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Viewers' guide to the FCS playoffs

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Lance hits Watson in stride for long NDSU TD (0:23)

North Dakota State QB Trey Lance throws deep downfield and connects with Christian Watson for a 43-yard score. (0:23)

While the FBS' national title race now takes a couple of weeks off to prep, the FCS title race is in full swing. Over the last two weeks, the field has been whittled from 24 to 16 to eight, and the quarterfinals kick off on Friday night on the ESPN family of networks.

• Friday, 7 p.m. ET: Northern Iowa at James Madison (ESPN2). SP+ projection: JMU by 17.9 (85% win probability)

• Friday, 8 p.m. ET: Austin Peay at Montana State (ESPN3). SP+ projection: MSU by 4.1 (59% win probability)

• Friday, 10 p.m. ET: Montana at Weber State (ESPN2). SP+ projection: Montana by 0.5 (51% win probability)

• Saturday, noon ET: Illinois State at North Dakota State (ESPN). SP+ projection: NDSU by 16.8 (83% win probability)

In case you're just now tuning in to the wild world of FCS football, let's get you caught up on what you need to know.

1. This is damn good football

That should go without saying at this point. We've all seen what happens when an FBS team is dumb enough to schedule North Dakota State -- the Bison beat a top-15 Iowa in 2016, Iowa State in 2014, Kansas State in 2013, Minnesota in 2007 and 2011, Kansas in 2010, etc. (NDSU heads to Oregon for the first game of 2020. Good luck, Ducks.)

It's not just the Bison, though. A top FCS team is frequently capable of giving a bigger school fits or winning outright. Among this year's quarterfinalists, Northern Iowa took Iowa State to three overtimes back in Week 1, Weber State lost to two Mountain West bowl teams (SDSU, Nevada) by six points each, and Illinois State was tied with Northern Illinois in the fourth quarter. Hell, it felt like an upset that West Virginia was able to hold off James Madison, 20-13, despite being outgained by 34 yards.

My SP+ ratings would place James Madison and North Dakota State each in the 50s or 60s in FBS -- good enough to win the MAC going away -- while the other quarterfinalists would rank high enough to compete for bowl bids. Jeff Sagarin's ratings are even more bullish: He has NDSU 37th, JMU 53rd, and three other quarterfinalists in the top 100.

Basically, what you'll be watching on Friday evening and Saturday will be better than a lot of what you'll see in the early stages of bowl season.

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JMU gets on the board with a 49-yard TD

Ben DiNucci throws a short, quick pass and Brandon Polk takes it to the house for a 49-yard James Madison touchdown.

2. It's North Dakota State vs. James Madison vs. the field

SP+ has loved JMU all season, to the point that the Dukes have ranked above the Bison since Week 8. It's fair to assume that NDSU -- the winner of seven of the last eight FCS titles -- might have an extra gear to show off in the playoffs, a la the New England Patriots; regardless, those two tower over the rest of the field.

• National title odds, per SP+: JMU 43%, NDSU 31%, Montana 7%, Montana State 7%, Weber State 5%, Austin Peay 4%, Northern Iowa 1%, Illinois State 1%

• National title odds, per FPI: NDSU 55%, JMU 37%, Montana 3%, Montana State 2%, Weber State 1%, everyone else <1%

3. Culture over coaches

That North Dakota State and James Madison are the favorites should surprise no one. NDSU is NDSU, after all, and JMU is the only team to beat NDSU in the playoffs or win a title since 2010.

What makes these teams' success even more impressive, however, is that they have maintained these levels of play despite coaching changes. Craig Bohl left NDSU for Wyoming in 2014, then successor Chris Klieman left for Kansas State this past winter. Under Matt Entz, the train has kept right on rolling. Redshirt freshman quarterback Trey Lance took over for star Easton Stick, and the Bison's scoring average has barely dropped. Lance has thrown for 2,356 yards and rushed for 829, and NDSU ranks second in offensive SP+. The defense has cut its scoring average from last year as well.

It's been a similar story at JMU. Mickey Matthews won JMU its first FCS title in 2004 and retired in 2013, but Everett Withers succeeded him and boosted the Dukes' win total back to nine games per year. When he left for Texas State, Mike Houston took over and went to back-to-back title games. With Houston at ECU now, former Elon head coach (and Nick Saban assistant) Curt Cignetti took over. JMU is better than ever, averaging 44 points per game behind quarterback Ben DiNucci (a Pitt transfer) and a three-pronged rushing attack.

Success in places like this -- along with places like Boise State at the FBS level -- is a lesson in culture-building. When your upperclassmen have been so completely exposed to what's required to play at a high level that they basically serve as assistant coaches for the underclassmen, and when your program support remains strong, you can survive coaching changes.

These teams have done more than just survive.

4. The Big Sky has had itself a year

The Big Sky has maybe been FCS' most consistently strong conference through the decades but has only claimed a handful of national titles: Boise State in 1980, Idaho State in 1981, Montana State in 1984, Montana in 1995 and 2001, and Eastern Washington in 2010. Its teams have made plenty of deep runs but have fallen victim to prevailing dynasties -- Youngstown State in the 1990s, Appalachian State in the 2000s, and now NDSU.

