2023 FCS playoff preview: Can anyone stop South Dakota State?

It will take some doing to beat Angel Johnson and defending national champion South Dakota State in the FCS playoffs. Bailey Hillesheim/Icon Sportswire

South Dakota State is making things look awfully easy in college football's second subdivision. After weathering one of the sport's most dynastic recent runs from a bitter rival -- North Dakota State's nine FCS titles from 2011 to 2021 -- the Jackrabbits finally had their moment, rolling to the 2022 national title. They've won 25 games in a row with only three one-score finishes. In their first season under Jimmy Rogers after John Stiegelmeier's retirement, they've barely been challenged.

The Jacks are an overwhelming favorite to win a second title in a row. At the start of the FCS playoffs, SP+ gives the Jacks a 57% chance of winning the title. That leaves just 43% for the other 23 teams.

Can anyone stop a runaway Jackrabbit? Twenty-three teams will try, and with the top eight seeds receiving a bye, 16 begin their playoff journeys Saturday.

Saturday's first-round games:

• Sacramento State at North Dakota (1 p.m.). SP+ projection: UND by 6.4

• NC Central at Richmond (2 p.m.). SP+ projection: Richmond by 4.8

• Lafayette at Delaware (2 p.m.). SP+ projection: Delaware by 8.9

• Gardner-Webb at Mercer (3 p.m.). SP+ projection: Mercer by 9.1

• Nicholls at Southern Illinois (3 p.m.). SP+ projection: SIU by 18.1

• Chattanooga at Austin Peay (3 p.m.). SP+ projection: APSU by 7.9

• Drake at North Dakota State (3:30 p.m.). SP+ projection: NDSU by 34.8

• Duquesne at Youngstown State (5 p.m.). SP+ projection: YSU by 19.2

If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: The more you get to know college football's long tail, and the more you immerse yourself into things beyond the sport's 10-12 blue bloods, the better you feel about college football. The FCS playoffs are glorious, even if we think we know in advance who's going to win. So let's get to know the contenders, from the mighty SDSU Jackrabbits to the scrappy, scholarship-free Drake Bulldogs.

The heavy favorite

1. South Dakota State (11-0)

SP+ rank: first

Advancement odds: 96.7% to reach the quarterfinals, 56.8% to win the title

The Jackrabbits have won 25 games in a row against FCS teams. They played six playoff teams this year and beat them by an average of 37-12. Their marquee stars are the same ones who defined last year's title run -- quarterback Mark Gronowski, running back Isaiah Davis, receivers Jadon and Jaxon Janke. They are the best team in the country, and it will take a massive upset to take them down.

The most likely challengers

2. North Dakota State (8-3)

SP+ rank: second

Advancement odds: 51.0% to reach the quarterfinals, 9.1% to win the title

The Bison lost three times! North Dakota and South Dakota State both stomped them! How are they still second in SP+ and the No. 2 favorite? Because (A) no one else has seized the mantle -- even No. 2 seed Montana fell into a funk for a bit -- and (B) because their eight wins were by an average of 28 points. They're wobbly, but quarterback Cam Miller is still good, and they still look mostly like NDSU.

3. Montana (10-1)

SP+ rank: third

Advancement odds: 69.4% to reach the quarterfinals, 8.1% to win the title

The Grizzlies fell to Northern Arizona and barely got past a poor Idaho State team early in the season. But after a couple of tight wins, they won a series of blowouts and stomped rival Montana State to end the season. Linebackers Riley Wilson and Levi Janacaro are stars, and the Montana defense gets meaner by the week. Bobby Hauck's Grizzlies are peaking at the right time.

4. Montana State (8-3)

SP+ rank: fourth

Advancement odds: 49.0% to reach the quarterfinals, 6.6% to win the title

Until last week's rivalry loss, I felt like Montana State was the team with the most upside and most hope of taking down South Dakota State. The Bobcats have two high-ceiling quarterbacks (Sean Chambers and Tommy Mellott). All their running backs average more than 6 yards per carry. The defense is a sacks machine. They'll have to move past last week's frustration, though: NDSU will likely be coming to Bozeman in the round of 16. (That's right: One of SDSU's biggest threats will have taken another one out before the quarterfinals.)

