By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — In my 10 years of analyzing and picking FCS playoff brackets, I honestly have never, ever, seen a landscape like this.
I have never seen a year where no "power conference" team — the Big Sky, CAA, Missouri Valley, and SoCon — has secured an automatic bid by the final weekend of the season.
I have never seen a year when more than thirty teams have resumes that make them eligible for the playoffs going into the final weekend.
I have never seen a year when six different conferences – the Big Sky, Patriot, OVC, NEC, SoCon, and Big South all had teams that were in control of their own destiny for an auto bid, only to lose it in the last three weekends of the season.
About the only thing that's certain this weekend is that there's going to be a lot of sleepless teams, and a lot of scoreboard watching.
One more time before Saturday night, we look at the latest — and make our own picks as to who might emerge with spots in the playoffs.
Ten Conferences, Ten Auto Bids
Going into the final weekend, here are my updated picks as to how these autobids might play out:
Big Sky Conference: All Northern Arizona (8-2, 6-1) had to do was win, and they were almost certainly in, possibly as the winner of the Big Sky auto bid.
But a loss to 5-6 Southern Utah, closed a door for the Lumberjacks, and opened another for Montana State (9-1, 6-1), Eastern Washington (8-2, 6-1), and Cal Poly (8-2, 6-1).
All four teams have one conference loss, and since Northern Arizona and Cal Poly play each other to close out the year, at least one of those teams will be at least Big Sky co-champions.
Interestingly, in every auto bid possibility, Cal Poly cannot win it outright.
But the Mustangs certainly will be very, very interested in winning on Saturday versus the Lumberjacks.
Aside from their win over FBS Wyoming, Cal Poly desperately needs another signature win to make the field, and at 9-2 with a win over nationally-ranked Northern Arizona to make the field, it would be very hard to exclude them.
The Lumberjacks have a slender chance to be Big Sky auto bid winners if they win and Montana State loses to Montana in the "Brawl of the Wild" and Eastern Washington loses to Portland State.
If Eastern Washington beats the Vikings, the Lumberjacks could technically win on the tiebreaker of Sagarin rating, but since it seems unlikely that Northern Arizona (103) could catch Eastern Washington (88), it seems like they need to win and both the Eagles and Bobcats to lose.
More important for Northern Arizona, though, is that its game against Cal Poly feels like a playoff game.
Win, and they're almost certainly in. Lose, and with seven D-I wins and their only signature victory a win over FBS UNLV, the Lumberjacks could be in jeopardy of being left out.
That leaves two teams to win the auto bid that can probably rest easy on Saturday night, Montana State and Eastern Washington, especially if they win.
If Eastern Washington and Cal Poly win, the Eagles and Mustangs are your Big Sky co-champs, and I think that's how it will play out.
Big South Conference: At-large teams were probably hoping that Stony Brook (9-2, 5-1) took care of business against Liberty (5-5, 4-1) in the Seawolves' final game of the year.
Instead, the Flames upended the Stony Brook, 28-14, and suddenly, the Big South autobid is very much in doubt.
The first clue as to the identity of the auto bid winner will be the VMI/Liberty game at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, where an awful lot of people might be rooting for the Keydets to pick off the Flames after their big win last weekend.
If VMI wins, Stony Brook would become the Big South autobid winners, no matter what else happens — and a precious at-large bid would be returned to the pool.
If Liberty, as expected, beats the Keydets, they will sit and wait to see what happens when Coastal Carolina plays Charleston Southern at 3:30 p.m. in Conway, S.C.
If the Chanticleers win — and I think they will — they will win the auto bid based in "road conference wins", since Stony Brook, Liberty, and Coastal Carolina would have gone 1-1 against each other and have no other way to break the tie.
Colonial Athletic Association: If you though the Big Sky had a complicated tiebreaker for the autobid, you ought to look at that of the CAA, where officials and at-large teams alike will be hoping that New Hampshire (8-2, 6-1) will beat Towson (6-4, 5-2), giving the Wildcats the autobid outright and preventing everyone from trying to figure out ELO_Chess ranking on Saturday night.
If Towson upsets New Hampshire, there are no fewer than 16 different scenarios, all of which keep Towson, James Madison (7-3, 5-2), Villanova (7-3, 5-2), and Richmond (7-3, 5-2) mathematically alive for the autobid — if they win.
James Madison will have to beat Old Dominion (9-1, 6-1) to have a chance at the auto bid. Old Dominion, who is ineligible to capture the auto bid for the CAA, would be a very strong candidate for a seed if the Monarchs win Saturday, while the Dukes, with seven D-I wins, would be in real jeopardy of not making the field if they lose.
