FCS first-round playoff preview capsules

NCAA Football

(Stats Perform) – The 2021 FCS playoffs kick off with eight first-round games on Saturday.

The 24-team field will play at school host sites until the championship game on Jan. 8 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.

Following are capsule previews of the first-round playoff games (all times EST):

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Sacred Heart (8-3, 6-1 NEC) at Holy Cross (9-2, 6-0 Patriot)

Kickoff – Noon at Fitton Field in Worcester, Massachusetts (ESPN+)

Series – Holy Cross leads 2-0

Coaches – Sacred Heart: Mark Nofri (62-46, 11 seasons); Holy Cross: Bob Chesney (24-15, four seasons; 91-40 overall)

3 Players to Watch – Sacred Heart: RB Julius Chestnut (74 carries, 487 yards, 3 TDs), RB Malik Grant (226 carries, 1,288 yards, 9 TDs), LB Kevin Peprah (43 tackles, 2.5 sacks); Holy Cross: QB Matthew Sluka (84 of 154, 1,172 yards, 10 TDs, 4 INTs; 672 rushing yards, 13 TDs), RB Peter Oliver (134 carries, 726 yards, 4 TDs), LB Jacob Dobbs (112 tackles, 8 sacks),

3 Key Factors – 1. Sacred Heart is full go at running back, with Chestnut back after missing seven-plus games and getting more carries over the last three games than Grant, the potential NEC offensive player of the year. Holy Cross counters with the No. 5 rushing defense in the FCS (77.9 ypg). 2. Behind Dobbs and LB Liam Anderson, the host Crusaders are tied for fourth in the FCS with 39 sacks and rank second in dropping quarterbacks for 272 yards in losses. 3. The three teams that beat the Pioneers attacked with the run (237 ypg, 5.5-yard average), which is a strength of Holy Cross’ offense. Up Next – The winner will play at No. 5 seed Villanova (9-2) in the second round on Dec. 3.

Prediction – Holy Cross 24, Sacred Heart 21

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Davidson (8-2, 7-1 Pioneer) at Kennesaw State (10-1, 7-0 Big South)

Kickoff – 2 p.m. at Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Kennesaw, Georgia (ESPN+)

Series – First meeting

Coaches – Davidson: Scott Abell (26-14, four seasons); Kennesaw State: Brian Bohannon (62-17, seven seasons)

3 Players to Watch – Davidson: QB Louis Colosimo (63 of 103, 953 yards, 11 TDs, 4 INTs; 434 rushing yards, 2 TDs), RB Dylan Sparks (162 carries, 796 yards, 8 TDs), DE Jonathan Hammond (56 tackles, 9.5 sacks); Kennesaw State: QB Xavier Shepherd (221 carries, 836 yards, 19 TDs; 69 of 113, 1,181 yards, 14 TDs, 3 INTs), RB Kyle Glover (112 carries, 519 yards, 1 TD), LB Evan Thompson (93 tackles, 9.5 TFL)

3 Key Factors – 1. Run, run, run the ball. Davidson (348.4) and Kennesaw (275.5) rank first and second in the FCS in rushing yards per game. Kennesaw (98.5 ypg, 3.7 yards per carry) has been stronger with defending the run than Davidson (126.4, 4.4). 2. Kennesaw’s option offense is more prone to fumbles, with 24 overall and 13 lost compared to the Wildcats’ 13 overall and eight lost. 3. Home for the holiday weekend: The Owls have won 10 straight and 29 of their last 31 games at FTB Stadium.

Up Next – The winner will play at No. 7 seed ETSU (10-1) in the second round on Dec. 4.

Prediction – Kennesaw State 38, Davidson 21

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UC Davis (8-3, 5-3 Big Sky) at South Dakota State (8-3, 5-3 MVFC)

Kickoff – 3 p.m. at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings, South Dakota (ESPN+)

Series – South Dakota State leads 5-2

Coaches – UC Davis: Dan Hawkins (31-21, five seasons; 143-82-1 overall); South Dakota State: John Stiegelmeier (181-110, 25 seasons)

3 Players to Watch – UC Davis: RB Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. (191 carries, 828 yards, 5 TDs; 35 receptions, 223 yards, 1 TD), WR Jared Harrell (44 receptions, 551 yards, 5 TDs), CB Jordan Prettyman (57 tackles, 1 INT, 12 pass breakup); South Dakota State: QB Chris Oladokun (184 of 288, 2,450 yards, 20 TDs, 5 INTs), RB Pierre Strong Jr. (190 carries, 1,317 yards, 15 TDs; 3 TD passes), LB Adam Bock (100 tackles, 6 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles)

3 Key Factors – 1. UC Davis isn’t shy about mixing and matching with three different signal callers: Miles Hastings, Hunter Rodrigues and run-oriented Trent Tompkins. 2. Strong is a home run hitter, averaging 23 yards on his 15 TD runs this season and 28.2 over 37 in his four-season career. 3. Appropriately, the host Jackrabbits are quicker out of the gate, outscoring opponents by 70 points in the first quarter and by 95 in the second for a 165-point first-half advantage. The Aggies have outscored only opponents by 13 points in the first half: a plus-five margin in the first quarter and a plus-eight margin in the second.

