With the playoffs just around the corner and all the cupcake games out of the way, now is the time we find out which teams are for real and which teams are just playing around. This past weekend was gut-check time for eight FCS opponents, as they went head to head with not just playoff implications on the line but also with potential National Championship hopes hanging in the balance. There is no doubt who the power brokers are at the FCS level, and that has played true so far this season as all four games this weekend involved teams from the CAA, MVFC, or SOCON conferences.
No. 1 Georgia Southern v. No. 5 Appalachian State
We start at the top as the No. 1 ranked team in the country traveled to Boone, NC to take on the No. 5 ranked team. Not only are these two teams considered to be amongst the best this year but they are in the discussion for quite possibly being some of the greatest FCS dynasties to ever play. They have a combined for nine National Championships, and have taken at least a share of 16 of the last 19 SOCON titles. Whenever these two teams meet up, it’s always an all-out war, and this past Saturday was no different. In what became a back and forth game, Appalachian State pulled off the upset with a 24-17 victory. This Mountaineer team seems reborn since the switch to Sophomore QB Jamal Jackson who went 13 of 26 on Saturday, for 222 yards and three touchdowns. To their credit a big part of Jackson’s early success has been his ability to find WR Brian Quick who once again went over 100 yards with four grabs and two scores including an incredible game winning touchdown. Southern’s triple option offense never got on
track as they were held to only 135 rushing yards, 205 yards under their season average. Appalachian State stopped them behind the line seven times and took advantage of when QB Jaybo Shaw had to throw by registering two sacks and two INT’s. There is no doubt that both teams are legitimate contenders for the National Title, but we couldn’t have said that about Appalachian State just four weeks ago.
No. 2 Northern Iowa v. No 3. North Dakota State
In what was the best game of the weekend rankings wise, the up and coming Bisons of North Dakota State pulled off the shocker in Fargo as they beat the powerhouse Panthers who seemed destined to return to the prominence that they had grown accustomed to. NDSU QB Brock Jensen was magnificent on Saturday completing 88% of his passes (22 of 25) for 204 yards. His efficiency and effectiveness in taking what the defense gave him proved lethal when combined with the overall team offensive effort led by RB DJ McNorton, who gained only 143 total yards of offense but scored twice. Between McNorton and Jensen, the Bisons controlled the clock and held the ball for 36:21 compared to the Panthers 23:39. They never dominated the score board but ask almost any UNI fan and you’re sure to hear that the score was not indicative of this game (27-19). We asked the question before about if the Bisons are for real and the answer is without a doubt, yes.
No. 9 James Madison v. No. 15 Old Dominion
ODU is the newcomer to the CAA this year, they aren’t supposed to be this good. They especially aren’t supposed to be this good with a backup QB. However, it Taylor Heinicke stole the show and lead the Monarchs in a 23-20 victory over the Dukes. Heinicke went 22 of 35 for 235 yards and two TD’s along with 50 rushing yards. He found WR Larry Pinkard six times for 94 yards and two TD’s. However in a close game it was the special teams and defense that really made the difference. DE Ronnie Cameron had a huge game getting 10 tackles, including four and a half for loss, and half a sack, while All-Everything punter Jonathan Plisco consistently put the Dukes into poor field position with his booming punts that averaged 48.5 yards. The CAA has always been known as the SEC of the FCS, but nobody expected ODU to come in and be the dominant force they have become this year. Not only are they contenders for the CAA conference crown but teams better watch themselves come playoff time.
No. 13 Towson v. No. 21 Delaware
For weeks now people have been wondering about Towson. Are they really as good as their record indicates? Are they going to play spoiler in the CAA? This was a team who last year went 0-8 in conference and 1-10 overall yet suddenly they found themselves 6-1 and in contention for the CAA crown and AQ (Automatic Qualifier) status for the playoffs.
This week was the game to close the chapter on the questions, if they could handle a down Delaware team then there would no longer be a doubt. Delaware needed a Hail Mary type prayer just to make the FCS playoffs as an at-large bid and they may have gotten it with their 35 to 30 thrilling win over Towson. The way Delaware did it was simple though, they just put the ball in the hands of their best player down after down. Sophomore RB Andrew Pierce had 34 carries on Saturday for 158 yards and three TD’s. Delaware only attempted 12 total passes all game, and had 50 carries overall. When you have a back like Pierce running the way he was on Saturday you cannot afford turnovers and in the end that was what bit Towson as they threw two INT’s and fumbled three times (losing only one) on their way to disappointing defeat. Unfortunately for Towson they will now be seen by many as simply another pretender.
Matthew Elder brings his insight, opinion and expertise on small-school college football with a column every single Monday at Crystal Ball Run.
Follow him on Twitter @MatthewCElder.