It’s that time of year again. The 24-team FCS playoff bracket has been revealed and college football’s most exciting postseason format is ready for what’s sure to be another thrilling iteration. This year’s playoffs are a healthy mix of the familiar bluebloods looking to stamp their name in December once more and new arrivals throwing their hat in the ring. The committee has made their decisions and now the race is off.
Let’s take a look at it.
#1 - South Dakota State Jackrabbits (11-0)
They're back and they're scarier than ever. The defending national champion Jackrabbits are again the top seed in this year's playoffs and it comes as little surprise to those who have been watching along this year. SDSU has it all; a great quarterback, bruising running backs, a plethora of pass-catching options and a defense that suffocates almost everyone they see. Signal-caller Mark Gronowski and running back Isaiah Davis spearhead a deep offensive attack while Jason Freeman and company batten down the hatches on defense. First-year head coach Jimmy Rodgers has picked up right where the legendary John Stiegelmeier left off and hasn't missed a beat. The road to Frisco runs right through Brookings again and that's bad news for one side of the bracket.
#2 Montana Grizzlies (10-1)
It was a tale of two seasons for the Grizzlies in spite of a 10-1 record. After struggling in the first half of the year and reaching a season-low by dropping a really ugly one on the road to NAU, Montana strung together seven-consecutive wins and claimed their first Big Sky title since 2009. Along the way head coach Bobby Hauck made history as the Big Sky’s all time winningest coach and the team found itself what they hope is the quarterback of the future in transfer Clifton McDowell. Junior Bergen makes the special teams dangerous while Eli Gillman and Nick Ostmo have the rushing attack firing on all cylinders. Blessed with one of the best homefield advantages in all of the FCS, the Griz have their sights set on a deep run.
#3 South Dakota Coyotes (9-2)
It’s been a season to remember in Vermillion and the ride will continue into December. For the first time in school history, the ‘Yotes are a seed and they are going to be a tough matchup for someone. With one of the best red zone defenses out there, USD holds its opponents to just 15.5 points per game. Quarterback Aidan Bouman and receiver Carter Bell make for a savvy duo in the passing game and linebacker Brock Mogensen is a monster on the other side. Travis Theis is solid coming out of the backfield as well. This may be the most well-rounded team South Dakota has ever had and it feels like the best is still yet to come.
#4 Idaho Vandals (8-3)
If last season was the appetizer, Idaho gave its fans the main course this time around. Jason Eck has done a tremendous job building the Vandals back into a contender and now they’re the #4 seed. Gevani McCoy is dynamic under center and Hayden Hatten may be the best receiver to come out of the Big Sky since Cooper Kupp. Anthony Woods is one of the more talented backs in country as well so to say that Idaho is loaded on offense is an understatement. If it wasn’t for a stumble late in the season against Weber State, the Vandals may very well have nabbed a part of the Big Sky championship. UI can roll with the best of them if they’re clicking and a trip to Moscow won’t be easy for whoever has to make it. Postseason ball returns to the famed Kibbie Dome for the first time since the 1990s and fans in the great Northwest are frothing over it.
#5 Albany Great Danes (9-3)
Rising from the depths out of the crowded CAA this season is a really good Albany squad. Under the leadership of sophomore sensation Reese Poffenbarger, the Great Danes put together a nine-win season for the fourth time in their FCS history and took home a share of the conference title. Two of those three losses came at the hands of FBS competition. Linebacker Dylan Kelly is an absolute beast of a tackler, posting a whopping 146 stops this year. The Great Danes are good on both sides of the ball and know how to win in both shootout and grinding fashion. The only real question that looms is whether or not lack of postseason experience will get to these guys.
#6 Montana State Bobcats (8-3)
Always in the championship mix are the Montana State Bobcats and this year has been no different. MSU accomplished a lot this season including extending their current Division I-best 26-game home winning streak that dates all the way back to 2019. Bobcat Stadium is not kind to visitors and again it will see the bright lights of the playoffs. The ‘Cats rushing attack is among the best in the country thanks to what feels like ten different guys who can slice through defensive fronts. Tommy Mellott and Sean Chambers make up the most dynamic QB tandem in the land while running backs Jared White, Julius Davis and Scottre Humphrey are a three-headed monster in the backfield. Montana State, in spite of a rare bad showing in the “Brawl of the Wild”, will not be a pushover.
#7 Furman Paladins (9-2)
The Paladins quietly handled their business all season long and went undefeated against FCS competition in the regular season. Aided greatly by a ball-hawking secondary with guys like Hugh Ryan and Travis Blackshear along with an effective offense led by Tyler Huff and running back Dominic Roberto, the Paladins have had the right mix to navigate their conference schedule nearly unscathed, not an easy thing to do in the SoCon of which they are the winners of for the second straight season. Clay Hendrix is experienced behind the headset and his team is as confident as any. They’re a battle-tested group that has a chip on their shoulder after laying an egg in the season finale and that should only make them all the more formidable.
#8 Villanova Wildcats (9-2)
After missing the playoffs in 2022, Villanova came back with a vengeance this fall and they’ll be in cruise control until the second round as the 8-seed. Mark Farrante’s bunch took home a share of the CAA crown this year behind a really well-balanced offense. Averaging 223.1 rushing yards per contest and 216.8 passing, the Wildcats know how to hurt defenses in every way. Connor Watkins is an excellent passer and has an equally-excellent top receiver in Rayjoun Pringle at his disposal. Jalen Jackson is a game-breaker on the ground and all that makes for a tall order for defensive coordinators. ‘Nova will host at least one game and that spells trouble for whoever gets the draw because they haven’t lost in Philly yet this season.
