FCS Playoffs: Some Teams Are More Equal Than Others

Lehigh quarterback Mike Colvin, left, and Ryan Spadola react after the Mountain Hawks' loss to Colgate.  11/10/2012

By David Coulson

Executive Editor

College Sports Journal

 

PHILADELPHIA, PA. — After watching the brackets unfold for the NCAA Division I Football championship, I couldn't help but think of George Orwell's classic novel Animal Farm.

 

The phrase that stuck out was that all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

 

In this case, some teams, some resumes and some wins and losses were apparently more equal than others this weekend in the minds of chairman Charlie Cobb and the Division I Football Committee.

 

When the 20-team field for the Football Championship Subdivision was unveiled, you couldn't help but find the committee's work as somewhat curious at best and absolutely brutal at worst.

 

 

 

Knowing that they actually have state of the art television, computers and all sorts of portable devices, with every possible game at their fingertips, you have to wonder if there was a power outage at NCAA headquarters on Saturday?

 

How else could you explain one team beating another by a 64-35 count, tying that squad for a conference title and being left out of the field, while the squad that was trounced was rewarded with a playoff bid?

 

So much for closing the season strong and so much for putting the top 20 teams in the field.

 

The fact that New Hampshire made the tournament for the ninth consecutive year and that Towson was overlooked makes one wonder if portions of the bracket were predetermined by the committee BEFORE the final weekend of games?

 

Can we have a little transparency into the process, Mr. Cobb?

 

It might be time for the NCAA and its director of championships, Damani Leech, to provide more public information on how the selections are made. Or maybe even open up the process for those in the media to watch first-hand.

 

No doubt, this was as difficult of a season as ever to select teams for the playoffs, but this year's committee couldn't get away from the process without making some spectacular blunders.

 

Lehigh, which finished at 10-1 and lost the championship game of the Patriot League after starting the season with nine consecutive wins, and three 8-3 teams, Richmond, Northern Arizona and Eastern Kentucky, were among the other squads who felt they had the resume to make the field.

 

The New Hampshire selection was just the egregious pick.

 

The Wildcats bring one of the worst defenses in the history of the FCS playoffs to this tournament.

 

In three losses to Minnesota, Old Dominion and Towson, New Hampshire allowed 172 points and the Wildcats allowed 40 in a controversial four-point win over Richmond — another team overlooked by the committee.

 

Richmond had a touchdown taken away in that contest that game tapes confirmed should have been allowed, which would have given UNH four losses with 219 points allowed.

 

The Wildcats rank 104th out of 121 teams in total defense, giving up 434 yards per game, 113th in passing defense (269 yards), 68th in rushing defense (165 yards), 72nd in passing efficiency defense and 91st in scoring defense (30.91 points).

 

That doesn't sound like the type of stats that are going to get a team to Frisco, TX. for a championship. More likely, that is the type of performance that won't get you out of the first round.

 

Since 2000, the earliest year that the NCAA has team statistics available on-line, only five teams ranking 100th or worse in total defense have advanced to the playoffs (Montana 102nd in 2004, Fordham 203rd in 2007, Texas State 112th in 2008, Eastern Washington 113th in 2009 and New Hampshire 105th in 2011).

 

Montana, which used a powerful offense led by quarterback Craig Ochs to advance to the 2003 championship game, was the only one of those teams to even win more than one playoff contest.

 

In the minds of most people who follow the Colonial Athletic Association regularly, New Hampshire ended the regular season as the fifth-best team in the conference, behind Old Dominion, Villanova, Towson and Richmond.

 

The only team with a winning record that UNH defeated was Richmond and the Wildcats benefitted from the weakest schedule in the 11-team CAA, missing games with Villanova and James Madison in the eight-game, unbalanced schedule.

 

Coaches around the league seemed convinced that the teams with the best chance to be competitive in postseason play were Old Dominion, Villanova and Towson, with Villanova and Towson viewed as the most balanced squads in the CAA.

 

Towson was battle tested by one of the toughest schedules in FCS, falling to the best team in the Mid-American Conference, Kent State, 41-21, to open the season and then pushing LSU before losing 38-22.

 

The 22 points allowed by LSU were the most the Bayou Tigers had allowed since allowing 27 to high-powered Oregon to open the 2011 campaign.

 

The Towson Tigers also had to play games with James Madison, Villanova and New Hampshire all on the road.

 

After back-to-back losses to LSU and JMU (13-10), Towson won five of its last six games, with the only setback being a down-to-the-wire defeat by Old Dominion, 31-20.

 

In its final four games, Towson outscored opponents 188-107 — including two of the four CAA co-champions, Villanova and New Hampshire — and out-gained them 2,102-1,339.

 

It would hard to find a team that was playing better at the end of the season than Towson.

 

Here is where the Orwellian inequity of the selections starts to come in.

 

It has been years since the official selection criteria eliminated the provision that four losses would put a team in jeopardy of missing the playoffs and a number of deserving and not so-deserving four-loss squads have made the playoffs since then.

 

New Hampshire has kept its postseason streak alive with four-loss selections in 2007 and 2010.

 

But apparently, the committee decided unilaterally that four-loss squads from Towson and Youngstown State would not be strongly considered this year.

 

Another problem here, however, is that the committee had set the precedent of only rewarding and not punishing teams for scheduling Football Bowl Subdivision games in the recent past.

