Competitive matchups abound as the 2023 FCS playoffs kick off with eight first-round games on Saturday.

The 24-team field will play at school host sites until the championship game on Jan. 7 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.

Following are capsule previews of the first-round games in the top half of the bracket, which is anchored by No. 1 seed South Dakota State, the defending national champion:

North Carolina Central (9-2) at Richmond (8-3)

Kickoff – 2 p.m. ET at E. Claiborne Stadium in Richmond, Virginia (ESPN+)

Series – First meeting

Coaches – North Carolina Central: Trei Oliver (29-17, fourth season); Richmond: Russ Huesman (41-32, seventh season; 100-69 overall)

3 Players to Watch – North Carolina Central: QB Davius Richard (150 of 246, 1,915 yards, 20 TDs, 3 INTs; 579 rush yards, 15 TDs), RB Latrell Collier (146 carries, 684 yards, 8 TDs; 23 receptions), LB Jayden Flaker (74 tackles, 4.5 sacks, INT, 2 forced fumbles); Richmond: QB Kyle Wickersham (108 of 144, 1,029 yards, 7 TDs, 2 INTs; 332 rush yards, 4 TDs), WR Nick DeGennaro (54 receptions, 702 yards, 8 TDs), LB Tristan Wheeler (104 tackles, 9 TFL, fumble recovery)   

Notable – NCCU, making its first appearance in the playoffs, went 3-0 against CAA opponents in the regular season and also defeated 2022 co-champ New Hampshire a year ago. Richard has accounted for 10,704 combined passing/rushing yards and 113 touchdowns in his outstanding career. With only six lost turnovers, the Eagles tied for the lowest per-game average in the FCS. Richmond is making its 13th all-time playoff appearance, including a 2008 national title. The Spiders, who won their final six regular-season games to earn a share of the CAA title, have the lowest third-down conversion percentage (26) of any playoff team. Wheeler has four 100-tackle seasons and 470 stops (FCS high among active players) in his career.

Up Next – The winner advances to a second-round game at No. 5 seed UAlbany (9-3) on Dec. 2 (noon ET).

Prediction – North Carolina Central 27, Richmond 24

Gardner-Webb (7-4) at Mercer (8-3)

Kickoff – 3 p.m. ET at Five Star Stadium in Macon, Georgia (ESPN+)

Series – Mercer leads 1-0 (only meeting: Mercer won 45-14 at Garder-Webb on Sept. 24, 2022)

Coaches – Gardner-Webb: Tre Lamb (20-19, fourth season); Mercer: Drew Cronic (27-16, fourth season; 74-22 overall)

3 Players to Watch – Gardner-Webb: RB Narii Gaither (139 carries, 684 yards, 2 TD), RB Jayden Brown (110 carries, 646 yards, 5 TDs; 5 TD receptions), DE Ty French (53 tackles, 17.5 TFL, 17 QB hurries); Mercer: WR Ty James (54 receptions, 1,002 yards, 7 TDs), WR Devron Harper (50 receptions, 522 yards, 2 TDs, 2 punt return TDs), S Lance Wise Jr. (72 tackles, 4 INTs, 1 forced fumble)

Notable – This marks Mercer’s first playoff game, while Gardner-Webb debuted last year and won a first-round game at Eastern Kentucky. Each team has a strong offensive combo, the visiting Runnin’ Bulldogs with their running backs and Mercer its receivers. In the only previous meeting, Harper fueled the Bears’ win with 173 yards and three TDs from scrimmage. G-W redshirt freshman QB Jaylen King has gone 5-1 and accounted for 15 TDs in six starts, but he’s been sacked 20 times. Mercer has pass rushers in defensive end Solomon Zubairu (15 TFL, 7.5 sacks) and linebacker Ken Standley (80 tackles, 13 TFL, four sacks). G-W LB William McRainey is 10 tackles shy of reaching 100 for the third straight season.

Up Next – The winner advances to a second-round game at No. 1 seed South Dakota State (11-0) on Dec. 2 (2 p.m. ET).

Prediction – Mercer 35, Gardner-Webb 28

Nicholls (6-4) at Southern Illinois (7-4)

Kickoff – 3 p.m. ET at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale, Illinois (ESPN+)

Series – Tied 1-1 (last meeting: Nicholls won 33-0 at home on Sept. 6, 1997)

Coaches – Nicholls: Tim Rebowe (53-47, ninth season); Southern Illinois: Nick Hill (43-47, eighth season)

3 Players to Watch – Nicholls: RB Collin Guggenheim (167 carries, 792 yards, 11 TDs), RB Jaylon Spears (105 carries, 709 yards, 6 TDs), S Tyler Morton (50 tackles, 4 INTs, 6 PBU); Southern Illinois: QB Nic Baker (202 of 303, 2,375 yards, 15 TDs, 6 INTs), WR Izaiah Hartrup (48 receptions, 689 yards, 6 TDs), S PJ Jules (100 tackles, 12 TFL, 10 PBU, 1 forced fumble)

Notable – Nicholls tested itself out of conference en route to winning the Southland title. The Colonels have 24 takeaways in only 10 games (tied for third-most in the FCS) and a plus-9 turnover margin. While QB Pat McQuaide is coming off a 300-yard, two-TD passing performance, the Colonels like to pound the run with Guggenheim and Spears. SIU, however, is adept at stopping the run, allowing just 94.5 yards an outing (sixth-best in the FCS). Baker is the Salukis’ all-time passing yardage leader (9,038) and is tied for the most TD passes (65). The Salukis are one of six MVFC playoff teams, which ties for the most by one conference (2018 CAA and 2021 MVFC).

Up Next – The winner advances to a second-round game at No. 4 seed Idaho (8-3) on Dec. 2 (10 p.m. ET).

Prediction – Southern Illinois 26, Nicholls 14

Duquesne (7-4) at Youngtown State (7-4)

Kickoff – 5 p.m. ET at Stambaugh Stadium in Youngstown, Ohio (ESPN+)

Series – Youngstown State leads 5-0 (last meeting: YSU won 31-14 at home on Sept. 3, 2022)

Coaches – Duquesne: Jerry Schmitt (120-83, 19th season; 148-104 overall); Youngstown State: Doug Phillips (18-21, fourth season)

3 Players to Watch – Duquesne: QB Darius Perrantes (128 of 251, 2,291 yards, 21 TDs, 18 INTs), RB Edward Robinson (117 carries, 631 yards, 7 TDs), LB Gianni Rizzo (57 tackles, 10 TFL, 3 pass breakups); Youngstown State: QB Mitch Davidson (211 of 297, 2,485 yards, 19 TDs, 4 INTs), RB Tyshon King (160 carries, 890 yards, 9 TDs), LB Alex Howard (66 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 4 sacks)

Notable – All five previous meetings have occurred since 2013, with YSU winning by 10+ points each time. Duquesne owns one of the Northeast Conference’s two all-time playoff wins, 31-10 at Towson in 2018. Perrantes has thrown the most interceptions in the FCS, but he’s been efficient in wins (17 TD passes against eight interceptions). YSU, the four-time FCS champion whose last playoff appearance in 2016 was a national runner-up finish to James Madison, has won 16 straight home playoff games. An experienced offensive line has helped the Penguins rank third in the FCS in average time of possession (34 minutes, 27 seconds), and Davidson is 88 passing yards shy of Jeff Ryan’s YSU single-season record (2,573 in 1999). The ‘Guins are one of six MVFC playoff teams.

Up Next – The winner advances to a second-round game at No. 8 seed Villanova (9-2) on Dec. 2 (noon ET).

Prediction – Youngstown State 34, Duquesne 17