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In the FCS Huddle: Second-Round Playoff Preview

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Updated: 12/05/2013 7:13 am

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The schedule of a college football season is built in a unique way.

With so many teams across the nation, and too many in some conferences for all to play each other even once, it's highly unlikely teams will meet twice in a season.

There are some exceptions, however. Just ask newly added FCS teams Incarnate Word and Abilene Christian. They played each other on Oct. 19 at Abilene, then met again on Nov. 9 in San Antonio. As they transitioned up from lower divisions, scheduling became a bit complex. So, to sure up some space, they scheduled a second game.

Here we are in Week 15 of the FCS season (also known as the second round of the playoffs), and three teams will have an opportunity to seek revenge by facing a familiar foe on Saturday.

Did the NCAA playoff selection committee see an opportunity to have rivals meet up in the second round to draw added attention? Probably, but that may only be part of the reason the schedule turned out the way it did.

Geographically, it helps save on travel costs for teams like Maine and New Hampshire. The Wildcats will take a three-hour bus ride to the Maine campus up in Orono instead of flying across the country. Makes sense, right?

To be playing a natural rival in the postseason only benefits the intensity of that rivalry. But how about the teams themselves that are meeting for the second time this season? Does it impact a game plan to know a team has already seen what the other builds its system on?

"There's two sides of that," Eastern Illinois coach Dino Babers said. "If they're going to play us the exact same way, then no. If they're going to make changes based off of what happened the first time around, you can't adjust to those changes, you have to wait till the game starts to see if they are going to do something different. You need to make great game-time adjustments as a staff and as a football team."

Eastern Illinois will face fellow Ohio Valley Conference member Tennessee State in the second round, and for the second time this season. The two squads clashed on Oct. 26 in Nashville - a game the Panthers won, 34-16. Now the Tigers travel to Charleston, Ill., to take on the No. 2-seeded team in the playoffs.

The Tigers finished second in the conference standings behind the Panthers, and is one of two OVC teams to have won in the first round last weekend (Jacksonville State was the other).

Of course, for the Tigers, the game plan defensively will look something like this: get to Jimmy Garoppolo and don't lose sight of his receivers.

"Jimmy Garoppolo is the difference," Tennessee State coach Rod Reed said. "This kid can find receivers anywhere on the field, and he's always got his eyes downfield looking to make the big play. So we've got to stay in tighter on coverage when they run their routes."

The Tigers will try to be the first team this season that can slow the Walter Payton Award finalist. Maybe the second time playing the Panthers is the charm.

The last time New Hampshire faced a team twice in a season was back in 2009. The Wildcats beat Villanova at home, which coincidentally was the only time Villanova lost a game that year. 'Nova went on to crush New Hampshire, 46-7, in the playoffs in Philadelphia on its way to a national championship.

The comparisons to this game against Maine are a bit similar. New Hampshire was the only FCS team to beat the Black Bears during the regular season (at home), and now must travel to Maine for a second go-around.

"I don't have a whole lot of success in playing teams twice," New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell said. "The biggest thing is you've got to evaluate how they attack you, how they defend you, how they'll do with special teams, and you've got to take a look at it just as you did leading up to Maine. You only had one week getting ready for them then, and again you've only got one week getting ready for them now.

"(We'll) take a look at everything and try to put it all together, but I'm sure Jack (Cosgrove) is going to change a little bit, and I'm sure their kids are going to be ready for this one. Not that they weren't ready for the first one, but they'll be ready."

Sam Houston State will try to avenge an earlier loss to Southland Conference champion Southeastern Louisiana this weekend, representing the third and final contest Saturday between teams that have played each other already this season.

The Lions beat the Bearkats, 34-21, at home in Hammond, and must do it for a second time. The only problem is Sam Houston State knows how to win in the postseason, having been to back-to-back national championship games.

Southeastern Louisiana, on the other hand, has no playoff experience. Perhaps facing the Bearkats in the first playoff game at Stawberry Stadium will prove too much for the Lions, though they held their own just three weeks ago.

Having the opportunity for revenge is a rare thing in the college football world. But once in a while, the stars align just right.

For three teams this weekend, revenge is in the playoff game plan.

