By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — With two weekends left before Selection Sunday, amazingly, only one conference's autobid has been determined beyond doubt.
Folks who want to fill out their FCS playoff brackets don't even know whom the autobids might be, let alone the riddle that is the at-large candidate pool.
It's about as clear as the polls for the presidential election.
With the latest seismic shockers affecting the race for conference championships , we once again look at the landscape, and try to figure out: who's in? Who's out?
Ten Conferences, Ten Autobids
With two weekends to go, here are my updated picks as to how these autobids might play out:
Big Sky Conference: A little more clarity has come through in the Big Sky with Montana State's 20-17 squeaker over Sacramento State.
Through the Bobcats' win over the Hornets, Sacramento State cannot win the autobid, since two of the teams ahead of them, Cal Poly and Northern Arizona, play each other and neither can get to three conference losses. The Hornets are now left to win their last game in the "Causeway Classic" against bitter rival UC Davis, and hope that their win over FBS Colrado, and their win over Cal Poly, is enough to get them an at-large bid.
The autobid can still be won by Montana State (8-1, 5-1), Eastern Washington (7-2, 5-1), or Cal Poly (7-2, 5-1), or Northern Arizona, but it's the Nothern Arizona Lumberjacks (8-1, 6-0) that are two wins away from the championship and autobid. (Though Cal Poly lost last weekend to Eastern Washington, by prior agreement the game was not considered a Big Sky conference game.)
Northern Arizona's road, though, won't be easy, as they'll face 4-6 Southern Utah this weekend, who upended Eastern Washington two weeks ago and have lost their four Big Sky conference game by an average of just under five points.
If they lose to Southern Utah and beat Cal Poly, Eastern Washington would win the autobid.
"If all four teams tie at 7-1," the Big Sky explained this weekm "all four teams would be recognized a co-conference championship. The league’s automatic bid to the playoffs would go to the team with the highest conference Sagarin Rating, as that would be the first criteria in the Big Sky’s tiebreaker that could be met. All four teams would have played and beat North Dakota , Portland State and UC Davis in conference games, meaning the Sagarin Ratings would break the tie."
If you think that will make anything easier to determine – think again. This week's Sagarin rankings have Eastern Washington at 86, Montana State at 91, Northern Arizona at 93, and Cal Poly at 99.
Therefore, by the most slender of criteria, that means I think Eastern Washington will take the Big Sky's autobid. That means I think Northern Arizona will slip against Southern Utah, Cal Poly, or both.
Big South Conference: Three teams remain alive for the Big South's autobid, with Stony Brook (9-1, 5-0) in control.
Beat Liberty (4-5, 3-1), and they're the Big South champions, and await to see if the FCS playoff committee will give them a seed.
Lose, and it gives the Flames and Coastal Carolina (5-4, 3-1) an opening.
If Liberty wins and beats VMI the following weekend, and the Chanticleers lose one of their final two games, Liberty would be the Big South's co-champion with Stony Brook and winner of the autobid.
If Liberty wins their last two games and Coastal Carolina beats Presbyterian and their rival, Charleston Southern, then the Chanticleers would be the Big South champions based on the new tiebreaker applied here, which is "road wins". (This would give new meaning to the phrase 'getting punished by playing a difficult schedule', since Stony Brook would have gone 3-2 in road games, including two against FBS opponents, vs. Coastal's 4-1 record, which included North Carolina A&T and Furman.)
Stony Brook seems like they're strong enough to win this Saturday, though, and put all talk of these autobid scenarios to bed. (Or at least that's what a litany of at-large teams are hoping.)
Then, the epic 1-1 tiebreaker between Liberty, Coastal, and Stony Brook would take effect, with every school with a shot at the title and autobid. (Additionally, the Chanticleers also need for Liberty to beat Charleston Southern (4-4, 2-1) this weekend.)
It still seems like Stony Brook's autobid (8-1, 4-0) is safe, and certainly every team on the bubble of the playoffs have to be hoping that that the Seawolves do indeed run the table, since at 9-2 with a win over Army, they would seem to be in the field one way or another.
Stony Brook didn't do anything to dispel this notion this weekend, either, after its 56-14 drubbing of Presbyterian this past Saturday.
