By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — It’s that time of year again.
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, as the site of the FCS National Championship game.
For those who are honored to eat, live, and breathe an FCS program, the tagline of the official NCAA postseason, to me, is “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 11 conferences that have autobids to the FCS playoffs, and look at the 13 most likely teams to get at-large qualification into the field.
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.
The Pioneer Football League has never had one of its members qualify as an at-large bid to the FCS playoffs. In seasons past, the non-scholarship league had a postseason opportunity in the form of the “Gridiron Classic” between them and the Northeast Conference, but with the NEC applying for and receiving an autobid two years ago, that bowl no longer exists.
Here are my picks as to how these autobids might play out:
Big Sky Conference: With four weeks left, there are three teams that are in the pole position for the autobid: two that play each other, and a third that could sneak into the conversation if the leaders collapse.
Eastern Washington and Montana State are all undefeated in league play, and have survived some pretty stiff challenges in the past few weeks to assert themselves atop the league.
Northern Arizona sits right behigh the Eagles and Bobcats with one league loss. Unfortunately for the Lumberjacks, their loss is to Montana State.
Sacramento State, also with one league loss, also has a somewhat realistic chance at the title and autobid if they win the remainder of their games, though they need help. (That help includes Northern Arizona, who beat the Hornets 39-38 head-to-head, losing.)
The Big Sky, with 13 teams, has an unfortunate problem in that it’s impossible for all the conference teams to play one another.
As a result, the Hornets don’t play the Eagles or the Bobcats head-to-head, which makes tiebreaking in the conference race more difficult.
The Hornets’ best chance at making the autobid would be to win the rest of their games, have Montana State beat Eastern Washington, have the Eagles fall to Cal Poly a week later, have Montana beat Montana State in the “Brawl of the Wild” at the end of the regular season.
Without a head-to-head game for comparison, the second tiebreaker is “record against common scheduled conference opponents in descending order,” where Sacramento State would have to hope that their record against common opponents is better than either Eastern Washington or Montana State.
Complicating matters is that Northern Arizona could also win all their remaining games, thus making the tiebreaker a downward walk to see wins and losses.
Having said all that, it sure seems like Eastern Washington has the inside track on the autobid, assuming they can beat Montana State on their home red turf of the Inferno and not slip up the rest of the way.
Big South Conference: Three teams in the Big South are undefeated in league play: 3-0 Coastal Carolina, 1-0 Presbyterian, and 1-0 Charleston Southern.
Coastal Carolina, who hosts Charlotte in Conway, South Carolina to play an out-of-conference game against the FBS start-up 49ers, will discover after that game which of their future opponents, Chuck South or Presbyterian, will have a conference loss. The Bucs and Blue Hose play each other this weekend.
Liberty, who lost a heartwrenching 55-52 defeat to Coastal Carolina in double overtime two weeks ago, hope that either Presbyterian, Chuck South or both knock off the Chanticleers, which would put them right back into the conversation for an autobid.
Despite the presence of so many teams for the autobid, it seems likely that Top 10-ranked Coastal Carolina will win those last two conference games and secure the autobid.
Colonial Athletic Association: Undefeated Maine is squarely in the driver’s seat, with and Towson, New Hampshire and Delaware sit right behind the Black Bears with one conference loss.
Maine’s run through the Northeastern wing of the CAA through Stony Brook, Albany, Rhode Island at first glance looks achievable, but then there’s that regular-season ending “Battle for the Brice-Cowell Musket” where the Black Bears will try ot take down their bitter rivals New Hampshire.
New Hampshire’s run at the autobid is more brutal than Maine’s, requiring a 4-0 run against William and Mary and James Madison, two programs harboring playoff ambitions themselves, as well as Albany.
What happens if New Hampshire doesn’t run the table, but beats Maine? That opens up the door for Towson or Delaware, but the Tigers also play William and Mary and James Madison, and the Blue Hens play the Tribe and Villanova to close the regular season.
As of right now, it looks like Maine‘s to lose, but it’s going to be an interesting four weeks.
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference: In theory, Bethune-Cookman could still lose the autobid with a losing streak to end the season. By beating South Carolina State this weekend 14-3, however, the Wildcats took a giant step towards securing the MEAC autobid for the third consecutive season.
