#1 - Sam Houston State Bearkats
The defending champion Bearkats have their eyes on a repeat and have maintained a #1 spot in the national rankings all year long. Head coach K.C. Keeler's team dominated most every game they played this fall, only having two victories decided by less than ten points. Some may argue that SHSU didn't play the most competitive schedule, but at the end of the day 10-0 speaks for itself.
The Bearkats returned every starter from their 2020 championship team and that helped greatly in their run to the nation's only unblemished record. Quarterback Eric Schmid eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark this year and tossed 26 touchdowns. Running back Ramon Jefferson found the end zone 11 times and the defense only allowed an average of 17.3 points per contest.
The Bearkats will await the winner of Stephen F. Austin and Incarnate Word but, as always, the 1-seed is going to be a tough out.
#2 - North Dakota State Bison
Once again, the Bison find themselves as one of the nation's top teams and just because they aren't the #1 seed this go round doesn't mean anyone should take them lightly. The road to Frisco on this region of the bracket will still go through Fargo: a place NDSU hasn't lost a postseason game since 2016.
After losing superstar signal-caller Trey Lance to the NFL, the Bison split quarterback duties between junior Quincy Patterson and sophomore Cam Miller. Patterson took the bulk of the snaps this season but Miller threw for more touchdowns (11) and more yards (942). Needless to say, there will be multiple options to lead the offense and that could be tricky to game plan for.
Matt Entz, now in his third season at the helm, will be looking for his second national championship as head coach and the Bison as a team will be on the hunt for their ninth. NDSU will get a Missouri Valley foe in the second round as they await the winner of Southern Illinois and South Dakota.
#3 - James Madison Dukes
James Madison is another mainstay in the FCS postseason and this year will be no different. The Dukes strung together a dominant 10-1 record thanks to their prolific offense that put up more than 40 points in five of their 11 games this fall. Their only loss was to CAA rival Villanova, another seeded team in this tournament.
JMU will go as far as senior quarterback Cole Johnson can take them. Johnson threw for nearly 3,000 yards this fall and only tossed two interceptions all year. He's a big part of what they like to do so if he's clicking then JMU can play with anyone.
The Dukes will face the winner of Florida A&M and Southeastern Louisiana.
#4 - Sacramento State Hornets
The Big Sky champions come into this tournament making only their second appearance ever in the FCS playoffs and like last time (2019) will not have to play opening weekend. Sac State went 9-2 this fall and picked up impressive road wins over other playoff teams like Montana and UC Davis.
The Hornets have two quarterbacks that each bring valuable skillsets to the table. Jake Dunniway threw for 2,245 yards and 11 touchdowns while Asher O'Hara led the team with 656 rushing yards.
There's still a sour taste in everyone's mouth from 2019 when Sac State was upset at home in their opening game and it's safe to assume head coach Troy Taylor won't let his guys forget it. The Hornets await the winner between UC Davis and South Dakota State.
#5 - Villanova Wildcats
Villanova will be seeded for the first time since 2014 thanks to a 9-2 campaign in which they upset perennial CAA powerhouse JMU. That win ultimately helped the Wildcats claim a share of the CAA title.
Senior quarterback Daniel Smith passed for 2,163 yards and threw a touchdown in every game this year while the tandem of Justin Covington and Jalen Jackson led the way on the ground. Villanova’s offense can be really scary and they have the tools to deal with most any defense.
The Wildcats will play the winner of Sacred Heart and Holy Cross.
#6 - Montana Grizzlies
Montana secured its spot as a seed with their dominant win against in-state rival Montana State this past weekend. Head coach Bobby Hauck, who's now in his second stint with UM, is the most experienced coach in the playoffs and his Grizzlies are playing their best ball at the right time.
The Griz were another team that ran a two-QB system this season, it just wasn't by design. When Cam Humphrey went down with an injury midway through the year, freshman backup Kris Brown came in and helped Montana stay afloat. UM's real saving grace, though, has been their stellar defense. CB Justin Ford has a whopping eight picks this year and the linebackers are as good as they come.
Montana is not a place anyone wants to go this time of year and that isn't just because Washington-Grizzly Stadium is the loudest in the country. Yet, either Eastern Washington or Northern Iowa will have to in a couple weeks.
#7 - East Tennessee State Buccaneers
East Tennessee State, like several others in this field, won their conference title on the last day. Thanks to a narrow win over Mercer on Saturday, the Buccaneers laid claim to their first ever outright SoCon championship. Finishing at 10-1, ETSU did enough to snag the #7 seed and have guaranteed themselves a home game following the bye. This is the first seed ETSU has earned in program history.
