By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — The tagline that the soccer team FC Dallas uses to promote their Major League Soccer squad is "Dallas 'Til I Die".
And it's FC Dallas Stadium in Frisco, Texas which is the ultimate goal of nearly all of the Division I football programs that comprise Football Championship Subdivision, or FCS.
For those who are honored to eat, live, and breathe an FCS program, the tagline of the official NCAA postseason really ought to be "Playoffs 'Til I Die".
Those that get a taste of the highest level of postseason play live it, and love it, and would never want to be stuck with bowls and plus-one unsanctioned championships.
And with four weekends to go, it's time to start filling out our brackets here at the College Sports Journal.
To do so, we start by looking at the 10 conferences that have autobids to the FCS playoffs, and look at the ten most likely teams to get at-large qualification into the field.
Ten Conferences, Ten Autobids
In the FCS, there are ten conferences that have autobids to the playoffs — in other words, the conference champion has one team that qualifies for the postseason tournament.
Here are my picks as to how these autobids might play out:
Big Sky Conference: Let's start out with the most difficult conference of all – the power-packed Big Sky Conference, with five teams in contention for the autobid but an unbalanced schedule where not all the contenders play one another.
Cal Poly, Eastern Washington, Northern Arizona are all undefeated in league play, Montana State has one loss, and Sacramento State, with two league losses, all still have a chance at the title and autobid.
The hardest road?
It has to be the Mustangs of Cal Poly, who have to play three of the contenders in their last four games. The most intriguing of the games might be Cal Poly's game against nearby rival Sacramento State this weekend, and might be a bellweather for their championship possibilities.
Similarly, it's a must-win for the Hornets to stay relevant, too, as one loss will erase their slim title chances and might even put their playoff lives in jeopardy, too, while just one win over the Mustangs or Montana State could be enough to put them into the field of 20 playoff teams.
Northern Arizona, on the other hand, couldn't have an easier road to the playoffs if it tried.
The scheduling gods thought they were giving the Lumberjacks a tough road when they sent them to UNLV and Montana, but with wins in both of those games and no contests this season against title contenders Montana State, Eastern Washington, and Sacramento State, even with a win over 2-5 Northern Colorado this weekend they won't haven't beaten a team with a winning record yet this season.
Northern Arizona's championship hopes rest on the end of the season, when they take on Cal Poly in a game that could actually be for the Big Sky title.
Another contender, Montana State, also has a path to the autobid that is quite a bit harder than one might imagine, with road games against Sacramento State and their bitter rivals the Montana Grizzlies looming.
But for my pick for the winner of the autobid this week will be the team whose Big Sky road is easiest, Eastern Washington. As long as there's no slip-up on the road against Southern Utah this weekend, the Eagles' favorable schedule (at Southern Utah, Cal Poly, UC Davis, at Portland State)- especially getting the Mustangs at the Inferno, red-turfed Roos Field in Cheney – gives them a serious edge over the others.
Big South Conference: Two years ago, Liberty, Coastal Carolina, and Stony Brook all went 1-1 against one another, making the Big South have to drag out its complicated tiebreaking procedures to determine the owner of the autobid.
With Coastal Carolina giving Stony Brook all they handle a couple of weeks ago in a 27-21 defeat, certainly the Chanticleers are hoping that some combination of one-loss teams will determine the winner.
To have a chance, they'll have to beat Liberty at home in Conway, and hope that the Flames upset Stony Brook on November 10, while winning the rest of their games.
But it seems like it's Stony Brook's autobid to lose, especially since it seems unlikely that 2-6 Presbyterian or 2-5 VMI will give the Seawolves much of a challege before finishing the season against Liberty on November 10. If they succeed, they'll make the playoffs for the second straight year. If not, it could be another year of calculators and tiebreakers.
Colonial Athletic Association: It's shaping up to be a huge dogfight down the stretch, with no team undefeated in league play and six teams with one or two conference losses in the running for the conference's autobid.
Complicating matters is Old Dominion (6-1, 4-1), which is not eligible for the conference autobid but whose games count in CAA conference play.
That leaves Villanova (6-2, 4-1), James Madison (5-2, 3-1) and New Hampshire (6-2, 4-1) with the slenderest of leads for the conference championship.
Two games this week, Towson (3-4, 2-2) at Villanova and Delaware (5-2, 2-2) at Old Dominion will either help clarify the picture by eliminating the Tigers and Blue Hens from consideration or make it a hot mess by keeping Towson and Delaware alive.
