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Football

Defending Champion South Dakota State Again Appears the Team to Beat in FCS Playoffs

Montana leads all teams with 27 appearances in the playoffs, and Furman is next with 20

By Associated Press

Programs from the Dakotas remain very prominent and in the top tier of the Football Championship Subdivision.

As the playoffs get started with eight games Saturday, defending champion and top-seeded South Dakota State will be among the eight teams with time to get healthier while enjoying a first-round bye.

Conversely, North Dakota State, the most dominant program over the past dozen years with nine national titles, finds itself in an unfamiliar spot in its 14th consecutive tournament — the first round. The Bison (8-3), 45-21 losers to the Jackrabbits in last year’s championship, will host playoff newcomer Drake (8-3).

Rather than feeling slighted, Bison coach Matt Entz said his team is excited. Having played for eight straight weeks, momentum is on their side.

“Get in a flow and let’s not get out of the flow right now. Let’s stay in it,” he said while allowing that he’ll back off on some practice norms to alleviate the wear and tear of a full regular season and potentially as many as five more games.

The rest of the seeds, in order, are Montana (10-1), which claimed its first Big Sky Conference championship since 2009, South Dakota (9-2), Idaho (8-3), Albany (9-3), Montana State (8-3), Furman (9-2) and Villanova (9-2). Montana State (1984), Villanova (2009), Montana (1995, 2001) and Furman (1988) are former champions.

The Jackrabbits (11-0) sent coach John Stiegelmeier into retirement with their first national title, but new coach Jimmy Rogers has picked up right where Stiegelmeier left off. South Dakota State will take a 25-game winning streak into its second-round game against Gardner-Webb or Mercer, another first-time participant.

The Jackrabbits’ last loss was by 7-3 at Iowa to start last season in a game in which two safeties by the Hawkeyes was the difference.

BACK AGAIN

Montana leads all teams with 27 appearances in the playoffs, and Furman is next with 20. Delaware, the 2003 champions, is third, making its 19th appearance.

The Bison are making their 14th consecutive appearance, the longest active streak, remarkable since they had never appeared in the playoffs before beginning that streak. The Jackrabbits have the next-longest active streak with 12.

FIRST TIMERS

Drake, Mercer and N.C. Central are each making their first appearance in the playoffs. While Drake and Mercer (8-3) have difficult draws, N.C. Central plays at Richmond in one of the more intriguing games of the opening round.

The Spiders (8-3), one of four teams from the Coastal Athletic Association in the field, have won six straight and shared the league title at 7-1 with Villanova and Albany. The Spiders won the national championship in 2008. The Eagles (9-2) of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference have played three teams from the CAA this season and beat them all. None qualified for the playoffs.

Drake, meanwhile, draws a Bison team likely to be highly motivated by not earning their typical bye. The Bulldogs have faced two playoffs teams from the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Neither went well. They lost 55-7 against North Dakota to open the season and 70-7 against the Jackrabbits two weeks later.

That was long ago, Entz said.

“They’ve won eight games in a row and so they’ve continued to get better as the season’s gone on,” he said. “To do that at any level — high school, college, the NFL — that’s difficult to keep people locked in and focused like that.”

Mercer and Gardner-Webb met last year with Mercer winning 45-14.

EXTRA POINTS

North Dakota State was 9-0 in national championship games before losing last season, and has won the title with three different coaches. Craig Bohl guided the 2011, 2012 and 2013 winners, Chris Klieman’s teams won in 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2018 and Entz was the coach in 2019, 2021 and last season. … Youngstown State, which won the last if its four championships in 1997, is back in the field of 24 for the first time since 2016. The Penguins (7-4) will host Duquesne (7-4), which is in the playoffs for the first time since 2018.

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