FCS quarterfinals preview: Sizing up the final eight contenders

Cam Miller and North Dakota State could get another crack at South Dakota, which won the team's meeting in September. AP Photo/LM Otero

This is, to me, the best weekend of the FCS season. Every week is fun in its own right, but all the weeks that came before have had epic competition in the form of the FBS slate.

This weekend? Aside from Army-Navy, it's all FCS. You get a Friday night trip to Washington-Grizzly Stadium matching up two of the subdivision's winningest programs. You get an early Saturday look at the defending and aspiring champ, a South Dakota State team so good it could have competed with the best teams of North Dakota State's title run. You get a rare North Dakota State revenge attempt in the midafternoon. And at night, after the Heisman ceremony, you get a trip to the happiest place on earth, the Kibbie Dome.

That's a full weekend right there! Here's what you need to know about the FCS quarterfinals.

First, here's the slate:

• No. 7 Furman at No. 2 Montana (Friday, 9 p.m., ESPN2). SP+ projection: Montana by 12.0.

• No. 8 Villanova at No. 1 South Dakota State (Saturday, noon, ESPN). SP+ projection: SDSU by 20.8.

• North Dakota State at No. 3 South Dakota (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC). SP+ projection: NDSU by 9.4.

• No. 5 UAlbany at No. 4 Idaho (Saturday, 10 p.m., ESPN+). SP+ projection: Albany by 0.8.

Of the eight seeded teams in the field, seven advanced to the quarters, and five did so by at least 17 points; the lone exception: Montana State, which lost an overtime classic against nine-time champ North Dakota State.

The game was as even as could be: The teams were tied at 14-14 at halftime, and after NDSU's TaMerik Williams opened the second half with a 75-yard touchdown run, MSU's Tommy Mellott followed suit with a 76-yarder 54 seconds later. MSU held a 7-point lead for most of the half, but TK Marshall's 29-yard score with 2:33 left sent the game to overtime. Cam Miller scored on the Bison's first OT possession, and while MSU immediately responded with a 25-yard touchdown, Hunter Poncius blocked the ensuing PAT and NDSU advanced.

The three-loss Bison were unseeded, but because their wins have been as resounding as ever, they still grade out well per the numbers. SP+ has continued to rank them in the top three for most of the season, and that relative faith was backed up by the win over MSU. The road doesn't get easier, though. Next up: a trip to Vermillion to take on a South Dakota team that took them down 24-19 in Fargo in September.

That game might pack the most narrative potential, but all four are intriguing. Here are your quarterfinalists, ranked in order of their projected title odds (per SP+).

Tier 1

1. South Dakota State (12-0)

SP+ rank: first

Playoff results to date: defeated Mercer 41-0

Title odds: 58.4% (two weeks ago: 56.8%)

Here's the current SP+ top five, presented in an adjusted points per game figure that, with a 2.5-point home-field adjustment, can be used to immediately derive potential point spreads between teams.

1. South Dakota State 38.9
2. North Dakota State 29.7
3. Montana 23.2
4. Montana State 20.9
5. Villanova 20.6

Villanova, SDSU's quarterfinal opponent, is awesome. But the Wildcats are as far away from the Jackrabbits in the SP+ ratings as No. 52 Butler is from the Wildcats. That's ridiculous. If the customary 28-point adjustment between FBS and FCS in applied, SDSU's rating would rank 24th in FBS.

That's the kind of dominance we're dealing with at the moment. The Jacks outgained poor Mercer 571-151 last week, scoring on their first five drives and cruising to a 41-0 win that could have been even worse. Their run game features a running back (Isaiah Davis) and two offensive linemen (tackle Garret Greenfield and guard Mason McCormick) who have committed to play in the East-West Shrine Bowl. Their quarterback, Mark Gronowski, is a Walter Payton Award finalist. And their defense, led by edge rusher Cade Terveer, linebacker Isaiah Stalbird and safety Tucker Large, is probably better than their offense. Congratulations, Villanova. You had a hell of a season. It will take a mammoth upset for you to reach the semifinals.