At this stage, when picking the autobid, you need to look at the most beneficial schedule down the stretch, and with their last road game this weekend at 0-7 Rhode Island, New Hampshire looks like the odds-on favorite to emerge with the autobid.
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference: Can't just one of these conference races come easy? Like the first three conferences, there are still six schools vying for the potential auto bid, with Bethune-Cookman (5-2, 4-0) and surprising North Carolina Central (5-2, 4-0) sitting atop the standings — for now.
In the 11-team MEAC, not everyone plays one another, and an interesting situation might arise.
Howard (5-2, 4-1) could win the rest of its games, Bethune Cookman could beat North Carolina Central, and then turn around and lose to Florida A&M in the "Florida Classic", leading to a three-way tie that would be determined by the final standings between common opponents. And that doesn't even include Delaware State (4-3, 3-1), which plays North Carolina Central down the stretch.
Despite this minefield, I'm going to give Bethune-Cookman the ever-so-slight edge, as the Wildcats host North Carolina Central this weekend at Municipal Stadium in a game that could determine the MEAC champion.
Missouri Valley Football Conference: You want messy? In the 10-team Missouri Valley, every team has at least one conference loss and five teams, North Dakota State (6-1, 3-1), South Dakota State (5-2, 3-1), Indiana State (6-2, 4-1), Southern Illinois (5-3, 4-1) and Illinois State (6-2, 3-2), are still in the thick of this thing with one or two conference losses.
Oh yeah, and just to make it interesting, they all pretty much play each other the last four weeks of the season.
This week, Southern Illinois takes on North Dakota State in a critical game at the Fargo Dome, while South Dakota State hosts desperate Youngstown (4-3, 1-3), that needs to win out to keep its at-large playoff hopes alive.
If Southern Illinois can somehow figure out a way to beat the Bison on the road, all the Salukis would need to do is beat South Dakota State at home and then beat 3-4 Western Illinois at home to finish with one conference loss.
South Dakota State has something very valuable in their back pocket – a win over Indiana State. But a battle at North Dakota State looms for the "Dakota Marker, and two more big games, vs. Youngstown State and at Southern Illinois, loom in the next three weeks.
But Indiana State not only has a win over the Salukis in its back pocket, their road win over North Dakota State and its easier schedule seems to give the Sycamores the upper hand for the title — but they have to take care of business against Illinois State and Youngstown State to do it.
Northeast Conference: Finally, a conference with some clarity. Albany (6-1, 4-0) simply needs to get past Wagner (4-3, 2-1) and Duquesne (5-2, 3-1) in the first weeks in November in order to qualify for the playoffs for the second straight year.
If the Great Danes' trip to Fairfield, CT. against Sacred Heart (2-5, 1-3) is successful as well, they'll clinch the NEC championship an autobid by November 10.
Ohio Valley Conference: With the clarity of the NEC out of the way, we're back to another dogfight in the OVC, with every squad with a conference loss and — count 'em — six teams of the nine-team conference still within striking distance with one or two losses. And did I mention in the event of a hot mess atop the standings, thanks to unbalanced schedules, a coin flip might determine the champion and autobid qualifier?
No game this weekend is bigger than Eastern Illinois's (4-3, 3-1) trip to Eastern Kentucky (6-2, 4-1) this weekend, as the winner will have a huge leg up in the conference title chase.
Yet it's Tennessee State (7-1, 3-1) that is in the drivers' seat. If the Tigers beat 2-5 Tennessee Tech this weekend at home, and close things out with wins against Murray State (3-4, 2-2) and UT Martin (6-2, 4-1), they will win the autobid.
In addition, TSU will be big Eastern Kentucky fans, too, this weekend. If the Colonels beat the Panthers, Tennessee State will hold all the tiebreakers on all the one-loss teams, given they win out.
Patriot League: With three games left, Lehigh is in the driver's seat, but its two biggest games of the year, Colgate and Lafayette, loom in the last two weeks of the season. The Mountain Hawks could qualify for their third consecutive postseason appearance with the autobid.
The idle Mountain Hawks will certainly be big fans of the Raiders and Leopards' opponents this weekend, Bucknell and Georgetown, respectively. If both pull upsets this weekend, Lafayette and Colgate's showdown on November 3 would be, essentially, an elimination game for either team.