The following is a game-by-game breakdown for the FCS playoff second round and the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game (all times ET):

No. 9 Fordham (12-1) at No. 5 Towson (10-2)

Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET

What to know: We'll call this the bottom half of the FCS playoff bracket, with Towson, Fordham, Eastern Washington and Eastern Illinois set to (potentially) meet before or at the national semifinals. Please don't take that the wrong way, it's just a geographical assignment for the purpose of clarity.

The "bottom half" of the bracket is loaded with offensive talent, and we get to see a perfect example of that statement in physical form as Fordham travels to face CAA at-large bid recipient Towson Saturday. Two solid Walter Payton Award candidates meet up in this matchup in Michael Nebrich and Terrance West.

Nebrich led Fordham over Sacred Heart, 37-27, in the first round last Saturday with 413 passing yards, three touchdowns and a rushing score. He and backfield mate Carlton Koonce hooked up for a 3-yard touchdown connection near the end of the second quarter to help down the Pioneers. Nebrich's 413 was one passing yard shy of Sacred Heart's 414 total offensive yardage.

Although Sacred Heart had an exceptional season, Fordham was a pretty daunting task for a Northeast Conference program to handle, especially in the first round. And as we continue to move forward through the year, it seems more and more likely that Nebrich is the common denominator to Fordham's success (the only loss the Rams suffered during the season was when Nebrich sat out due to an ankle injury).

Thankfully for Fordham, he will be playing yet again. And he'll be needed, because West and the rest of Towson's offense has only been contained once this season (15 points in a win over William & Mary) and outdueled twice (losses to Villanova and Delaware).

West has been a monster this season, recording 31 total touchdowns (30 rushing) and 1,875 rushing yards, which led all FCS players in the regular season. He was surpassed by South Dakota State's Zach Zenner for most rushing yards in the nation last weekend.

It seems likely that, with just 125 more yards to go before he hits the 2,000- yard mark for the season, he'll be able to obtain that feat this weekend, especially considering the Rams let Sacred Heart's Keshaudas Spence run loose for 194 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

The first game of the second round should be an exciting one, increasingly so if you're a fan of plenty of offense.

Prediction: Towson 38, Fordham 31

No. 19 Tennessee State (10-3) at No. 2 Eastern Illinois (11-1)

Kickoff: 2 p.m. ET

What to know: Tennessee State knows exactly what it feels like to be blanked.

The Tigers were shut out by Eastern Kentucky to start the month of November, 44-0. In three games since that loss, Tennessee State has given up a combined total of 16 points and scored 79 in that span. That includes last weekend's 31-0 shutout of Pioneer Football League playoff representative Butler in Indiana. No disrespect to Butler, but the Bulldogs offense was no match for Tennessee State's defense.

What a turnaround for the Tigers, now having to take on the nation's most potent offense in Charleston, Ill. Panthers senior quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo leads the nation in passing touchdowns (48), passing yards (4,489), passing yards per game (374.1) and points responsible for (308), has completed 65 percent of his passes and has only thrown eight interceptions in 492 pass attempts. And ... inhale.

This matchup can be intriguing on so many levels, though. Tennessee State's defense is ranked fourth in the nation in scoring, as the Tigers hold their opponents to an average of 15.5 points per game. They're also fourth in the FCS in passes intercepted with 20, helped by junior defensive back Daniel Fitzpatrick's nation-leading eight interceptions.

What makes it even more exciting is the conference rivalry. These two Ohio Valley Conference teams finished one-two in the regular-season standings.

They met head-to-head back on Oct. 26, and the outcome is one Tennessee State would ideally like to forget. The Panthers, in Nashville, won easily, 34-16. And that included a Tigers garbage-time touchdown. Garoppolo had 410 passing yards and four touchdowns in that contest, with one interception.

Eastern Illinois hasn't lose a game to an FCS opponent this season, and at home, the Panthers should be able to pick apart the Tigers for a second time this season.

For those concerned about injury status - Erik Lora (missed the final game of the regular season) is healthy and will play Saturday. So will running back Taylor Duncan (missed two games) and receiver Keiondre Gober (missed final three games).

Prediction: Eastern Illinois 38, Tennessee State 25

Southern (8-4) vs. Jackson State (8-3) - SWAC Championship

Kickoff: 2 p.m. ET at Houston's Reliant Stadium

What to know: Take it how you will, but perhaps Southern squeezing in a game just a week before the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship contest was a good move.

