By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — It's good to be a Chanticleer right now.
A big reason for that is that they are one of three undefeated FCS schools right now. But better yet for Coastal Carolina fans, if they win this weekend at Charleston Southern, they can do no worse than tie for the Big South conference championship, and they will also be in outstanding shape to clinch the Big South's sutobid for the FCS playoffs.
Incredibly, with three weekends to go, there are no teams that can rightfully say about the playoffs, "win, and they're in". There are several teams that can qualify as autobids this weekend, but every one requires something else to happen as well as those teams winning.
With a month left to go, and a multitude of teams find themselves alive for the postseason, making for another exciting stretch run in the race to be in the Field of 24.
Eleven Conferences, Eleven Autobids
In the FCS, there are eleven conferences that have autobids to the playoffs — in other words, the conference champion has one team that qualifies for the postseason tournament.
This season, the FCS playoff party welcomes the Pioneer Football League, or PFL for short. This is their first season as an auto-qualifier for the field as a conference that has asked for, and received, an autobid.
Here are my updated picks as to how these autobids might play out:
Big Sky Conference: In what is unquestionably the "Game of the Week" in FCS, the two teams tied atop the Big Sky standings will face off and go a long way towards determining the autobid from the conference.
Eastern Washington and Montana State are still all undefeated in league play, and have survived some pretty stiff challenges in the past few weeks to assert themselves atop the league. This weekend, one will go down: they face each other on the Inferno-red turf at Roos field this weekend.
It's likely that the winner of this game will ultimately be the champions of the Big Sky, though Northern Arizona sits right behind the Eagles and Bobcats with one league loss and are still alive for the autobid as well.
The Lumberjacks' best bet to win the autobid is for Eastern Washington to beat Montana State, then stumble against Cal Poly, and for Montana State to, say, lose to Montana the final weekend of the season. In that scenario, NAU and EWU would be tied with 7-1 records, and the Lumberjacks would win the autobid thanks to the fact that they beat Cal Poly 17-13.
But in my mind, it's hard to imagine Eastern Washington losing at home and then stumbling against Cal Poly. If the Eagles win both of those games, they'll win the Big Sky autobid.
Big South Conference: Thanks to Charleston Southern's win over Presbyterian this weekend, a huge matchup between the Buccaneers and Chanticleers looms this week.
Coastal Carolina will be in the drivers' seat for the autobid if they win this weekend, and would clinch the autobid if the only other team that could catch them, Presbyterian, loses.
Charleston Southern's hopes for the autobid rest on them beating the Chants this weekend, then winning the rest of the way against both Gardner-Webb and Liberty, a very achievable goal.
Presbyterian is still alive for the autobid but requires them winning this weekend, having Coastal Carolina beat Chuck South, and then beating the Chants and the Bucs losing one more Big South game to close the season.
Liberty is also mathematically alive for the autobid as well, but requires Coastal Carolina to lose to both Charleston Southern and Presbyterian to get back into the conversation.
For top ranked Coastal Carolina, the mandate is simple: win, and the door gets shut on a lot of possibilities, and they might just clinch this weekend. I think this might happen.
Colonial Athletic Association: After Delaware's stunning 32-31 win over Towson and William and Mary's 17-0 win over New Hampshire, the race for the autobid became Maine's to lose.
The Black Bears' 19-14 win may have won them few style points, but the key was that it put Maine at 5-0 in the conference.
Delaware, their closest competition for the autobid at 4-1, already lost resoundingly to Maine 62-28, meaning that the Blue Hens would have to go undefeated, and the Black Bears would have to lose twice, in order to wrestle the autobid away from them.
What are the odds that Maine wins twice in the last three games? Pretty good, considering two of those games are against 1-8 Albany and 3-7 Rhode Island.
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference: It's still theoretically possible that Bethune-Cookman loses the autobid with a losing streak to end the season. But it's becoming harder and harder to envision every time the Wildcats win another big game.
The Wildcats still only have one loss - to one of the best FBS teams in the country, Florida State - and have an impressive FBS win against FIU as well as an undefeated conference record.
