FCS viewer’s guide: Games and storylines to watch

Sports

The first full weekend of FCS’ one-time-only spring season gave us a down-to-the-wire battle between top-five teams (South Dakota State 24, Northern Iowa 20) and some long-awaited debuts (Deion Sanders’ first game as Jackson State head coach, Zeb Noland’s first start as NDSU quarterback).

As far as the overall national picture goes, Week 2 gives us another key debut: the Big Sky.

In a normal season, if any conference can challenge the Missouri Valley from a depth perspective, it’s probably the Big Sky. The conference produced a pair of FCS semifinalists in 2019 — Weber State fell to James Madison, Montana State to NDSU — and a third quarterfinalist (Montana), and in the tentative FCS SP+ ratings I was tinkering with that fall, it had six of the top 18 teams.

Granted, not all of those teams are playing this spring; both Montana schools, 2019 co-champ Sacramento State and decent Northern Arizona and Portland State programs all opted out. But Weber State is loaded, and in quarterback Eric Barriere, Eastern Washington has one of the most proven players in the country. That’s a decent place to start.

Note: rankings below are the STATS FCS Top 25 found at the NCAA homepage. Check out the full list of FCS games on ESPN+ and ESPN3. Any times listed below are Eastern.

No. 4 Weber State at Idaho State (6 p.m., Pluto TV)

WSU head coach Jay Hill has done an incredible job in Ogden. When the former Utah cornerback took over in 2014, the Wildcats had reached the FCS playoffs three times in their history. They’ve now done so four straight seasons and have reached at least the quarterfinals in three straight.

Their calling card in 2019: defense. They stopped the run well, harassed opposing quarterbacks to the tune of 46 sacks and 17 interceptions and held nine opponents — including both San Diego State and Nevada — to 20 or fewer points.

Ends Jonah Williams and Adam Rodriguez (combined: 26 tackles for loss, 18 sacks, eight pass breakups) are gone, but in junior George Tarlas (nine sacks, three forced fumbles, five passes defensed) they still have one of the most proven pass rushers in the conference. This week’s depth chart includes eight junior or senior starters, including Boise State transfer Desmond Williams at strong safety; this is not a unit that is starting over.

If there are questions, they come on an offense that averaged a solid but unspectacular 27.8 points per game in 2019. Running back Josh Davis (1,136 yards at 6.2 per carry) and potential All-American guard Ty Whitworth are good building blocks, and the receiving corps returns steady David Ames and explosive Ty MacPherson. Six-foot-four UNLV transfer Randal Grimes (15.8 yards per catch in 2019) signed over the winter, too, but he’s not yet listed on the depth chart.

The biggest question comes at QB, where freshman Bronson Barron and MTSU transfer and former three-star recruit Randall Johnson (6-foot-5, 230) are listed as co-starters. If the Wildcats are to challenge nationally, one of these two guys must establish a high level of play.

Idaho State might be a pretty good opponent for them to start with. The Bengals could be dangerous offensively, where senior Tanner Conner (792 receiving yards, 16.9 per catch) and Malakai Rango (508 rushing yards, 5.3 per carry) lead the way and Wyoming transfer Tyler Vander Waal takes over at quarterback. But the defense was one of the league’s worst in 2019 and lost most of its proven contributors. ISU’s first two-deep lists 26 different defenders (warning sign No. 1), 10 of which are freshman (warning sign No. 2).

No. 12 Eastern Washington at Idaho (6 p.m., Pluto TV)

After reaching the FCS finals in 2018, EWU started 2019 just 3-5 and couldn’t salvage a playoff bid with a late winning streak. Safe to say, this was not the offense’s fault. The Eagles averaged 41 points per game behind the work of Barriere, who enters this spring with 6,300 career passing yards, 1,219 rushing yards and 73 combined touchdowns. He’s dynamite, but we’ll see how much he recognizes his supporting cast. The line returns only one starter (a good one in left tackle Tristen Taylor), and while star receivers Andrew Boston and Johnny Edwards IV (combined: 82 catches, 1,283 yards in 2019) are on the spring roster, neither was listed on this week’s depth chart. (EWU will play this game without head coach Aaron Best, who tested positive for coronavirus, according to a school statement released Thursday.)

