By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — Picking brackets is more art than numbers.
Sure you have the numbers — seven autobids have been determined out of 11. Thirteen teams will make the playoff field. One team will be champion.
But assembling a sample bracket is more than seeding teams one through 24 and just plopping them in a bracket. You need to know the seeds, know who goes where, who will likely host, and who will not.
It’s an art form, and one you’ll see with my sample bracket below.
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.
With this weekend’s action — and one declaration — we have seven of the eleven autobids determined.
Here is the list of the autobids:
Big Sky Conference: Eastern Washington (9-2, 7-0). Even if the Eagles lose to Portland State this weekend, they would qualify for the autobid ahead of Northern Arizona (8-2, 6-1)
Big Sky Block Schedule
Colonial Athletic Association: Maine (10-1, 7-0). Every other CAA school has at least two conference losses.
CAA Conference Schedule
Missouri Valley Football Conference: North Dakota State (10-0, 7-0). Every other Missouri Valley school has at least two conference losses.
Missouri Valley Conference Schedule
Northeast Conference: Sacred Heart (10-2, 4-2). The regular season is complete for the Pioneers, and they beat the two teams tied with them in the conference standings (Robert Morris and Duquesne).
NEC Conference Schedule
Ohio Valley Conference: Eastern Illinois (10-1, 7-0). Every other OVC school has at least two conference losses.
OVC Conference Schedule
Pioneer Football League: Butler (9-3, 7-1). The Bulldogs were declared the winner of the PFL by the league office, declared the winner by being ranked higher than Marist (8-3, 7-1) in a series of computer formulas.
Marist and Butler did not play each other head-to-head, and San Diego (8-3, 7-1) declared itself ineligible for the auto bid because of allegedly providing improper athletic aid to student-athletes. The Pioneer Football League is a strict non-athletic, scholarship conference.
Pioneer Football League Conference Schedule
Southland Conference: Southeastern Louisiana (9-2, 6-0). Even if the Lions lose their final game of the year, their head-to-head win over McNeese State (9-2, 5-1) would give them the auto bid.
Southland Conference Schedule
This leaves four auto bids still to determine. Here are the scenarios:
Big South Conference: You have to feel for Liberty.
Big South Conference Schedule
Liberty finds itself in the following situation: win, and the Flames are co-champions in the Big South, but lose the auto bid to Coastal Carolina. Lose, and the team they play, Charleston Southern, wins the autobid.
I think Charleston Southern finds a way to win Saturday and clinch the auto bid.
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference: Win the Florida Classic, and Bethune-Cookman is in. But South Carolina State is still alive.
MEAC Conference Schedule
If Bethune-Cookman beats Florida A&M in the Florida Classic, they’ll win the MEAC autobid thanks to their head-to-head win over South Carolina State. The Wildcats also win the MEAC tiebreaker if they fall to FAMU and South Carolina State loses to Norfolk State.
If the Wildcats lose and South Carolina State beats the Spartans this weekend, the Bulldogs are the MEAC champs.
I see Bethune-Cookman wrapping up the auto bid this weekend.
Patriot League: It all comes down to a huge rivalry game.
Patriot League Conference Schedule
With Lehigh’s victory over Colgate, a winner-take-all game between Lehigh and Lafayette in the most-played rivalry in college football will determine who the Patriot League sends to the playoffs.
I like Lehigh, playing at home, to come away with the Patriot League auto bid.
Southern Conference: The most muddled of the remaining auto bids.
SoCon Conference Schedule
Three teams remain alive for the SoCon auto bid: Samford, Chattanooga, and Furman.
Furman will be the SoCon co-champion and win the bid, if the Paladins beat Wofford and Samford beats last-placed Elon. Furman wins the three-way tiebreaker with Chattanoooga and Samford.
If Samford beats last-place Elon this weekend, the Bulldogs will win the SoCon auto bid, if Furman also loses to Wofford. Samford beat Chattanooga head-to-head.
If Elon upsets Samford, Chattanooga will win the auto bid, based on the fact that the Mocs beat Furman head-to-head. Chatanooga plays Alabama this weekend and hs concluded its SoCon schedule.
