By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — Can it be that there are only four weekends to Selection Sunday for the FCS playoffs?
Who has the inside track on playoff spots, conference autobids, seeds, and home playoff games?
One thing’s for certain: in 2011, it feels like there’s a wide-open field for playoff sports, meaning there are going to be a lot of upcoming games with an awful lot at stake for the playoffs.
Below the flip, see my thoughts on who might make the FCS playoffs, and who might be staying home.
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: Four teams have a shot at the championship, but I think Montana – not 7-1 Montana State – will be the team that wins the autobid.
Big South Conference: Two teams are in a collision course for the conference title. Got to give the edge to Liberty finally getting over the hump and and making it to their first-ever postseason game.
Colonial Athletic Association: I think Maine will take the title, though Towson, James Madison, New Hampshire and Old Dominion also still have a chance to win it, too.
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference: If you can navigate the many scenarios where up to eight teams are alive for the autobid, you’re a better person than I. Much will be clearer after this weekend, but the upshot is that it seems like Norfolk State is still in the driver’s seat for the automatic bid.
Missouri Valley Football Conference: It’s pretty much a mortal lock that the winner of the Northern Iowa/North Dakota State game will be the winner of the conference’s autobid – and I think it’s the Bison that will come out on top.
Northeast Conference: While Monmouth could still steal the title away later in the season, as long as Albany keeps taking care of business, they’ll be the NEC Champs.
Ohio Valley Conference: A three-way race looks like it’s breaking in favor of Jacksonville State, who faces their two main contenders, Tennessee Tech and Eastern Kentucky, at home.
Patriot League: There’s a lot of football left to play, but Lehigh seems like they’re in the driver’s seat.
Southland Conference: Undefeated Sam Houston State is in control right now – and will host their chief competition, Northwestern State, in a few weeks.
Southern Conference: Folks are looking at the big Georgia Southern/Appalachian State game this weekend for the SoCon champ. But Wofford, despite their loss to Furman, is more in the driver’s seat if they win the rest of their games.
After that, which teams get the at-large bids, and who’s on the outside looking in?
In: Montana State (Big Sky), Sacramento 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).
Two teams I have in my bracket that might surprise some people are Cal Poly and Sacramento State. Both have played entire Division I schedules, both have a lot of winnable games the rest of the way, and both can get to 7 D-I wins.
If Sacramento State can make it to 7-4, I think they are a lock, thanks to their marquee win over FBS Oregon State to start the year. And don’t be surprised id the Eastern Washington/Cal Poly game on November 12th is a de-facto play-in game for both teams.
Out: Eastern Washington (Big Sky), Illinois State (Missouri Valley), Indiana State (Missouri Valley), Georgetown (Patriot), Holy Cross (Patriot), Eastern Kentucky (Ohio Valley), Tennessee Tech (Ohio Valley), Central Arkansas (Southland), Northwestern State (Southland).
Why no love for the Missouri Valley? First, while I think both Illinois State and Indiana State will finish at 7-4, a particularly strong playoff field could see both teams on the outside looking in. And second, both have made a living of beating Top 25 teams that haven’t been worthy of their Top 25 ranking. If either of them are in the smoke-filled room with Sacramento State looking for an at-large, I think they lose that discussion.
Finally, here’s how I think the seeding and bracket might look:
Seeds: Maine, North Dakota State, Montana, Wofford, Sam Houston State
Liberty @ Northern Iowa winner at No. 1 Maine
Jacksonville State @ Appalachian State
Norfolk State @ Old Dominion winner at No. 4 Wofford
Sacramento State @ 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