With Hampton's 30-27 loss to Morgan State this weekend, the only team with a realistic shot to knock off the Wildcats is South Carolina State, who have already lost to Bethune-Cookman head-to-head and would require them to lose two out of three to close out the season.
You have to love Bethune-Cookman's chances to win the autobid. If they beat 2-7 Norfolk State and South Carolina State loses to Florida A&M this weekend, they'll clinch the autobid this weekend.
Missouri Valley Football Conference: Youngstown State and North Dakota State are still on track to be the autobid.
Unless Illinois State knocks off the Bison in the FargoDome or ailing Northern Iowa can upend the Penguins, when North Dakota State travels to Youngstown next weekend, it will be for all the marbles. Every other member of the Missouri Valley has two conference losses.
Like last week, it's still awfully hard to go against two-time champions North Dakota State in this spot.
Northeast Conference: If you want drama in the final weeks of the season to determine an autobid, try on the NEC for size.
Three teams sit with one conference loss: Duquesne (3-1), Central Connecticut State (2-1), and Robert Morris (2-1).
Three more sit with two conference losses and are still very much alive: Sacred Heart (2-2), St. Francis (PA) (2-2), and Bryant (2-2).
Ironically, last year's autobid winners, Wagner, are the only team officially eliminated from the title race.
How to wade through all the possibilities? About the only thing that's clear is that the race will go down to the final weekend.
Two teams are "in control of their own destiny": Central Connecticut State and Duquesne. If either team wins the rest of their games, they're in. (They play each other the final weekend of the year.)
But they could easily both lose, opening the door for, say, Sacred Heart to leap right back into the race.
The most critical game this weekend for the autobid has to be Sacred Heart hosting Duquesne. If the Dukes win, they'll eliminate the Pioneers from the equation, and would be put in a potential situation to close out the autobid at home. Lose, and then all sorts of possibilities emerge.
Reluctantly, this week, I'm going to pick Duquesne as the team that wins their games and nabs the NEC autobid.
Ohio Valley Conference: Eastern Illinois might be able to wrap up the autobid this weekend.
Murray State's loss to UT Martin last weekend makes Eastern Illinois' path to the postseason even easier. If they beat the Racers this weekend and Eastern Kentucky, the only team that could catch them, loses to Jacksonville State, the Panthers will clinch the OVC autobid.
Patriot League: With last weeks' slate of games, the conference race cleared up a little.
It's incredible to think that the Patriot League title race could either be determined this weekend, or be stretched out to a dogfight until the end.
The best team in the conference, Fordham, is ineligible for the Patriot League title since they have already transitioned to the FCS-allotted maximum of 63 scholarships, two years before the rest of the league. They are 9-0 and are looking to be the first undefeated and untied regular-season team in Fordham history.
But after this weekend, only 1-8 Georgetown has been officially eliminated. Five other teams - Lafayette, Colgate, Lehigh, Holy Cross, and Bucknell - are mathematically alive.
If Lafayette beats reeling Colgate and Holy Cross upsets Lehigh in Bethlehem, the Leopards will make it back to the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2006. If they lose, however, it opens up Lehigh or Colgate to win the autobid. But there are a lot of combinations that favor the Leopards.
Pioneer Football League: With Butler's win over Dayton, the road to the PFL autobid goes through San Diego.
The five teams with one conference loss were whittled down to four last weekend: San Diego (5-1), Marist (5-1), Butler (5-1), and Mercer (4-1).
The Toreros are in control since, if they win the rest of their games, they would hold the tiebreaker against common opponents. They represent the one loss for Marist, Butler, and Mercer.
Where it gets interesting is if the Toreros lose to either Morehead State or Drake.
If it comes down to the PFL tiebreaker rules, the autobid will actually go to the team with the highest rating in the Simple Rating System, or SRS, which is reportedly one of the tools the FCS playoff committee will use when considering at-large teams.
If San Diego loses, and Butler wins out, it could come down to this tiebreaker. Marist and Mercer play each other, meaning one of those two teams will have a second conference loss at the very least. If Marist is the team in the tiebreaker, they would appear to have a microscopic edge over Butler, while Mercer, in their first year of FCS competition, does not have a strong enough schedule to win a SRS tiebreaker
But I think San Diego will take care of business and win the autobid.