The Wildcats, whose only loss thus far was to Florida State and have an impressive FBS win against FIU, are in command of their destiny.
The MEAC teams standing in 8-1 Bethune-Cookman’s way are North Carolina Central (2-2), Norfolk State (2-2), and longtime rival Florida A&M (1-3), but the one team that could be the most likely to pry away the autobid is Hampton (3-1).
If the Pirates can beat Morgan State and North Carolina Central in consecutive weeks, it sets up a situation where Hampton defeating Bethune-Cookman and Howard to close the season would make them the MEAC co-champs and the Pirates would win the tiebreaker for the autobid with a head-to-head win over the Wildcats.
But Bethune-Cookman will also be playing that game at home in Municipal stadium, and therefore, I’m picking the Wildcats to keep the autobid.
Despite this minefield, I’m going to give Bethune-Cookman the ever-so-slight edge. This week they travel to North Carolina Central.
Missouri Valley Football Conference: Unless Youngstown State or North Dakota State suffer epic collapses, the team that will be qualifying via the conference autobids will be one of these two teams.
To be fair, the Missouri Valley is packed with great teams, and winning the MVFC title and autobid probably feels a more like a mud run rather than a sprint to the finish. Unless Illinois State knocks off the Bison in the FargoDome or ailing Northern Iowa and/or upstart South Dakota can upend the Penguins, when North Dakota State travels to Youngstown in the second to last weekend of the year, it will be for all the marbles.
It’s awfully hard to go against two-time champions North Dakota State in this spot, even on the road.
Northeast Conference: Five out of the seven NEC teams are fighting for the autobid, and it’s going to be an interesting final few weeks to discover who emerges as the winner.
Will it be 1-1 Central Connecticut State, who, if they win out, will qualify for their first-ever trip to the FCS playoffs?
Will it be 2-1 Bryant, who did themselves a great favor by beating Duquesne 42-14 this past weekend and setting a potential conference championship game on November 23rd against the Blue Devils?
Will 2-1 Duquesne get back into the picture, something that’s easily done if they win the rest of their games, including one against CCSU, while Bryant trips only once?
Will 1-1 St. Francis be the team that runs the table in their final four games, putting the Red Flash in their first postseason football contest in their 104 year history?
Or will 1-1 Robert Morris, coached by former NFL head coach Joe Walton in his final year before retirement, win the rest of their games while Duquense slips up just once more?
There are many, many combinations to choose from, but I think – just – that the most likely outcome is that Bryant emerges from the pack and makes it to the playoffs in their first year of playoff eligibility after moving from D-II to the FCS.
Ohio Valley Conference: From the mess of the NEC we have the relative simplicity of the OVC, where one undefeated team in conference play stands above the rest.
If the new version of “Eastern Airlines” – sorry, Eastern Illinois – can beat 0-5 Tennessee Tech this weekend and the only one conference-loss team they still have on their schedule, Murray State, the Panthers could still lose one of their two remaining games against Jacksonville State or UT Martin and still coast into the playoffs. If they win all four, they would be in strong consideration for a seed as well.
Patriot League: Yes, Virginia, everyone in the league can still win the autobid. Everyone.
With Lehigh losing to Bucknell last weekend 48-10, and losing their starting quarterback for the season to boot, what seemed to be a march to the autobid now looks like a wide-open race.
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.
Though Bucknell and Georgetown are mathematically alive after this week, and Holy Cross cannot be eliminated from contention this week, it’s likely that they autobid will go to wounded Lehigh, young Lafayette, who is 2-0 in the devision, or 2-0 Colgate, who is riding a Walter Payton award candidate in quarterback Gavin McCarney.
I think Colgate, with their experience at quarterback and the fact that they have the Mountain Hawks in Hamilton, will defend their championship and return to the playoffs again.
Pioneer Football League: In the first playoff year of the PFL, it could very well come down to the Simple Rating System.
Five teams sit with one conference loss: San Diego (4-1), Marist (4-1), Butler (4-1), Dayton (4-1), and Mercer (3-1). Three more, Jacksonville (3-2), Drake (3-2), and Morehead State (3-2) sit only one game back.
It is possible that, say, San Diego, Marist, and Dayton all win the rest of their games. If that is the case, then the first tiebreaker is a tie (everyone is at 7-1), the second tiebreaker is a tie (they all went 1-1 against each other), and the third tiebreaker is a tie (they beat everyone else).
