FCS semifinalists: Heavy hitters predicted to be there

(STATS) – The semifinalists in the FCS playoffs, not surprisingly, are a Who’s Who list of teams, and they were expected to be there all along.

Sixth-seeded Sam Houston State (12-1) will visit No. 2 seed North Dakota State (12-1) Friday night and No. 5 seed South Dakota State (11-2) will be at No. 1 seed James Madison (13-0) Saturday afternoon.

After New Hampshire, which was eliminated in the quarterfinals in its 14th straight playoff appearance, North Dakota State (eight), Sam Houston State (seven) and South Dakota State (six) have made the next-most consecutive appearances of this year’s 24-team field. James Madison, making its fourth straight appearance, is the defending FCS champion.

In the STATS FCS Preseason Top 25, James Madison was picked first, North Dakota State second, Sam Houston State third and South Dakota State fourth.

“I think you’ve got four teams that are all capable of winning the national championship,” James Madison coach Mike Houston said on Monday.

“You have one of the top passing offenses in the country in Sam Houston State. You’ve got North Dakota State, who for so long has been the top dog in the FCS. You’ve got South Dakota State that I think is right there on par with North Dakota State and beat them earlier in the year. And then you have James Madison, who we’ve been preseason No. 1 and been ranked No. 1 each week throughout the season and remain undefeated.”

North Dakota State (26) and Sam Houston (16) have the most playoff wins this decade, which includes three NDSU victories over Sam Houston in two national finals (2011 and ’12) and a semifinal (2014). The Bison have a 4-1 series lead.

Chris Klieman was a part of the North Dakota State coaching staff for each of their record five straight FCS national championship seasons (2011-15) and has a 52-6 record in four seasons as head coach. The Bison are in the semifinals for a record seventh consecutive season.

Like Klieman, Sam Houston’s K.C. Keeler has guided his program since 2014, and he’s 46-11 during that time – with 220 overall victories in his 24-year career. The Bearkats have made the semifinals for a fifth time in seven seasons.

South Dakota State and James Madison are meeting for the first time.

South Dakota State has set a program record for wins in a season and reached the semifinals for the first time under coach John Stiegelmeier, who has won 148 games in 21 seasons guiding the Jackrabbits.

James Madison ended North Dakota State’s run of five straight national titles in last year’s semifinals and has gone 27-1 in Houston’s two seasons. The Dukes’ 25-game winning streak is the second-longest in FCS history behind North Dakota State’s 33 straight from 2012-14.

“What you see is tournament play works,” Houston said. “I don’t know why the BCS is so resistant to it, but I think that our format works as far as getting the best team in the nation coming out on top, and I think that you’ll see that in the next three weeks.”