Tier 2

2. North Dakota State (10-3)

SP+ rank: second

Playoff results to date: defeated Drake 66-3; defeated No. 8 Montana State 35-34 (OT)

Title odds: 21.0% (two weeks ago: 9.1%)

For seven of the eight remaining teams, their title odds haven't changed much overall. SDSU's rating rose enough after the Mercer thumping that teams in the Jackrabbits' half of the bracket actually saw their title odds shrink after winning their own round-of-16 games. On the other half, NDSU's rating has risen enough, thanks both to the degree of their domination of Drake and their road win over an awesome Montana State team, that the Bison now have a better than 1-in-5 chance of pulling off another title run.

Said run will require revenge against South Dakota, however. The first USD-NDSU game of the season was fascinating: NDSU's run game was as ground-and-pound as ever, as the Bison cranked out two 12-play drives and two 16-play drives, but two of those four possessions resulted in just field goals. USD, meanwhile, got 50- and 52-yard touchdown passes from Aidan Bouman to Carter Bell, and in a game with just 13 total possessions, those easy points, and a single NDSU turnover, made the difference in a 24-19 Coyotes win.

When the run game stalled out, the passing game struggled to make up the difference. That was the case for NDSU not only against USD, but also against Montana State last week. Including four sacks, quarterback Cam Miller's 17 dropbacks against MSU netted just 41 yards. One or two big passes could make the difference against South Dakota.

3. Montana (11-1)

SP+ rank: third

Playoff results to date: defeated Delaware 49-19

Title odds: 8.2% (two weeks ago: 8.1%)

The most aesthetically pleasing result of last weekend was the Grizzlies' pummeling of Delaware. The snow intensified throughout the first half, and the harder it came down, the better Montana played.

Montana's SP+ rating is a bit artificially low because it's a full-season rating, and the Grizzlies have improved dramatically since installing quarterback Clifton McDowell into the lineup after a shocking upset loss to Northern Arizona. McDowell, freshman running back Eli Gilman (this year's Jerry Rice Award winner for best FCS freshman) and receiver and ace return man Junior Bergen lead an offense that has scored at least 34 points in five straight games. Their title odds should be higher than 8%.

This will be the first Montana-Furman matchup since the 2001 national title game, a 13-6 Griz win keyed by 142 rushing yards from Yohance Humphrey and two interceptions of a Furman quarterback by the name of Billy Napier. This will be Montana's eighth night game of the season, and the Grizzlies have won the first seven. The darker the sky, the worse the weather, the better Montana plays.

Tier 3

4. UAlbany (10-3)

SP+ rank: sixth

Playoff results to date: defeated Richmond 41-13

Title odds: 3.8% (two weeks ago: 3.9%)

Here come the Great Danes! Albany scored its second-ever FCS playoff win last week in resounding fashion; a projected 7-point favorite over Richmond, the Danes led 14-0 after one quarter and never looked back. They were up 27-0 before Richmond could get on the board, and they sacked a pair of Spider QBs seven times. They lead FCS with 47 sacks.

Quarterback Reese Poffenbarger wasn't great against Richmond -- 170 yards, two touchdowns, an interception and two sacks -- but he leads FCS in touchdown passes, and he's gotten a boost of late from running back Griffin Woodell (96 yards last week). And the defense has driven the team's success anyway.

AJ Simon and Anton Juncaj have combined for 41.5 TFLs and 26.5 sacks, and defensive back Aamir Hall has five interceptions and 13 breakups. This defense attacks and attacks and attacks, and on paper it could be the road equalizer against Idaho.

