Back To The Future, FCS Edition

By David Coulson

Executive Editor

College Sports Journal

 

PHILADELPHIA, PA. — This time of the year there are a lot of people who suddenly think of themselves as Football Championship Subdivision prognosticators.

 

Everyone wants to pick the 20 teams that will be in the field and take their turn at making a dream bracket. It’s like playing Fantasy Football.

 

But viewing the work of the NCAA Division I Football Committee is a bit like reading Supreme Court precedents. If you want to know what the committee will do this year, look at what it has done in the past.

 

 

Instead of Fantasy Football, think Back To The Future, FCS Edition.

 

There is also the NCAA playoff handbook, which guides the work of the committee as it deliberates late into the night over the field in an Indianapolis hotel meeting room.

 

You can count on the committee placing teams in a regionally-based bracket as much as possible to keep costs within reason.

 

And when it comes to seeds, know that the major leagues, the Big Sky Conference, the Colonial Athletic Association, the Missouri Valley Football Conference and the Southern Conference are going to rule the roost for the most part.

 

But also realize that the committee likes to avoid controversy and enjoys honoring undefeated teams, even if that squad with a perfect record comes with a less-than-competitive schedule.

 

Can you say Southland Conference champion Sam Houston State and its 11-0 record?

 

Also, the committee likes rewarding teams who beat Football Bowl Subdivision teams.

 

Realize as well that a school from a conference with less of a reputation will need a couple of wins more than one from a power league.

 

For example, a 9-2 team from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference might get an at-large bid, but one with an 8-3 mark might not edge out a 7-4 big-conference team that has played a more challenging schedule.

 

So a team like Bethune-Cookman might have played a competitive game in a first-round loss to New Hampshire last season as an auto-bid team with a 9-2 record, but the Wildcats are likely to be left out of the field with an 8-3 record and a second-place MEAC finish this season.

 

Strength of schedule matters a lot to the committee, as Jacksonville found out last year when it won the Pioneer Football League title and finished 10-1 overall — its only loss coming to top-seeded Appalachian State in a non-conference game — but still was left out of a field that included several 7-4 squads.

 

There is also a lack of understanding about the role of regional committee in preparing the national committee for its work.

 

About a month into the season, the regional committees begin to do weekly rankings of the teams in their areas and submitting them to the national committee for each week’s conference calls.

 

These ratings provide a foundation for what happens when two teams from a region are being discussed and compared with each other.

 

For example, in the east region, you might have CAA champion Towson ranked No. 1, with New Hampshire No. 2, Lehigh No. 3, Maine No. 4, Old Dominion No. 5 and James Madison No. 6.

 

Georgetown would not leap frog one of those teams and into the field, even with its 9-2 record, because it wouldn’t be ranked as high in the regional rankings.

 

And a squad like Delaware, with a 7-4 record, but just six Division I victories after beating D-II West Chester, would have even less of a prayer of getting in.

 

If the committee didn’t take Montana at 7-4, with six D-I wins, last year, it isn’t likely to pick Delaware in 2011.

 

The Blue Hens are not going to guarantee the money, or attendance that Montana would have and are not going to have the clout that a Grizzly squad with an NCAA-record 17-consecutive playoff seasons and 12-straight Big Sky titles did.

 

When you consider those things, it becomes easier to figure out who will be in the 20-team field.

 

Last season, I missed on just one of the 20 teams, selecting Jacksonville to get in ahead of North Dakota State. Seldom in the past have I been wrong on more than one, or two teams.

 

With that in mind, here is my prediction of the field and also my proposed brackets for the 2011 NCAA Division I Football Championships.

 

We start with the automatic bids and then move on to the four seeds.

 

Here are the teams that won auto bids:

 

Big Sky: 9-2 Montana

Big South: 8-3 Stony Brook

CAA: 9-2 Towson

MEAC: 9-2 Norfolk State

Missouri Valley: 10-1 North Dakota State

NEC: 8-3 Albany

OVC: 7-3 Tennessee Tech

Patriot: 10-1 Lehigh

SoCon: 9-2 Georgia Southern

Southland: 11-0 Sam Houston State

 

And here are my projected seeds:

 

1. Sam Houston State

2. Georgia Southern

3. North Dakota State

4. Montana

5. Towson

 

While I would select 9-2 Georgia Southern No. 1 after a credible effort at Alabama on Saturday, I expect the committee to award the top seed to 11-0 Sam Houston State, which beat one of the worst FBS teams, New Mexico and also toppled Central Arkansas.

 

But the Bearkats didn’t have much else on their ledger.

 

North Dakota State also played a mediocre schedule, but the Bison finished 10-1 and beat both BCS school Minnesota — a better team than New Mexico — and won the MVFC auto bid by defeating Northern Iowa.

 

A loss a week before to Youngstown State is likely to be overlooked as the Bison grab the No. 3 seed.

 

The fourth and fifth seeds are likely to depend on how the committee chooses to structure the brackets.

 

Montana closed with a rush to finish 9-2 and win the auto bid with a solid victory on Saturday at No. 1-ranked Montana State. That likely will provide the Grizzlies with the No. 4, or 5 seed.

 

If the committee wants to set up a regional matchup in the second round of 10-1 Patriot League champion Lehigh traveling to Towson, than the Tigers would probably be slotted into the fifth-seed spot.

 

With the seeds in place, we move on to the 12 teams that will draw byes.

 

Here are teams six through 12:

 

Big Sky co-champion Montana State (9-2), MVFC co-champion Northern Iowa (9-2), SoCon runner-ups Appalachian State (8-3) and Wofford (8-3), CAA runner-ups New Hampshire (8-3) and Maine (8-3) and Lehigh.

 

That leaves eight teams to be selected and put into the field for first-round games.

 

Norfolk State, Stony Brook, Albany and Tennessee Tech are in as auto bid teams and I think the final four at-large bids with go to Old Dominion (9-2) of the CAA, Central Arkansas (8-3) from the Southland, James Madison (7-4) of the CAA and Illinois State (7-4) of the MVFC.

 

As we looked at earlier, Bethune-Cookman (8-3) probably will finish a game out of the playoffs, even with an impressive national television win earlier this year over MEAC rival Norfolk State.

 

And now it is time to take a shot at putting together a bracket for the field. Here is mine, although the committee can always be expected to provide a twist, or two when the real tournament is announced.

 

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With this bracket, I would expect James Madison, Stony Brook, Central Arkansas and Norfolk State to advance to the second round and would pick JMU as an upset winner over No. 1 Sam Houston State in round two.

 

Joining JMU in the quarterfinals would be Montana State, Towson, Montana, Georgia Southern, Wofford, Appalachian State and North Dakota State.

 

My semifinalists would be Montana State, Towson, Georgia Southern and North Dakota State, with Georgia Southern and Towson advancing to the title game.

 

I am going to go out on a limb and predict the Towson Tigers as the surprise national champion in a wild and entertaining championship game with the Georgia Southern Eagles as two great ground teams do battle.

 

Remember a No. 5 seed from Eastern Washington shocked an established FCS favorite from Delaware, 20-19, in last year’s championship game in Frisco, TX.

 

How ever the field turns out, you can count on the committee to give us their best effort when the field is announced on ESPNU at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning.

 

And you can know that we will have an exciting championship tournament that crowns the only true champion at the Division I level.

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