By: Jamie Williams, FCS Fans Nation Contributor
The meat of every team’s schedule resides within their own conference. That’s where the games get critical and attrition takes place. But before you work through the conference schedule, there are a number of great non-conference games that shape the FCS landscape before the playoffs start just after Thanksgiving. Winning or losing a big non-conference game could mean the difference between a seed and playing the first week of the playoffs; or even worse, between making and missing the playoffs all together.
To follow will be 10 non-conference games that interest me the most in 2018. There are 6 FCS vs. FCS matchups and 4 FCS vs. FBS matchup that I have identified. These matchups span the entire FCS landscape, from the CAA to the Big Sky. When I look through the schedule, these are the 10 that will make me sit down, get my popcorn ready, and watch.
North Carolina A&T vs. Jacksonville ST (Montgomery, AL) 8/25
The FCS season kicks off in earnest on Saturday August 25th with the FCS Kickoff Classic. This game will be a great test for both teams. North Carolina A&T went through the 2017 season unbeaten. Meanwhile Jacksonville State won every FCS regular season game on their schedule before falling to Kennesaw State in the FCS playoffs. There is no question that John Grass is one of the top coaches in the FCS. I wont be surprised if he is poached by and FBS school in the near future. Grass will undoubtedly have his team focused on stopping Lamar Raynard, the reigning MEAC player of the year. It will be interesting to see who winds up starting at QB for Jacksonville State. Whoever it is wont have Roc Thomas to rely on in the backfield as he plies his trade in the NFL. A win in this game for NC A&T will legitimize them as a top 10 threat in the FCS landscape; and a win for Jacksonville State would set them on a path toward another FCS playoff seed.
James Madison @ FBS North Carolina State 9/1
Hey, I am a JMU alum, of course they have to make the list! The Dukes travel to North Carolina for the third straight year to battle an FCS foe. In 2016, JMU hung with North Carolina for a half before Mitchell Trubisky pulled UNC away for a 56-28 win. Last year the Dukes easily handled East Carolina behind 265 yards on the ground from Cardon Johnson. This year’s NC State team is more like the UNC team from 2016 than the 2017 ECU team. The Dukes are going to have to be perfect to have a shot to win this game. Their depth in both the offensive and defensive backfield should allow the Dukes to stay close. But can they stop Ryan Finley for 60 minutes? I am not sure, but I am hoping for the upset. A win here will remind the entire FCS that the JMU is going nowhere in the national landscape.
Northern Iowa @ Montana 9/1
Are the Grizzlies back in the national landscape with the return of Bobby Hauck on the sidelines? They will get an early test when Northern Iowa comes to town. The FCS as a whole is better when Montana is good. And they have one of the coolest traditions in the FCS – the #37. If you don’t know what that is take a look at Hero Sports Sam Herder’s article on the best FCS traditions. Washington-Grizzly stadium is an intimidating place for a visiting team to play. Luckily for Northern Iowa they return 9 starters on offense, so they shouldn’t be intimidated. Eli Dunne may not be Kurt Warner, but he is a solid quarterback who should be able to help the Panthers put points on the board. This game is a toss up to me, and could determine who wins the Big Sky/Missouri Valley matchup.
Montana State @ South Dakota State 9/8
There is no question the Bobcats had a down year last year. But if you ask their fans, they are probably ok with the outcome because they did beat Montana in the last game of the year. These two teams matched up in Bozeman with the Jackrabbits picking up a 31-27 win. This year the game moves to Brookings. The Jackrabbits lose the two best receivers to graduation, Dallas Goedert and Jake Wieneke. Quarterback Taryn Christion is back for his senior season and I am sure he is anxious to prove he is still a top quarterback in the FCS. The last time we saw him in game action he was struggling through a 10 turnover day at James Madison. Montana State has confident defensive backs so it will be a great matchup. This game should be tight like last year’s. Who will get off on the right foot?
Nicholls State @ FBS Tulane 9/8
Nicholls is one of those under the radar teams I really like this year. They made the playoffs last year and were a whisker away from beating Chris Streveler and South Dakota. They may have the most difficult opening 4 games of any team in the country this season with 2 FBS opponents and two strong conference opponents. They best shot at taking down an FBS team may be the game against in state foe Tulane. Chase Fourcade is going to have to take another step forward for the Colonels to make noise against Tulane. Fourcade will need to use the balanced running game they showed last year and be a bit more accurate in the passing game. Nicholls also possesses a defense that spends a lot of time in the other team’s backfield. That should serve them well. There is no reason to think this game won’t be within a score in the fourth quarter.