5. Villanova (10-2)

SP+ rank: fifth

Playoff results to date: defeated Youngstown State 45-28

Title odds: 3.2% (two weeks ago: 4.4%)

Despite this weekend's point spread, this really is an excellent Villanova team. Per SP+, the Wildcats have the seventh-best offense and 13th-best defense in FCS, and against a Youngstown State team that had won its last two games by a combined 50 points, Villanova absorbed an early 10-7 deficit, then put away an easy win with a 31-3 run. Connor Watkins completed passes of 64, 45, 36, 34, 27 and 22 yards against the Penguins, and he's averaging 17.9 yards per completion for the season.

Honestly, big, unexpected chunk plays and some turnovers are probably what it will take to throw a scare into South Dakota State, and the Wildcats can certainly deliver both of those. Only Albany and Elon have contained the all-or-nothing offense, and the Villanova defense has picked off 13 passes and broken up 45 more. This is the type of high-variance team that could pull an upset in a game like this. (High variance means you could also lose by a particularly large amount too.)

6. South Dakota (10-2)

SP+ rank: 10th

Playoff results to date: defeated Sacramento State 34-24

Title odds: 2.3% (two weeks ago: 1.9%)

Adaptability is important in the playoffs, and South Dakota has proven it can win games in all sorts of ways. The Coyotes have lost to only two of the 25 best teams in the country -- Missouri and South Dakota State -- and have otherwise swept a slate that included four playoff teams. Bob Nielson's squad can win games by scores of either 34-31 or 14-7.

The defense, led by linemen Brendan Webb and Nick Gaes and all-world corner Myles Harden, is certainly the surer of South Dakota's units -- they're third in defensive SP+ and only 44th in offensive SP+ -- but the offense came through last week against Sacramento State. Charles Pierre Jr. and Travis Theis combined for 191 rushing yards on 28 carries, and Aidan Bouman threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to JJ Galbreath. Throw in a fumble return touchdown, and the Coyotes had enough firepower to advance. They'll need a couple more haymakers to get past North Dakota State a second time.

7. Idaho (9-3)

SP+ rank: 13th

Playoff results to date: defeated Southern Illinois 20-17 (OT)

Title odds: 2.0% (two weeks ago: 2.7%)

It took awhile for Idaho to feel at home back at the FCS level. After 23 years in FBS, the Vandals dropped back down in 2018 and went just 15-25 in their first four seasons. But Jason Eck brought them to the 2022 playoffs in his first year at the helm, and last Saturday, in dramatic fashion, they won their first playoff game in 30 years. Trailing SIU 10-0 early, they flipped the game with special teams.

Jermaine Johnson's punt return drove a comeback, and the Vandals blocked a field goal at the buzzer to force overtime. Ricardo Chavez's 29-yard field goal won the game.

In 1993, the Vandals beat Louisiana-Monroe and Boston University on the way to the semifinals; now they have to take down Albany to return. If they can get Anthony Woods and Nick Romano going in the ground game, they can neutralize the awesome Great Danes pass rush. That could give Marcus Harris and an opportunistic Idaho pass defense enough chances to force mistakes from Poffenbarger and take home the win.

8. Furman (10-2)

SP+ rank: 19th

Playoff results to date: defeated Chattanooga 26-7

Title odds: 1.1% (two weeks ago: 1.3%)

A powerhouse for the first 25 years or so of the FCS' existence (three national title games from 1985 to 2001, winning one), Furman slipped a bit in the 2000s. Between 2006 and 2021, the Paladins won only two playoff games. But they reached the second round last year and, in their 20th overall playoff appearance, pummeled Chattanooga to reach the quarters this season.

Former Paladins lineman Clay Hendrix has slowly crafted a dominant team, one that has only lost to South Carolina and Wofford, but that was with starting quarterback Tyler Huff (the Southern Conference offensive player of the year) and running back Dominic Roberto both out. They lead the nation with a plus-17 turnover margin and held Chattanooga to 200 total yards. They obviously face a tall task in heading up to Montana, but "defense travels" is a football proverb, and a couple of turnovers could make the Grizzly home crowd awfully nervous.