FCS Playoffs Part 1: Traditional Powers Face Up-And-Comers

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Old Dominion, James Madison, Central Arkansas and Stony Brook survived the second annual “First Round” of the NCAA Championship Subdivision Playoffs. Of course for those unfamiliar with the former Division I-AA, in 2010 the NCAA expanded the long-time 16-team field to 20. Old Dominion and Central Arkansas rolled over MEAC automatic entrant Norfolk STate and OVC champion Tennessee Tech, respectively. Stony Brook and James Madison both needed field goals to best their opening round foes though, outlasting Albany and surprise at-large Eastern Kentucky.

With the preliminary weekend out of the way and the bracket pared down to 16, the tournament begins in earnest. Those teams that jockeyed for top seeding throughout an exciting and unpredictable season will be in action, beginning Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN3 with Georgia Southern hosting Old Dominion.

Aside from their navy blue threads and similar records — ODU is 10-2, GSU 9-2 — the programs couldn’t be any more different. GSU is supposed to be in the Playoffs what with its rich history. Akin to the program it’s in many ways patterned after, Alabama, Statesboro’s “Blue Tide” has tradition backing it.

The current incarnation of ODU’s program dates back all of three seasons; GSU’s goes back 30 with roots in the 1920s. After the program was resurrected in 1981, GaSo established the benchmark for I-AA greatness under the late Erk Russell. Like Nintendo, Hall & Oates and Hulkamania, and Georgia Southern football made a huge impact in the 1980s via three national championships. Current Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson continued the success into the 1990s, and Jeff Monken has rejuvenated GSU for a new decade and millennium.

Monken’s Eagles look an awful lot like the Russell and Johnson versions, from the uniforms to the triple option offense. Still in its infancy, Old Dominion football has no such tradition on which to fall back, aside from the astounding success under Bobby Wilder these intial three seasons. A win over one of the most historically significant and presently best FCS programs would do plenty to bolster the Monarchs’ rapidly expanding profile.

Player Match-Up To Watch: Old Dominion QB Taylor Heinicke & Georgia Southern NT Brent Russell

Senior and Mr. Do-Everything quarterback Thomas DeMarco went down with an injury midway through the season, seemingly sinking what then already felt like miniscule playoff aspirations. In stepped Heinicke though, and the true freshman captained the Monarch offense without it skipping a beat. The youngster’s faced high pressure situations, but nothing comparable to stepping into Allen E. Paulson Stadium for a postseason showdown with the Eagles’ tough 3-4 defense.

Buck Buchanan Award finalist Brent Russell comes off the line with ferocity, and will be the anchor as the Eagles try to force Heinicke into some freshman mistakes.

How Old Dominion Wins

Force turnovers

Turnovers come rarely in the Eagles’ option, but if ODU can find ways to create some as the Monarchs have all season, it stands a chance of pulling off upset. ODU has collected 26 turnovers total on the year, and GSU has coughed up 12 fumbles — that’s enough to rank the Eagles in the bottom-fourth nationally. While those fumbles are a byproduct of running so often, if ODU has the opportunity to cause a few more it will.

How Georgia Southern Wins

Deflate the Monarchs early

Georgia Southern runs the option with extreme efficiency, and thus can score points quickly. Think of it like Oregon’s ability to deluge opponents at the FBS level: GSU similarly uses quick bursts from a variety of weapons to score bunches of points, thus forcing opponents into futile catch-up efforts. Of the Eagles’ top four rushers — Robert Brown, Jerick McKinnon, Dominique Swope and J.J. Wilcox — none averages fewer than 6.4 yards per carry.

STONY BROOK vs. SAM HOUSTON STATE

Stony Brook’s fledgling program won the two biggest games of its existence in consecutive weeks: Nov. 19 over Big South foe Liberty to earn the conference’s championship and automatic playoff bid, then last weekend to topple Albany and advance. Both games were at home. This week, the Seawolves have the opportunity to extend this historic streak on the road — way on the road.

Stony Brook faces the only FCS unbeaten and overall No. 1 Sam Houston State nearly 1700 miles from its New York campus. Coincidentally, the Seawolves opened the season in Texas at UTEP, a game they lost in overtime.

Ironically playing the Big South, logging miles is nothing new for a program with just 12 years of Division I status to its credit. Neither is overcoming some pretty steep odds, as exemplified in this great New York Times piece from last week..

Player Match-Up To Watch

Stony Brook RBs Miguel Maysonet and Brock Jackolski & Sam Houston State RBs Tim Flander and Richard Sincere

Both Miguel Maysonet and Brock Jackolski easily surpassed 1000 yards rushing on the regular season. Both averages 6.6 yards per carry. One ensures defenses cannot key in on the other when Stony Brook comes out with its Power-I formation. The duo’s effectiveness was behind Stony Brook’s 33:14 time-of-possession advantage. Few teams in the FCS ranked better in that facet — it just so happens that SHSU was one of them (34:09).

Bearkat running backs Tim Flanders and Richard Sincere aren’t quite the same balanced attack of Maysonet and Jackolski. Flanders and Sincere are more of a thunder-and-lightning pairing, but the result is an equally effective, ball-controlling style.