The Opening Round
Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs (7-4) at Mercer Bears (8-3)
Gardner-Webb is back in the bracket for the second consecutive year after locking up the Big South-OVC title. Running back Narii Gaither, who made a name for himself in last year’s playoff run, is back and still tearing up the turf while Jaylen King has been lighting it up at quarterback. The Runnin’ Bulldogs will square off with Mercer. Bears fans have longed to hear it; they are in the playoffs for the first time ever. Drew Cronic’s team is at last over the postseason hump thanks to arguably the most talented team in program history. All-Americans dot both sides of the ball with receiver Ty James and DB Lance Wise. Carter Peevy has been a steady force at QB while Devron Harper is arguably the best return specialist in the country. It’ll ne a good one in Macon.
Duquesne Dukes (7-4) at Youngstown State Penguins (7-4)
The Dukes are back in the postseason for the first time since 2018 after defeating Merrimack on the last day of the regular season. Darius Perrantes has thrown a touchdown in every game but one this fall and the secondary is effective, holding opposing passers to under 200 yards a game. The Dukes will hit the road to face Youngstown State. The Penguins sneak and will host next weekend. Mitch Davidson threw for nearly 2,500 yards and Tyshon King paced a ground game that averages 167.7 yards per game with 894 of his own. It could be a fireworks show in the first round between these two.
North Carolina Central Eagles (9-2) at Richmond Spiders (8-3)
It took an odd series of circumstances for NCCU to make its first ever playoff appearance but here they are. The Eagles looked to be a shoe-in for the Celebration Bowl again this year but a Week 11 loss to Howard made it so the Bison actually won the MEAC and get that spot. Still at 9-2, though, NC Central got the nod as an at-large bid. Davius Richard is as dynamic as they come under center and this team has already proven it can handle itself against the rest of the FCS. The Eagles will face Richmond. The Spiders were left for dead midway through the season but they won six in a row to close out the season and found a way into the field. The defense is opportunistic, forcing 23 turnovers this year and is tied for the FCS lead with five defensive scores. Quarterback Kyle Wickersham is solid behind center and wideout Nick DeGennaro is a ball magnet.
Nicholls Colonels (6-4) at Southern Illinois Salukis (7-4)
After starting fast, SIU stumbled a bit down the stretch but still finds itself in. QB Nic Baker is one of the most experienced players out there with six years under his belt with the program and he’s shown he has the clutch factor in crunch time. The Salukis will welcome in Nicholls. The Colonels took home the hardware in the Southland this fall, upending favorite Incarnate Word in November and going unbeaten in conference play for the first time in school history. QB Pat McQuaide knows how to air it out and the two-headed monster of Collin Guggenhiem and Jaylon Spears at running back is a force. It’ll all go down in Carbondale next Saturday.
Sacramento State Hornets (7-4) at North Dakota Hawks (7-4)
Sacramento State is back in the playoffs but it doesn’t quite look like it has in years past. For one, a new set of QBs is running the show now that Asher O’Hara and Jake Dunniway are gone. Kaiden Bennett and Carson Conklin have been splitting the reps and doing so rather well. Marcus Fulcher sees the bulk of the workload on the ground but he’s not the only guy to look out for in that department. Elijah Tau-Toliver is scary with the ball in his hands also. The Hornets will travel to North Dakota. UND started fast but then faltered in the second half of the season to finish with seven wins. Those seven wins, though, were just enough to crack the playoff cut and the Hawks are back in it for the second straight year. Tommy Schuster and Bo Belquist will be a handful for the Hornets defense. This could be the best game of the first round.
Drake Bulldogs (8-3) at North Dakota State Bison (8-3)
It was not a typical year for the Bison but they return to the playoff field nonetheless. Tough losses to all three of their Dakota counterparts ensure that NDSU will be playing Thanksgiving weekend but that doesn’t mean they’re any less dangerous this time of year. Cam Miller has been one of the more accurate passers out there, completing throws at a 74.7% clip and the defenses is coming on as of late. The Bison host Drake. The Bulldogs clinches its first playoff berth in program history after wrapping up the Pioneer League crown. The Bulldogs are led by QB Luke Bailey who’s thrown for 2,446 yards and 16 touchdowns. Drake will have a tall order on its hands because Fargo is not an easy place to play this time of year.
Chattanooga Mocs (7-4) at Austin Peay Governors (9-2)
The Governors of Austin Peay nab their first ever seed and did it in convincing fashion. After dropping their first two games, the UAC champs reeled off nine straight and never looked back. The offense averages over 35 points per game thanks to the dangerous Jevon Jackson. The redshirt sophomore running back racked up six 100-yard games in 2023 and ran for well over 1,200 yards while doing so. Quarterback Mike DiLiello knows how to sling it and he has some playmakers on the outside to make it happen. It was a toss-up on whether or not Chattanooga would make it in after dropping their last two (one expected to Alabama) but the Mocs do get the nod. They went 6-2 in SoCon play this year thanks to a potent offense.
Lafayette Leopards (9-2) at Delaware Blue Hens (8-3)
For the second year in a row, Delaware is in but they again miss out on a Top 8 spot after losing the season finale. Ryan O’Connor and the offense are putting up 32 points per game and the defense is holding opponents to just over 20. Marcus Yarns makes big plays out of the backfield and Jackson Taylor is a wrecking ball over the middle at linebacker. The Blue Hens might be the most dangerous team that didn’t get a bye as they welcome Lafayette next weekend. One of the surprise teams of the year in the FCS, the Leopards make their first playoff in a decade, flew under the radar and snagged the Patriot League title away from preseason-favorite Holy Cross. Jamar Curtis is a beast in the backfield but he’ll have a time against a UD defense that gives up under 150 yards per game on the ground.
You can see the 2023 playoff bracket in its entirety here.