Many of the perennial contenders are still in the title chase as the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs head into the quarterfinal round, but the playoffs have once again shown nothing is a given no matter what the name is on the front of the jersey.
Defending national champion Sam Houston, with all of its starters back, emerged from a first-round bye and needed a touchdown with 2:07 left and a fourth-down, goal-line stop on the penultimate play of regulation to pull out a 49-42 victory.
And the champs were facing a team that had never played in December.
“We've won five playoff games this year by a play, and that’s just the nature of the playoffs," coach K.C. Keeler said, referring to his team's run during the 2020 FCS postseason, which was played in the spring of this year due to the pandemic. “It speaks a lot to the resilience of our team, the character of our team, the fact that we don’t panic and our resolve.”
The top-seeded Bearkats (11-0) have won 22 in a row overall, including all 17 home playoff games in their history. Keeler, who also led Delaware to the national title in 2003, is 31-0 in his career in home playoff games.
“In the playoffs, it's win and survive. Win and advance,” Keeler said.
But rich history abounds among teams still playing. Six of the remaining playoff squads have won national titles, all but one of them within the last two decades. In addition to Sam Houston, the list includes James Madison, North Dakota State, Montana, Montana State and Villanova.
Montana State (10-2), which won it all in 1984, will next try to knock off Sam Houston.
Second-seeded North Dakota State had won eight of the last nine national championships heading into the 2020 postseason, losing in the final to James Madison in 2016. The Bison advanced Saturday with a 38-7 win over Southern Illinois and will face ETSU (11-1), which beat Kennesaw State 32-21. The Buccaneers have never won the championship.
The weekend kicks off with sixth-seeded Montana at No. 3 JMU on Friday night.
Both teams are rolling, coming off impressive offensive performances. The Dukes (11-1) got six scoring passes from Cole Johnson — and three one-play touchdown drives in the second quarter alone — en route to a 59-20 victory against Southeastern Louisiana.
Montana (10-2), making its record 25th playoff appearance, overcame 530 passing yards and five touchdown passes by Eastern Washington's Eric Barriere to beat the Eagles 57-41, JMU coach Curt Cignetti thought Montana's performance was something of an aberration.
“They're No. 2 in the country in scoring defense. I think they're first in the county in defensive touchdowns,” Cignetti said. The Grizzlies dropped to eighth after the Eastern Washington game, but still allow just 15.3 points per game.
“This is a really good football team. I mean, they beat the Washington Huskies in the opener at Washington," Cignetti said, recalling a 13-7 victory against the then-20th ranked Huskies. “They've been a good program for a long time.”
South Dakota State is the other team heading to the quarterfinal round never to win the championship. But while the Jackrabbits have been here before, they lost to Sam Houston in the 2020 FCS national championship game.
But South Dakota State (10-3) showed it belongs by knocking off fourth-seeded Sacramento State 24-19 on the road.
The Jackrabbits will now face fifth-seeded Villanova (10-2). The Wildcats are expected to be a tough out. Earlier this season Villanova rallied from an 11-point deficit to hand James Madison it's only loss, 28-27 on Oct. 9.
The quarterfinal matchups should be entertaining if they are anything like what the playoffs have been thus far.
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