Another season of FCS football has come and gone, and 24 teams remain in contention for a trip to Frisco, Texas, to battle for a national title.
On Sunday, the day after the FCS season ended, the selection committee unveiled its bracket, first naming the top eight seeds. The field has 11 automatic qualifiers — conference champions — and 13 at-large selections.
Breaking down the top 8
In the FCS playoffs, eight teams earn seeds in the tournament, and those teams get a first-round bye — meaning they don’t have to play Thanksgiving weekend. Those teams are as follows:
1. Sam Houston (10-0, 5-0 WAC)
2. North Dakota State (10-1, 7-1 Missouri Valley)
3. James Madison (10-1, 7-1 CAA)
4. Sacramento State (9-2, 8-0 Big Sky)
5. Villanova (9-2, 7-1 CAA)
6. Montana (9-2, 6-2 Big Sky)
7. ETSU (10-1, 7-1 SoCon)
8. Montana State (9-2, 7-1 Big Sky)
The Bearkats picked up the top seed this season after going undefeated in the Western Athletic Conference and will maintain home-field advantage until the championship game. The defending national champions averaged 42 points per game through 10 contests this fall — Sam Houston’s opponents only averaged 17 points per game. The closest game for Bearkats was a 21-20 win over Stephen F. Austin — a conference rival who they could potentially see in the second round.
North Dakota State and JMU picked up the No. 2 and 3 seeds, respectfully, setting up the top two positions in the side opposite of Sam Houston. The Bison and the Dukes have identical records and played a common opponent in Towson.
NDSU is looking to get back to the championship game for the first time since 2019. The Bison picked up the second seed after winning the Missouri Valley and averaged 35 points per game in the regular season. The Dukes earned the first at-large bid as a Co-CAA champion with Villanova — the Wildcats beat JMU and earned the automatic qualifying bid. JMU enters the playoffs with the No. 3seed for the second season in a row and could host games until the semifinals.
Sacramento State finds itself as the No. 4 seed after winning the Big Sky. The conference had three teams earn seeds; CAA teams earned two and the WAC, Missouri Valley and SoCon all have one representative. The Hornets were undefeated in conference play and are set to host through the semifinals barring defeat.
The No. 5 and 6 seeds are Villanova and Montana, respectively. The Wildcats are seeded lower than the Dukes despite taking the CAA’s automatic bid, but Villanova’s full of senior leadership — it averaged 31 points in the regular season. Montana made it through the Big Sky with two losses — one to Eastern Washington and Sacramento State. The Grizzlies had a dominant performance against Montana State on Nov. 20 to close out the regular season, 29-10.
Seeds No. 7 and 8 went to ETSU and Montana State. For the Buccaneers, they earned No. 7 after winning their first outright SoCon title in 53 years. Montana State fell to Montana on Saturday after being ranked No. 2 in the STATS FCS Top-25 poll but still secured the final seed and bye week. Although dropping the game to the Grizzlies, the Bobcats defeated Eastern Washington and Weber State in the regular season.
Notable first-round matchups
U.C Davis and South Dakota State battle in the first round; the winner plays Sacramento State.
South Dakota State fell to Sam Houston in the spring FCS championship but had a strong start to its season with a win over Colorado State before falling to Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois and South Dakota down the stretch. The Jack Rabbits handed NDSU its only loss of the season and host a U.C Davis team that was fifth in the conference — the Big Sky sent five teams to the FCS Playoffs, a conference record.
Another notable matchup is Northern Iowa versus Eastern Washington, with the winner heading to Montana.
Although one of the last teams in, the Panthers finished 4-4 in the conference but hold wins against Southern Illinois and South Dakota State; Northern Iowa makes its 22nd appearance in the postseason. Eastern Washington is playing in the first week after being ranked in the top 10 for most of the season. The Eagles defeated Montana during the regular season, finished third in the Big Sky and host to start the playoffs. This 9-2 squad could face Montana again if victorious.
Southern Illinois and South Dakota meet in the first round for a Missouri Valley playoff game — the winner will play conference foe North Dakota State. The Missouri Valley sent six teams to the postseason this fall.
Finally, Stephen F. Austin battles Incarnate Word this coming weekend, a battle of two Texas teams. The winner faces No. 1 Sam Houston; SFA came closest to defeating the Bearkats all season.
Editors Input: Who has the hardest path to Frisco?
North Dakota State, JMU, Montana and ETSU on one side of the bracket? That’s three conference champions and a team that has a history in the postseason — no game will be easy.
As easy as it is to say that Montana has the toughest path, and it’s a difficult one when it comes to postseason play, that shouldn’t matter. Every team is going to be good, and every game is going to be harder than the last.
The committee did the Grizzlies no favors. Facing a team that Montana lost to in the regular season potentially in the second round is tough, and then possibly flying to a different time zone to play the No. 1 ranked defense at JMU? That isn’t easy either.
The second side of the bracket is challenging, but with the playoffs, teams can’t count anybody out. When it comes to postseason play, fans shouldn’t spend time dwindling to whether their team got the best path or how maybe one team should have a higher seed than another. What’s done is done, and teams can prove they’re the best by winning the national championship.
Contact Savannah Reger at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more sports coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.