(Stats Perform) – There isn’t a lot of dipping toes into the shallow end during the shortened FCS spring schedule, most teams are jump right in with conference matchups.
It seems to have everybody feistier from the start because just one or two losses can be a death knell toward a conference title or postseason spot.
With a terrific schedule again this week, the following are five must-see games between March 4-7 (all times ET; TV coverage subject to change):
Missouri Valley: No. 20 South Dakota (1-0) at No. 4 North Dakota (2-0), 6 p.m. (ESPN+/MidCoSN)
The FCS week kicks off with a bruising matchup between the MVFC upstarts, picked sixth (South Dakota) and seventh (North Dakota), respectively, in the conference’s always-crowded preseason poll. There was foreshadowing: USD’s eight players with MVFC preseason distinction were the third-most in the conference, while UND produced five Top 25 wins in 2018 and ’19 – the total now increased in its inaugural MVFC season by two more. If you like defensive takeaways, this is the matchup: UND has eight in two games and USD forced seven against Illinois State in its fifth Top 10 win over the last six seasons.
CAA: No. 13 Albany (0-0) at No. 14 New Hampshire (0-0), 7 p.m. (FloFootball/NBC Sports Boston)
The weather sure won’t be balmy in Durham for the first CAA North Division matchup, which is appropriate because the strong group of teams will try to give each other the cold shoulder. Albany features quarterback Jeff Undercuffler, whose 41 touchdown passes in 2019 set the FCS single-season freshman record, and running back Karl Mofor, who led the conference in rushing yards per game (100.3) and scrimmage yards (1,609). UNH welcomes back coach Sean McDonnell for the start of his 21st season after he was on medical leave in the 2019 season. The Wildcats’ 6-5 team forced 15 turnovers in wins, but only four in losses, making the return of safety Evan Horn (four interceptions, two fumble recoveries) even more important.
SWAC: Jackson State (1-0) at Grambling State (0-0), 1 p.m. (ESPN3)
Jackson State coach Deion Sanders brings his improved squad into Eddie Robinson Stadium, where Grambling State has won 16 straight games since 2015 – the FCS’ second-longest active home winning streak (North Dakota State, 30). In Grambling’s 44-21 win over JSU in 2019, it scored on offense, defense and special teams, and lifted coach Broderick Fobbs to 5-0 in the series. JSU opened the spring season with a 53-0 rout of NAIA member Edwards Waters, and though the level of opponent made for the easy win, Jackson State allowed fewer yards (104) than in any game since its previous shutout in 2014 against Virginia-Lynchburg. Also, Jalon Jones’ 196.2 passer rating (17 of 19, 163 yards, 2 TDs) was the highest by a JSU quarterback in a game since LaMontiez Ivy (218.4) in a 2015 win over Texas Southern.
Missouri Valley: No. 15 Illinois State (0-1) at No. 3 Northern Iowa (1-1), 5 p.m. (ESPN+)
Both programs advanced to the 2019 FCS quarterfinals, but the losing team here will need to win-out in the regular season to be in the playoff picture. In 14 of the last 15 meetings, the winning team has posted a better turnover margin. Illinois State showed there is life running the ball after All-American James Robinson, gaining 167 on the ground against South Dakota, but the Redbirds had only 110 combined against UNI in 2018 and ’19 games, and that was with Robinson (32 carries, 79 yards). Ten of Panthers coach Mark Farley’s record 100 MVFC wins are against Illinois State – he’s 10-8 overall and 5-5 matched against Redbirds coach Brock Spack.
Northeast: Sacred Heart (0-0) at Duquesne (0-0), noon (NEC Front Row)
The NEC has gone Daytona 500 with its biggest conference game at the start, unless, that is, both teams wind up meeting again in the conference’s first-ever championship game on April 11. That possibility appears strong given the other three teams eligible for the championship game went a combined 5-29 in their most recent season in 2019. Duquesne has won the last five meetings against Sacred Heart and dominated game clock with at least 230 rushing yards three straight times. The visiting Pioneers, though, feature the game’s most dangerous rusher, Julius Chestnut, who has surpassed 100 yards in 12 of his last 16 games, including twice against the Duquesne while averaging 8.6 yards per carry.