Southern Conference: All Samford needed to do was beat The Citadel, and they were in control. Instead, they lost to the 3-6 Bulldogs, and it's a wide-open race once again.
Three teams sit with one conference defeat in conference play: Chattanooga, Wofford, and now Samford. All three are very much alive in the race for the autobid.
Furman, too, with two conference losses, surprisingly has everything to play for, too. If they sweep the rest of their games and Chattanooga loses to either Wofford or Samford, the Paladins would own a surprising number of tiebreakers in these scenarios.
Chattanooga's path is simple: beat their two remaining conference opponents, which happen to be the Terriers and the Bulldogs, and they will qualify for their first-ever FCS playoffs.
All that's known for sure is that the results of two games - Samford at Furman and Wofford at Chattanooga - will really clarify the SoCon title race, and also help determine whether the SoCon will manage to get a qualifying team to win an at-large bid.
Despite the loss to the Citadel, I still like Samford to come away with the autobid. If they can manage to hold off Furman this week, no matter what happens with Wofford at Chattanooga, they will be hosting the Mocs in two weeks, a game which I think the Bulldogs will win.
Southland Conference: There's a new kid in town, and it's not Sam Houston State or McNeese State.
Southeastern Louisiana, with their resounding win over McNeese State last weekend, puts them in sole possession of first place in the Southland. Yet the Southland title race is far from over.
The Lions face two teams that have spent time in the Top 25 this season, Sam Houston State and Central Arkansas. If they lose both, it will set up a four-way fight between the Lions, Bearkats, Bears, and the McNeese State Cowboys.
If Southeastern Louisiana falls to Sam Houston State and the Lions, Bearkats and Cowboys win the rest of their games, a strange situation arises if the Bearkats, Lions and Cowboys win the rest of their games. With all teams at 6-1 in the conference, it actually falls to one of the wackiest tiebreakers ever.
Lifted right from the Southland rulebook, "If a tie remains after the above procedures are attempted, the NCAA Championship-eligible member that has been absent from the Division I Championship for the longest period of time shall be designated as the Conference’s representative in the Division I Championship."
If it gets there, Southeastern Louisiana, who has never been to the playoffs, would be the autobid.
Having that in their back pocket is a huge advantage for Southeastern Louisiana, who can still stumble in the wacky Southland and still manage to make the field.
After that, which teams get the at-large bids, and who's on the outside looking in?
In the race for the at-large bids, there are
In my estimation, here are the 13 at-large teams, in no particular order.
In: Delaware, Eastern Kentucky, Fordham, McNeese State, Montana, Montana State, Northern Arizona, Sam Houston State, Southern Illinois, Tennessee State, Towson, William and Mary, Youngstown State.
Moved Out: Chattanooga, Villanova, New Hampshire
Just Outside: Central Arkansas, Charleston Southern, Chattanooga, Jacksonville State, James Madison, Lehigh, New Hampshite, South Dakota State, South Carolina State, Southern Utah, UT Martin, Wofford
Finally this week, let's take a look as to how the seeds could shake out, and a sample bracket:
Seeds: North Dakota State, Eastern Washington, Eastern Illinois, Maine, Fordham, Youngstown State, Coastal Carolina, Southeastern Louisiana.
North Dakota State Bracket
Bethune-Cookman @ Eastern Kentucky winner at No. 1 North Dakota State
Lafayette @ Towson at No. 8 Southeastern Louisiana
Southern Illinois @ Montana State winner at No. 4 Maine
Duquesne @ Delaware winner at No. 5 Fordham
Eastern Illinois Bracket
Northern Arizona @ McNeese State winner at No. 3 Eastern Illinois
San Diego @ Montana winner at No. 6 Youngstown State
Eastern Washington Bracket
Samford @ Sam Houston State winner at No. 2 Eastern Washington
Tennessee State @ William & Mary winner at No. 7 Coastal Carolina