanticleers aren't the strongest defensive squad in the world, only
holding opponents to under 20 points in three contests this season. But that's
not a problem for the 10-2 Chants, so long as they outscore the opposition,
which has been a familiar concept this season. Linebacker Quinn Backus will be
busy against the run-heavy Wildcats.
Bethune-Cookman ranks ninth in the FCS in rushing offense, averaging 250.3
rushing yards per game. Against Florida A&M in the regular season finale, the
Wildcats carried the ball 61 times and attempted 12 passes. That's the nature
of their offense.
The Wildcats need to be careful of penalties. In the past five weeks, Bethune-
Cookman has accumulated 73 flags. Against a strong Coastal Carolina opponent,
the battle for field position will be a crucial one, and penalties can only do
This contest will be an offensive battle, and the Chanticleers, unbeaten at
home this season, will look to the senior Taliaferro and sophomore quarterback
Alex Ross for typical offensive production.
The Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Coastal Carolina 34, Bethune-Cookman 24
Sacred Heart (10-2) at No. 9 Fordham (11-1)
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 30, 1 p.m. ET
What to Know: After receiving something of a scare several weeks ago in the
form of a Michael Nebrich injury, the Rams junior quarterback returned for the
season finale against Colgate and had one of his better games of the season.
Nebrich missed the Rams' only loss of the season, a 27-14 defeat at the hands
of Patriot League champion Lafayette. Had the Walter Payton Award candidate
played, we may be talking about a seeded Rams team and a second unbeaten squad
in the nation. That's how important Nebrich is to this Fordham lineup.
The Fordham offense is a force to be reckoned with when its stars are
healthy. In the team's 56-19 win over Colgate Saturday, Nebrich passed for
395 yards and five touchdowns, while running back Carlton Koonce rushed for
148 yards and two scores. Receiver Brian Wetzel caught three of Nebrich's five
This matchup with Sacred Heart is more intriguing than a superficial glance
may provide. Sure, the Northeast Conference isn't as strong as others around
the nation. And last year's champion Wagner was the first NEC team to win an
FCS playoff game in the conference's three years of postseason appearances.
But Sacred Heart is a different story. The 10-win program rebounded from a
dismal 2-9 record last season with defensive improvements in mind. And that's
exactly what coach Mark Nofri has gotten in the eight-win turnaround.
The Pioneers lead the nation with 22 interceptions and 38 takeaways in 2013.
They're also tied for ninth in the FCS in red zone defense and tied for second
in team tackles for loss. Sacred Heart has posted two shutout wins this season,
and held Lincoln (Pa.) to a field goal back on Sept. 14.
Freshman quarterback R.J. Noel and junior running back Keshaudas Spence have
ignited the offense, but whether they can keep pace with a Rams squad
averaging 38.4 points per game is another story.
If Nebrich is completely healthy, this is Fordham's game to lose. An effective
Rams offense could give Towson a run for its money should Fordham advance to
the second round.
The Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Fordham 32, Sacred Heart 23
Furman (7-5) at No. 25 South Carolina State (9-3)
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET
What to Know: South Carolina State represents the other chance the MEAC has at
a playoff win, which would be the first since the 1999 season. But this isn't
the first time the conference has had an at-large bid, and the Bulldogs
themselves are no strangers to playoffs.
In 2010, Bethune-Cookman won the MEAC's automatic bid while South Carolina
State received an at-large bid. Buddy Pough's Bulldogs have enjoyed one heck of
a turnaround season, adding four wins to their 2012 total and earning a share
of the MEAC title with B-CU.
A matchup with Furman, the Southern Conference's automatic bid recipient, at
home could meet the right set of conditions for the first MEAC playoff win in
17 seasons. South Carolina State's change-of-pace offense is led by
quarterbacks Richard Cue and Adrian Kollock. Cue, the more experienced passer,
won't burn an opponent through the air, but his versatility in the passing
game and running game keeps a defense on its toes.
Kollock is the runner. His four rushing touchdowns in the past two weeks has
helped the Bulldogs immensely in the run game, which, from time to time, can
be lacking. Typically anywhere from five to eight Bulldogs will record a carry
in any given week.
But the Paladins have seen it all when it comes to opponents rushing the
football. They play in a Southern Conference deeply involved in the run game,
with talented rushers like those on Georgia Southern's roster, Marcus Cox from
Appalachian State, Samford's Fabian Truss, and Wofford's and The Citadel's
triple option attack.