Southern Conference: I can't remember the last time every power conference had every team with a conference loss at this stage of the season. In this years SoCon, three teams, Georgia Southern (6-1, 5-1), Wofford (6-1, 4-1), and Chattanooga (4-3, 3-1) all have one loss, while two-loss Appalachian State (5-3, 3-2) and The Citadel (4-3, 3-2) nip at their heels.
Fortunately, the path is clear for one team: Georgia Southern. If the Eagles dispatch of Chattanooga this weekend at Finley Stadium, a win against hated rival Appalachian State at home the following week would give the Eagles the SoCon championship and a lock at being seeded.
Wofford, though, looms if the Eagles trip. With games against The Citadel, Chattanooga and Samford (5-3, 3-3), a clean sweep for the Terriers will all but guarantee an at-large bid, and may even put them in line for a seed as well.
The rest of the SoCon are hoping that Georgia Southern, Wofford, and Chattanooga all slip up at least once, leaving a hot mess with the top-five teams. In the brutal SoCon, it certainly could happen.
Southland Conference: Who is the undefeated team right now in Southland play? Nationally-ranked Sam Houston State (5-2, 3-1)? Uh, no. Nationally-ranked Central Arkansas (6-2, 4-1)? Nope.
It's actually unranked and overlooked Southeastern Louisiana (3-4, 3-0), and incredible as it might seem, with games against the Bears this weekend and the Bearkats the following weekend, it's conceivable the Lions could emerge from the two-game stretch still undefeated in league play and one win away against Stephen F. Austin (3-4, 2-1) for the Southland championship and auto bid.
Conversely, if Central Arkansas manages to win this weekend in Hammond, LA., an interesting subplot emerges.
If Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin both win out and the Bears beat Northwestern State (3-4, 1-2), it would set up Central Arkansas, Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin with identical 6-1 records with a 1-1 head-to-head record and no common opponents — which leads 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."
This would mean Stephen F. Austin — which did not make the FCS playoffs last year after back-to-back Southland titles in 2009-10, while the Bears and Bearkats advanced to the postseason in 2011 — would win the auto bid.
That tiebreaker gives the Lumberjacks, and their relatively softer schedule, a huge advantage. If SFA wins out, which of course includes a victory over Southeastern Louisiana, the Lumberjacks are likely in.
The Ivy League and the Southwestern Athletic Conference do not send their champions to the playoffs.
It is possible for a SWAC team to make the field as an at-large entrant, but three teams (Alabama State, Grambling and Southern) play regular season games on Thanksgiving weekend (the opening weekend of the playoffs) and two other teams — the winners of the East and West Divisions will be required to play in the SWAC championship game in December, making it almost impossible for the rest of the SWAC to earn an at-large bid.
The Pioneer Football League does not have an automatic bid to the playoffs for its champion, though the PFL will join the ranks of the other teams in the expanded 24-team postseason field in 2013. No PFL team has ever been selected for an at-large berth.
After that, which teams get the at-large bids, and who's on the outside looking in? In my estimation, here are the 10 at-large teams, in no particular order.
In: Cal Poly, Central Arkansas, Montana State, North Dakota State, Northern Arizona, Old Dominion, Richmond, South Dakota State, Villanova, Wofford.
Just Outside: Appalachian State, Eastern Kentucky, Fordham, James Madison, Sacramento State, Sam Houston State, Youngstown State.
I can't begin to tell you what a difficult job the FCS playoff committee will have this year in choosing at-large teams. It was brutal limiting it to 10. Next year, the job will be easier with a 24-team field and 13 at-large squads.
Finally this week, let's take a look as to how the seeds could shake out, and a sample bracket:
Seeds: Eastern Washington, New Hampshire, North Dakota State, Georgia Southern, Old Dominion.
Eastern Washington Bracket
South Dakota State @ Northern Arizona winner at No. 1 Eastern Washington
Stephen F. Austin @ Cal Poly
Georgia Southern Bracket
Villanova @ Bethune-Cookman winner at No. 4 Georgia Southern
Wofford @ No. 5 Old Dominion
New Hampshire Bracket
Albany @ Richmond winner at No. 3 New Hampshire
Lehigh @ Stony Brook
North Dakota State Bracket
Tennessee State @ Central Arkansas winner at No. 2 North Dakota State
Indiana State @ Montana State