I think 7-5 Furman will be the winners of the auto bid.
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, and there are a lot of games left that will have a bearing on who makes it and who is left out.
Almost certainly in Already:
Towson (9-2, 5-2) vs James Madison
Fordham (10-1) at Colgate
McNeese State (9-2. 5-1) at Lamar
Coastal Carolina (10-1, 4-1) at South Carolina (FBS)
I feel that these four teams, no matter whether they win or lose this weekend, are in the playoffs no matter what. Ten wins and and FBS win (Fordham, over Temple), 10 wins (Coastal Carolina), or nine wins and an FBS win (Towson, over UConn, and McNeese State, over South Florida), feel like locks to me.
(In fact, it’s an open question: Given the three wins against the American Athletic Conference, would the winner of the AAC get out of the first round in the FCS playoffs?)
A bigger question involves whether one (or all) of these teams will be seeded, and the answer seems to be: yes, if they win this weekend. Win, and they’re definitely in the mix for seeds. Lose, and they’re out as seeds.
Play-In Games to Playoffs?
Northern Arizona (8-2, 6-1) at Southern Utah (8-3, 5-2)
The winner of this game would be a solid runner-up to Eastern Washington in the race for the Big Sky title, so you’d probably have to say the winner makes the field. But will the loser be so lucky? With a loss, the Thunderbirds would only have seven Division I wins. If the Lumberjacks lose, you’d have to take a fresh look at their schedule to see if they make it, in a year where they didn’t play the toughest team in the conference, Eastern Washington.
Montana (9-2, 5-2) at Montana State (7-4, 5-2)
It’s pretty safe to think that the winner of the “Brawl of the Wild” would go to the playoffs, either a 10-win Montana team or an 8-4 Montana State team who knocked off both Northern Arizona and Montana. If the Griz lose, though, they wouldn’t have beaten a team with a winning record all season (including Division II Oklahoma Panhandle State). If the Bobcats, lose, going 7-5 and losing your last three games seems a certain recipie for being on the outside looking in.
South Dakota State (7-4, 4-3) at Youngstown State (8-3, 5-2)
Is this really a play-in game? Some might think so. The winner seems like a lock for the playoffs with their black-and-blue Missouri Valley schedule. But the loser might have some problems making the field. An 8-4 Penguin team with a light out-of-conference schedule might get overlooked. A 7-5 South Dakota State team will almost certainly be passed over, despite the Jackrabbits’ win over playoff participant Southeastern Louisiana. A five-loss team has never earned an at-large bid.
On the bubble?
Chattanooga (8-3, 6-2) at Alabama (FBS)
If they win, the Mocs are in with the greatest FCS vs BCS upset in history, and even if UTC loses, its resume looks pretty strong, with a win over two FBS-sorta teams (FBS transitional Georgia State and next year’s Sun Belt team Appalachian State). But the two FBS wins, with a combined two Division I wins, may not be all that impressive.
Delaware (7-4. 4-3) vs. Villanova (5-5, 4-3)
The Blue Hens have to win this weekend and hope their win against almost-certainly-playoff-bound Towson will be enough to make the field. If Delaware loses, though, it can thank its out-of-conference schedule of Jacksonville, Delaware State, and Wagner as the reason why the Blue Hens will be sitting at home.
Jacksonville State (8-3, 4-3) vs. Southeast Missouri State (3-8, 2-5)
With a win over the Redhawks, the Gamecocks will have nine wins, including a victory over Georgia State and a scrape with a strong Division II team (North Alabama). But Jacksonville State would be sitting behind Tennessee State, which beat the Gamecocks head-to-head. Aside from a 68-10 walloping of Eastern Kentucky, it might not be a resume that stacks up well against other contenders.
New Hampshire (6-4, 5-2) vs. Maine (CAA AQ)
If they do get to 7 D-I wins, the Wildcats will do it by beating the top team in the CAA, Maine, in the annual battle for the Brice-Cowell Musket. UNH would also have a very strong schedule, with four losses coming against Top 25 teams and an FBS team, Central Michigan.
