The road to Frisco, Texas starts this weekend as the 2016-17 FCS playoff bracket was released Sunday morning, revealing the 24 teams who will compete for the national championship at Toyota Stadium on Jan. 7.
We’ll start with the top seed, which isn’t a stranger to postseason success. Five-time defending champion North Dakota State takes the No. 1 spot after a one-loss season that included five wins over ranked FCS opponents and a victory in Iowa against the then-ranked Hawkeyes of the FBS.
The Bison have won five games in a row since dropping their Oct. 15 matchup with South Dakota State and they will rely on their seventh-ranked scoring defense that’s holding opponents to under 18 points per game.
Below the Bison, there wasn’t much immediate change from the FCS Committee’s last top 10 ranking that came out this past Tuesday, before Week 12 action.
Eastern Washington, Jacksonville State, James Madison, Sam Houston State and The Citadel follow as the No. 2-6 seeds while North Dakota and South Dakota State each slotted into the last two top eight spots that will receive first round byes.
The Bearkats have been hurt by a perceived weakness of schedule which, despite their perfect regular season, dropped them to the No. 5 seed. Sam Houston State routed fellow Southland Conference playoff representative Central Arkansas 59-23 in its Week 12 finale, but that apparently wasn’t enough to improve its position in the bracket.
Meanwhile, Central Arkansas was one of the fringe teams to miss out on a first round bye after its noncompetitive loss. Richmond, who also lost to William & Mary this weekend, will join the Bears in having to play on the opening weekend against a very good North Carolina A&T team.
Some other teams that will miss out on postseason action as a whole include Montana, Western Illinois and North Carolina Central, who all lost steam down the stretch and were defeated in Week 12.
In their place, teams like New Hampshire, Weber State and Illinois State swooped in with non-automatic bids.
While the top tier of teams will not play until the second round kicks off on Dec. 3, this Saturday’s opening round presents a handful of intriguing matchups. Samford vs. Youngstown State is one of those headliners that will showcase two great offensive weapons in Samford quarterback Devlin Hodges and YSU running back Martin Ruiz.
Hodges is third in the league in passing yards while Ruiz is one of 21 FCS running backs to rush for more than 1,000 yards to go along with 10 touchdowns.
Also keep your eye on that aforementioned Richmond vs. North Carolina A&T first round game. It’s been a roller-coaster ride of a season for the Spiders this year, who have some notable wins (FBS’ Virginia, Villanova) but also some very bad losses (42-14 to Stony Brook, 34-13 to William & Mary).
With that latest letdown coming in the regular season finale, Richmond must right the ship quickly to pose a threat in the playoffs.
Another team to keep an eye on is Chattanooga, which finished 8-3 and played very well against the No. 1 FBS team in the nation in Alabama this past Saturday. The Mocs lost 31-3 but held the Tide to just 332 yards of total offense.
That should serve as a perfectly-timed confidence boost for a team who could be a tough out for anyone in its bracket. The Mocs’ title pursuit starts with an afternoon game against Weber State.
A little down the road, there are some marquee matchups that may come to fruition well before the finale in Frisco.
North Dakota State may meet South Dakota State in a quarterfinals rematch of October’s Dakota Marker battle that ended in a 19-17 Jackrabbits victory. While the Bison would be looking for revenge, nothing would be sweeter for SDSU than following up spoiling NDSU’s perfect season with ending its chances at a sixth straight FCS crown.
Meanwhile, the two highest-scoring offenses in the nation in Sam Houston State (54.2 points per game) and James Madison (47.7) could meet in that same quarterfinals round that would be sure to feature plenty of fireworks.
For those looking for a rematch from last year’s title game in which North Dakota State topped Jacksonville State 37-10, that would have to come in this year’s finals as well. The Gamecocks finished the year strong with nine straight wins but would have to escape a tough bracket that also features The Citadel and Eastern Washington in order to have a second shot at the title.
The 2016 FCS playoffs start with a slate of six 2 p.m. ET kickoffs followed by two later games on Saturday, Nov. 26. Stay tuned with NCAA.com’s coverage throughout the whole tournament for the latest updates and results.