FCS Playoffs: The Grand Art Of Compromise

Horse Trading

By David Coulson

Executive Editor

College Sports Journal

 

PHILADELPHIA, PA. — If I lived in the world of science fiction, how fun would it be to transform into a fly on the wall as the NCAA Division I Football Committee do their playoff deliberations each year in Indianapolis, IN?

 

This weekend would have been a good time for such a feat, considering the questions that arose from the selection of the 2011 Football Championship Subdivision field.

 

Inquiring minds around the country want to know how Eastern Kentucky managed to slip into the field when the Colonels were not on the radar of hardly anyone before Sunday’s selection show on ESPNU.

 

 

There were questions about how the Missouri Valley Football Conference could have such a solid year and end up with just two schools in the 20-team playoff bracket. And more directly, how Illinois State managed to be left out of the field.

 

The Pioneer Football League — the only conference outside of the Ivy League that has never had a representative in the playoffs — was once again asking what it has to do to get a team into the field.

 

In the world of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference again wondered what it takes for one of its schools to get an at-large berth.

 

Others raised eyebrows about the way seeding was decided.

 

How could the MVFC end up with only two teams in the field and both of them being seeded in the top-five, while the always-tough Colonial Athletic Association received five bids and no seeds?

 

And one of the biggest questions of all proved to be why James Madison — one of the top three schools in FCS for attendance — was sent on the road to play at Eastern Kentucky?

 

As we established before the selections were complete, one of the keys to understanding the committee’s work is to look at past precedent.

 

Just like the Supreme Court uses past cases to decide legal questions, the committee has a tendency to make decisions that are similar to what it has done in the past.

 

And also realize that there is a give and take to the judgements that the committee makes.

 

Welcome to the grand art of compromise.

 

While a lot of people were quick to criticize and question the work of this year’s committee, this group was making decisions in line with what it had done in the past and, for the most part, it was done with complete NCAA logic.

 

WHO IS NO. 1?

 

Back in 1998, many were surprised when an undefeated Tennessee State team was chosen as the No. 1 seed in the tournament. A week later, the Tigers became the only No. 1 seed to ever lose to a No. 16 seed when MEAC co-champion North Carolina A&T shocked TSU.

 

But the NCAA committee has a hard time overlooking teams with perfect records when it assigns seeds, no matter how suspect the squad’s schedule.

 

Sam Houston State rolled to an 11-0 record that included an FBS overtime win over New Mexico, one of the worst teams playing in the subdivision above FCS.

 

Playing in a Southland Conference that hasn’t won a national championship since the 1980s and has appeared in just two title games in the past 15 years, the Bearkats have beaten just one playoff team, Central Arkansas.

 

But SHSU is undefeated and in the committee’s eyes that means a No. 1 seed.

 

Committee chairman and Montana Athletic Director Jim O’Day gave a revealing interview to the Billings Gazette, where he said that SHSU was “pretty much locked into the No. 1 spot, because the Bearkats had 11 Division I wins. which is more than any other team in FCS.”

 

THE OTHER SEEDS

 

It didn’t matter that Georgia Southern was 8-1 in FCS (9-2 overall) and had scored more points than any team in the BCS against Associated Press No. 3-ranked Alabama in a 45-21 loss on Saturday.

 

Georgia Southern’s only FCS loss was a 24-17 decision to then-No. 5 Appalachian State at one of the toughest road venues to play at — before over 30,000 hostile fans at Kidd Brewer Stadium.

 

Most football people would think that such a resume would be more highly considered than beating an FBS club with one win in two years, but there is that precedent thing.

 

Finish 11-0 against D-I teams and you get moved to the head of the class.

 

It didn’t matter that the Eagles had been No. 1 ranked for most of the season, had won the Southern Conference championship and had shown their playoff worth by advancing to the semifinals last season after being one of the final teams selected into the 20-team field.

 

Georgia Southern will face either Norfolk State, or Old Dominion in the second round, with a potential rematch at home against Appalachian State on the horizon in the quarterfinals, should GSU win and the Mountaineers stop Maine.

 

North Dakota State ruined its chances at No. 1 when it dropped a 27-24 decision to Youngstown State, a middle-of-the-pack MVFC team, with two weeks left in the regular season.

 

The Bison finished 10-1 and had a win against a BCS team, former FCS coaching great Jerry Kill’s Minnesota squad, and another victory over then-No. 2-ranked Northern Iowa.

 

But that one slip-up cost NDSU, which had come within a disputed fumble of taking eventual national champion Eastern Washington to double overtime last season in the quarterfinals.