The same goes with Villanova and Richmond, who will have to beat their big rivals, Delaware and William & Mary respectively, to have a chance to make the postseason.
Win, and they have a great chance. Lose, and, like the Dukes, they likely will not make it at all.
At home, and after a critical week off, I like New Hampshire to keep calculators at home and take the CAA autobid.
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference: Only one team punched their ticket for the postseason this weekend as Bethune-Cookman (7-2, 6-0) managed to take care of business against Savannah State and wrapped up the MEAC championship.
A win against Florida A&M to close the year in the "Florida Classic" would put the Wildcats at 9-2, and while a seed seems out of reach, a home game in the first round — or maybe even the second round — might be a possibility.
Missouri Valley Football Conference: The "Dakota Marker" the weekend went to North Dakota State (8-1, 5-1), and if the Bison beat Illinois State (8-2. 5-2) this weekend, they will be the sole Missouri Valley Conference champions. I think this is what will happen.
If the Redbirds upset the Bison, a multitude of possibilities open up, with Illinois State, South Dakota State (7-3, 5-2) and Indiana State (7-3, 5-2) all possible co-champions with the Bison and also mathematically alive for the autobid.
For the Jackrabbits and Sycamores, though, they need to win to stay alive for an at-large bid.
At 8-3 and closing with a win over 1-9 South Dakota, South Dakota State would at least have a win over Indiana State to show to the chamber.
At 8-3 and finishing with a win over 6-4 Youngstown State, Indiana State would have a win over No. 1-ranked North Dakota State to boast.
Could the fact that the Sycamores only have seven Division I wins be a tremendous factor?
Northeast Conference: Unlike the CAA, Missouri Valley and Big Sky, the explanation of the NEC championship couldn't be clearer.
If Wagner (7-3, 6-1) beats 5-5 Duquesne, the Seahawks will be the NEC champions, and will almost certainly be sent on the road in the first round of the playoffs.
Lose, and Albany (8-2, 6-1) takes care of business against Central Connecticut State, the Great Danes are your NEC champs. If they both lose, Wagner still gets in, based on their head-to-head win over Albany.
Albany, at 9-2, may have a chance at an at-large bid if they win on Saturday.
Though the Great Danes have losses to Youngstown State and Wagner, they do have a resounding opening weekend win against Patriot League champion Colgate to show to the committee, as well as a win against middle-of-the-pack Maine in the CAA.
Like many teams, the Great Danes will have a long Saturday night ahead of them.
Ohio Valley Conference: After coming close needing to break out the calculators on Saturday, Eastern Illinois' (7-3, 6-1) win against Southeast Missouri State on Saturday, coupled with Tennessee-Martin's (7-3, 5-2) loss to Tennessee Tech, made the Skyhawks outright OVC champions with no conference games left to play.
Among the teams with a restless night's sleep on Saturday, add Eastern Kentucky (8-3, 6-2) and the winner of the Tennessee State (8-2, 6-2)/UT Martin game this weekend.
The Colonels will hope that Coastal Carolina wins on Saturday, and perhaps becomes the Big South champs, as Eastern Kentucky could then perhaps shop that as the big "quality win" on their schedule.
UT Martin hope to win on Saturday, and hopes that the committee looks more at the Skyhawks' 20-17 win over FBS Memphis and their win over Eastern Illinois more than the loss to 3-7 Tennessee Tech.
Tennessee State needs to win on Saturday, and hope the committee heavily weighs the Tigers' win total and their victory over fellow playoff participant Bethune-Cookman.
Patriot League: Lehigh (9-1, 3-1) had the chance to wrap up the title, autobid, and perhaps even a seed had they come out on top against Colgate (7-3, 5-0). With the Raiders' impressive 35-24 win over the Mountain Hawks, though, Colgate won the autobid, and Lehigh is left hoping that a win against their bitter rivals Lafayette – and 10 Division I wins, something that's only achievable by three other teams this year – will be enough to put them in the field.
History seems to be on their side in the sense that no 10 Division I team from an autobid conference has ever been denied a playoff spot since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1997. While Lehigh could still point to two teams that could be co-champions of their conferences – Liberty and Princeton – they don't really have a statement win that would have put them in the field without doubt. The Mountain Hawks need to win, and if they do, they then have a sleepless night waiting to see if they make it.
Southern Conference: It was so confusing, and there were so many scenarios, I had to write the league office to determine the tiebreaker.
