By Kent Schmidt
CSN West Columnist
College Sporting News
After a West team won the national title a year ago in Eastern Washington, I have to believe the national powers are shifting towards the Pacific Ocean. Two East leagues of the Colonial Athletic Association and the Southern Conference are still highly regarded but now take a backseat to the Missouri Valley Football, Big Sky, and Southland Conferences.
Why do I think the switch of power is moving West?
Five of the eight remaining teams in the postseason reside from a location west of the Mississippi.
One side of the bracket has only West teams as #1 seeded in Sam Houston State, #4 seeded Montana, #5 seeded Northern Iowa, as well as former #1 ranked Montana State.
From that side, we are guaranteed a West team playing in Frisco. And it very well could be playing another West team.
While there is just one team on the other side of the bracket, they have the #2 seed in North Dakota State. So one of the other three remaining teams in the Patriot League’s Lehigh this week or the winner of #3 seeded Georgia Southern from the SoCon or Maine from the CAA next week will have to beat the Bison on their home field.
This year, the West leagues of the Big Sky, Missouri Valley, and Southland are a combined 6-1 in the postseason thus far, with the only loss coming when two West teams played each other last week in Montana’s win over Central Arkansas.
The other conferences combined have a record of 6-11 with the two supposedly top FCS conferences of the SoCon and CAA going 1-2 and 3-4 respectively thus far with their two lone remaining participants meeting this week.
Were the West conferences a power before?
Schools like Montana and Northern Iowa have been consistent national powers. Schools like Boise State, Idaho, and Nevada were consistent winners in the 1980s into the early 1990s but went on to the FBS ranks. McNeese State from the Southland and of course Youngstown State of the MVFC have made their own marks as well.
The growth of new D-I schools like North Dakota State and South Dakota State, as well as Central Arkansas, who have both been a part of the D-I playoffs in their D-I infancies, adds more depth to the West. This has helped shift the balance of power some towards the Pacific after dominating years of either the Southern Conference or the Colonial Athletic Association.
As with most things, these types of tendencies run in cycles. The wave right now is one that has the West on top and we can say that the West is best, at least for now.
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CSN WEST PLAYOFF GAMES OF THE WEEK
As mentioned, three of the four games this week in the playoffs are involving West teams and two games involve West teams against each other.
#5 Northern Iowa (10-2) @ #4 Montana, 8:05 p.m. Eastern, Friday
The statistics don’t look good for a Panther upset in this game. UNI is 0-3 on the road against Big Sky teams all-time in the playoffs. Montana is 10-0 all-time at home in the quarterfinal round. Montana also has a 4-0 series advantage over UNI in their histories with three of the contests coming in the playoffs.
UNI and Montana, however, have not met since the 2001 playoffs—a 38-0 win for Montana, who won the national title that year.
Montana blew out Central Arkansas, 41-14 in winning its eighth straight game. Northern Iowa defeated Wofford with an aid of a fumbled kickoff to win 28-21.
Both teams have stout defenses and balanced offenses.
The Panthers tend to run the ball a little more and leading the rushing attack is quarterback Tirrell Rennie (231.2 ypg). But Rennie isn’t the lone rushing threat as he is joined in the backfield by running backs David Johnson and Carlos Anderson.
Montana's rush defense has been stellar this season in giving up just 115.8 ypg.
Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson and a trio of running backs in Peter Nguyen, Jordan Canada and Dan Moore should be the offensive main threats for the Grizzlies.
With these statistics, I think turnovers will have to be in UNI’s favor for them to pull off the upset.
The Panthers have turned the ball over 13 times this season (10 fumbles, 3 interceptions), but the opportunistic defense has responded with 30 takeaways (12 fumbles, 18 interceptions).
I don’t think that Montana will turn it over that much, however. I will take the Grizzlies by four.
Montana 24 Northern Iowa 20
Montana State (10-2) @ #1 Sam Houston State (12-0), 12:00 p.m. Eastern, Saturday
Montana State and Sam Houston State have never met in the playoffs before, but have played four times during the regular season. The series is tied 2-2. The Bearkats beat the Bobcats 23-6 in 1986 in Huntsville, Texas and 26-23 in Bozeman, Montana in 1991. Montana State won 52-48 in 1987 in Bozeman and 15-10 in 1989 in Huntsville.
Sam Houston State leads the nation in scoring offense, rushing defense, scoring defense, and is second in total defense and turnover margin. The defense, however, last week gave up 27 points in a come from behind 34-27 victory over Stony Brook.
Sam Houston State running back Tim Flanders has rushed for 1,296 yards and 21 touchdowns. Bobcat running back Cody Kirk has rushed for 1,329 yards and 14 touchdowns.
So this could be a good battle of ground attacks but both teams have capable quarterbacks as well.
Bearkats quarterback Brian Bell is a capable passer when called to do so. He has thrown for 16 touchdowns and just three interceptions. MSU’s DeNarius McGhee has completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 2,527 yards with 23 touchdowns but 13 interceptions.
Three of those interceptions happened last week and the Bobcats had another fumble in a squeak-by one point victory over New Hampshire 26-25.
I believe McGhee will need to hold onto the ball this week for the Bobcats to win but that is exactly what will happen. I will take Montana State in another squeaker this week.
Montana State 31 Sam Houston State 30
OTHER QUARTERFINALS SELECTIONS
Lehigh (11-1) @ #2 North Dakota State (11-1)
I like the Bison to win at home in this one but it might be closer than some think.
NDSU 27 Lehigh 21
Maine (9-3) @ #3 Georgia Southern (10-2)
I like Georgia Southern in this one in a high shootout.
Georgia Southern 45 Maine 42