It wouldn't be a total shock

5. Villanova (9-2)

SP+ rank: fifth

Advancement odds: 72.1% to reach the quarterfinals, 4.4% to win the title

An outstanding Villanova team fell to SDSU in the quarterfinals in 2021, then slipped to 6-5 last season. But Mark Ferrante's Wildcats are balanced and loaded and fell only to Albany and UCF back in September. Five of their past six wins were by 21 or more. Unfortunately, by drawing the No. 8 seed, they are likely due a quarterfinal matchup with the mighty Jackrabbits.

6. Albany (9-3)

SP+ rank: sixth

Advancement odds: 73.2% to reach the quarterfinals, 3.9% to win the title

In their 25th year in FCS, the Great Danes have their best-ever FCS team. They lost to FBS teams Marshall and Hawai'i by a combined 15 points, and they've won their past five games by an average of 35-12. Quarterback Reese Poffenbarger is prolific, and linemen Anton Juncaj and AJ Simon have combined for an incredible 36.5 TFLs and 23.5 sacks in 12 games. And they wouldn't have to play one of the tournament faves till the semis.

7. Idaho (8-3)

SP+ rank: 12th

Advancement odds: 66.3% to reach the quarterfinals, 2.7% to win the title

The Big Sky slate is relentless, but after blowing out Nevada in September, Idaho took down both Sacramento State and Montana State in the Kibbie Dome and drew the No. 4 seed. Second-year coach Jason Eck has turned the Vandal program around with quickness.

8. South Dakota (9-2)

SP+ rank: 14th

Advancement odds: 63.8% to reach the quarterfinals, 1.9% to win the title

Bob Nielson's Coyotes have lost only to SDSU and Missouri. They've won only one playoff game since moving up to FCS in 2008, and a middling offense will eventually trip them up. But the defense is loaded with sure tacklers and a variety of pass-rushers (especially end Brendan Webb).

9. Delaware (8-3)

SP+ rank: eighth

Advancement odds: 24.1% to reach the quarterfinals, 1.6% to win the title

Granted, coming into the playoffs on the back of a 35-7 loss to Villanova isn't great, but the Blue Hens' attacking defense comes at you in waves, and their attacking sensibilities could make them a handful against Montana in a possible second-round matchup.

10. Furman (9-2)

SP+ rank: 17th

Advancement odds: 57.8% to reach the quarterfinals, 1.3% to win the title

Former Furman lineman Clay Hendrix has the Paladins in the playoffs for the fourth time in six years, and while they, too, tripped up last week -- 19-13 to Wofford -- the 1988 national champs have a run-heavy offense, a TFL-heavy defense and a first-round bye.

OK, yeah, it would be a shock

11. Southern Illinois (7-4)

SP+ rank: 18th

Advancement odds: 32.0% to reach the quarterfinals, 0.9% to win the title

The 1983 champs won playoff games in the 2021 spring and fall seasons. Nick Hill, in his eighth season in Carbondale but still only 38, doesn't have his best offense this season. But the defense, led by ultra-disruptive safety P.J. Jules, is relentless.

12. Austin Peay (9-2)

SP+ rank: 15th

Advancement odds: 30.8% to reach the quarterfinals, 0.8% to win the title

From 2010 to '16, APSU won a total of eight games. In the last four full seasons, the Governors have won an average of 8.3. This increasingly powerful program has a nearly 1,200-yard rusher in Jevon Jackson and one of the more explosive passing attacks in the country.

13. Youngstown State (7-4)

SP+ rank: 16th

Advancement odds: 26.9% to reach the quarterfinals, 0.6% to win the title

The Penguins reached the title game in 2016 but hadn't been back to the playoffs since. In 2023, though, Doug Phillips' squad walloped SIU, among others, a got into the field thanks to strong strength of schedule.