According to the PFL tiebreaker rules, if this happens, the autobid is actually 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.
Two of the one-loss teams, Butler and Dayton, play each other this weekend, which will clarify the picture somewhat.
But if it comes down to the Simple Rating System – and I think there’s a very good chance it will – then I think San Diego will win the autobid thanks to their stronger out-of-conference schedule (and a possible 8-3 record).
Southern Conference: It’s not your father’s SoCon anymore, since Appalachian State and Georgia Southern are ineligible for the playoffs, but three teams have a chance to win the autobid, with one team at 4-0 and two wins away from the AQ.
Samford is 4-0 in the conference and in control of their own destiny in the SoCon. Having beaten one of the teams in their way, Wofford, last weekend, all they need to do is beat three conference teams with sub-.500 records (The Citadel, Furman and Elon) and 4-1 Chattanooga in three weeks in order to qualify for their first-ever SoCon title.
Georgia Southern’s victory over Chattanooga eliminates the possibility of a three-way tiebreaker atop the SoCon, which could have fallen to “fewest points allowed by all three teams”.
Samford, by virtue of their favorable schedule, really gives them an advantage over the rest of the league – and that’s assuming that the Terriers or Mocs don’t slip up themselves. Additionally, the fact that they are hosting Chattanooga at home, to me, really gives them an even bigger advantage.
Southland Conference: Four teams have a chance to come away with the autobid, including two playoff participants from last year.
Two teams are undefeated in conference play: McNeese State (3-0) and Southeastern Louisiana (3-0). In what could be the FCS Game of the Week, they play each other this weekend, which will leave one team the odds-on favorite to advance.
If Southeastern Louisiana beats the Cowboys but falls to Sam Houston State, 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.
This has the most implications for Central Arkansas, who probably need to win the rest of their games against Southeastern Lousiana and Sam Houston State to have a chance. They would have to essentially be the only team standing with one conference loss to have a shot at the autobid, since McNeese State beat them head-to-head and Southeastern Louisiana is in the drivers’ seat in terms of the weird tiebreaker.
Having said all that, McNeese State plays the Lions at home, and then plays three teams that are essentially out of the playoff hunt. I like their chances.
The Ivy League and the Southwestern Athletic Conference do not send their champions to the playoffs.
It is theoretically possible for a SWAC team to make the field as an at-large entrant, as the second-placed team in one of their 5 team divisions. The first-placed team is contractually obligated to play in the SWAC Championship Game, a postseason bowl to determine the SWAC champions.
However, no SWAC team currently is ranked in the Top 25. If one were to work their way into the conversation it would likely be Jackson State or Alcorn State, whichever team end up the runner-up in SWAC East, but without a marquee win out-of-conference over a playoff conference, it seems like an uphill battle.
The Ivy League currently does not send their champions, or any potential qualifying members, to the playoffs because their league presidents expressedly forbid it. This prevents a team like Harvard, Princeton, or Penn from competing for the FCS National Championship, the only NCAA-sponsored championship that the Ivy League bans for postseason play.
After that, which teams get the at-large bids, and who’s on the outside looking in? In my estimation, here are the 13 at-large teams, in no particular order.
In: Chattanooga, Delaware, Fordham, Montana, Montana State, New Hampshire, Northern Arizona, Sam Houston State, Southern Illinois, Tennessee State, Towson, Villanova, Youngstown State.
Just Outside: Lehigh, South Dakota State, Southeastern Louisiana, Eastern Kentucky, South Carolina State, Duquesne, 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, McNeese State, Coastal Carolina.
North Dakota State Bracket
Chattanooga @ Delaware winner at No. 1 North Dakota State
San Diego @ Sam Houston State winner at No. 8 Coastal Carolina
Colgate @ Montana State winner at No. 4 Maine
Bryant @ Towson winner at No. 5 Fordham
Eastern Illinois Bracket
Northern Arizona @ Bethune-Cookman winner at No. 3 Eastern Illinois
New Hampshire @ Samford winner at No. 6 Youngstown State
Eastern Washington Bracket
Villanova @ Tennessee State winner at No. 2 Eastern Washington
Southern Illinois @ Montana winner at No. 7 McNeese State