How Stony Brook Wins

Win the ball control battle

It’s paramount for the Seawolves to keep SHSU drives as short as possible. The Bearkats have a superb ability to squeeze the life out of their opponents. It’s the same game Stony Brook plays, but in a perhaps more frustrating manner. With SHSU’s ability to take the air out of the ball, Stony Brook cannot waste any possessions.

How Sam Houston State Wins

Create passing situations

No FCS team is better against the rush than Sam Houston State. Though the Southland Conference featured no rushing offense ranked better than No. 61 nationally (save SHSU itself), the Bearkats’ 59 yards per game allowed is still damn impressive. SHSU may have the antidote to Stony Brook’s two-headed running monster, and if that’s the case it will force Kyle Essington into throwing situations. Essington isn’t turnover prone — just three interceptions all season to 18 touchdowns — but he’s below 59 percent on completions. Should the Bearkats get him into long throwing situations by keeping SB gains short on first and second downs, SHSU increases the likelihood of the high scoring Seawolves punting.

APPALACHIAN STATE vs. MAINE

Appalachian State won three national championships from 2005 through 2007, and has not missed a postseason since 2004. Jerry Moore and his Mountaineers’ presence in the postseason has become an expectation

Player Match-Up To Watch: Maine CB Trevor Coston & Appalachian State WR Brian Quick

Brian Quick is responsible for hauling in 11 of the 18 touchdown passes ASU quarterbacks have thrown all season. Altogether, he’s caught 64 passes for 1055 yards, proving he’s among the most dangerous receivers in the nation. Maine can counteract with an equally dangerous defensive back in Trevor Coston. His six inteceptions on the year rank Coston No. 5 overall among FCS players. As Quick goes, so goes the Mountaineer passing attack

How Maine Wins

Establish a run game

Turnovers can sink any ship, and Maine quarterback Warren Smith has thrown 10 interceptions to 17 touchdowns on the season. That’s because the Black Bears’ running game is inconsistent, forcing Smith to pass perhaps more than head coach Jack Cosgrove might like. The Black Bears have been at their best when running back Pashaun Brown gets going.

How Appalachian State Wins

Pressure the pass

As mentioned above, Smith can be prone to throwing picks and the ASU defense is among the best at forcing opposing quarterbacks into them. Demetrius McCray and Rodger Walker thrive off the pressure Ronald Blair and Jeremy Kimbrough provide off the blitz. Should the Mountaineers establish consistent pressure in the Black Bear backfield, trouble could ensue.

MONTANA vs. CENTRAL ARKANSAS

Whether this game were in Conway, Ark. or Missoula, Mont., first-time viewers of the FCS were in for a treat. It’s at the latter, and Grizzly Stadium is sure to be rocking with traditional powerhouse Montana back from an uncharateristic playoff layoff. If Grizzly Stadium isn’t the single best atmosphere in the FCS, it’s a close second to ASU’s Kidd Brewer. Were UCA hosting, the nation would get to experience the most unique field turf anywhere:

The purple-and-silver stripes help a UCA program that has been Division I less than five years stand out. Coincidentally, in 2010 UM head coach Robin Pflugrad joked to me that the Grizzlies would play on silver and maroon turf that “looks like a Diet Coke can” to counteract Big Sky rival Eastern Washington’s installation of bright red turf. Alas, in yet another clash of tradition-rich vs. playoff newcomer, the action will be on your garden variety green.

Player Match-Up To Watch: Central Arkansas QB Nathan Dick & The Montana Secondary

Trumaine Johnson is a Buck Buchanan Award finalist for a reason. He provides Velcro-like coverage (10 pass break-ups) that forces quarterbacks away from certain targets, a benefit to fellow defensive backs Mike McCord, Houston Roots and Matt Hermanson to pick off a combined nine passes. The Griz’s deep secondary held the three Montana State receivers who supplement No. 1 target Elvis Akpla to a combined seven receptions for 36 yards in UM’s Nov. 19 victory.

Nathan Dick, whose brother Casey played with Felix Jones and Darren McFadden at Arkansas, has had an outstanding season for the 9-3 Bears. He’s completed nearly 65 percent of his pass attempts and scored 30 touchdowns with just eight interceptions. Key to Dick’s success is his ability to spread the ball to multiple receivers. He must find ways to continue doing so against a very talented group of defenders.

How Central Arkansas Wins

Blitz effectively

Bear defenders have made 89 tackles for loss on the season — Montana has allowed 72. Limiting the Grizzlies on each possession will be critical for UCA to establish an early tone, and that means getting to Peter Nguyen and Jordan Canada in the backfield, before they rev up for big rushes.

How Montana Wins

Keep a cold weather crowd heated up

Montana fans are among the nation’s very best, regardless of subdivision. Grizzly Stadium is a daunting venue when the team’s faithful are at full force. By virtue of eliminating big plays and keeping the UCA offense off the field early, Grizzly Stadium will only get more and more raucous. Calling plays at the line becomes increasingly difficult, and the Griz feed off their fans.