FCS Game of the Week Preview – Sam Houston State vs. James Madison

We will crown a new FCS champion on May 16. Sam Houston State’s win over North Dakota State last week assured us that there will be a new king of the FCS after a decade of Bison dominance. The Bearkats lost to the Bison in the 2011 and 2012 FCS Championship Game, while the James Madison Dukes fell to the Bison in 2017 and 2019. Now, these teams will meet with a trip to the 2021 FCS Championship Game on the line, and they both like their chances.

College Football Betting Odds

James Madison +1

Sam Houston State -1

Total 46

How They Got Here

Sam Houston State went unbeaten in the Southland Conference and then knocked off Monmouth and North Dakota State to make it back to the semifinals. The Bearkats have had trouble closing out games though as the Hawks nearly came back from a 21-0 deficit in the fourth quarter, and the Bison were ahead late although they were unable to move the ball throughout the game. That has made the hosts a veritable pick ‘em instead of a stronger favorite.

The Dukes have been impressive in both their previous playoff victories. They were never threatened by VMI although they only won by a touchdown, and they ran all over North Dakota last weekend. James Madison had 468 total yards of offense against the Fighting Hawks.

James Madison Offense vs. Sam Houston State Defense

Cole Johnson has made some mistakes this season, but the rewards have been worth the risks for the Dukes. He has thrown six interceptions in seven games, yet he is averaging 9.7 YPA to give this passing game a kick. That has been an issue for James Madison in previous years, so Curt Cignetti has stuck with Johnson despite the mistakes. Antwane Wells Jr. and Kris Thornton have been his top two targets with over 60% of the receiving yards.

This ground game has been solid too. Percy Agyei-Obese and Jawon Hamilton have combined to run for 1,136 yards and 13 touchdowns on the year. Both players are averaging at least 5.0 YPC on the ground, but they are going to have a tough time moving the sticks against the Bearkats.

Sam Houston State has a superb front seven. The Bearkats are surrendering just 2.0 YPC, and the Bison were unable to run the ball on them last week. That’s why it’s important that Cignetti has trusted Johnson, because the SHSU secondary has not been that good. Opposing quarterbacks have thrown for at least 290 yards against this defense in five of their eight games.

Sam Houston State Offense vs. James Madison Defense

Eric Schmid has had a nice season for Sam Houston State. He threw for at least 300 yards in five of six games in Southland Conference play, but that conference does not have good defenses. Schmid has looked a lot more pedestrian in his two playoff games against Monmouth and North Dakota State. His numbers against the Hawks weren’t great, and although he was solid against the Bison, he wasn’t spectacular.

This ground game has been boom or bust. While top running back Ramon Jefferson had some nice outings against Southeastern Louisiana, Northwestern State, and Incarnate Word, he was held in check by the three best run defenses he faced. Against Nicholls, McNeese State, and North Dakota State he never averaged better than 4.1 YPC and didn’t break off any long runs.

James Madison might have the best run defense that Jefferson and Sam Houston State have seen to this point. The Dukes are allowing 2.4 YPC, and they have stuffed a lot of solid run games. The secondary is even better, so it’s tough to see the Bearkats moving the ball well on this unit.


The Dukes should be slight favorites instead of a narrow underdog. The Bearkats are being given a little too much credit for beating an overrated North Dakota State last week.

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