By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — Call it the FCS version of the “Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx”.
Last week, in my playoff prediction piece for the FCS playoffs, I featured Coastal Carolina as being the closest team to a autobid, as if they beat Charleston Southern this weekend, they were a near-guarantee for the playoff field.
Instead, after their loss to Charleston Southern (now, I guess, the victim this week of the CSJ Cover Jinx), the Big South autobid is far from being determined.
The Chanticleers weren’t the only ones, either. Big upsets over Bethune-Cookman, Youngstown State, and Lafayette made things as muddled as ever.
Incredibly, still., with two weekends to go, there are no teams that can rightfully say about the playoffs, that they have won the autobid to their conference.
It makes for a fascinating picking season for the FCS playoffs.
With two weeks left, little is determined.
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.
Incredibly, no school has officially, definitively, qualified for the autoids, though many teams have the inside track and are in “win, and they’re in” scenarios.
Where things start to now get interesting is the at-large considerations, so I will start to go through the thinking on those in more detail.
Let’s get right to it.
Here are my updated picks as to how these autobids might play out:
Big Sky Conference: Because Eastern Washington won against Montana State, if they win just one more game, they’re at least Big Sky co-champions and will have earned the autobid.
Only two teams with one conference loss can catch the Eagles, Montana State and Northern Arizona, but only if they lose their last two. (Two teams already have two conference losses, Southern Utah and Montana State, but even if they win the rest of their games they would lose any tiebreaker.)
Eastern Washington just needs to win one of their last two games, and they’ll be at worst the co-champions of the Big Sky – and likely winners of the autobid.
The only way Eastern Washington could lose the autobid, even with one loss, is to have Cal Poly win their last two games, Northern Arizona win their last two games, and Montana State lose their last two games.
That situation would see Northern Arizona tied atop the Big Sky standings with identical 7-1 records, and no head-to-head matchup for comparison. Tiebreakers would then proceed down the path of 2-loss teams, where the Lumberjacks would win, based on their win over Cal Poly and Eastern Washington’s loss to the Mustangs.
If the Eagles beat Cal Poly this weekend, though, it will be settled.
Big South Conference: All Coastal Carolina needed to do was beat Charleston Southern to be in complete control of the Big South autobid. Instead, it sets up uncertainty for the autobid between three teams.
All the Chanticleers needed to do was win, and watch Presbyterian lose. The Blue Hose held up their end of the bargain, but Coastal couldn’t come up with the victory in Charleston.
Now Charleston Southern is in control of the Big South autobid: win their last two games, and they’re in. But one of their opponents, Liberty, still has a chance at the autobid themselves and would like nothing better than to stick it to one of their bigger Big South rivals in the Bucs.
Liberty’s path to the autobid involves Presbyterian upsetting Coastal Carolina this weekend, and then beating Charleston Southern in the last day of the regular season. That would make the Flames no worse than co-champions with the Bucs with the autobid handed to Liberty thanks to their head-to-head win over Charleston Southern.
If Coastal Carolina beats Presbyterian, and Charleston Southern loses at least one of their last two games, either head-to-head victories or a weighted tiebreaker based on strength of schedule and Sagarin ratings would hand the autobid to the Chanticleers.
But it sure looks like Charleston Southern, if they win both games they’re supposed to win in this last two weeks, will be headed to their first-ever FCS playoffs in program history. That’s my projection, anyway.
Colonial Athletic Association: For Maine, the CAA autobid is as easy as beating a 3-8 team at home for Senior Day.
The Black Bears’ continue to lack style points in their last two wins, but they still count as wins that have them on the brink of an outright CAA title.
All Maine needs to do is win this weekend, and they’re in, and a mind-boggling four teams with two conference losses (Delaware, New Hampshire, William and Mary, and Towson) hoping they don’t, so that their slim autobid and conference co-championship hopes remain alive.
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference: Bethune-Cookman had a chance to close the door. Instead, Norfolk State, with their 27-24 upset of the Wildcats, have thrown the door wide open.
Two teams tied atop the MEAC sit with one conference loss, Bethune-Cookman and South Carolina State.