That probably won't change this year (see the above projections), but this has still been a dynamite year out west. Six of the top 15 teams in SP+ hail from the Big Sky, as do three of the eight quarterfinalists. It took an upset (Austin Peay over Sacramento State) to prevent the conference from hogging half the remaining spots. Two years after it dropped from FBS to FCS, Idaho, which still features plenty of recruits from its FBS days, has managed just a 9-14 overall record playing in the BSC. That says something.

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Austin Peay QB Craig scrambles for 18-yard TD

JaVaughn Craig avoids pass rushers and breaks free for an 18-yard touchdown.

5. Austin Peay's story is unbelievable

Oregon State went 3-21 in the 2017-18 seasons. Imagine, if you will, that the Beavers were even worse. Imagine they went a full-on 0-24.

Now imagine the Beavers being one win from the College Football Playoff in 2021. Impossible, right? That's basically what Austin Peay has pulled off.

You probably remember a series of heartwarming stories about Will Healy's building job at Austin Peay. The Governors lost 29 games in a row and went 0-11 in Healy's first season, but after ending the streak three games into his second year, they proceeded to catch fire, finishing 8-4 and nearly making the FCS playoffs.

This past offseason, Healy left for Charlotte, where he has pulled off another solid resurrection (the 49ers are bowling in his first year in charge). But under former Lousiana-Lafayette head coach Mark Hudspeth, Austin Peay has leaped even further. The Governors are currently 11-3 and up to 10th in SP+, having won seven games in a row -- including two playoff games -- by an average score of 41-16. Sacramento State was the No. 4 seed in the field, and APSU led the Hornets 35-7 in the third quarter before cruising, 42-28.

Hudspeth pulled off a similar first-year surge back at UL; he has taken the product of Healy's incredible build and weaponized it. APSU looks so good, so solid and athletic, that it's easy to misplace the fact that it's been barely more than two years since the losing streak ended. And now the Governors are one step from the FCS semifinals. That's insane.

6. Don't forget Montana State

It's almost easy to forget about Montana State, and not only because Friday night's opponent (APSU) is such a great story. Rival Montana has been at the FCS mountaintop more recently, as has Big Sky compatriot EWU. The Bobcats were drowned out by the conference's depth for a bit, and they didn't top eight wins between 2013-18.

This fall, however, the only team to win national titles at three levels (NAIA, Division II, and FCS) caught fire once more. Former Boise State and Washington assistant Jeff Choate's team has won five games in a row by an average score of 42-15 and pummeled Albany, 47-21, in Bozeman last week. They are powered by an unstoppable ground game -- five backs have gained between 330 and 810 yards, and all of them average at least 6.3 yards per carry -- and an aggressive, boom-or-bust defense. As great a tale as Austin Peay has penned, MSU represents a massive impediment to the Governors' semifinal hopes.

7. Weber State-Montana I was an early-round knockout

One more fun aspect to the Big Sky's lovely 2019 season: the teams out west took turns just pummeling each other. Weber State beat ranked UC Davis and Sac State teams by a combined 35 points but lost to Montana by 19. Montana also beat EWU by 17 and UC Davis by 25 but lost to Sac State by 27 and Montana State by 34. MSU lost to Sac State by 13 early in conference play, too. These teams know how to exploit advantages and don't mind running the score up every now and then.

The first time Weber State and Montana played, Bobby Hauck's Grizzlies quickly found the upper hand. Against the best defense in the Big Sky, they needed only eight plays to score three times and go up 21-3 on a Marcus Knight score and Dalton Sneed-to-Samori Toure touchdown passes. The duo would connect again in the third quarter (Toure had eight catches for 193 yards on the day), and the Grizz led 35-3 before WSU scored a couple of garbage-time touchdowns.

WSU gave up a combined 25 points to two FBS opponents this year. The Wildcat defense is legit, but Montana found a huge early edge. Will the same thing happen in the rematch in Ogden?

8. Groundhog Day for Illinois State and Northern Iowa?

At any level of football, from NFL to high school, we've seen how rivalries and conference foes can wreck your plans. You do well, but your rival wins the national title. You go further in the playoffs than you've ever been but lose to the conference heavyweight. (Hello, South Carolina, Michigan, Georgia, etc., fans.)

Just know that Missouri Valley teams feel your pain. South Dakota State blazed through to last year's playoff semifinals but lost to NDSU. (The Jackrabbits got trucked by JMU in the same round the year before). Back in 2013, Illinois State upset the No. 1 and No. 4 seeds to reach the finals, but the Redbirds couldn't stop NDSU from winning its third straight title.

ISU's Brock Spack has only finished with a losing record once in 11 seasons; he has engineered three top-10 finishes and is in the quarterfinals for the fourth time. Northern Iowa's Mark Farley is in his 19th season as HC in Cedar Falls; he won seven MVC titles between 2001-11, and this is his seventh quarterfinal appearance. But his Panthers were eliminated by a MVC foe in 2014, 2015, and 2017.

The good news: UNI probably won't be eliminated by a MVC team this time. Instead, the Panthers will probably fall to JMU on Friday evening. Illinois State, meanwhile, has to travel up to Fargo to face a Goliath it hasn't beaten since 2010. Both programs have had excellent years, their best in a while. But the endings for each are probably going to feel awfully familiar.