Colonial Athletic Association: The autobid question is no more easily answered in the CAA, where the distinct possibility of a five-team tie for the championship is a possibility. And that's not even counting Old Dominion (8-1, 5-1), who is ineligible for the league's autobid.
Buckle up. Here's the skinny on the CAA autobid.
James Madison (7-2, 5-1) and New Hampshire (8-2, 6-1) are currently in the lead for the race for the autobid, with Villanova (6-3, 4-2), Towson (5-4, 4-2), and Richmond (6-3, 4-2) hot on their heels.
There are plenty of big CAA matchups left to determine the champions, but three critical matchups – James Madison at Villanova this weekend, and Towson at New Hampshire and Old Dominion and James Madison on the final weekend of the year – loom over all others.
If Towson and Villanova win, James Madison beats Old Dominion the final weekend of the year and all the favored teams win the remainder of their games, five eligible teams will have 6-2 conference records (and also, incidentally, Old Dominion). This will be a major win for championship ring makers from Hampton, Virginia to Durham, New Hampshire, but it makes for a complicated tiebreaker to determine the automatic bid.
From the CAA's handbook from 2011 (the 2012 handbook not available online), the tiebreakers are: "1. Head-to-head competition (between multiple teams if necessary). 2. Individual Win-loss percentage versus the highest-placed common opponents and proceeding down. 3. Jeff Sagarin “ELO_CHESS” computation."
What's interesting about this is that Old Dominion played all five teams in the tie, which means that their head-to-head tiebreaker comes into play. Even though the Monarchs aren't eligible for the autobid, the teams that lost to them, like Towson, Richmond, and New Hampshire, would be eliminated from autobid consideration in that case.
The remaining teams would be then James Madison and Villanova – the only two teams who would have beaten the Monarchs – and then James Madison, by virtue of their win over Towson (and the Wildcats' loss to Towson), would win the autobid.
But if Villanova wins the rest of their games, James Madison loses to Old Dominion (and would have lost to Villanova this weekend), and New Hampshire loses to Towson, the Wildcats will be the CAA champions and will get the autobid, because they'd be the only team in the tiebreaker that has beaten Old Domnion.
Villanova, a team who is perceived to be on the bubble even if they win out, could greatly use the autobid to sleep well on Saturday night when the regular season concludes.
While a playoff spot for New Hampshire is a near-certainty if they beat the Tigers in their final game of the year, for Towson and Richmond, two teams firmly on the bubble, the autobid is much more critical.
If Richmond wins the rest of their games, the Spiders have something to point to – their ELO_Chess rating at No. 155, and their rating would only seem to improve every time they win.
If they are in a two-way tie with New Hampshire, they would lose the autobid to the Wildcats, who beat them head-to-head. But a tiebreak scenario with two or more teams not involving Villanova – which would happen if Towson beats winless Rhode Island this weekend, James Madison loses to either Villanova or Old Domnion, and Villanova loses to either James Madision or Delaware – could mean they could be ranked ahead of Towson (154) and New Hampshire (148), their competition in ELO_CHESS, and the common opponents are tied all the way down. It would mean a nail-biting computation of ELO_CHESS after the last FCS football game is played Saturday night, but the Spiders are still very much alive in this scenario.
For Towson, there are two paths. First, they could win the ELO_CHESS tiebreaker if they finish 2-0 in their last two games. But there's another path.
If James Madison loses to both Villanova and Old Domnion, and also sees Villanova lose to Delaware (5-4, 2-4) in the Wildcats "Blue Route Rivalry" to close the season, and Richmond loses to either Delaware or William & Mary, it would mean that Towson and New Hampshire would be co-champions, the only teams at 6-2 in conference, and the Tigers would have won the head-to-head matchup.
(The Blue Hens can make it to 7-4, but are the longest of longshots to make the field if they do since they'd only have six Division I wins.)
Got all that?
Oh yeah. There's also the easiest scenario of all. New Hampshire beats Towson, and James Madison loses to either Villanova or Old Domnion or both. I still think that's what happens.
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference: After the hot mess that is the CAA autobid, the MEAC autobid is refreshingly easy.