Northern Iowa (6-5, 2-5) vs. Western Illinois (4-7, 2-5)
If you are looking for at-large teams with seven Division I wins, you could do a lot worse than UNI, which beat Iowa State to begin the year and for good measure walloped McNeese State as well. But you also have to overlook a losing record in the Missouri Valley, which might be a deal-breaker. And, again, no five-loss team has ever been selected with an at-large bid.
Samford (7-4, 5-2) vs. Elon (2-9, 1-6)
Almost certain to make the playoffs a few weeks ago, losing two of their last three has the Bulldogs limping to the finish line. But Samford did right the ship last week with a season-saving, overtime win against Chattanooga. If the Bulldogs take care of business against the Phoenix, they will have three FBS-sorta victories (Georgia State and soon-to-be Sun Belt necomers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern) to point to, which probably would be enough.
Sam Houston State (8-3, 4-2) at Central Arkansas (6-5, 3-3)
The national runners-up two years in a row, on the bubble? You better believe it. If the Bearkats beat Central Arkansas they’re probably in the field, but a loss would put them in deep, deep trouble, with six Division I wins. Two of SHSU’s wins, against Houston Baptist and Incarnate Word, don’t count as Division I wins, and their win over Eastern Washington probably won’t be enough to overcome that deficiency.
South Carolina State (8-3, 6-1) at Norfolk State (3-8, 3-4)
If the MEAC is to get two bids, it will require the Bulldogs to beat the team that upset Bethune-Cookman at home, Norfolk State. It also will require the playoff committee to smile upon their eight D-I wins (one win came against D-II Benedict College) and SCSU’s lack of a true signature win.
Tennessee State (9-3, 6-2), regular season complete
The Tigers reached that nine-win threshold, though it’s only eight D-I wins with a victory over D-II Central State. But TSU owns some intriguing wins, like a victory over SWAC East champions Jackson State, and two of their losses came to likely playoff teams, Eastern Illinois and Bethune-Cookman. The Tigers also have a head-to-head win against Jacksonville State that will come into play.
UT Martin (7-4, 5-2), vs. Eastern Illinois (10-1, 7-0)
The Skyhawks have to beat one of the top teams in the nation to do it, but if they succeed, they have to be in. Two of their losses are to FBS teams (Boise State and Memphis), and wins against Chattanooga and Central Arkansas might become very handy, too.
William and Mary (7-4, 4-3) at Richmond (5-6, 3-4)
Few teams have played as tough a schedule as the Tribe, which boasts two wins over bubble teams on their resume (Delaware, New Hampshire) and a bunch of almosts against tough teams (West Virginia, Towson, Maine). A loss this weekend would be too much to overcome, but a win in the Oldest Rivalry in the South would seem to be enough to propel William & Mary in.
These teams can get to seven wins, but wouldn’t have seven Division I wins, which is my magic number for inclusion.
Liberty (7-4, 3-1)
Southern Illinois (6-5, 4-3)
In my estimation, here are the 13 at-large teams, in no particular order.
In: Chattanooga, Coastal Carolina, Fordham, McNeese State, Montana, Northern Arizona, Sam Houston State, Samford, South Dakota State, Tennessee State, Towson, William and Mary, Youngstown State.
Out: Delaware, Jacksonville State, Montana State, New Hampshire, Northern Iowa, Southern Utah.
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, Towson, Southeastern Louisiana, Northern Arizona, Coastal Carolina.
North Dakota State Bracket
Charleston Southern @ Furman winner at No. 1 North Dakota State
Chattanooga @ Tennessee State winner at No. 8 Coastal Carolina
South Dakota State @ Bethune-Cookman winner at No. 4 Maine
Sacred Heart @ Fordham winner at No. 5 Towson
Eastern Illinois Bracket
William and Mary @ Sam Houston State winner at No. 3 Eastern Illinois
Lehigh @ Montana winner at No. 6 Southeastern Louisiana
Eastern Washington Bracket
Butler @ Youngstown State winner at No. 2 Eastern Washington
Samford @ McNeese State winner at No. 7 Northern Arizona