What We're Watching: NCAA playoff preview
With the exception of the annual Army - Navy game, FBS takes this Saturday off and we turn our attention to the playoff action at the lower levels. Here's what jumps out to us in the FCS Quarterfinals and the Division II and Division III Semifinals.
Sam Houston State at Montana State (8 p.m. ET Friday, ESPN2): This a rematch of last season's FCS quarterfinals, a 49-13 Sam Houston State win in Huntsville. The action moves to Bozeman this year where the Bobcats' seventh-ranked rush defense will hope to wrap its arms around a Sam Houston State running game that also ranks seventh nationally, and raced to 428 yards on the ground in last season's blowout.
Georgia Southern at Old Dominion (12 p.m. ET, ESPN): No game this weekend will feature a clashing of styles quite like Eagles and Monarchs. Georgia Southern boasts FCS's most fearsome rushing attack, averaging 393.2 yards per game and 6.52 yards per carry. Meanwhile, Old Dominion leads FCS with 391.6 passing yards per game and 8.67 yards per attempt. The Monarchs have thrown for 41 touchdowns, seven more than anyone else in FCS, while Georgia Southern has rushed for 46 scores, the second-most in FCS.
Wofford at North Dakota State (3 p.m. ET, ESPN3): The Terriers sit one spot below Georgia Southern on the FCS rushing chart with 357 yards per game and 5.99 yards per carry. Unfortunately for Wofford, a trip to the Fargo Dome to meet defending national champion North Dakota State awaits them. The Bison lead FCS in four defensive categories, including a rush defense that surrenders just 63.3 yards per game, 2.3 yards per carry only three rushing touchdowns on the entire season.
Illinois State at Eastern Washington (6 p.m. ET, ESPN3): Illinois State's reward for surviving a 38-37 overtime shootout over Appalachian State is a trip to Cheney to meet No. 2 seed Eastern Washington on the infamous red turf. The Eagles are 6-0 at home this season, winning games by an average score of 35-19. The Redbirds, for their part, are 6-0 away from home this season. Neither team excels defensively, ranking 42nd and 49th, respectively, in scoring defense, so expect another shootout.
Division II Semifinals
Valdosta State (Ga.) at Minnesota State - Mankato (3 p.m. ET, ESPN3): Valdosta State, riding an eight-game winning streak behind one of the most balanced offenses in Division II. The Blazers throw for 260 yards per game and rush for 220 yards per game while placing sixth nationally with 42.7 points per game. The Mavericks come into Saturday unbeaten and riding a 14-game overall winning streak, relying on a defense that ranks among the top 15 nationally in four defensive categories and a No. 2 spot in turnover margin.
West Texas A&M at Winston-Salem (N.C.) (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3): West Texas A&M attacks its opponent on both sides of the ball. The Buffs rank seventh nationally with 343.6 passing yards per game and 487.3 total yards per game while also leading the nation in sacks (4.14 per game) and placing sixth in tackles for loss with 9.14 per game. West Texas A&M enters the game at 12-2, with two losses coming in shootouts: 44-34 in the season-opener at Colorado State - Pueblo and 52-48 against Midwestern State (Texas) on Nov. 3. The Rams are equipped to win both a shootout and a slug fest with a fifth-ranked scoring offense (41.6 ppg) and third-ranked scoring defense (15.6 ppg). Holding a 13-0 record, Winston-Salem looks to avenge a loss in last year's Division II seminfinals when the 13-0 Rams fell to Wayne State (Mich.), 21-14.
Division III Semifinals
Mary Hardin-Baylor (Texas) at Mount Union (Ohio) (2 p.m. ET, ESPN3): At 13-0 on the year, Mary Hardin-Baylor's rushing offense has yet to be stopped in 2012. The Crusaders rush for 306.5 yards per game and score 50 points per game, the second-most in Division III. Unfortunately for UMHB, the Crusaders will travel to face the only team to outscore them thus far and boast the best pound-for-pound defense in college football. Mount Union leads Division III in three defensive categories and ranks second in another. Opposing offenses have rushed 376 times for 483 yards (1.28 ypc) and two touchdowns on the year. The Mount Union defense hasn't been more forgiving through the air, allowing opposing passers to complete 44.9 percent of their passes for 4.26 yards per attempt with 10 touchdowns and 20 interceptions.
Wisconsin - Oshkosh at St. Thomas (Minn.) (3 p.m. ET, ESPN3): The back end of the Division III Semifinals features another meeting of 13-0 squads. Wisconsin - Oshkosh, the team that dethroned Wisconsin - Whitewater as the kings of Division III football in Wisconsin, ranks 16th nationally in both scoring offense (39.3 ppg) and scoring defense (14.9 ppg). The Tommies are equally balanced, scoring 37 points per game and ranking with the top 20 of Division III in each of the four major defensive categories.