Up Next – The winner will play at No. 4 seed Sacramento State (9-2) in the second round on Dec. 4.

Prediction – South Dakota State 34, UC Davis 17

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Stephen F. Austin (8-3, 4-2 AQ7) at UIW (9-2, 7-1 Southland)

Kickoff – 3 p.m. at Benson Stadium in San Antonio (ESPN+)

Series – Stephen F. Austin leads 5-1

Coaches – Stephen F. Austin: Colby Carthel (17-16, three seasons; 76-34 overall); UIW: Eric Morris (23-17, four seasons)

3 Players to Watch – Stephen F. Austin: QB Trae Self (222 of 345, 2,958 yards, 25 TDs, 7 INTs), WR/PR Xavier Gipson (68 receptions, 1,266 yards, 14 TDs), S Myles Heard (61 tackles, 4 forced fumbles, 3 pass breakups); UIW: QB Cameron Ward (306 of 475, 3,839 yards, 38 TDs, 10 INTs), RB Kevin Brown (128 carries, 848 yards, 12 TDs; 26 receptions, 297 yards, 2 TDs), LB Kelechi Anyalebechi (112 tackles, 4 forced fumbles, 3 takeaways)

3 Key Factors – 1. SFA seeks to disrupt Ward, who is fifth nationally in passing yards per game (349) and tied for third in TD passes (38). Out of 128 FCS teams, the Lumberjacks rank 11th in defensive passing efficiency (108.45 rating) and are tied for fourth in sacks per game (3.55). 2. Big-play day? Out of 57 FCS players with at least 10 TDs from scrimmage, Gipson ranks first (40.4) and Brown fourth (31.1) in yards per TD. Each has 14 TDs from scrimmage. 3. SFA has an edge in the kicking game with Chris Campos (20 of 24 on field goals, 53 long) and Max Quick (46.6-yard punting average).

Up Next – The winner will play at No. 1 seed Sam Houston (10-0) in the second round on Dec. 4.

Prediction – Stephen F. Austin 30, UIW 29

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UT Martin (9-2, 5-1 OVC) at Missouri State (8-3, 6-2 MVFC)

Kickoff – 4 p.m. at Robert W. Plaster Stadium in Springfield, Missouri (ESPN+)

Series – Missouri State leads 6-0

Coaches – UT Martin: Jason Simpson (99-79, 16 seasons); Missouri State: Bobby Petrino (13-8, first season; 132-64 overall)

3 Players to Watch – UT Martin: QB Keon Howard (154 of 258, 1,811 yards, 15 TDs, 7 INTs; 472 rushing yards, 10 TDs), RB Peyton Logan (131 carries, 982 yards, 3 TDs; 24 receptions, 242 yards, 3 TDs), LB John Ford (74 tackles, 3 INTs, 3 pass breakups); Missouri State: QB Jason Shelley (213 of 358, 3,068 yards, 19 TDs, 6 INTs; 349 rushing yards, 10 TDs), WR Tyrone Scott (60 receptions, 1,039 yards, 10 TDs), LB Tylar Wiltz (90 tackles, 12.5 tackles, 4 takeaways)

3 Key Factors – 1. Which defense will step up its play? UT Martin attacks with the run (231.3 ypg) and Missouri State has a consistent passing attack (283.8 ypg). 2. While UTM’s defense has only 16 sacks (DE Eyabi Anoma leads with six), the host Bears have struggled to prevent them, allowing 44 this season after allowing 46 in 10 games last season. 3. MSU place-kicker Jose Pizano is 20 of 24 on field goals; UTM’s Tyler Larco is 5 of 12.

Up Next – The winner will play at No. 8 seed Montana State (9-2) in the second round on Dec. 4.

