Nov. 21—SIOUX FALLS — It goes without saying that South Dakota State is the overwhelming favorite to repeat as FCS national champions.
The Jackrabbits are the only undefeated team in the 24-team playoff, they've won 25 games in a row, eight of their 11 wins this year have been against ranked opponents, and they have home field advantage throughout the playoffs. On top of that, they received a favorable draw in the playoffs, with almost all of the FCS's top challengers on the opposite side of the bracket from SDSU.
But as dominant as the Jacks have been this year, nothing in sports is ever for sure. There have been far greater upsets than someone knocking off South Dakota State would be.
So with that in mind, let's look at which teams might actually have a legit shot of dethroning the Jackrabbits.
Gardner-Webb, Mercer, Youngstown State, North Dakota, Sacramento State, Furman
The Jacks open the tournament when they host the winner of Mercer and Gardner-Webb on Dec. 2. Whoever ends up making the trip will need a miracle. It's not happening. Youngstown State reaching the quarterfinals and earning a trip to Brookings isn't out of the question, and Valley rematches can always be tricky. But the Jacks pounded the Penguins 34-0 in Ohio, and SDSU's players also didn't take kindly to YSU's quarterback calling them 'nothing special' in his postgame press conference comments. The Jacks would most likely pound them again.
North Dakota or Sacramento State would have to get all the way to Frisco to face the Jacks, but weird things tend to happen on the bracket side opposite the top seed. If the Fighting Hawks or Hornets somehow made it out, they'd probably be too gassed to keep up with SDSU.
Furman was the No. 2 team in the nation a week ago but had few true believers. They confirmed that skepticism by losing to 1-9 Wofford in the season finale. Still a good team, but it's almost impossible to see them getting past Montana and Montana State, NDSU, USD, UND or whoever they'd face in the semis. If they somehow did emerge from that gauntlet, SDSU would be waiting.
Villanova, Albany, Southern Illinois, South Dakota, North Dakota State
SDSU beat Villanova 35-21 in Philadelphia in that memorable (and, in hindsight, extremely fun) road warrior playoff run in 2021, and they also beat the Wildcats 10-7 in Brookings in a second-round game in 2016. Give Villanova credit, they're one of the most consistently good teams in the FCS. But they haven't been great in awhile. That '21 team was one of their best, and SDSU pushed them around. This year's 9-2 team got beat 31-10 by Albany but has since won six in a row, including an impressive 35-7 rout of No. 7 Delaware last week.
Albany is in the playoffs for just the second time in the last 10 years. They won the CAA and hammered Villanova, but that was really their only impressive win. The Great Danes (9-3) played a Week 0 game so they've got 12 under their belt. You can see a path to the semis for Albany, but the Jacks would be the best team they've seen this year — yes, including their two FBS losses (Marshall and Hawaii).
Southern Illinois (7-4) gave SDSU's its closest game in conference play, a 17-10 loss. It wasn't as close as that score really makes it sound. Still, they stayed with the Jacks. They've given them good games in the past. It's unlikely they make it to the semis, but if they do, SDSU will respect them and prepare accordingly.
NDSU and USD are the Jacks' primary rivals. The Coyotes are in the midst of their best season ever, the Bison one of their worst (relatively speaking) at the D1 level.
NDSU got a gift by hosting non-scholarship Drake on Saturday, but that sends them to Bozeman to take on 6th-seeded Montana State for a rematch of the 2021 national championship. The Bison won that game handily, but they're not the same team they were then. They can absolutely win that game, but they'd still have to get through, most likely, USD and Montana. That's a lot. How much would they have left in the tank by Frisco?
As for the Coyotes, they'll also have to get past either Montana State or NDSU (assuming they beat the winner of UND/Sac State), then a likely trip to Missoula to take on the Griz. The Coyotes were not competitive when they got the Jacks on their home field last month. An all-South Dakota championship would be amazing, but the Jacks would have every advantage if it happened.
Montana, Montana State, Idaho
It's funny how former Jacks offensive coordinator Jason Eck's Idaho Vandals team mirrors some of the ones he coached at SDSU.
There's no question Idaho is one of the top teams in the FCS this year. They could have threatened SDSU for the No. 1 seed this year, as they routed an FBS team (Nevada) and lost competitively to another (Cal).
But like so many of those SDSU teams before, the Vandals dropped key games that could've made a huge difference. They should've beaten Montana in the Kibbie Dome, but mistakes led to a 23-21 loss. And two weeks ago they dropped one on the road to Weber State, the exact kind of loss that drops a team from a top-two seed to a four or five (sound familiar, Jacks fans?).
The Vandals were frankly lucky to get the four, and that means they'd be home until a trip to Brookings. And hoo boy, would there be some intrigue there, with Eck returning to the place where he had a major role in getting the Jacks where they are today. The Jacks' dominant offensive line is one of the driving forces in their ascension, and Eck built it. It's been no surprise to see him quickly turn Idaho into a contender.
They'd be a big underdog in Brookings, but certainly his familiarity with SDSU's players and coaches would help him, though that certainly goes both ways. It was Eck vs Jimmy Rogers in practice and spring games when they were John Stiegelmeier's coordinators. To see them face off as head coaches would make for one of the most memorable games in Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium history.
The two-year streak of SDSU and Montana State facing off in the semifinals will end this year, as the sort-of-rivals can only meet in Frisco. If that happens it means the Bobcats really got their you-know-what together. They were smashed by Montana in the Brawl of the Wild last week, their second loss in their last four. Their other loss, of course, came to SDSU, 20-16, back in September, a game the Bobcats could have, and probably feel like they should have won.
MSU's chances of getting to Frisco seem slim; they'll have to beat NDSU, then probably win indoors at USD, then go back to Missoula and beat the Griz. If they do, they'd be coming to Frisco with tremendous confidence and momentum. A very real threat to the Jacks' efforts to repeat.
Montana has had a strange year. Coming off a 5-loss season that saw them get routed by NDSU in the playoffs, the Griz opened the season with an ordinary 35-20 win over Butler and two weeks later had to fight off Division II Ferris State at home (a 17-10 win). A 28-14 loss to Northern Arizona (a 5-6 team this year) followed and it seemed safe to say that, despite a 3-1 record at the time, Montana wasn't very good.
They're 7-0 since, with some big, big wins in there, most notably a 23-21 win at Idaho, a 34-7 rout of Sac State and last week's 37-7 party in the Brawl of the Wild. The Grizzlies are playing their best football of the year and playing as well as anyone in the country. Whatever caused their slow start, they appear to have fixed it.
Coach Bobby Hauck led the Griz to three national championship games (all losses) in his first stint in Missoula (2003-2009), and since returning in 2018 he's now led them to four straight playoff berths. He seems to be back in the swing of things, so to speak, and his team is building confidence each week.
The Grizzlies have a relatively soft quadrant to start, but they'll get a test in the semis from either NDSU, USD or a rematch with Montana State. They're the clear favorite to emerge from their side of the bracket, and if they do, a Griz-Jacks national championship game would be tremendous. If SDSU somehow slips on the way there, Montana would be a huge favorite to beat whoever made it to Frisco instead.