The Jaguars routed reeling Grambling State, 40-17, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, led by senior quarterback Dray Joseph, freshman running back Lenard Tillery and senior receiver Lee Doss. So instead of being idle for two to three weeks running through the motions and watching plenty of game film (which the team probably did anyway), Southern got to be in a game situation to keep the players' legs and bodies fresh.

Joseph completed 15-of-26 pass attempts for 226 yards and three touchdowns with an interception, while Tillery carried the ball 19 times for 104 yards and a first-quarter score. Doss caught six passes for 117 yards and all three of Joseph's passing scores.

Jackson State wrapped up the regular season with its first SWAC loss to Alcorn State, but the team already had its championship ticket punched by that point.

Southern and Jackson State met in the regular season, with the Tigers emerging victories by a 19-14 margin. Rakeem Sims and Clayton Moore each had a rushing touchdown in the contest, and sophomore place kicker Ryan Deising booted a pair of field goals to aid the win.

Joseph is currently 11th in the FCS in passing yards with 3,236. Jackson State does present challenges defensively, but the Tigers gave up 33 points earlier this season to Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 38 to Prairie View A&M, and 48 in the loss to Alcorn State.

Southern has won its last four games, and could easily get on a roll offensively to put the Tigers in the rearview mirror. One thing's for sure - after playing back-to-back weeks in the NFL's Superdome and Reliant Stadium, the Jaguars may from now on be accustomed to a higher standard of "living."

Prediction: Southern 27, Jackson State 21

No. 15 New Hampshire (8-4) at No. 10 Maine (10-2)

Kickoff: 2 p.m. ET

What to know: Here we go again. Round 2 of the border battle resumes in Maine just two weeks after these squads met in New Hampshire.

In the final week of the regular season, New Hampshire handed the Black Bears their first loss of the season to an FCS team, 24-3 in Durham. The contest didn't feature anything that Maine had built its season around, which included a strong passing game and the ability to force the opposition into making mistakes and creating turnovers.

The Wildcats didn't turn the ball over to Maine once, while Black Bears quarterback Marcus Wasilewski completed 27-of-43 pass attempts for 220 yards and an interception. And in the fourth quarter, New Hampshire running back Nico Steriti made Maine's defense look like one giant sieve as he dashed for a 68-yard score.

You can be sure two weeks was plenty of time for the Maine coaching staff and players to consider that loss and make adjustments, though. Steriti will be a player the Bears will likely try to contain, as well as junior receiver R.J. Harris.

Save for a 60-yard Rickey Stevens run in Week 13, the Maine running game was stagnant. Against a New Hampshire defense averaging 163.3 rushing yards per game to opponents, including over four yards per rush, Maine will want to get the ground attack more involved. Take away Stevens' 60-yard rush in the first meeting, and the Bears accumulated just 35 yards on the ground.

Both Maine and New Hampshire have won seven of their last eight games, so both teams are hot. Yet it's the Wildcats with the most momentum after a first- round playoff win over Lafayette.

The home crowd in Orono should be fired up for Maine's first home playoff game ever, but the New Hampshire fans, just a three-hour drive from the Maine campus, will travel well. One thing's certain: this rivalry will be taken to a whole new level in the playoffs.

Prediction: New Hampshire 27, Maine 23

No. 11 Coastal Carolina (11-2) at No. 4 Montana (10-2)

Kickoff: 2 p.m. ET

What to know: After two straight years of losing to Coastal Carolina in the first round of the postseason, you think Bethune-Cookman has had enough of the Chanticleers?

In 2012, Coastal Carolina advanced past Bethune-Cookman to face Old Dominion. And, as we know from our astute ability that is hindsight, things didn't go so well in that second-round matchup for the Chants.

This year they take on Montana, a team that earned a first-round bye after a 10-2 season which included a defeat of rival Montana State two weeks ago. This game will mark a first for the Chanticleers and Grizzlies, as these two teams have never met on the field before. Coastal Carolina, for that matter, has never faced a team from the Big Sky Conference in its program history.

To really hammer this point home, here's a fun fact: Coastal Carolina is traveling 2,492 miles to Washington-Grizzly Stadium to face Montana this weekend. The previous longest distance the Chanticleers traveled for a football game was 724 miles to Toledo. The team has never left the Eastern Time Zone for a football game. Ever.

And to top it off, the weather forecast on Saturday in Missoula calls for a high of 11 degrees. South Carolina, meet Montana.