San Diego @ Harvard 9/15
This matchup intrigues me because both of these teams are good year after year, but they rarely get any national coverage. San Diego routinely dominates the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League, having won the last 4 conference titles, three of them outright. The last two years the Toreros have humbled Big Sky opponents before bowing out to North Dakota State. Harvard is always near the top of the recruiting rankings, for whatever that is worth. The Crimson had a down year in 2017 going 5-5 but had been one of the top Ivy League teams in the previous years, including an undefeated 10-0 season in 2014. San Diego will be travelling across the country for a noon eastern start as Harvard’s season opening opponent. We will see quickly if Harvard has found a way to bounce back from a tough 2017. I think we will see a strong effort from San Diego. Hopefully the jetlag doesn’t get the best of them.
Eastern Washington @ FBS Washington State 9/15
Washington State won’t come into this game overconfident. They know what Eastern Washington is capable of. The Eagles feel like they were snubbed from a playoff berth in 2017 and will be looking to leave no doubt in 2018. With a healthy roster and coach Aaron Best in his second year at the helm, I think the Eagles will be ready to give the Cougars all they can handle. Gage Gubrud has to be considered a top candidate for the Walter Payton Award as the top player in FCS this year. We know Eastern Washington will have a strong offense, but the key, especially in this game is if the defense can hold up. The last time these two teams met in Pullman, the Eagles won 45-42. I would imagine for them to back up that upset, the game will take a similar tone. I will not count out EWU out by any means, but I do not know if they have the horsepower to stay with the Cougars this time.
New Hampshire @ FBS Colorado 9/15
I am extremely high on New Hampshire this year. They have a very young defense that got a lot of experience in 2017 and improved game after game as the year wore on. I anticipate the Wildcats defense will come out firing from the start of the season. The UNH offense could again be one of the best in the country. They may have the best QB/WR in the country, although Jake Meier and Keelan Doss of UC Davis will have plenty to say about that. I am really interested to see the UNH offense against a Pac 12 team. Colorado will be coming off of a rivalry game against Nebraska and could be ripe for an upset. Win or lose, if UNH hangs with the Buffaloes they will show that they will be a team to be heard from all season long.
North Dakota @ Sam Houston State 9/15
This game is interesting to me as it features one team trying to bounce back from a miserable, injury filled season going against a team who will be trotting out a new quarterback after having one of the most prolific passers in FCS history. North Dakota started the season in the top 10. But it seemed like every week another important player went down. The Fighting Hawks wound up 3-8 and are hoping that 2018 brings better fortunes. Sam Houston State will be working with a new quarterback this year after Jeremiah Briscoe threw for over 11000 yards and 116 touchdowns in his Bearkat career. Luckily for whoever plays quarterback, he will have Davion Davis and Nathan Stewart to throw the ball two. Both of those guys are prolific receivers. The Bearkats are perennially one of the best offenses in the country but the defense always seems to lag behind. I still think their offense is good enough to make up for the defensive deficiencies. I think the Bearkats win this one, but the matchup is worth keeping an eye on.
Delaware @ North Dakota State 9/22
The defending champs will get a CAA test in the regular season this year when Delaware comes to town for homecoming. I think Delaware has a chance to be a really good team, especially on defense. I don’t think they have the quarterback play to take them deep into the playoffs, but I think they will be a strong team and tough out. Their defense in very strong despite losing Bilal Nichols to the NFL and will be led by one of the best linebackers in the country in Troy Reeder. It will be interesting to see how the Blue Hen offense evolves. One major change is Joe Walker moving from quarterback to wide receiver. The Blue Hens will be looking to take advantage of Walker’s athletic ability on the outside. But going into the Fargodome is no picnic for any team, anytime. Delaware is going to have their hands full with the #1 team in the country. The Bison boast one of the best defenses in the country let by Jabril Cox and match that with a very efficient offense led by Easton Stick. The Bison have a good problem to deal with at running back as well: which stud back to hand the ball to – Bruce Anderson or Lance Dunn. This game is going to be an intriguing one to watch but I think the Bison will prove to be too strong for the Blue Hens to keep up with.
All of these games take place in the first month of the season. When we get to mid-November, we may be looking back at some of these games as to why a team makes or misses the playoffs; or why one team is the 8 seed and another team plays in the first round.
Jamie Williams’ preseason top 10:
North Dakota State
South Dakota State
Sam Houston State