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Stan Becton | | October 22, 2021

2021 FCS playoff bracket predictions, one month from selections

Sam Houston defeats South Dakota State 23-21 to win first FCS title

We are one month away from 2021-22 FCS playoff selections — Sunday, Nov. 21. With the playoffs creeping up, we decided to predict the entire 24-team playoff field ahead of the selections.

Before diving into the bracket, I’ll explain how the process for selecting the predicted field. In this bracket projection, the selected teams are not an indication the FCS playoff selection committee picks, but rather these picks are my opinion, taking into consideration all games through Oct. 21 while projecting future play throughout the remainder of the regular season.

The predicted bracket follows the format of the FCS playoffs, with 24 teams coming from 11 automatic bids and 13 at-large bids. Eight of these teams will be seeded and receive a first-round bye. 

The first round of the predicted FCS bracket will be regionalized following the selection committee's effort to limit travel. Likewise, the first round will avoid any matchups featuring conference teams that have played each other. Last but not least, first-round matchups will be regionally paired with teams seeded one through eight, also in an effort to limit travel.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get right into my 2021 FCS playoff bracket predictions.

2021 FCS playoff bracket predictions

Click or tap here for a closer look at the bracket.

2021 FCS playoff bracket predictions *STARRED FIRST ROUND TEAMS INDICATE HOME TEAMS*

FCS automatic bids, predicted

Projected Records in parentheses

Conference Team
AQ7 Sam Houston (10-0)
Big Sky Eastern Washington (11-0)
Big South Kennesaw State (10-1)
CAA Villanova (10-1)
MVFC Southern Illinois (10-1)
NEC Duquesne (9-1)
OVC UT Martin (9-2)
Patriot Holy Cross (9-2)
Pioneer Davidson (8-2)
SoCon Chattanooga (8-3)
Southland Southeastern Louisiana (10-1)

The projected AQ7 and Big Sky winners go to the top two teams from Week 8’s FCS Coaches Poll: Sam Houston and Eastern Washington. Villanova, the highest-ranked team in the CAA, gets the auto-bid thanks to having a win over James Madison. The always competitive Missouri Valley bid goes to Southern Illinois. The Salukis avoid playing North Dakota State and may play one ranked team down the stretch.

Southeastern Louisiana wins the Southland behind the arm of reigning Walter Payton Award winner QB Cole Kelley. The biggest newsmaker among the automatic bids comes from Kennesaw State. The Big South’s bid will come down to the final week when Kennesaw State hosts Monmouth. I see the Owls holding on for the home victory and a playoff berth.

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Current first-place teams, Duquesne, UT Martin, and Davidson hold on to win their conferences. Elsewhere, Chattanooga takes the SoCon’s bid holding a head-to-head win over ETSU, and Holy Cross wins out against the subpar competition in the Patriot League.

Projected FCS at-large bids

Projected Records in parentheses

Team Conference
Montana (9-2) Big Sky
Montana State (8-3) Big Sky
UC Davis (9-2) Big Sky
Sacramento State (8-3) Big Sky
North Dakota State (10-1) MVFC
South Dakota State (9-2) MVFC
Missouri State (7-4) MVFC
South Dakota (7-4) MVFC
UIW (9-2) Southland
ETSU (10-1) SoCon
VMI (8-3) SoCon
James Madison (10-1) CAA
New Hampshire (8-3) CAA

Barring a gigantic collapse, James Madison, North Dakota State, South Dakota State, Montana, Montana State, ETSU and UC Davis are in good position for an at-large bid. Four of the seven schools have wins over FBS opponents, boosting their claim to a playoff spot. UIW also has a win over an FBS opponent and a projected second-place finish in the Southland gets them into the playoffs.

The MVFC gets two more at-large bids, thanks to the strength of the conference. 7-4 finishes from both Missouri State and South Dakota get the two schools into the playoffs. Each team’s losses in the season’s second-half come to teams from the top eight seeds (more on those later).

NEWCOMERS: Here are the top 9 newcomers in FCS football halfway through the season

Sacramento State is a surprise fifth team from the Big Sky. After picking up a huge win over Montana, the Hornets should be on a winning streak until a season-ending meeting against UC Davis. Even with a loss in the final game, Sacramento State at 8-3 finds itself in the bracket.