 

So Towson's record in the committee's eyes should have been 7-2, not 7-4, if it had followed previous criteria.

 

The rules clearly state that seven Division I wins are needed for a team to be reasonable considered.

 

In the days where more and more FCS teams are scheduling two FBS-money-games in an effort to fund athletic departments, it is almost criminal to punish them for trying to balance their budgets.

 

The committee sings the praises of strength of schedule every year, but its decisions with the 2012 playoff field sent an opposite message.

 

Towson should have been considered along with two teams that also finished with seven D-I victories, Sam Houston State and Wofford.

 

Like Towson, Sam Houston State also scheduled and lost to two FBS opponents, Baylor and Texas A&M. 

 

The Bearkats played admirably early in the season against Baylor, before being worn down and losing 48-23. Against Texas A&M on Saturday, SHSU trailed 47-0 before scoring 28 points in garbage time.

 

But Sam Houston State had other problems that should have been addressed by the committee.

 

The Bearkats lost head-to-head to Central Arkansas, 24-20, to lose out on the automatic bid in the Southland, but managed to earn a share of the league championship in what was a very weak conference.

 

Like New Hampshire, Sam Houston State only defeated one team with a winning record, 7-4 McNeese State, and the Bearkat schedule included wins over D-II Incarnate Word and SWAC bottom feeder Texas Southern.

 

How bad was the Southland this season?

 

Bad enough that the league's third-best team, Southeastern Louisiana was 0-4 against non-conference opponents and got beat 70-0 by SHSU.

 

You have to wonder if the committee wasn't looking more at Sam Houston State's 2011 resume, instead of the 2012 version.

 

SHSU was the top-seed in 2011 and won 14 consecutive games before losing 17-6 in the championship game against North Dakota State.

 

Maybe the NCAA thought it would sell more tickets for the title game in Frisco, TX. if SHSU made the field again.

 

The biggest argument for leaving a 10-win Lehigh club out of the playoffs was strength of schedule, but was the Mountain Hawks' ledger all that much different from Sam Houston State's log?

 

Lehigh actually beat Big South co-champion Liberty on the road, something that even playoff-bound Stony Brook couldn't do and had other quality wins against Lafayette, Fordham and Princeton.

 

If the committee gave Sam Houston State some credit for 2011, than why didn't Lehigh get props for winning tournament games in each of the past two years?

 

Instead, Lehigh becomes only the second 10-win team from an auto-bid conference to be overlooked for a playoff berth. 

 

Bucknell was 10-1 in 1997, losing its final game of the season to Colgate. But that was the first year that the Patriot League had received an auto bid.

 

Another seven D-I-win team to make the cut was Southern Conference co-champion Wofford, but while the Terriers can be faulted for scheduling a D-II game against Lincoln, they made up for it in other ways.

 

Wofford's biggest calling card was a 38-28 victory at Appalachian State, but the Terriers also had solid wins over The Citadel, which had beaten SoCon co-champions ASU and Georgia Southern in back-to-back games, and Tennessee-Chattanooga, two of the teams that tied for fourth in the competitive league.

 

Still how can you consider Sam Houston State and Wofford with seven D-I wins and not include Towson?

 

Is the committee saying it is okay to schedule D-II games to get to eight wins?

 

Another questionable selection was the inclusion of Illinois State in the field.

 

ISU was a team that reached some nice heights, beating a moribund FBS club in Eastern Michigan, edging playoff-bound Eastern Illinois, 54-51 in overtime and beating solid teams from Youngstown State and Indiana State.

 

But this same Redbird squad was one of the most inconsistent in FCS, losing three games in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.

 

We can understand a loss to MVFC champion North Dakota State on the final day of the regular season, but it is hard to overlook really bad losses to Southern Illinois and Missouri State and the fact the Redbirds were 3-3 down the stretch after a 5-0 start.

 

Cobb said on Sunday that the final two teams into the field were South Dakota State  and Stony Brook, which raises eyebrows when you consider that SDSU finished ahead of Illinois State in the MVFC standings and that Stony Brook was one of the top 10 teams in FCS for virtually the entire season.

 

As puzzling as the 10 at-large selections might have been, it was the placement of teams that received first-round byes that was just as perplexing.

 

Why was New Hampshire, a team that shouldn't have even made the field, given one of the 12 first-round byes over Villanova, which was the auto-bid club in the CAA and was clearly one of the hottest teams in the country at the end of the season?

 

Shouldn't Villanova's 38-14 road victory over Old Dominion — the Monarch's only loss of the season — counted for something? The fact that Villanova lost a couple of weeks back 49-35 to Towson, while UNH was scorched by 29 points by the Tigers should have made someone say stop when this bracket was proposed.

 

Villanova at Stony Brook should have been a second-round classic, not a first-round game.

 

It would have been easy to have slotted the New Hampshire-Wofford game into the first round, or to have found another second-round opponent for Wofford.

 

There were also complaints that brackets were somewhat unbalanced with more strength in the top of the draw, with teams like North Dakota State, Old Dominion and Georgia Southern, while the bottom part of the bracket leaves more probability for an unseeded team to make a run.

 

But as bad as this process might have been in 2012, at least we can be assured of one thing. FCS will crown a true champion on the field, not through some contrived computer-based matchup that the Bowl Championship Series gives us.

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