 

Sam Houston State, meanwhile, is a program that hasn’t even sniffed the playoffs since losing in the semifinals to Montana in 2004.

 

The Bison had to settle for the No. 2 seed and will await the winner of the Eastern Kentucky-James Madison matchup.

 

THE BRAWL OF THE WILD II?

 

There were a lot of questions about which squads would slot into the final three seeds.

 

Montana put itself into the seed mix by upsetting No. 1-ranked Montana State in dominating fashion, 36-10, on Saturday at Bozeman, MT. in the Brawl of the Wild.

 

But O’Day said that even if Montana State had won that the Bobcats, who had an FBS loss on their resume, were likely to have been overlooked for the top seed.

 

But the 9-2 Grizzlies, with that strong playoff tradition and the guarantee of big attendance at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, were too much to overlook for the No. 4 seed — a bracket placement that secured two possible home games for the Griz and even made it possible for a rematch of the Brawl of the Wild if Montana State should make it to the semifinals.

 

Can you imagine what the environment at Washington-Grizzly Stadium would be if the Bobcats met Montana again with a berth in the title game on the line?

 

“Too bad Washington-Grizzly Stadium only holds 25,000,” a Montana fan told me on Monday. “You could sell 50,000 tickets to that game.”

 

Montana State (9-2) was lucky to draw a home game for the second round, even after its fine season. The Bobcats were originally bracketed to play Northern Iowa on the road after a second-round bye.

 

Northern Iowa (9-2) was seeded fifth and that distinction means the Panthers are guaranteed a second-round home game. Instead, the committee didn’t do UNI any favors by sending Wofford and its triple-option attack to Cedar Falls, IA.

 

Montana State will be at home against New Hampshire in the second round, with the winner facing a possible matchup with Sam Houston State in the quarterfinals.

 

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN

 

One of the bigger feel-good stories in FCS this fall has been the rise of Towson, which put together the biggest turnaround of any Division I team this season. After finishing 1-10 last season and winning one CAA game in two years, the Tigers captured the CAA title with a 7-1 record and finished 9-2 overall.

 

One of the losses for the Tigers were a 28-7 setback to Maryland — a game where Towson played without injured starting quarterback Grant Enders, trailed the Terapins 14-7 midway through the fourth quarter and out-gained this BCS opponent for the game.

 

Towson’s only defeat in league came to defending national finalist Delaware, 35-30, a week after the Blue Hens were effectively eliminated from the postseason with their fourth loss (more on Delaware’s ill-fated lobbying effort for a playoff berth later).

 

If there were any doubts about how tough the Tigers were, they finished the season with wins in defacto championship games at Maine, at home against New Hampshire — a pair of highly-ranked teams — and on the road at Rhode Island.

 

But that wasn’t enough to get Towson a seed. Can anyone remember the last time a CAA, or predecessor the Atlantic 10, didn’t get a team in the top five?

 

Towson drew an expected regional game against Patriot League champion Lehigh in the second round, one of the toughest second-round matchups in the entire field.

 

Northern Iowa lost to Iowa State in the final 40 seconds of its season-opener, 20-19, and dropped a 27-19 decision to North Dakota State for its only losses.

 

Perhaps, it all was a part of the great compromise.

 

The CAA managed to get five teams into the field, with Maine and New Hampshire joining Towson with first-round byes, while Old Dominion and James Madison also made the field.

 

ODU hosts MEAC champion Norfolk State in a sold-out, first-round game.

 

COMPROMISING POSITIONS

 

JMU was obviously one of the last two at-large teams selected into the field, which brings us to more of the business of compromise.

 

The CAA didn’t get a seed, but it was successful getting all five of the teams it expected to get into the field.

 

The MVFC, meanwhile, received two seeds, but didn’t get a third team into the tournament.

 

And just as the committee did last year, when it placed two of three league champions from an automatic bid conference into the field as an at-large selection, it did it again with the Ohio Valley Conference and Eastern Kentucky.

 

Last year, Bethune-Cookman, South Carolina State and Florida A&M all tied for the MEAC title. Bethune-Cookman was invited as the auto bid team and South Carolina State made it as an at-large squad, with Florida A&M being left on the sidelines.

 

This year, Tennessee Tech, Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State ran a dead heat for the OVC championship. Tennessee Tech made it to the playoffs as the at-large team and EKU was given a slot as what looks like the 10th and final at-large position.

 

Many bemoaned the fact that Illinois State was overlooked with a 7-4 record and a third-place finish.