Since the Wildcats beat them head-to-head, North Carolina Central (6-3, 5-1) can only win the autobid if Bethune-Cookman (7-2, 6-0) loses their final two games against 1-8 Savannah State or 3-6 Florida A&M in the "Florida Classic".
If the Wildcats take care of business in Savannah, Georgia, and I think they will, they'll be the second team to punch their ticket to the postseason.
Missouri Valley Football Conference: A beautiful rivalry against North Dakota State (8-1, 5-1) and South Dakota State (7-2, 5-1) blossomed when both teams were competing in the Great West. This year, though, they're playing for a lot more than the "Dakota Marker" – the direction of the Missouri Valley Conference title and autobid very much hangs in the balance.
If the Jackrabbits win, and then dispatch of 1-8 South Dakota the following week, they will be Missouri Valley champions and will be in sole possession of the autobid.
If the Bison win, they'll have a dogfight with Illinois State (8-2, 5-2) during the final weekend of the year for the title. And if the Redbirds beat the Bison in this situation, they'll be the Missouri Valley autobid champs, no matter what happens in Indiana State's (7-3, 5-2) matchup against 5-4 Youngstown State to finish the year.
Indiana State can win a co-championship with a win on November 17th, but can't win the autobid, since South Dakota State virtually holds all the tiebreakers in the event they win the Marker next weekend, even if they lose to the Coyotes the following week. The Sycamores, though, need to ensure they make the field, too. Only a win against the Penguins will ensure they're considered with seven Division I wins.
Northeast Conference: So much for Sandy affecting Wagner's chances at the autobid. With their shocking 30-0 blowout of former favorite Albany on the road, all the Seahawks (6-3, 6-1) need to do to win the autobid is to beat Duquesne (5-4, 3-3) the final weekend of the year, or have Albany (7-2, 5-1) lose to either Central Connecticut State or Duquesne to close out the season.
If both lose to Duquesne, suddenly, Monmouth (4-4, 3-2) can enter the picture, too, thanks to their critical wins over Duquesne and Wagner, which would have them win the tiebreaker. But for the Seahawks, "win and they're in", and that's what I think Wagner will do.
Ohio Valley Conference: Four teams remain, and two teams play their final conference game this weekend, making a once-confusing picture somewhat more clear.
If Eastern Illinois (6-3, 5-1) wins this weekend against 3-6 Southeast Missouri State, they will either win the OVC title outright or tie for the championship, depending on the outcome of UT Martin's (7-2, 5-1) final two games. One of those games is against Tennessee State (8-2, 4-2) to close out the season, while Eastern Kentucky (7-3, 5-2) stay in the conversation if they can hold off red-hot Murray State, a 4-5 team that knocked off Tennessee State last weekend.
If the Panthers take care of business, they'll need to travel to Central Arkansas the final week of the year, and possibly will need either a win in Conway, Arkansas, or a loss by UT-Martin to Tennessee State to clinch the autobid. The Panthers, Tigers, Colonels and Skyhawks all remain in the conversation, too, for an at-large bid, though even at 9-2 or 8-3 with eight Division I wins it might not be enough.
I think UT Martin wins out, foiling both Eastern Illinois' and Tennessee State's chance at an at-laege bid. In addition, I see Eastern Kentucky with a very long Saturday night ahead of them, awaiting to see if they make the field.
Patriot League: Finally, a straightforward autobid scenario. The game this weekend in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania pitting Lehigh (9-0, 3-0) and Colgate (6-3, 4-0) will determine the Patriot League autobid winner. While Lehigh could beat Colgate and then lose to their hated rival the following weekend, they'd still own the head-to-head tiebreaker against Colgate, and thus would be in the field of 20.
Southern Conference: For Georgia Southern, it was "win, and they're in" with their final conference game of the season. And at home against their gigantic rival, Appalachian State, they lost, 31-28.
Coupled with Wofford's (7-2, 5-2) shock loss to 6-3 Samford, 24-17, suddenly Appalachian State (7-3, 5-2) is shockingly in the driver's seat for the SoCon title after being basically left for dead a couple of weeks ago.
If the Mountaineers lose to 3-6 Furman this weekend, Georgia Southern will be the SoCon champs or co-champs, but will win the autobid thanks to their win over Wofford.