Bethune-Cookman is still in control of their own destiny. If they beat Hampton this weekend and Florida A&M in the Florida Classic the final regular-season weekend of the year, they’ll win the MEAC autobid thanks to their head-to-head win over South Carolina State.
But the Bulldogs, too, are in prime position to capture the title, too, as long as Bethune-Cookman loses at least one game and the Bulldogs beat Morgan State and Norfolk State.
If Bethune Cookman loses their last two games, and the Bulldogs lose at least one game, a free-for-all could ensue between potential two-loss teams like Hampton, Delaware State, and Morgan State.
The most intriguing of these two are the Bears, who face off against South Carolina State this weekend and the Hornets the final weekend of the year. Win both, and have Bethune lose twice, and they would own the head-to-head series against both of the other teams involved in the tie.
But all Bethune-Cookman has to do to put an end to a lot of possibilities is to beat Hampton this weekend at home in Daytona. I think they will win their last two and win the MEAC autobid.
Missouri Valley Football Conference: There can only be one, and that one will either be Youngstown State or North Dakota State.
This weekend in eastern Ohio, when North Dakota State travels to Youngstown State, it will be for all the marbles in the Missouri Valley.
(Amazingly, of the rest of the teams in the conference, only Missouri State could nab a co-championship if they won their last two games and the Bison lost twice, but they would not be able to with the autobid in that instance since they lost to the Bison head-to-head.)
If Youngstown State beats the Bison at home they’d still have to beat visiting South Dakota State to seal the Missouri Valley autobid, but it’s still hard to go against the team that has been No. 1 in the nation all season long.
Unsurprisingly, I still like North Dakota State in this spot.
Northeast Conference: Last week, Robert Morris was in a position where they could win the rest of their games but still not make the playoffs. This week, thanks to losses by Central Connecticut State and Duquesne, that has very much changed.
At 3-1 in the conference, Robert Morris, if they win their last two games against Sacred Heart and St. Francis (PA), will be sole NEC champs and win the autobid.
If they lose either game, though, the autobid to the FCS playoffs becomes a mess that can only be resolved by tiebreakers.
If Sacred Heart beats Robert Morris in Moon Township this Saturday, they will be guaranteed a share of the NEC title with a 9-2 record.
But even better for the Pioneers is that only one potential scenario – one where they complete the season with a two-way tie with St. Francis (PA) – where they don’t get the autobid. All other 2- and 3-team tie scenario tiebreakers see Sacred Heart on the winning side.
(The scenario where St. Francis (PA) wins the autobid involves St. Francis winning their final two games, Sacred Heart beating Robert Morris, and Central Connecticut State beating Duquesne next weekend, but closing with a loss to Bryant.)
A week ago, it looked like Robert Morris, and retiring head coach Joe Walton, was going to see his illustrious FCS football career end in Loretto, PA against St. Francis (PA). But I’m projecting that he’ll be coaching one more game outside the Pittsburgh area in the playoffs.
Ohio Valley Conference: Yes, Eastern Illinois could possibly lose the OVC autobid. But I doubt it.
The only way Eastern Illinois loses the autobid is if they lose to Jacksonville State this weekend and then turn around and close the year by losing on the road at UT Martin – which will not be easy games, since both the Gamecocks and Skyhawks harbor playoff ambitions of their own.
If the Panthers manage to get by both teams, they will definitely be one of the Top 8 seeds in the playoffs – it’s just a matter of where. I think, with two wins, they’re in the Top 4.
Patriot League: It all comes down to one, or maybe two, games on consecutive weekends.
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 10-0 and are looking to be the first undefeated and untied regular-season team in Fordham history. Even if they slip up in their last two games they seem like a shoo-in as an at-large bid.
Lafayette had a chance to sew up at worst a co-championship with a win over Colgate this past weekend. But the Raiders ended up beating the Leopards 28-24, to set up a showdown in Hamilton for the title and a clinch of the autobid.
If Colgate beats Lehigh this weekend, they will win the Patriot League’s autobid and will finish no worse than a tie for the Patriot League championship.