 

On the final day of the regular season, both Indiana State and Youngstown State lost to fall to 6-5 and seemingly cleared the path for Illinois State to grab that final at-large bid, much like North Dakota State did last year.

 

But unfortunately for the Redbirds, a double-overtime loss to Northern Iowa put ISU in a precarious position with the committee.

 

WIN, BABY, WIN

 

This leads to our next precedent. If you want to secure your place in the field, you had better win your final game.

 

Many teams have learned that cruel fate over the years and Illinois State is the latest squad to find itself at the alter without a bride.

 

For all of those crying foul, I don’t think that anyone can complain too much about a 7-4 team being left out. As Bill Parcells likes to proclaim, you are only as good as your record says you are.

 

A team is usually 7-4 because it has gone through periods of inconsistency during the season. When there were just 16 teams in the field, a seven-win team was rarely invited to the tournament.

 

But two more automatic bids for the Big South Conference and the Northeast Conference have opened the way for 7-4 teams to get more consideration.

 

Most of the polls and even a lot of computer rankings favored Illinois State for consideration as the final team into the field. This writer was one of many who predicted that ISU would get the final spot over Bethune-Cookman.

 

But in the poll that mattered most, the committee had Illinois State ranked below another 7-4 team in Eastern Kentucky, which just happened to win its final game against rival Tennessee-Martin, 23-16.

 

When you dig a little deeper, you find out that EKU and ISU played two common opponents, Eastern Illinois of the OVC and Missouri State from the MVFC.

 

The Colonels drilled EIU 48-16, while the Redbirds lost 33-26 in their season-opener.

 

Eastern Illinois went on to win just one more game, ironically against an Austin Peay squad that handed Eastern Kentucky one of its four losses.

 

Both teams beat Missouri State, EKU edging the Bears 28-24 and ISU toppling MSU 38-13. So Eastern Kentucky was 2-0 against common opponents and Illinois State was 1-1.

 

EKU also had what is considered to be a quality loss against BCS opponent Kansas State.

 

The Colonels took a 7-0 lead into the fourth quarter and were a couple of plays away from clinching a victory when the Wildcats came back to win 10-7 with a touchdown pass at the 1:39 mark.

 

Kansas State has surprisingly gone on to a 9-2 record and is ranked 11th by Associated Press in its FBS poll.

 

For committee purposes, that left EKU with a 7-3 FCS ledger, while Illinois State was 7-4 in the same category.

 

The Redbirds had competitive losses to Youngstown State (34-27), North Dakota (20-10) and Northern Iowa (23-20), but couldn’t overcome what most observers would call a bad loss to Eastern Illinois.

 

ISU also had a 52-21 win over a non-scholarship Morehead State squad, while EKU played all scholarship teams.

 

EKU’s other losses were to a competitive Southern Conference team from Chattanooga (23-14), the 23-17 upset at Austin Peay and 28-21 decision against Tennessee Tech, the auto bid winner from the OVC.

 

There was just enough difference between EKU and ISU to vault the Colonels into the playoffs and leave the Redbirds disappointed.

 

THE CHECK IS IN THE MAIL

 

Even more surprising than the fact that Eastern Kentucky made the field was the fact that James Madison lost its bid to the Colonels to host the first-round game.

 

Many people cried foul when JMU was left without a home game, but a Freedom of Information filing by the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record revealed that the Dukes had been out bid and O’Day confirmed that information.

 

O’Day said that JMU had been out-bid by “a considerable” amount.

 

Even with an average attendance of 25,002 per game in the newly refurbished Bridgeforth Stadium, JMU only bid $46,768.50 for the first round. The minimum bid was $30,000.

 

JMU officials told reporters they were worried about Thanksgiving weekend, school being out of session and the Virginia-Virginia Tech rivalry game being played 45 miles away as potential attendance depressors.

 

The Dukes bid $76,168.50 for the second round ($30,000 minimum), $100,056 for the quarterfinals ($40,000 minimum) and $125,743.50 for the semifinals ($50,000 minimum).

 

“We ended up submitting what we felt was a very competitive bid based on prior history and what we felt was appropriate in regard to our stadium,” JMU Athletic Director Jeff Bourne told the Daily News-Record. “We’re seeing a real shift in the types of commitments people are willing to make. To me this is a significant change.”

Bourne represents the CAA on the NCAA football committee. EKU Athletic Director Mark Sandy is also among the committee members.

It is NCAA policy that athletic directors must leave the room when their teams are being discussed.

 

WHAT ABOUT THE PFL?

