McFeely: Playoff bracket goes as well as Bison could've hoped
NDSU gets surprising No. 3 seed, avoids potential rematch with SDSU until title game in Frisco
FARGO — The Football Championship Subdivision playoffs opened with a surprise for North Dakota State. The Bison, 9-2, were expected to be the fourth seed at best for the 24-team field announced Sunday on ESPNU. There was talk that NDSU might even fall to the fifth seed.
Instead, NDSU was granted the third seed by the NCAA playoff committee.
Why is this important?
If you believe the toughest road to the championship game in Frisco, Texas, is going through Brookings, S.D., this season — and it is — grabbing the third seed means the Bison wouldn't see South Dakota State until the title game.
That's because, again somewhat surprisingly, SDSU (10-1) got the first seed in the tournament and Sacramento State (11-0 with a victory over a Football Bowl Subdivision team) got the No. 2 seed.
So if the brackets hold and the Bison win their first two playoff games at the Fargodome, they'd potentially play the Hornets of the Big Sky Conference and not the Jackrabbits, a team that's beaten NDSU in three straight games and five times since 2016. The Jacks are the only team to beat the Bison more than once since NDSU's FCS dominance began in 2011.
The team that got the short end of the stick because the Bison jumped to No. 3 is Montana State, the presumed third seed. The Bobcats, 10-1, got the fourth seed and would face SDSU in Brookings in the semifinals if what is expected to happen actually happens.
Of course, there is always the possibility the brackets don't hold.
There is always the possibility, if NDSU wins its first couple of games, that it hosts a semifinal if Sacramento State loses. The Hornets are known for early-round flameouts in recent years. It appears the best chance for that this year would come in the quarterfinals, where a possible matchup against high-powered Incarnate Word awaits. The Cardinals and presumed Walter Payton Award winner finalist quarterback Lindsay Scott Jr. can score some points. They put up 64 on the MVFC's Southern Illinois in the season opener.
As for the Bison, the bracket appears to set up nicely. A second-round matchup against the winner of Southeast Missouri and Montana is the first hurdle. NDSU would be heavy favorites against SEMO and Montana is coming off a 55-21 shellacking against Montana State on Saturday.
A win there would get the Bison to the quarterfinals. Samford of the Southern Conference is the sixth seed and therefore presumed to be NDSU's opponent, but the SoCon is not a power league. The Bulldogs would first have to get by the winner of a first-round game between Idaho and Southeastern Louisiana.
If Idaho could find its way to Fargo, that would be fun. The Vandals are coached by former SDSU assistant Jason Eck, a thorn in the Bison's side for years both because of his skill in calling plays as the Jacks' offensive coordinator but also because of his, um, prickly personality.
A trip to the semis would mean a road game in Sacramento or a home game against, most likely, Incarnate Word.
The playoff committee, so often maligned by FCS fans and media, got one major thing correct. By putting SDSU and NDSU on opposite sides of the bracket, it assured that the teams can only meet in Frisco. Even SDSU John Stiegelmeier recognized that and allowed himself to look ahead while making an appearnce on ESPNU.
"It'd be fun to see them in Frisco, that's for sure," Stiegelmeier said.
Being the No. 1 seed is a good path to the title game. In the 11 years since NDSU's run began, the top seed has made it to Frisco eight times. The second seed has made it six times. The third seed just twice — including 2015 when NDSU was No. 3.
For what it's worth, the title game has seen the No. 1 vs. No. 2 seeds only four times since 2011.
This is surely a different season for NDSU. The Bison have not looked dominant as they have for so many years. There are some flaws, combined with several key injuries. But a third seed is the best for which they could have hoped and a 10th trip to Frisco in the last dozen years is not out of the question.
And if the Jackrabbits await? That would be the juiciest title game of them all.