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Schedule tough on FCS first-place teams

By CRAIG HALEY

STATS FCS Senior Editor

(STATS) - Staying in first place is not so easy. At least not this week in FCS college football.

The schedule of big games may wind up being the most impressive of the season. Included are risky matchups for many teams in first place in their respective conference.

The biggest game, of course, is in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, and even ESPN can't ignore sending its "College GameDay" pregame show to set up No. 3 South Dakota State hosting No. 1 North Dakota State, the two-time defending FCS champion.

NDSU is 7-0 and on a 28-game winning streak since falling 33-21 in its last trip to Brookings, while SDSU is 6-1 with only a 28-21 loss at still-unbeaten Minnesota. Both teams are 3-0 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference and the winner will have sole possession of first place and the inside track to securing the automatic bid to the FCS playoffs.

But top matchups abound everywhere. Here are 10 more in which first-place teams could get pre-Halloween scares:

CAA: No. 16 Towson (4-3, 1-2) at No. 2 James Madison (7-1, 4-0)

James Madison, which sits smack between NDSU and SDSU in the STATS FCS Top 25, is facing a ranked conference opponent for the fourth time in five games. The Dukes are No. 1 in the FCS against the run, but they have to defend Towson quarterback Tom Flacco, the 2018 CAA offensive player of the year whose career high in passing yards (372) came against them last season.

"They're very impressive. Everybody know about (Flacco), (wide receiver Shane) Leatherbury had five touchdown catches in the last game, they've got other weapons," JMU first-year coach Curt Cignetti said. "Defensively, they swarm at the ball, do a really good job - they've got guys that can run, very physical football team. They're a really good team."

Big Sky: No. 4 Weber State (5-2, 3-0) at No. 22 UC Davis (4-4, 2-2)

Weber State, which shares first place with Sacramento State, has won 10 straight and 22 of its last 24 games against Big Sky programs, but it didn't face UC Davis last season when they both earned shares of the conference title. Aggies signal caller Jake Maier has the most passing yards and touchdown passes in the FCS since 2017.

Ivy League: Harvard (4-1, 2-0) at No. 13 Princeton (5-0, 2-0)

Princeton and No. 17 Dartmouth loom large in the Ivy race, but Harvard also sits atop the standings. Outside of Dartmouth, no other team has played a closer game with the Tigers during their 15-game winning streak, with the Crimson falling 29-21 last October.

MEAC: South Carolina State (4-2, 2-1) at Bethune-Cookman (6-1, 4-0)

With No. 20 Florida A&M (6-1, 4-0) ineligible for the MEAC title, Bethune has sole possession of first place. South Carolina State has the best win outside the conference (28-13 over Wofford) and seeks to add on to coach Buddy Pough's new school-record 129 wins.

Ohio Valley: UT Martin (5-2, 4-0) at No. 24 Southeast Missouri (4-3, 2-1)

How good is UT Martin, one of the nation's surprise teams after it finished 2-9 last year? Everybody's about to find out with the Skyhawks' difficult final stretch of games, including against a SEMO squad that just beat five-time defending OVC champ Jacksonville State for the second consecutive year.

Patriot League: Georgetown (5-2, 1-1) at Lehigh (3-3, 2-0)

Lehigh, playing defense? Yup, it's happening under first-year coach Tom Gilmore. The one Patriot League team that's doing defense better, though, is Georgetown. Since joining the league in 2001, the Hoyas have only beaten Lehigh once in 18 meetings and that was last season in two overtimes.

Pioneer League: San Diego (4-2, 3-0) at Dayton (4-2, 2-1)

San Diego, the co-leader with Drake, rolls into town with a 32-game PFL win streak, the third-longest in league play in FCS history. It started after the Toreros lost 13-12 at Dayton in 2015. This will be Dayton coach Rick Chamberlin's 500th game in the program dating to when he was a freshman linebacker in 1975.

Southern: Chattanooga (4-3, 3-0) at Wofford (4-2, 3-1)

The visiting Mocs have surprised under first-year coach Rusty Wright, but they've only beaten the lower tier of this year's SoCon, and preseason favorite Wofford has a chance to move into first place for the first time. No. 14 Furman, also 3-1 in conference, will visit Chattanooga next week.

Southland: No. 21 Sam Houston State (5-3, 4-1) at No. 12 Central Arkansas (5-2, 3-1)

Sam Houston has wins over the other two top teams in the Southland - co-leader UIW and Nicholls - and a victory here would be huge for tiebreaker scenarios. But the Bearkats have lost three of their last four visits to Central Arkansas.

SWAC: Southern (4-3, 3-0 East) at Alcorn State (5-2, 3-0 West)

Division leaders collide in a rematch of the 2018 SWAC championship game. Alcorn not only won that game at Spinks-Casem Stadium, but it also beat Southern on the road last regular season. Southern coach Dawson Odums is an impressive 47-17 against SWAC programs, but it includes a 1-7 mark versus the Braves.

Updated October 24, 2019

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