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FCS playoff preview: Best teams, top players and first-round score projections

The first-ever (and, most likely, the only) spring FCS playoffs are upon us, with eight games on Saturday, all on ESPN3. It has been a wild couple of months of wild finishes, ultracompetitive games, unexpected storylines — North Dakota State losing twice, VMI winning the Southern Conference, etc. — and, because this is still the 2020-21 season and COVID-19 testing and tracing remain vital pieces of the machine, lots of postponements and cancellations.

At the moment, all 16 playoff teams are cleared to play, but everything below comes with a giant and constant disclaimer that this could change at any moment and that virtually everything is subject to change.

That said, let’s dive in.

The favorites have looked just vulnerable enough to lead us to believe the next four weeks could get pretty chaotic. Here’s everything you need to know in advance, from title contenders to best players to first-round score projections.

The bracket

The bracket released on Sunday featured four seeded teams — No. 1 South Dakota State, No. 2 Sam Houston, No. 3 James Madison and No. 4 Jacksonville State — placed in four-team quadrants, with the other 12 teams filled in with geography somewhat in mind. That has inadvertently produced a bottom-heavy bracket.

Here are the bracket pairings laid out using the current Stats Perform FCS top 25:

  • Holy Cross (3-0) at No. 2 South Dakota State (5-1)

  • No. 14 Southern Illinois (5-3) at No. 3 Weber State (5-0)

  • Sacred Heart (3-1) at No. 5 Delaware (5-0)

  • Davidson (4-2) at No. 8 Jacksonville State (9-2)

  • No. 11 VMI (6-1) at No. 1 James Madison (5-0)

  • No. 12 Missouri State (5-4) at No. 7 North Dakota (4-1)

  • No. 9 Eastern Washington (5-1) at No. 6 North Dakota State (6-2)

  • No. 10 Monmouth (3-0) at No. 4 Sam Houston (6-0)

With these rankings, one sees a lot more strength in the bottom half of the bracket than the top. The four-team cluster involving Jacksonville State features only two ranked teams, and while No. 2 SDSU and No. 3 Weber State are bunched together up top, they’re the only two teams ranked higher than 14th. Meanwhile, the bottom half of the bracket features eight teams all ranked 12th or better. If North Dakota State is able to suddenly discover its offense and make a run toward its ninth national title in 10 seasons, the Bison will potentially have to beat teams ranked ninth, fourth, first and second to do so.

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