The FCS Title game is finally upon us this week, as a supremely wacky spring season comes to a close. No. 1 seed South Dakota State will play No. 2 Sam Houston in Frisco, Texas.
How did we get here?
In case you’re an FCS novice, I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version. For a variety of complex reasons, FCS conferences chose to follow through on last year’s widespread initiative to delay the 2020 college football season and play a one-time spring season. The season kicked off in mid-February, ahead of major US vaccine availability. Just like the FBS season in the fall, many games were postponed or outright canceled because of contract tracing or positive tests; as the season wore on, many teams that found themselves out of the playoff race began to prematurely end their seasons and begin focusing on the just-over-the-horizon fall football season.
The Playoff Bracket — typically 24 teams, but shrunk down to 16 for this abnormal season — was released on Sunday, April 18.
Since then, 22 teams have been eliminated. That includes teams like North Dakota State and James Madison, who have combined to supply 11 of the 18 teams to play for a title over the last nine seasons. The last title game that featured neither a Duke nor a Bison? Go back to 2010, when Beau Baldwin’s Eastern Washington team edged out Delaware in a total thriller, 20-19.
That means Sunday’s title game will feel awfully fun and fresh, with South Dakota State and Sam Houston both playing for their first-ever FCS championship. No matter the outcome, someone is making history on Sunday.
FCS Betting Breakdown: South Dakota State
The FCS Playoffs’ top overall seed has had a relatively smooth trip to the title game, navigating much of its playoff path on cruise control. South Dakota State posted no-sweat covers as a favorite in its first-round matchup against Holy Cross (won 31-3 as a 24.5-point favorite) and again this past weekend, in the semifinals against Delaware (won 33-3 as a 7-point favorite).
The Jackrabbits’ only non-cover was its second-round game against conference foe Southern Illinois, which arrived in Brookings, South Dakota as a 15.5-point underdog. SIU jumped on South Dakota State early, but the Jackrabbits showed some real mental toughness in a second-half comeback — something South Dakota State teams have sometimes struggled with in previous playoff runs.
SDSU trailed 20-7, late in the second quarter, before scoring 24 unanswered points. The final score was 31-26.
Handicappers locked into FCS will know that South Dakota State’s second-round matchup with SIU was a fairly obvious spot to fade the top seed. Not only was South Dakota State coming off a blowout win against an overmatched Automatic Qualifier in Holy Cross, but it had already beaten Southern Illinois in a regular season game, 44-3. It was an utter blowout in every sense of the word, where absolutely everything went SDSU’s way. A playoff rematch with higher stakes was sure to be more competitive.
South Dakota State enters the title game as a modest favorite, with the opening line set on BetMGM at SDSU -4. Since then, the number has been bet into no man’s land, at SDSU -5.
FCS Betting Breakdown: Sam Houston
I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Sam Houston has just completed one of the most memorable playoff runs in modern FCS history. The Bearkats have posted a handful of ugly playoff endings over the last decade, losing non-competitive laughers against the aforementioned Bison and Dukes.
This spring, though, it was the Bearkats who had the last laugh. After surviving an upset bid from Monmouth in the first round, Sam Houston eliminated North Dakota State from the playoff with a thrilling 24-20 victory, becoming the first team to beat the Bison in the playoffs since 2016. Sam Houston was pegged as a 2.5-point home underdog in that game.
Then, in this past weekend’s semifinals, Sam Houston earned another measure of revenge, overcoming a 24-3 halftime deficit to stun James Madison, 38-35. Like the previous week, Sam Houston (+1.5) closed as a short home dog.
After failing to cover as an 11-point favorite against Monmouth, Sam Houston enters the title game with the same 2-1 playoff ATS record as its championship opponent. However, the way it earned that record — scoring multiple home upsets against the premiere powers of the subdivision — is much different than SDSU, which did pretty much whatever it wanted for most of the first three rounds.
If you go back and watch the game, Sam Houston actually kind of dominated North Dakota State; that game would have been a total blowout, save for multiple special teams scores from the deeply depleted Bison. It’s hard for me to draw any takeaways from this game.
Similarly, the game with JMU feels like its multiple standard deviations away from what a “normal” football game might be.
In short: Sam Houston’s postseason path has been so abnormal that I still don’t feel like I have a great handle on how to evaluate them. In a football discussion, I want to give them enormous credit for beating two great programs; however, in a handicapping discussion, I would prefer to evaluate something a little closer to the mean.
How to Bet the FCS Championship Game
Let’s start with the line movement. You’re not losing a ton of value in college football when a line moves from -4 to -5. So if you liked South Dakota State before, you should still like the favorite now.
Historically, the data points to the favorite as well, but with a major caveat. The higher seed is 6-4 straight up, with the most recent upset by seed coming in the epic JMU/NDSU grudge match that capped the 2017 season. In seven of the last 10 title games, the score has been decided by six points or more.
I would say that data generally supports the idea of laying the points with the “better” team in South Dakota State. On the other hand, given how much North Dakota State has dominated the FCS Playoffs the last decade, how much do you really want to buy into historical data from the last decade? It feels awfully tilted toward Fargo to draw any solid conclusions about wider trends.
What about the teams themselves? I know both are very good at the line of scrimmage. I know both have playmakers at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver. South Dakota State has an advantage in the ground and pound game, while Sam Houston likely has an edge with overall team speed.
I also think that Sam Houston has to be given an edge when it comes to the weather; fans and handicappers have a wide range of opinions on how heavily the weather has been a factor in this spring’s postseason games, but for my money, an out-of-season title game in late spring Texas has to favor the team accustomed to playing in Texas.
If you’re forcing me to take a side, I’ll take South Dakota State -5. It’s a team I trust more because of its more regular variance patterns over the last month.
Instead of taking a position on a side, I’d much rather target the total here. Playoff unders are a combined 4-2 for the two teams entering this championship game. For South Dakota State’s part, the Jackrabbits have posted an under in five of its last six games, dating back to a win over Youngstown State on March 13. There’s also the matter of championship unders being a generally good position to have.
There are no 1H lines available as of right now, but I think this game will start slow. Both teams are thrilled to have broken through their respective circumstances and gotten to a title game. I expect the respective coaching staffs from each time will want to feel each other out for a couple of possessions and play conservatively. This has all the makings of a game that’s 3-0 at the end of the first quarter.
One last quirky betting note from my research: seven of the last eight FCS title games have ended with an even number of points being scored. BetMGM currently offers a prop to bet on whether the total number of points scored in this game will be even or odd. Odd is -120. Even is +100.
FCS Title Game Prediction
I can’t wait for this game. No. 1 South Dakota State kicks off against No. 2 Sam Houston on Sunday at 1:00 pm Central on ABC. I do think this will be a tightly contested affair, and after a decade of harsh (and only sometimes deserved) criticism, I’ll be rooting for the Bearkats to pull one final upset. But give me South Dakota State to hold serve in an old-fashioned brawl, 26-17. I don’t have any heavy plays for this one like I did in the JMU/Sam Houston semifinal, but I will be betting Under 47.
Chase Kiddy is a writer for BetMGM and co-host of High Motor by BetMGM, an NFL and college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else. He has also written for a number of print and online outlets, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Washington Post, Daily News-Record, and HERO Sports. His first novel, Cave Paintings, is in development. Follow him on Twitter: @chaseakiddy.