But if the Mountaineers win and and 5-4 Chattanooga beats Wofford this weekend, Appalachian State would clinch the autobid thanks to the fact that they beat Georgia Southern (7-2, 6-2) and Chattanooga head-to-head.
If Appalachian State and Wofford both win, however, it will all come down to the final records of the fourth-placed teams. There are some scenarios where Wofford can win the autobid, but most still favor Appalachian State.
Making matters more interesting is the fact that both Wofford and Georgia Southern are also playing to get to the magical seven Division I win criteria.
If the Eagles lose to Howard this weekend and FBS Georgia the final weekend of the year, they could finish 7-4 and go from being a playoff shoo-in to almost certainly seeing their season come to an end.
Similarly, if Wofford loses to both Chattanooga and FBS South Carolina in consecutive weeks, they would sit at 7-4 with six Division I wins, in an even worse situation than Georgia Southen.
Could the SoCon be a one-bid conference? While extremely unlikely, it's still possible.
Southland Conference: The one team that punched their ticket to the postseason this weekend was Central Arkansas (8-2, 6-1) with their 35-14 win over Northwestern State. With their head to head win over Sam Houston State (7-2, 5-1) and their conference championship decided, they have a week off and a game versus Eastern Illinois that could be a proving ground to determine whether the Bears should have a first-round bye, or even a seed.
There are two teams still vying for at-large berths. One is the Bearkats, whose 70-0 disemboweling of Southeastern Louisiana was an attempt at a statement game. They need to beat either Northwestern State or Texas A&M, though, to guarantee a spot, since they sit at six Division I wins and require one more to feel absolutely safe.
The other is McNeese State (6-3, 3-3), who sits at 5 Division I wins but has the opportunity for two more, one on the road vs. FBS Texas-San Antonio and at home vs. 3-7 Lamar. If the Cowboys beat the 5-4 Roadrunners this weekend, would the FCS playoff committee deny a team who beat two FBS teams in the same season with 7 Division I wins? A win over UTSA coupled with their 27-21 win at Middle Tennessee State, I think, would absolutely put them in the field.
At-Large Berths: So you've waded through all the scenarios, studied all your tiebreakers. Now, who are the teams with the at-large berths? Here is my take, in no particular order.
In: Cal Poly, Georgia Southern, Illinois State, James Madison, Montana State, North Dakota State, Northern Arizona, Old Domnion, Richmond, Sam Houston State.
Just Outside: Albany, Eastern Kentucky, Indiana State, McNeese State, North Carolina Central, Tennessee State, Towson, Villanova, Wofford.
So why do these teams sit outside the FCS playoff bubble?
Wofford, who could sit at 8-3, might really regret scheduling Lincoln, which does not count towards their Division I win criteria. In a year where the difference between "in" and "out" is so slight, it's that game that might make the difference.
A similar story could play out with Indiana State, who can do no better than an 8-3 record with seven Division I wins. If Cal Poly goes at least 8-3, which seems like a near-certainty, I can't see how the committee takes the Sycamores and not the Mustangs, who additionally have an FBS win over Wyoming to merit consideration.
North Carolina Central, Tennessee State and Eastern Kentucky will likely have the requisite eight Division I wins, but it's very difficult to see them make it over an 8-3 Illinois State team with an FBS win in their back pocket, even if it's against horrible Eastern Michigan out of the MAC. Furthermore, Illinois State has all Division I wins as well.
Finally this week, let's take a new look as to how the seeds could shake out, and a sample bracket:
Seeds: Eastern Washington, Sam Houston State, South Dakota State, Old Dominion, Stony Brook.
Eastern Washington Bracket
Northern Arizona @ Central Arkansas winner at No. 1 Eastern Washington
Georgia Southern @ North Dakota State
Old Dominion Bracket
Wagner @ Lehigh winner at No. 4 Old Dominion
New Hampshire @ No. 5 Stony Brook
South Dakota State Bracket
Richmond @ Cal Poly winner at No. 3 South Dakota State
Illinois State @ Montana State
Sam Houston State Bracket
UT Martin @ Bethune-Cookman winner at No. 2 Sam Houston State
James Madison @ Appalachian State