The game itself features two strong offenses with unique weapons. Coastal Carolina running back Lorenzo Taliaferro won't burn the Montana defense with his speed, but can certainly put a hurt on players with his power. And quarterback Alex Ross was sensational against B-CU, throwing for four touchdowns. But the dynamic Grizzlies offense led by Jordan Johnson featuring skill position players like Jordan Canada, Travon Van and Ellis Henderson can be just as deadly.

Montana's defensive unit, which ranked third in the Big Sky in run defense, will be hard at work containing Taliaferro and the Chants. Remember, that Grizzlies run defense held Montana State to 112 total rush yards and one offensive touchdown.

After last season's playoff absence, be assured the Grizzly faithful will be out in full playoff force this weekend.

Prediction: Montana 34, Coastal Carolina 24

Furman (8-5) at No. 1 North Dakota State (11-0)

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET

What to know: The Bison cruised right through the regular season, and many wondered if there was, or even still is, a chance for any team to stop this squad from a third straight national title.

The possibility is always there in the postseason, although looking at the bracket, it seems a potential North Dakota State-Montana quarterfinals matchup might provide the biggest scare for the Bison on their way to at least the semifinals. But that's getting ahead of ourselves.

North Dakota State will host the Southern Conference champion Furman this weekend. The Paladins took down South Carolina State of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference last weekend, 30-20, behind Jairus Hollman's heroics. The sophomore cornerback returned a punt 90 yards for a score in the first quarter, then notched an interception return for a touchdown later in the third.

Furman, a team that finished 7-5 overall in the regular season, didn't overwhelm any of its opponents this year, and is a team that averages 23.9 points per game - good for 74th in the country. But the Paladins have won five in a row, and three of those five wins were road games. Fargo is never an easy place to play, but at least Furman won't be culture-shocked.

The Bison are still without linebacker Grant Olson, although the nation's best scoring defense (11.5 points per game) didn't take too much of a hit from Olson's absence, especially in the team's 42-0 blanking of South Dakota in the regular-season finale.

Quarterback Brock Jensen became the FCS' all-time leader in career wins with 44, and he'll look to improve on that total the rest of the way through the postseason. The senior finished the year with 2,070 passing yards, 26 touchdown passes and just six interceptions. His numbers weren't eye-popping, but the guy knows how to win.

With key wins this season against tough Missouri Valley opposition, it's hard to imagine the Bison being upset in this one. But, hey, crazier things have happened (just ask Nick Saban).

Prediction: North Dakota State 35, Furman 20

No. 13 South Dakota State (9-4) at No. 3 Eastern Washington (10-2)

Kickoff: 4 p.m. ET

What to know: Did anyone get scared when Eastern Washington was 2-2 after four weeks this season and on a two-game losing streak? Probably not, but the Eagles' schedule wasn't the most favorable, especially early on.

After a Sept. 28 loss to Sam Houston State - the Eagles' second loss in as many weeks - Eastern Washington turned on the burners. The Eagles have won eight straight and will look to make it nine against the Missouri Valley Conference's South Dakota State Jackrabbits, fresh off a win at another Big Sky Conference school, Northern Arizona.

Running back Zach Zenner led South Dakota State to victory last weekend, as the junior went for 249 yards and two touchdowns on the ground against a talented Northern Arizona defense. Playoffs included, Zenner leads the league in rushing with 1,944 yards. A preseason Top 10 team, the Jackrabbits have won five in a row, including the last three on the road.

Eastern Washington's defense isn't exactly known for its ability to keep opponents out of its end zone. In the month of November, the Eagles allowed four opponents to score a combined 126 points against them. Lucky for Eastern Washington, "Big Play VA" Vernon Adams and the offensive crew can surpass that total.

The Eagles have scored 186 points in that same time frame, and their production flows through Adams and out to a whole range of weapons. Since Adams garners most of the offensive attention (freshman receiver Cooper Kupp nabs the rest of that attention), it's easy to forget about players like running back Quincy Forte and receiver Ashton Clark.

Forte scored nine touchdowns in the team's final four weeks of the regular season, and is a dual-threat out of the backfield to run or pass catch. Clark is a versatile second receiver, as is Shaquille Hill. So the underrated Jackrabbits defense will have to be ready to cover a range of options.

The Jackrabbits will really need to utilize their plus-1.2 turnover margin on defense against Adams and Co. Ultimately, The Eastern Washington offense will be too much to handle.