Prediction – Missouri State 26, UT Martin 21

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Northern Iowa (6-5, 4-4 MVFC) at Eastern Washington (9-2, 6-2 Big Sky)

Kickoff – 4 p.m. at Roos Field in Cheney, Washington (ESPN+)

Series – Northern Iowa leads 6-1

Coaches – Northern Iowa: Mark Farley (168-92, 21 seasons); Eastern Washington: Aaron Best (40-14, fifth season)

3 Players to Watch – Northern Iowa: WR Isaiah Weston (33 receptions, 792 yards, 5 TDs), LT Trevor Penning (received first invitation to 2022 Senior Bowl), DL Jared Brinkman (67 tackles, 7 sacks); Eastern Washington: QB Eric Barriere (294 of 438, 4,257 yards, 40 TDs, 6 INTs; 224 rushing yards, 3 TDs), RB Dennis Merritt (168 carries, 812 yards, 14 TDs; 28 receptions, 339 yards, 3 TDs), LB Ty Graham (94 tackles, 8 TFL, 3 sacks)

3 Key Factors – 1. Eastern Washington is 9-0 when Barriere is above 250 passing yards and 0-2 when he’s below that mark. UNI is 0-3 when allowing more than 250 passing yards. 2. Third downs are pivotal. The host Eagles have converted 51.3 percent of attempts into first downs, ranking third out of 128 FCS teams. UNI is the eighth-best in defending third downs, with opponents converting at a 29.2 percent clip. 3. UNI is 6-0 when leading after the third quarter, but has lost all five times when trailing or tied during the fourth quarter.

Up Next – The winner will play at No. 6 seed Montana in the second round on Dec. 3.

Prediction – Eastern Washington 31, Northern Iowa 28

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Southern Illinois (7-4, 5-3 MVFC) at South Dakota (7-4, 5-3 MVFC)

Kickoff – 6 p.m. at DakotaDome in Vermillion, South Dakota (ESPN+)

Series – Tied 3-3

Coaches – Southern Illinois: Nick Hill (30-36, six seasons); South Dakota: Bob Nielson (29-33, six seasons; 215-113-1 overall)

3 Players to Watch – Southern Illinois: QB Nic Baker (221 of 358, 2,816 yards, 25 TDs, 11 INTs), WR Landon Lenoir (56 receptions, 830 yards, 9 TDs), SS Qua Brown (72 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FR); South Dakota: QB Carson Camp (161 of 245, 2,050 yards, 17 TDs), DE/LB Jacob Matthew (61 tackles, 6 sacks, 5 passes defended), LB Jack Cochrane (92 tackles, 9 TFL, 4 INTs, 6 pass breakups)

3 Key Factors – 1. SIU has averaged 273 rushing yards in its last two games and can go with the hot hand (or foot) at running back between Javon Williams Jr., Justin Strong, Romeir Elliott and Donnavan Spencer. 2. The Coyotes figure to control game clock behind its offensive split of 63.4 percent rushing plays to 37.6 percent passing. 3. It’s a punters duel: SIU’s Jack Colquhoun (44.9-yard average, 17 of 41 inside 20-yard line) vs. USD’s Brady Schutt (43.9, 25 of 54). Both teams are top 10 in the FCS in net punting.

Up Next – The winner will play at No. 2 seed North Dakota State (10-1) in the second round on Dec. 4.

Prediction – Southern Illinois 31, South Dakota 28

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Florida A&M (9-2, 7-1 SWAC) at Southeastern Louisiana (8-3, 6-2 Southland)

Kickoff – 7 p.m. at Strawberry Stadium in Hammond, Louisiana (ESPN+)

Series – First meeting

Coaches – Florida A&M: Willie Simmons (24-9, three seasons; 45-20 overall); Southeastern Louisiana: Frank Scelfo (24-18, four season)

3 Players to Watch – Florida A&M: QB Rasean McKay (193 of 324, 2,219 yards, 20 TDs, 4 INTs), LB Isaiah Land (43 tackles, 25.5 TFL, 19 sacks), S Markquese Bell (79 tackles, 4 forced fumbles); Southeastern Louisiana: QB Cole Kelley (339 of 457, 4,382 yards, 38 TDs, 6 INTs; 442 rushing yards, 16 TDs), WR Austin Mitchell (66 receptions, 1,035 yards, 9 TDs; 199 rushing yards), CB Zy Alexander (36 tackles, 6 INTs, 6 pass breakups)

3 Key Factors – 1. It’s offense vs. defense. Southeastern ranks first among 128 FCS teams in offensive yards per game (567) and points per game (48). FAMU, making its first postseason appearance since 1999, is allowing only 257.5 ypg (fifth) and 15.1 ppg (tied for eighth). 2. Kelley, the Walter Payton Award recipient after the spring season, has passed for two or more TDs in 15 straight games. The visiting Rattlers have allowed only eight scores through the air this season. 3. The rushing duo of Bishop Bonnett (934 yards) and Terrell Jennings (516) has helped FAMU to a nearly 33-minute average in time of possession. The Rattlers seek to control game clock and keep Kelley off the field.

Up Next – The winner will play at No. 3 seed James Madison (10-1) in the second round on Dec. 4.

Prediction – Southeastern Louisiana 31, Florida A&M 24

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