The NFL draft will come to a merciful end on Saturday evening, and at that point the sustenance between then and August for a football-starved culture will be the final seven FCS playoff games.
Starting Sunday — that’s right, all four quarterfinal games are on Sunday — the FCS playoffs take center stage in the football world, and what a time it is for the subdivision to step into the light.
Perpetual national champion North Dakota State is still around, but pushed into an unfamiliar ground — road playoff games. Three of this weekend’s games have point spreads of three and a half points or less. Play this tournament 20 times and five or six of the remaining eight likely win at least once.
But we only get to do this one time, which is what makes it so fascinating.
Southern Illinois (+15) at South Dakota State — 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Southern Illinois already beat one No. 1 team this season, North Dakota State. A win against another No. 1-ranked MVFC rival sends the Salukis into their first Final Four since 2007.
In their 38-14 triumph over NDSU back in February, SIU concocted the perfect upset recipe — they held the ball for 41 and a half minutes and, in conjunction to that number, won the turnover battle 2-0.
Repeating that will require slowing a Jackrabbit running game that ran for 8.3 yards a carry in their 31-3 win over Holy Cross last week and ranks sixth in FCS on the year at 6.0 a pop. A steep hill to climb.
The pick: South Dakota State wins and covers
Delaware (+3.5) at Jacksonville State — 3 p.m. ET, ESPN3
Was anyone more impressive in Round 1 than Jacksonville State? John Grass’s Gamecocks blew out Davidson 49-14 and out-gained the Wildcats by an astounding 10.7-3.3 yards per play. The ‘Cocks snapped the ball 36 fewer times than Davidson but still out-gained them by 200 yards on the dot. Aside from a head scratching loss to Austin Peay, no one has played Jacksonville State to within single digits this spring.
Delaware, however, has no head-scratching losses. The Blue Hens’ only 1-score game was a win over No. 10 Villanova, and they bring with them the most terrifying talent in the playoffs — a consistent ability to turn people over. The Hens have won the turnover battle in all six games so far this season, claiming 16 takeaways to five giveaways.
They’re pretty good in other areas, too, limiting opponents to a scant 11.3 points a game and 3.91 yards a play, both second in the nation. Turns out it’s pretty easy to put up elite defensive numbers when you’re not on the field that often.
The pick: Jacksonville State by five
North Dakota State (-3) at Sam Houston — 3 p.m. ET, ESPN
North Dakota State’s first true road playoff game since Dec. 11, 2010, takes the Bison to Huntsville, Texas. (Since all eight of NDSU’s FCS championship appearances occurred in Frisco, Texas, this means the Bison have played their last 36 playoff games in Fargo or Texas.)
NDSU and Sam Houston met four times in those previous 35 games. All four were NDSU wins, and all four saw the Bison win the rushing battle, often decisively. Example: a 471-63 margin in a 55-13 Bison win in the 2017 semifinals.
That seems to be the decisive factor here as well. North Dakota State fell behind Eastern Washington 20-7 last week, then ripped off a 35-0 run powered almost exclusively on the ground. NDSU ran the ball on 26 consecutive plays at one point, and for the game tossed 11 passes compared to 57 runs.
For its part, Sam Houston didn’t exactly send Monmouth running and hiding back to New Jersey last week. The Bearkats ran only 36 plays, while Monmouth held the ball for nearly 40 minutes. SHSU did build a 21-0 lead at one point, but the Hawks pushed into Bearkat territory seven times in 12 possessions and was throwing into the end zone in the final minute of a 21-15 Sam Houston win.
That is, uh, not a good recipe against a ground game that chews up yards like the Cookie Monster on a bag of Chips Ahoy.
The pick: North Dakota State for the win
North Dakota (+2.5) at James Madison — 6 p.m. ET, ESPN2
I picked North Dakota to lose straight up to Missouri State, they won 44-10. A team that hadn’t played since March 20 and hadn’t won since March 13 came out firing. Behold the first four possessions of last Saturday’s game:
— Missouri State loses five yards in three plays, punts
— North Dakota moves 62 yards in four plays, scores a touchdown
— Missouri State loses three yards in three plays, punts
— North Dakota gains 73 yards in five plays, scores a touchdown
This team has been consistently elite all year long and played like it in Round 1.
But even an elite team can falter here, against the No. 3 team in the bracket (and No. 1 in the polls.) James Madison ranks first in FCS in total defense, first in yards per play, second in rushing defense, fourth in pass efficiency and third in scoring defense. Last week’s 31-24 win over VMI was closer than expected, but the Dukes led by double digits from the 10:54 mark of the second quarter until the final nine seconds of the game. They haven’t lost at home since Oct. 6, 2018.
I salute this North Dakota team, but I can’t pick against James Madison at home.
The pick: James Madison by seven.