By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — With three weekends to go, the FCS playoff picture is starting to come into some focus.
Two critical teams in the Big Sky Conference looking for at-large berths into the Big Dance with games at home, Eastern Washington and Sacramento State, were upset, taking both the Hornets and Eagles out of the race.
.Yet in other conference races – the Ohio Valley and Mid-Eastern Athletic leap to mind – the picture is as cloudy as ever as to who will emerge as the conference champion, let alone any at-large possibilities.
Who are the odds-on favorites as of this week? Look below to find out!
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.
Big Sky Conference: The four-team logjam has been narrowed down to two teams, and they’re both from the Treasure State. I still feel that that team that will win the championship is Montana – not 8-1 Montana State.
Big South Conference: Two teams are still in a collision course for the conference title, and I still give the edge to Liberty over Stony Brook for the Big South title.
Colonial Athletic Association: They have two huge, critical games left, but I think Maine will still take the title, over two feisty opponents the Black Bears will be facing in the next three weeks, Towson and “Brice-Cowell Musket” rival New Hampshire.
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference: While you can still come up with come crazy potential scenarios for the MEAC champion, it will be a lot more clear once Norfolk State faces Morgan State in a few weeks. If the Spartans win, it’s very likely they’ll be practicing on Thanksgiving.
Missouri Valley Football Conference: With their big win over Northern Iowa this past weekend, North Dakota State would have to lose two of their next three games to lose the conference title and autobid. The Bison, for all intents and purposes, will be getting the autobid.
Northeast Conference: With Albany taking care of Wagner in s snowstorm 24-0 last weekend, the Great Danes are still in the driver’s seat for the NEC autobid.
Ohio Valley Conference: With their 21-14 loss last weekend, Jacksonville State falls out of the driver’s seat for the OVC title and autobid, and we find ourselves with three teams with a 4-1 conference record, and one right behind with a 3-2 conference record.
To figure out the riddle of who might be the champs, look at 4-1 Eastern Kentucky’s schedule. They play all the other contenders – Jacksonville State, UT Martin, and Tennessee Tech, one after the other. In my least confident pick of the autobids, I think the Golden Eagles will survive and win the OVC title.
Patriot League: Lehigh has three more conference games left, all at home, and they should be favored in all three. Should they slip up against Georgetown, however, the Hoyas would get their first-ever Patriot League championship and playoff appearance.
Southland Conference: Undefeated Sam Houston State is still in control right now, and sure looked like the Southland champions in their 66-0 shellacking of Lamar last weekend. But Northwestern State in two weeks still has a chance to ruin both their chance at an undefeated season and the Southland title.
Southern Conference: Appalachian State certainly helped their SoCon title chances with their somewhat controversial 24-17 win over Georgia Southern. But Wofford also greatly benefited as well – now they’re squarely in the driver’s seat, for if they beat Western Carolina, Georgia Southern and Chattanooga in consecutive weeks, they’ll be the SoCon champs.
After that, which teams get the at-large bids, and who’s on the outside looking in?
In: Montana State (Big Sky), Towson (CAA), New Hampshire (CAA), James Madison (CAA), Old Dominion (CAA), Cal Poly (Great West), Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley), Appalachian State (SoCon), Georgia Southern (SoCon), Central Arkansas (Southland).
Cal Poly, still on track for a 8-3 record if they win out (with 7 Division I wins), remains in my at-large bids, and Central Arkansas – who would be 8-3 in my scenario (also with 7 Division I wins), with a win in a couple weeks over Northwestern State – make it in as well.
Out: Duquesne (Northeast), Illinois State (Missouri Valley), Indiana State (Missouri Valley), Youngstown State (Missouri Valley), Georgetown (Patriot), Eastern Kentucky (Ohio Valley), Jacksonville State (Ohio Valley), Northwestern State (Southland), Furman (SoCon).
Looking further at the teams I have as have-nots in the Missouri Valley, the problem with all of these teams is that they all still have to play Northern Iowa and/or North Dakota State.
If Indiana State upsets North Dakota State this weekend, they go from “very much a bubble team” to “easy inclusion in the at-large pool” – but as of right now, I don’t think that will happen.
If Illinois State finishes at 7-4 – and I think that’s what will happen – I think their loss to 2-7 Eastern Illinois will keep them from the playoff field.
And I think 5-3 Youngstown State – with Northern Iowa and North Dakota State left to go – will lose to both, putting them at 6-5 at best.
Furman, too, at 5-3 is a mortal lock to make a playoff spot if they win the rest of their games – but that would also mean they would have beaten FCS Florida, which is – putting it mildly – unlikely. Even at 7-4 they might be able to qualify as an at-large team in the right circumstances – and they’ll have to beat their big rival, Appalachian State, this weekend to do it. But that loss to 4-4 Coastal Carolina large on their resume if that’s the case.
If the power conference teams start to eliminate these others, an interesting 9-2 team from an autobid conference (Duquesne) and an intriguing 8-3 team from another (Georgetown) might get into the conversation as well.
My sample bracket hasn’t changed much, but here it is:
Seeds: Maine, North Dakota State, Montana, Wofford, Sam Houston State
Liberty @ Northern Iowa winner at No. 1 Maine
Central Arkansas @ Appalachian State
Norfolk State @ Old Dominion winner at No. 4 Wofford
Tennessee Tech @ No. 5 Sam Houston State
Albany @ New Hampshire winner at No. 3 Montana
James Madison @ Georgia Southern
North Dakota State Bracket
Cal Poly @ Montana State winner at No. 2 North Dakota State
Towson @ Lehigh