ETSU only lost one game this season and that was by a mere five points. Quarterback Tyler Riddell has been fantastic, tossing at least one touchdown in every game while running back Quay Holmes paced the ground game with a stellar 1,431 yards. The Buccaneers’ offense can wear opposing defenses out in a hurry and Holmes is a big reason why. If he stays upright and healthy throughout these playoffs, then ETSU could be a bracket buster down the line.
The Buccaneers will play the winner of Davidson and Kennesaw State.
#8 - Montana State Bobcats
First year head coach Brent Vigen didn’t miss a beat after taking over for Jeff Choate and, although the Bobcats didn’t play at all in 2020, they are no worse for the wear finishing with a 9-2 record. Losing the all-important Brawl of the Wild in the final week may have only made the 'Cats more motivated as they look to build on their semifinal run from two years ago.
Phenom senior linebacker Troy Andersen led a Bobcats defense that allowed more than 20 points just once all season while junior running back Isaiah Ifanse lit it up on offense with 1,258 rushing yards. The ‘Cats can hurt opponents in a variety of ways with dual-threat QB Matthew McCay calling the signals.
Bozeman is a tough place to play, especially in December, so whoever ends up making the trek will have their hands full. MSU will get the winner of Missouri State and UT Martin.
THE OPENING ROUND
Stephen F. Austin at Incarnate Word
An all-Texas matchup will get things started in the first region of the bracket. Incarnate Word is back in the playoffs for just the second time in program history and will be looking to win their first ever game while Stephen F. Austin is a much more seasoned team when it comes to this tournament. The Lumberjacks are making their eighth all-time playoff appearance. Each team would relish the opportunity for a shot at the #1 overall seed but if SFA wins, it'll be a grudge match for a one-point defeat earlier this year.
Southern Illinois at South Dakota
Two Missouri Valley foes will square up in Vermillion on Saturday and, although the FCS has a rule stating that two teams from the same conference cannot play in the first round, there is a stipulation that allows for such a matchup. The Salukis and the Coyotes did not meet in the regular season making this pairing possible and the winner will again see a familiar opponent in NDSU when they advance. SIU appeared in the shortened version of these playoffs last spring but South Dakota has not been in the postseason since 2017.
Florida A&M at Southeastern Louisiana
Speculation swirled all week whether or not FAMU would get an at-large bid with their status as an HBCU keeping it in doubt. The Rattlers, though, are in and will hit the road this weekend to take on the Lions of Southeastern Louisiana. Florida A&M is making their first postseason appearance in 20 years while SELA will be looking to build off the second round-run they made in 2019. The winner of this one will be awarded with a trip to Harrisonburg to take on James Madison.
UC Davis at South Dakota State
The Aggies and the Jackrabbits will meet in Brookings this weekend in what could be the best matchup of the first round. Both teams have a recent history of being national seeds and finished with 8-3 records. SDSU, however, is much more familiar with the playoffs as they’ve been in ten times before. Davis is only making their second ever appearance and has never won a road contest in the postseason. The winner here will head to Sacramento for a date with the Hornets.
Sacred Heart at Holy Cross
Both Sacred Heart and Holy Cross are no strangers to the playoff field but neither has ever won a postseason contest. One of those streaks, of course, will end this weekend. The Crusaders and Pioneers each suffered opening-round defeats in the spring. Sacred Heart went 8-3 this season while Holy Cross finished at 9-2. The winner of this game will advance to face Villanova.
Northern Iowa at Eastern Washington
Northern Iowa’s 22nd all-time playoff appearance did not come without controversy as the Panthers finished the season with a 6-5 record. The committee, however, felt as though UNI’s losses were forgivable and now they’re set to take on the Eagles in Cheney on Saturday. EWU is excellent at home and have may have a legitimate chip on their shoulder about not being a seed this year. Whoever survives this one will face Montana on the road in the second round.
Davidson at Kennesaw State
The Wildcats are in the playoffs again after making it in earlier this spring. This appearance, however, is just their second ever and they will be looking for their first postseason win against a very good Kennesaw State squad. The Owls, despite starting their program in 2015, are in the postseason for already the fourth time in their young history. The winner will hit the road next week to take on East Tennessee State.
UT-Martin at Missouri State
The Skyhawks, making their first playoff appearance since 2006, will square off against Missouri State. UT-Martin had won nine straight before losing to Southeast Missouri State this last weekend. The Bears, on the other hand, are riding into this game with a four-game winning streak with their last defeat coming at the hands of North Dakota State. Missouri State played in the spring playoffs but has not won a postseason game since 1989. The winner of this game will move on to play Montana State.