Appalachian State (8-3, 6-2), Georgia Southern (8-2, 6-2) and Wofford (8-2, 6-2) have all completed their league schedules, but — incredibly — the autobid has not been determined yet.
The league office put it to me simply.
"If Citadel beats Furman, the AQ goes to Georgia Southern," they said. "If Furman beats The Citadel, the AQ goes to Appalachian State."
The bid comes down to who finishes fourth in the league race.
Samford has already earned at least a share of fourth, with The Citadel and Tennessee-Chattanooga still in contention for a portion of that spot.
Samford beat Wofford, but lost to ASU and Georgia Southern. If the Bulldogs finish fourth, Wofford is eliminated in the tiebreaker. Then, the Mountaineer's 31-28 victory over the Eagles give ASU the auto bid.
But if The Citadel beats Furman to tie Samford for fourth, the SoCon would not break the fourth-place tie, but would go to conference points allowed to end the deadlock and Georgia Southern wins that tiebreaker.
Whether Chattanooga beats Elon to finish fourth, or not, will not effect the tiebreaker because ASU, GSU and Wofford all beat the Mocs.
Who earns the auto bid matters, because even as co-champions at 8-3, there is no guarantee that one of the three teams will make the field — though no team sharing a SoCon title has ever been denied a playoff berth.
Wofford, assuming a loss at FBS South Carolina this weekend, will only have seven Division I wins, and would only have a win over Appalachian State to show the committee.
Georgia Southern, assuming a loss at FBS Georgia this weekend, would have all Division I wins, but the Eagles' out-of-conference FCS wins, over Jacksonville and Howard, aren't exactly marquee.
Appalachian State, whose season has completed, is 8-3 and has the strongest schedule of the three. The Mountaineers own a blowout home win against a contender for the Big South title, Coastal Carolina, a squeaker of a win over 5-5 Montana and loss to FBS East Carolina in a game that was close for three quarters.
Appalachian State seems to be the team that will have the soundest sleep on Saturday. And if that happens, Georgia Southern and Wofford might be auditioning for a spot in the playoffs in their games against FBS opponents.
Southland Conference: Last week Central Arkansas (8-2, 6-1) clinched the Southland title and auto bid, thanks to the head-to-head win over Sam Houston State (8-2, 6-1).
If the Bears beat Eastern Illinois, at 9-2, they have an outside shot at a seed, and would seem like a good bet to get a first-round bye at a bare minimum.
If the Bearkats can pull off a App State-over-Michigan type upset this weekend over Texas A&M (yes, the Texas A&M that just beat defending BCS champion Alabama), I don't think there's anything keeping them from the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs.
At-Large Berths: So many at-large teams, so few spots. My picks for the at-large candidates are…
In: Cal Poly, Georgia Southern, Illinois State, Montana State, Old Dominion, Richmond, Sam Houston State, Stony Brook, South Dakota State, Villanova.
The Next Six Teams (in no particular order): Albany, Eastern Kentucky, Indiana State, Lehigh, Tennessee-Martin, Wofford.
The reason why I see Wofford and Indiana State sitting on the outside is the fact that they did not play a full Division I schedule, and other teams, like Illinois State, Lehigh, and Villanova, did. In a year where the criteria for "in" and "out is so razor-thin, this seems like a potential seperator.
Would an 8-3 Richmond team have a stronger at-large resume against a 10-1 Lehigh team?
The Spiders might, with a win over their biggest rival, William & Mary. While it would be unprecedented if a 10 Division I-win team was left out of the playoffs, again, with the criteria so razor-thin between teams, you have to wonder if Lehigh is in or out, despite this great achievement.
Similarly, Albany, Eastern Kentucky, and UT Martin, while having teams that might be interesting choices in an ordinary year, it seems like they need help — perhaps quite a bit — to get in the field.
How might the bracket look?
Seeds: North Dakota State, Georgia Southern, Old Dominion, Eastern Washington, Montana State.
North Dakota State Bracket
Cal Poly @ Eastern Illinois winner at No. 1 North Dakota State
Illinois State @ Central Arkansas
Eastern Washington Bracket
Colgate @ Villanova winner at No. 4 Eastern Washington
South Dakota State @ No. 5 Montana State
Old Dominion Bracket
Wagner @ Stony Brook winner at No. 3 Old Dominion
New Hampshire @ Sam Houston State
Georgia Southern Bracket
Coastal Carolina @ Bethune-Cookman winner at No. 2 Georgia Southern
Richmond @ Appalachian State