 

Pioneer Football League commissioner Patty Viverito, who serves a dual role as the commissioner of the MVFC, has lobbied hard in the past two years for her non-scholarship conference to receive an automatic berth.

 

At the present time, the PFL is the only league in FCS that has asked for an auto bid to be denied one.

 

The Southwestern Athletic Association has chosen to play a championship game between its two divisional winners and is not eligible for an auto bid, though the SWAC has received such a position in the past.

 

The Ivy League does not allow its eight members to participate in post-season football, harkening back to the tradition of an archaic era — a policy that has drawn much criticism from the FCS world and most of its own football coaches and teams.

 

This year, the PFL had two teams tied for its league championship, Drake and San Diego. Both teams finished the season 9-2 overall and 7-1 in conference play.

 

If you were trying to figure out an automatic qualifier from this league, San Diego would have won that honor with a 31-24 home victory against the Bulldogs.

 

But strength of schedule has long been the bugaboo of the PFL and it did in the Toreros and the Bulldogs again this season.

 

San Diego won two non-Division-I games, beating traditional foe Azusa Pacific and Western New Mexico in its first two games. In their other non-conference game, the Toreros dropped a 31-3 decision to a Great West Conference opponent, UC Davis.

 

UC Davis went on to finish the season at 4-7 and tied for the bottom spot in the GWC with Southern Utah.

 

San Diego also had a bad loss to league rival Campbell, falling 48-24 in one of the more shocking PFL games of the season.

 

Drake also had two non-D-I wins, going to overtime to beat Grand View, 28-21, and barely edging Missouri S&T (no that doesn’t stand for Savings and Trust), 27-23. The Bulldogs lost to Great West Conference co-champion North Dakota, 16-0, in its other non-conference game.

 

THE MEAC FRONT

 

A year ago, the MEAC was enamored to get two teams into the tournament for the first time in over a decade. But the league found out that while a 9-2 record was good enough for at-large inclusion for South Carolina State last season, an 8-3 mark was not enough for Bethune-Cookman this season.

 

Bethune-Cookman struggled to find a quarterback to lead its offense early in the season, but the Wildcats caught fire after a 2-3 start to finish with six consecutive victories, including a 14-6 national television win over league champion Norfolk State and a 26-16 triumph against rival Florida A&M in the Florida Classic on Saturday.

 

The losses for B-CU were to South Carolina State (26-18), BCS member Miami 45-14 and North Carolina A&T (22-3). The loss to NCAT was particularly costly, causing the Wildcats to ultimately lose out on the MEAC auto bid and a co-championship.

 

With two teams at 9-2, it would have been hard for the committee to go against its previous precedents and not give the MEAC two spots in the field.

 

A non-D-I win over Fort Valley State didn’t help Bethune-Cookman’s strength of schedule, either.

 

HOW ABOUT THE SWAC?

 

Technically, a team from the SWAC could someday be included in an NCAA tournament. But current schedules where Grambling plays Southern in the Bayou Classic and Alabama State meets Division II Tuskegee in the Turkey Day Classic on Thanksgiving weakend preclude three SWAC teams from participating in the playoffs.

 

The champions of each SWAC division are required to participate in the league championship game in December. This year, that knocked 8-3 Alabama A&M out of consideration.

 

Jackson State finished the year at 9-2, but the Tigers were ineligible for any postseason play because of NCAA APR sanctions.

 

No other SWAC teams met the NCAA’s seven Division I win criteria.

 

SEVEN WINS?

 

Speaking of seven wins, Delaware coach K.C. Keeler was throughly convinced that his Blue Hens were playoff bound after they beat Villanova 26-16 in the Battle of the Blue rivalry game Saturday night at PPL Park in Chester, PA.

 

After all, Delaware had closed the season with three consecutive wins to finish 7-4 and tie James Madison for fifth place in the competitive CAA. The Blue Hens could also boast of wins over two top-10, playoff-bound teams, Old Dominion and Towson.

 

But the problem that Keeler was overlooking was that Delaware had a sloppy win against Division II West Chester, 28-17, on its resume. There was also a 40-17 loss at Navy, which neither helped, or hindered the Blue Hens.

 

In the committee’s eyes, Delaware was just 6-3.

 

“We are tremendously disappointed especially when you think about how well we played at the end of the season,” Keeler said on Sunday, after learning of his team’s fate. “When you look at our three wins to end the season, the fact that we had two Top 10 wins, and that we will most likely finish in the top 15 in the polls, it’s hard to think they couldn’t find a way to get us in. But the coach in me sees the things we could have done to put us in a better position.”

 

If a team like Illinois State, with seven D-I wins, wasn’t getting in, neither was Delaware.