Furman quarterback Reese Hannon has developed into a proficient passer and a
standout leader. The Paladins, on the back off Hannon, moved into the
postseason with a season-ending win over Wofford. Hannon threw for 326 yards
and a touchdown in the victory.
Three of Furman's five losses this season have been by one score or less, and
another came at the hands of FBS LSU. The Paladins didn't pick up their pace
until the latter half of the season, but when they did, they were impressive.
The train could very well keep rolling right through to Fargo for a matchup
with top-seeded North Dakota State.
The Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Furman 29, South Carolina State 20
Southern (7-4) at Grambling State (1-10)
Kickoff: 2:30 p.m. ET at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans
What to Know: The XL Bayou Classic between these two Louisiana-based schools
takes place at the home of the New Orleans Saints, which is appropriate,
because college football in Louisiana will draw enough of a crowd to require
such a large venue.
Southern will be playing in the SWAC championship game a week from Saturday
against Jackson State, so this game against Grambling can either be looked at
as a means for some practice - a primer before the championship game - or it
can be seen as a potential for injury to some of Southern's players. The stage
here is too big to consider the latter.
Grambling State, such a storied and marveled program, had some issues this
season that went beyond football. Unfortunately, that's what this season will
be remembered for - when players boycotted a bus trip to Jackson State that
ended up costing the Grambling State athletic department $20,000 and a home
game against Jackson State in each of the next three seasons.
There isn't much else looking past that. Grambling won one game this seson,
though the Tigers could have made it two in a row when they took Texas
Southern to overtime, and three in a row when they dropped the Nov. 9 regular
season finale to Arkansas-Pine Bluff by three points.
The end of the emotional, like-to-forget season wasn't nearly as bad as the
first few months. And it could all be made better with an upset win over the
SWAC West Division champs.
But Southern isn't about to give up on this one to focus on the championship
game. The Jaguars average 29.3 points per game - nearly 10 points more than
Grambling State's 19.9 per-game average. Quarterback Dray Joseph has had a
phenomenal year, passing for 3,010 yards and 24 touchdowns in the seven-win
campaign. And Lenard Tillery can make teams pay on the ground, as the redshirt
freshman back has scored eight times this season and gained over 600 rushing
Grambling State's 38.4 points per game surrendered to opponents is a scary
stat. Southern's opportunistic offense will be looking forward to taking the
The Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Southern 38, Grambling State 27
No. 22 Southern Utah (8-4) at No. 14 Sam Houston State (8-4)
Kickoff: 3 p.m. ET
What to Know: After having been to back-to-back national championships, Sam
Houston State finds itself almost backing into the 2013 postseason.
The Bearkats suffered two straight losses to end the regular season against
Southland Conference foes, and now must play their way out of the first round
to take a shot at fellow Southland competitor Southeastern Louisiana, a team
that just defeated Sam Houston State on Nov. 16.
The Bearkats have a nucleus of senior leaders who played integral roles in
making it to back-to-back national championships. So there's no questioning
whether or not they're ready for the postseason. The question is: are the
Bearkats talented enough to make it back to Frisco?
With players like running back Timothy Flanders, quarterback Brian Bell and
receiver/utility man Richard Sincere, Sam Houston's offense will show its
quickness. The Bearkats have averaged 255.7 rushing yards per game this season.
It's the defensive woes that could cause some concern, having surrendered 34
and 49 points in consecutive games to SELU and Central Arkansas, respectively.
The Thunderbirds don't necessarily have an offense that threatens to explode
for 50 points week after week, and playoff inexperience can certainly provide
a fair amount of nerves.
But this is a very young team, led by defensive standouts, junior quarterback
Aaron Cantu and a trio of freshman running backs in Toa Afatasi, Levi Te'o and
Raysean Martin who will be around as a Big Sky contender for years to come.
Against extremely tough Big Sky competition this season, the Thunderbirds went
5-3 with key wins over Montana State, Portland State and Sacramento State.
Southern Utah nearly took care of Northern Arizona in the final week before
Cantu threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown in the closing
minute of play.
Southern Utah certainly has a shot to win, but playoff experience and maturity
counts more than some may think. Expect Sam Houston to be gunning for another
shot at the Lions in Hammond on Dec. 7.
The Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Sam Houston State 36, Southern Utah 24
No. 18 Samford (8-4) at No. 20 Jacksonville State (9-3)
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET
What to Know: Talk about your nail-biting season finales.
After Furman defeated Wofford to remain afloat in the Southern Conference
title race, the Bulldogs kicked off knowing a win would give them a fighting
chance at a playoff spot. And the team's game against SoCon rival Elon came
down to the wire.
With seven seconds remaining in the game, Samford quarterback Andy Summerlin
hooked up with receiver Chris Cephus on a 12-yard scoring strike to give the
Bulldogs a one-point lead. The ensuing two-point conversion failed, but time
had just about run out on the Phoenix. With the win, Samford was given an at-
large playoff bid as the second of two SoCon teams in the field.
The Bulldogs have dangerous playmakers both on the offensive and defensive
sides of the ball. The most prominent of which is senior Fabian Truss, who is
explosive and can slice through a defense in a matter of seconds. That's why
he serves as the team's kick returner as well.
Linebacker Justin Shade and safety Jaquiski Tartt on the defensive side make
the Bulldogs a dangerous team when it comes to putting pressure on an opposing
quarterback. In an offense-driven league like the Southern Conference, the
Bulldogs pride themselves on a bend-but-don't-break philosophy.
But in an even more offense-centric league - the Ohio Valley Conference -
Jacksonville State thrived this season. The Gamecocks ended their 9-3 regular
season only with losses to Murray State, Tennessee State and Eastern Illinois -
two OVC playoff teams - and averaged 34.8 points per game, good for 23rd in the
Running back DaMarcus James ended the regular season hotter than almost any
other ball carrier in the FCS. James has come out of near obscurity since the
first few weeks of the season to rush for 19 touchdowns in the final eight
weeks and become tied for second in the nation with 23 rushing scores.
James will keep Justin Shade busy on defense, while Summerlin will look to
pick apart the Gamecocks defense that's allowing 24.6 points per game to
opponents. Turnovers will be one team's downfall in this game, and
Jacksonville State's plus-two turnover margin may not suit Summerlin very
The Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Jacksonville State 31, Samford 27
No. 13 South Dakota State (8-4) at No. 8 Northern Arizona (9-2)
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET
What to Know: South Dakota State's season was a lot like riding in an elevator.
For three weeks, the Jackrabbits enjoyed the ride upward with three straight
wins over Butler (a playoff team), North Dakota and Southeastern Louisiana (a
Then South Dakota State's elevator ride took a Tower of Terror-like plummet
after a loss to FBS Nebraska. Four losses in five weeks left the Jackrabbits
with a 4-4 overall record and a 1-3 mark in Missouri Valley Conference play.
But the latter portion of the season was kinder to the 'Rabbits, as they
closed out the regular season with four straight wins.
The offensive-minded Jackrabbits will meet up in Flagstaff this weekend
against Big Sky opponent Northern Arizona. The Lumberjacks finished the regular
season with six straight wins - their last loss coming against Montana State
back on Oct. 5.
Northern Arizona survived a furious Southern Utah season finale in which
Lumberjacks safety Blair Wishom intercepted Thunderbirds quarterback Aaron
Cantu and returned it 52 yards for a touchdown a 10-point cushion that sealed
the win. It was Northern Arizona's eighth defensive touchdown this season.
South Dakota State running back Zach Zenner finished his stellar regular season
against Youngstown State with 186 rushing yards and two touchdowns. He is
second in rushing yards in the country and tied for fourth in rushing
touchdowns. His success against a very tough defense will be key for the
Jackrabbits Saturday night.
Northern Arizona quarterback Kyren Poe hasn't been spectacular, but rather he
gets the job done in clutch situations. He ended the game against Southern
Utah with 99 passing yards and a touchdown. Against a South Dakota State
defense that sports a plus-1.2 turnover margin per game, Poe will be forced to
make safe decisions and stick to the game plan, which will likely involve
senior running back Zach Bauman heavily.
The Jackrabbits have only lost twice on the road this season, and once was at
Nebraska. Putting up a significant number of points isn't Northern Arizona's
forte, so the Jackrabbits should take as many shots at the end zone as
possible. Zenner's workload should increase against a talented defensive
backfield, and we'll see if the Lumberjacks can handle it.
The Sports Network Predicted Outcome: South Dakota State 28, Northern Arizona
Last Week's Record: 17-5 (.773)
Season Record: 212-86 (.711)
The Sports Network