Prediction: Eastern Washington 36, South Dakota State 27

No. 20 Jacksonville State (10-3) at No. 6 McNeese State (10-2)

Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET

What to know: This pair of 10-win teams should provide for a nice offensive explosion Saturday in Lake Charles, La., where the Cowboys are a dominant force.

The only loss McNeese State suffered at home this season was to Southland Conference champion Southeastern Louisiana, 41-7. But the Cowboys provided enough notable wins this season to not let that most recent loss to the Lions (Nov. 2) hurt their confidence.

McNeese State enters the playoffs ranked fourth in the nation and first in the Southland Conference in scoring (42.5 points per game). Although senior quarterback Cody Stroud is the focal point of this Cowboys offense, there are enough cogs in the machine to keep it running efficiently.

Running back Marcus Wiltz scored 11 rushing touchdowns this season, but the real playmaker is wide receiver Diontae Spencer. The tiny 5-foot-9, 161-pound senior is dynamite, which he proved in the regular-season finale against Lamar. Spencer caught a 50-yard scoring pass from Stroud in the third quarter of that game, then broke a 16-yard rushing score in the fourth. He also had three return touchdowns in a game against Stephen F. Austin.

Jacksonville State will have to limit the big-play potential of Spencer, but also will need a bit of playmaking from its star running back, DaMarcus James.

The junior tailback scored 19 touchdowns for the Gamecocks in the team's final eight regular-season contests, then added a pair of scores and 124 rushing yards last weekend against Southern Conference power Samford.

Jacksonville State is one of three Ohio Valley Conference schools remaining - the most of any conference left, tied with the CAA and Southland. Gamecocks quarterback Eli Jenkins gave the Samford defense fits in the first round, as the freshman compiled 115 yards through the air with a touchdown pass, and 115 rushing yards and a second score. As with Towson-Fordham and Eastern Washington-South Dakota State, expect this one to be an offensive showdown.

But whatever you do, do not bring your cowbells to the stadium. Or noise makers of any kind. Or storm the field after the game. McNeese State's athletic department is not Christopher Walken, and does not have a fever only cowbells can cure.

Prediction: McNeese State 38, Jacksonville State 29

No. 14 Sam Houston State (9-4) at No. 7 Southeastern Louisiana (10-2)

Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET

What to know: The final game of the day Saturday will be the third contest in which two conference opponents met in the second round. It will also be the third game Saturday that features a rematch of two teams that met during the regular season.

Southeastern Louisiana and Sam Houston State met three weeks ago in Hammond, La., where the Lions beat the Bearkats, 34-21, handing them their third loss of the season. Now one Southland Conference team will end the other's season.

If history was bound to repeat itself, this would be an easy prediction to make. But with a playoff-seasoned team like Sam Houston State going against a Lions team playing its first-ever postseason contest, the factors and variables become ever so intricate. Last weekend's Bearkats win over Southern Utah proved that.

The Bearkats played just four road games this season and lost every one of them, including the 13-point defeat by Southeastern. But against the Thunderbirds a week ago, Sam Houston State took its run game back up a notch, gaining 355 yards on the ground, which included 176 yards and two scores from Timothy Flanders. Keshawn Hill also went over the 100-yard mark and scored two touchdowns.

In a search for a third straight appearance in the national title game (hoping for a win this time), four-year starting quarterback Brian Bell completed 15- of-21 pass attempts Saturday for 176 yards and two touchdowns. Should Sam Houston State make it past SELU and the winner of Maine/New Hampshire, the top overall seed North Dakota State, whom the Bearkats have lost twice to in the championship game, could be waiting.

That's if quarterback Bryan Bennett and the rest of the Lions squad doesn't put an end the a possible Bearkats run first.

Bennett, who finished eighth in the Walter Payton Award voting, was fourth among FCS quarterbacks with 14 rushing touchdowns this season - a Southland Conference record. The Oregon transfer also completed 171-of-275 pass attempts this season for 2,610 yards and 18 touchdowns with nine interceptions.

In the previous meeting between these two teams, the Lions forced the Bearkats to commit three turnovers, and didn't allow Sam Houston to score a rushing touchdown. If the home Lions want to win again, the defense will have to focus on shutting down the run game as best it can.

Prediction: Southeastern Louisiana 31, Sam Houston State 28

Last Week's Record: 10-0 (1.00)

Season Record: 222-86 (.721)

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