 

Three losses during a four-game stretch during the middle of the season proved fatal for a squad that had lost 20-19 to Eastern Washington in last season’s NCAA title game.

 

For the second year in a row, a major FCS power was left on the sidelines for the playoffs. If Montana didn’t make it in at 7-4 overall, with six D-I wins last season, Keeler should have known that Delaware wasn’t going to receive an invite this year.

 

FEW SURPRISES

 

When you look at the way the committee has done its business in the past, there really were few shockers with the championship field.

 

The Southern Conference showed its competitiveness on Saturday with four teams, Georgia Southern, Furman, The Citadel and Samford playing well against the best league in the BCS, the Southeastern Conference.

 

So it wasn’t surprising to see the runner-ups from the SoCon, Appalachian State (8-3) and Wofford (8-3), get into the playoff field again.

 

Furman (6-5) showed it was a potentially dangerous team when it pushed Florida to the limit on Saturday, but stunning losses to Coastal Carolina, Samford and Elon offset wins over Wofford and Appalachian State and left the Paladins wondering what might have happened with one more win.

 

Central Arkansas (8-3) was also an easy choice for an at-large spot, even though Southland commissioner Tom Burnett was rather presumptuous when he announced a week earlier that the Bears had clinched a berth with their regular-season-ending win.

 

Hey Tom, you might want to let the committee decide things, next time.

 

UCA will not get show off its purple and gray turf, because it travels Tennessee Tech on Saturday.  The victor will draw Montana in the second round.

 

Anybody remember the Barney theme song?

 

The Big South and the Northeast Conference knew heading into Saturday that they were only going to get their respective auto bid teams into the playoffs.

 

Stony Brook (8-3) earned its first FCS berth with a hard-fought, 41-31 win over Liberty and Albany (8-3) clinched a share of its title by defeating Sacred Heart, 31-21.

 

With those efforts, Stony Brook and Albany earned the right to face each other Saturday on Long Island, N.Y. One of these two conferences will earn their first playoff victory and will move on to take on top-seeded Sam Houston State.

 

Liberty (7-4) remained one of the more perplexing teams in FCS. Ranked in the top-20 for much of the season, the Flames ended up with six D-I wins and found themselves just out of the playoff picture again.

 

The decision to play Kentucky Wesleyan left the Flames one victory short of consideration for an at-large berth. Ironically, Liberty dropped two games to playoff teams, JMU and Lehigh, because of field goals.

 

James Madison won at Liberty, 27-24, on a final-play field goal and Lehigh survived a scare from the Flames when Liberty missed a kick in the final seconds of regulation for a 27-24 decision.

 

Duquesne tied Albany for the NEC crown and finished at a sparkling 9-2, but the Dukes didn’t have enough strength of schedule to garner serious consideration for an at-large slot.

 

A non-conference slate that included a 27-26 loss to Bucknell and wins over Dayton and bottom-feeder Valparaiso wasn’t going to get Duquesne into the field.

 

The Dukes lost the auto bid when Albany beat them head-to-head, 38-10.

 

Georgetown was another 8-3 squad to get passed over, despite a second-place finish in the Patriot League.

 

But the Hoyas didn’t have much strength of schedule, either. Georgetown beat two PFL teams (Davidson and Marist), an NEC opponent (Wagner) and an MEAC squad (Howard) in it non-conference games.

 

The best non-conference game for the Hoyas was a 37-27 loss to Yale, which was just 5-5 overall and finished in a four-way tie for second in the Ivy League standings.

 

LOOKING AT THE RESULTS

 

In most years, this writer usually misses one team in the NCAA field — a pretty good record in my opinion — and such was the case this year. Figuring out where the committee will place individual teams is an art unto itself, but I got four pairings correct and barely missed on two others, flip-flopping Montana State-New Hampshire and Appalachian State-Maine.

 

In terms of seedings, I had four of the five seeded teams correct, missing on Northern Iowa and picking Towson instead. I had both Georgia Southern and North Dakota State as seeds, but had GSU No. 2 and NDSU No. 3, instead of the reverse order the committee gave us.

 

There was a thread of the FCS national message board, Any Given Saturday (www.anygivensaturday.com), that asked the question What did we learn from the committee?

 

And the simple answer is that the committee is pretty consistent in doing what it has done in the past. If you follow that logic, there are not many surprises.

 

One thing is for certain. At least when this tournament is over, we will have a true national champion, that won its trophy on the field of battle.

 

We can always be thankful for that, no matter if we like what the committee did, or not.

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