VMI makes the bracket thanks to wins over two playoff teams, Davidson and Chattanooga. If the Keydets win every remaining game on their schedule except against ETSU, that could be enough to make the playoffs.

The final team to earn an at-large bid is New Hampshire. The Wildcats have three quality losses against FBS opponent Pitt, FCS contender James Madison and potential Ivy League champion Dartmouth. New Hampshire's toughest remaining game will be against Rhode Island; the winner of the game gets the final playoff spot. I project New Hampshire to win out.

Just missed

  • Rhode Island (7-4)
    • Rhode Island’s loss to Towson knocked the Rams from the undefeated ranks. This loss may end up being what keeps them from making the playoffs. Rhode Island has a road visit to Villanova and an FBS opponent, UMass, on the schedule. However, it is a projected loss to New Hampshire that will be the knockout blow. Rhode Island’s win over Delaware loses its luster each week, leaving the Rams without a resume-boosting signature win.
  • Delaware (6-5)
    • Back-to-back losses to Rhode Island and Stony Brook without injured QB Nolan Henderson have the Blue Hens falling. With James Madison and Villanova still on the schedule, Delaware misses the playoffs after making last spring’s semifinals.
  • Monmouth (6-5)
    • Predicted to win the Big South in the preseason, Monmouth will miss the playoffs in this bracket. Monmouth’s schedule may not be good enough to earn an at-large bid and it will be a tough task to beat Kennesaw State on the road to win the conference.
  • Mercer (6-4)
    • The back half of Mercer’s Southern Conference slate is brutal. The Bears already lost to VMI 45-7 and still face Chattanooga and ETSU to end the season. After seeing Mercer’s performance against VMI, it could be a surprise if the Bears pick up a win in November.
  • Northern Iowa (5-6)
    • A loss to South Dakota severely hurt Northern Iowa’s playoff hopes. Still on the schedule for the Panthers, a road trip to South Dakota State, a visit from Southern Illinois off a bye, and a road trip to Missouri State. UNI has one of the toughest remaining schedules in the country and is projected to go 2-3. Even with a good road win over Sacramento State, the Panthers won’t make the playoffs if they falter down the stretch.

RANKINGS: See every FCS poll

Projected FCS seeds

Here’s how important seeding is to the FCS playoffs. Teams that have only played home games through the semifinal round have been the participants in the last four FCS championship games. Every one and two seed has this advantage.

That being said, here are the predicted seeds for the 2021 FCS playoffs. All teams are seeded in order.

First Round Bye

1. Sam Houston
2. Eastern Washington
3. Southern Illinois
4. Villanova
5. North Dakota State
6. James Madison
8. South Dakota State

First Round Participants

9. Montana
11. Southeastern Louisiana
10. UC Davis
12. Montana State
13. Kennesaw State
14. UT Martin
15. Missouri State
16. Chattanooga
17. UIW
18. South Dakota
19. VMI
20. Sacramento State
21. Holy Cross
22. New Hampshire
23. Davidson
24. Duquesne

Predicted first-round pairings

Here are the first-round pairings with second-round opponents.

First Round Matchup (Home team in bold) Second Round
New Hampshire at Holy Cross No. 4 Villanova
Duquesne at VMI No. 6 James Madison
UIW at Missouri State No. 1 Sam Houston
South Dakota at UT Martin No. 8 South Dakota State
Kennesaw State at Southeastern Louisiana No. 3 Southern Illinois
Davidson at Chattanooga No. 7 ETSU
Sacramento State at Montana State No. 2 Eastern Washington
UC Davis at Montana No. 5 North Dakota State

Conferences with multiple teams in the projected bracket

Conference Total Teams Teams (Automatic bid in bold)
Big Sky 5 Eastern Washington, Montana, Montana State, UC Davis, Sacramento State
MVFC 5 Southern Illinois, North Dakota State, South Dakota State, Missouri State, South Dakota
CAA 3 Villanova, James Madison, New Hampshire
SoCon 3 Chattanooga, ETSU, VMI
Southland 2 Southeastern Louisiana, UIW

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