14. North Dakota (7-4)

SP+ rank: 22nd

Advancement odds: 25.5% to reach the quarterfinals, 0.5% to win the title

Bubba Schweigert's Fighting Hawks are making their fourth playoff appearance in five years thanks primarily to a cathartic 49-24 blowout of North Dakota State. Quarterback Tommy Schuster is battle-tested; hell, the whole team is -- they play in the Missouri Valley after all.

15. Richmond (8-3)

SP+ rank: 25th

Advancement odds: 17.4% to reach the quarterfinals, 0.3% to win the title

The 2008 national champs have won only one playoff game in the last seven years, but after an 0-2 start this season the Spiders have won eight of nine and upset William & Mary last week to snag a share of the CAA title (and maybe steal the Tribe's playoff bid too).

Just getting out of the first round would be awesome

16. North Carolina Central (9-2)

SP+ rank: 30th

Advancement odds: 9.5% to reach the quarterfinals, 0.1% to win the title

The Eagles were easily the best overall team in the MEAC, but a shocking blowout loss to Howard handed the conference title (and Celebration Bowl bid) over to the Bison. So NCCU had to settle for the FCS playoffs instead. There are worse consolation prizes.

17. Lafayette (9-2)

SP+ rank: 26th

Advancement odds: 6.5% to reach the quarterfinals, 0.1% to win the title

Holy Cross was one of the best overall teams in FCS, but Lafayette stole the Crusaders' playoff bid with a 38-35 upset. The Leopards will ride running back Jamar Curtis (and his 1,333 yards) as far as he can take them.

18. Mercer (8-3)

SP+ rank: 31st

Advancement odds: 2.9% to reach the quarterfinals, 0.1% to win the title

This is the first playoff appearance for the Bears, who revived their football program in 2013 after seven dormant decades. End Solomon Zubairu and linebacker Ken Standley power a disruptive, and havoc-heavy defense.

19. Chattanooga (7-4)

SP+ rank: 28th

Advancement odds: 11.4% to reach the quarterfinals, 0.1% to win the title

The Mocs ended a six-year playoff drought with aggressive passing from Chase Artopeus (14.3 yards per completion) and the dynamite pass-rushing duo of Jay Person and Ben Brewton. A friendly draw gives them decent quarterfinal odds.

20. Sacramento State (7-4)

SP+ rank: 29th

Advancement odds: 10.7% to reach the quarterfinals, 0.1% to win the title

Andy Thompson's Hornets were only .500 after a 3-0 start (which featured a win over former SSU coach Troy Taylor), but an offense that averages 30.1 points per game and 6.0 yards per play will still give them a fighting chance to win a playoff game or two.

21. Nicholls (6-4)

SP+ rank: 70th

Advancement odds: 1.7% to reach the quarterfinals, <0.1% to win the title

An upset win over Incarnate Word put the Colonels in the field of 24 and left the 9-2 Cardinals out. If Nicholls wins a couple of games, it will likely be because of opportunism in the turnovers department. They pick off a lot of passes.

22. Duquesne (7-4)

SP+ rank: 72nd

Advancement odds: 1.0% to reach the quarterfinals, <0.1% to win the title

The Dukes have won as many Orange Bowls (one, in 1937) as FCS playoff games (2018) and fell to the only playoff team they played this year (Delaware). But Darius Perrantes' all-or-nothing passing (17.9 yards per completion, 18 INTs) makes them a bit of a wild card.

23. Gardner-Webb (7-4)

SP+ rank: 52nd

Advancement odds: 0.5% to reach the quarterfinals, <0.1% to win the title

The Runnin' Bulldogs have won five in a row and bring to the table what every set of early-round playoff games needs: track-meet potential. They've scored at least 30 points seven times and allowed at least 30 six times.

24. Drake (8-3)

SP+ rank: 87th

Advancement odds: 0.1% to reach the quarterfinals, <0.1% to win the title

Winners of the nonscholarship Pioneer League, the Bulldogs are making their first playoff appearance. It probably won't be a long stay -- their two games against playoff teams (SDSU and North Dakota) resulted in a 125-14 scoring margin -- so let's celebrate the 1949 Salad Bowl champions (Drake 14, Arizona 13) while we can.