If the Mountain Hawks win, however, it sets up the 149th meeting of “The Rivalry” between Lehigh and Lafayette to determine the winner of the autobid and the Patriot League championship.
It seems like it’s going to go down to the wire this weekend in Hamilton, as the contests between the Raiders and Mountain Hawks seem to always be thrillers. But seeing as Colgate has a veteran quarterback that knows how to win games, I’m going to project them as the winners of the autobid at this point.
Pioneer Football League: Even though four teams are tied with one conference loss, one team can punch their ticket to the playoffs with a win this weekend at home.
The four teams with one conference loss are San Diego (6-1), Marist (6-1), Butler (6-1), and Mercer (5-1). All four won last weekend.
If San Diego beats Drake at home this weekend, they will win the autobid as they would have beaten all the other teams involved in the tie head-to-head.
Where it gets interesting is if the Toreros lose. 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.
Essentially the scenarios play out in this way:
* If San Diego beats Drake, they will be Pioneer co-champions and win the autobid.
* If San Diego loses and Butler defeats Morehead State, Butler will be Pioneer co-champions and win the autobid.
* If San Diego and Butler lose, and Marist defeats Mercer, Marist will be Pioneer co-champions and win the autobid.
* If San Diego, Butler, and Marist loses, if Mercer beats Stetson to close the year, they will be sole Pioneer League champions and win the autobid. If they lose, it would come down to a three-way tiebreaker between San Diego, Butler, and Marist, which San Diego would emerge as the winner of the tiebreaker.
I think San Diego will take care of business and win the autobid.
Southern Conference: This week, if Chattanooga wins, they’ll head to their first FCS playoffs since 1984.
Last week, three teams sat with one conference defeat in conference play: Chattanooga, Wofford, and Samford. Now, only the Mocs remain, and if they beat Samford this weekend, they’ll be in sole possession of the SoCon championship.
Wofford and Furman are big Samford fans this weekend, as their chances at a co-championship hinge on a Mocs defeat, and winning the rest of their conference games. If it comes down to 2- or 3- team tiebreakers, many of them, surprisingly, favor 5-5 Furman.
Thanks to their win last week over Wofford, Chattanooga is now on the brink of the playoffs. I think they clinch it this weekend against Samford.
Southland Conference: Southeastern Louisiana vs. Sam Houston State – the game of the year in the Southland.
Southeastern Louisiana is still in sole possession of first place in the Southland. Yet the Southland title race is far from over.
If Southeastern Louisiana falls to Sam Houston State this weekend, and the Lions, Bearkats and Cowboys win the rest of their games, a strange situation arises. 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 still a huge advantage for Southeastern Louisiana, who can still stumble in the wacky Southland and still manage to make the field. It also takes some of the pressure off this weekend: they could lose to Sam Houston this weekend, but beat Nicholls and still make the playoffs.
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 a lot of questions still as to who makes it.
In my estimation, here are the 13 at-large teams, in no particular order.
In: Coastal Carolina, Delaware, Fordham, Jacksonville State, McNeese State, Montana, Montana State, Northern Arizona, Sam Houston State, , Tennessee State, Towson, William and Mary, Youngstown State.
Moved Out: Eastern Kentucky, Southern Illinois
Just Outside: Eastern Kentucky, James Madison, Lehigh, New Hampshite, Samford, 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, Towson, Sam Houston State, Southeastern Louisiana.
North Dakota State Bracket
San Diego @ Montana winner at No. 1 North Dakota State
Tennessee State @ William & Mary at No. 8 Southeastern Louisiana
Jacksonville State @ Bethune-Cookman winner at No. 4 Maine
Robert Morris @ Delaware winner at No. 5 Fordham
Eastern Illinois Bracket
Charleston Southern @ Chattanooga winner at No. 3 Eastern Illinois
Coastal Carolina @ Montana State winner at No. 6 Towson
Eastern Washington Bracket
Northern Arizona @ McNeese State winner at No. 2 Eastern Washington
Colgate @ Youngstown State winner at No. 7 Sam Houston State