It’s hard to ever worry too much about the Eagles offense, even against an Idaho defense that features two potential All-American linebackers in Christian Elliss and Tre Walker. But Idaho’s offense is dangerous enough to damage an untested EWU defense. Paul Petrino’s Vandals beat the Eagles in 2019, and transfer quarterback Mike Beaudry will have explosive running back Nick Romano (one of FCS’ best kick returners in 2019) and steady possession options in Z-receiver Cutrell Haywood (570 receiving yards, 9.5 per catch) and tight end Connor Whitney. Idaho has been treading water in its first two seasons since dropping down from FBS, but it’s easy to like the upside here.

(Beaudry, by the way, has put together a fascinating career. He was a Division II All-American while leading startup program West Florida to the national finals in 2017, then transferred to UConn and threw for 503 yards before injury. Pensacola, Storrs and now Moscow. He’s seen some things.)

Zeb Noland Watch: An incomplete impression

No. 1 North Dakota State at Southern Illinois (1 p.m., ESPN+)

You know how, in their heyday, we often couldn’t get a total read on the New England Patriots until the playoffs because they knew they could cruise through a typically weak AFC East in third gear? One gets the same impression watching how NDSU handles its business. Winners of eight of the last nine national titles, the Bison show just enough to keep most opponents at arm’s length and shift gears only as the degree of difficulty requires.

They didn’t need to do much in last week’s spring debut, a 25-7 win over Youngstown State. YSU punted on every first-half possession and eight of nine overall, gaining nearly half of its offensive yardage in a single second-half touchdown drive. Totally unthreatened, then, the NDSU offense was content to simply run and run.

The foursome of Kobe Johnson, Jalen Bussey, Dominic Gonnella and wideout Christian Watson combined for 32 carries and 229 yards, and in his debut start at quarterback, Iowa State transfer Zeb Noland really wasn’t asked to do much of anything. He went 9-for-18 for 74 yards. We probably won’t learn what we need to learn about him until NDSU is tested further.

This week’s trip to Carbondale probably won’t provide many issues. SIU’s 44-21 loss at North Dakota last week wasn’t as bad as the score suggests — the Salukis were only outgained by 24 yards, and the game flipped on a couple of third-quarter turnovers — but there’s nothing that suggests that SIU has more to offer than YSU.

Five more games to watch

If you’re looking to make the most of your spring viewing experience, here are more games to follow throughout the weekend.

Friday night: Southern at Alabama State (7 p.m., ESPN3)
Dawson Odums has done a phenomenal job at SU, leading the Jaguars to the SWAC Championship four times in seven years. But they haven’t won the title since 2013, typically falling to either Grambling in the West or Alcorn State in the title game. They are favored in their debut against ASU.

Early Saturday: No. 3 South Dakota State at No. 14 North Dakota (1 p.m., ESPN+)
SDSU’s reward for beating a top-five team on the road: facing a top-15 team on the road! North Dakota leaped to 14th in the STATS rankings following the win over SIU, but the Jackrabbits are still favored by about a touchdown over the hosts and MVC newcomers.

Saturday afternoon: Lamar at No. 9 Nicholls State (4 p.m., ESPN+)
Nicholls’ spring began with an 87-3 romp over Division II’s Lincoln University (Mo.); in his debut, LSU and Missouri transfer Lindsey Scott Jr. went 12-for-14 for two scores and rushed for a third. The Colonels will have to work a little harder against Lamar, but they’re still a comfortable favorite. Saturday evening No. 18 Southeastern Louisiana at No. 17 Sam Houston (7:00 p.m., ESPN+). It’s the spring debut for two more potential Southland contenders. Six-foot-seven Arkansas transfer Cole Kelley, used as basically a short-yardage backup for Southeastern Louisiana in 2019, takes over as starter and will have to thrive immediately to keep up with quarterback Eric Schmid and Sam Houston.

Sunday: No. 23 Tennessee Tech at No. 16 Jacksonville State (4 p.m., ESPN+)
We get a superfecta of Sunday games, the best of which is this ranked-versus-ranked fight. When we last saw JSU, the Gamecocks were beating FIU, 19-10, to finish the fall 3-1. Now they take on a Tech team that broke box scores last week in a win over Austin Peay:

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