By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — I’m a guy that appreciates someone like Joe Friday. How I wish I could get through all of the junk and cut to the chase like our favorite Dragnet character could.
No offense to James Madison athletic director Jeff Bourne, but we could use Joe Friday as the chairman of the NCAA Division I Football Committee.
Whenever someone tries to get complicated about why this team, or that squad deserves to be in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, we need some to remind us “Just the facts, Ma’am.”
After 13 weeks of football that have included some of the greatest heights and deepest depths that this writer has seen in 21 years of covering FCS, we have something akin to Christmas Eve.
We watched a nerve-wracking weekend of college football and now we wait to see what is in our packages when the NCAA Division I Football Committee presents us with their 2013 playoff field on Sunday morning.
I feel like I am five all over again.
The field will be unveiled on ESPNU at 11:30 a.m. eastern standard time on Sunday.
Everyone has an opinion on what will play out this weekend. I’m sure even Joe Friday would have a theory on what is about to happen.
So with that in mind, here is a quick primer on what we are about to walk into:
First, a basic outline.
The playoffs have expanded to 24 teams for the first time, up from the 20 bids — 10 automatic berths and 10 at-large selections — that were available for the past three years.
With the Pioneer Football League receiving an auto bid for the first time, there are 11 conference champions that will advance directly into the field, with the committee selecting the 13 at-large bids that will complete the bracket.
In a 20-team field, NCAA guidelines required five teams be seeded, so with a 24-team bracket, eight schools will be seeded, each receiving a first-round bye. The remaining 16 teams will be paired off and play first-round games on Thanksgiving weekend.
With a week to play, seven of the 11 auto bids had been decided. The final four were determined in the Big South Conference, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, the Patriot League and the Southern Conference on Saturday.
The automatic qualifiers are as follows:
Big Sky Conference: Eastern Washington (9-2, 7-0)
Big South Conference: Coastal Carolina (10-2, 4-1)
Colonial Athletic Association: Maine (10-1, 7-0)
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference: Bethune-Cookman (10-2, 7-1)
Missouri Valley Football Conference: North Dakota State (10-0, 7-0)
Northeast Conference: Sacred Heart (10-2, 4-2)
Ohio Valley Conference: Eastern Illinois (10-1, 7-0)
Patriot League: Lafayette (5-6, 4-1)
Pioneer Football League: Butler (9-3, 7-1)
Southern Conference: Furman (7-5, 6-2)
Southland Conference: Southeastern Louisiana (9-2, 6-0)
Coastal Carolina was hammered by South Carolina, 70-10, but earned the auto bid and a share of the Big South championship with Liberty, which stunned Charleston Southern, 56-14.
Charleston Southern dropped its final two games to Gardner-Webb and Liberty in Big South contests to go from first place to the playoff bubble. The Buccaneers would have earned the auto bid with a victory over Liberty.
Bethune-Cookman rebounded from its 27-24 loss two weeks ago to Norfolk State by trouncing Florida A&M in the Florida Classic, 29-10, to earn a share of the MEAC title with South Carolina State.
SC State got its share of the crown with a 17-3 decision at Norfolk State, but B-CU gets the bid based on a 14-3 victory over SC State last month at home.
Lafayette met Lehigh for the 149th time in the most-played rivalry in college football at Lehigh’s Goodman Stadium and stunned the Mountain Hawks, 50-28, in a winner-take-all contest for the Patriot League title.
Lafayette becomes the first team in the 36-year history of the FCS playoffs to make the postseason with a losing record overall.
Furman battled back to earn the Southern Conference auto bid by beating Wofford, 27-14, and forging a three-way tie with Chattanooga and Samford for the SoCon title. It was a record 13th Southern Conference championship for the Paladins, who won the league’s complicated tiebreaker.
Chattanooga was destroyed, 49-0, by defending Bowl Championship Subdivision titleist and No. 1-ranked Alabama, while Samford used a 12-yard TD pass from Andy Summerlin to Chris Cephus on fourth down with seven seconds left to lift the Bulldogs to a 33-32 victory at home over last-place Elon.
Two perennial FCS powers who were not eligible for the Southern Conference title, or the playoffs, ended their long and successful histories in the subdivision with significant wins.
Georgia Southern held on to stun traditional BCS stalwart Florida, 26-20, in its final FCS contest on the road. Appalachian State retained the Old Mountain Jug against long-time rival Western Carolina with a 48-27 victory at home.
Georgia Southern and Appalachian State join the Sun Belt and the Football Bowl Subdivision next season after combining for nine FCS championships.
The PFL found itself at a point of crisis just a week ago when first-place San Diego declared itself ineligible for the conference title and the playoffs due to an institutional investigation into whether the Toreros gave athletic aid to football players. The PFL does not allow anything other than normal academic aid.
San Diego (8-3, 7-1) would have wrapped up the title and the auto bid with its victory over Drake last Saturday, but the Toreros’ decision left Butler and Marist (8-3, 7-1) standing on top of the standings.
Here is where things get weird. Since Butler and Marist didn’t play this season, tiebreaking procedures came into play.
The PFL had a tiebreaker in place to use the NCAA’s computer ranking to decide the auto bid, but that rating system was not going to be available until Saturday night.
So the PFL voted to use a series of rankings and computer rantings to break the tie and Butler finished ahead of Marist in five of the seven systems used, announcing the results on Tuesday.
Selecting the rest of the field
With the auto bids in place, that leaves the committee with the task of determining its largest slate of at-large entrants ever — 13 — and the results of Saturday probably made for a long, sleepless night into Sunday.
Here is a list of teams with four losses, or less that were likely to be considered. The playoff handbook has been amended to state that teams with less than six Division I wins are in jeopardy of not being selected, a change from the seven-win standard in the past several years.
No team with five losses has ever been chosen as an at-large entry.
Here are a list of teams (courtesy of the website Any Given Saturday), in order of Division I wins, overall record and conference record, with other significant notes. Once we get to the at-large selections, conference affiliation is not suppose to have a bearing when considering teams. There is no limit to how many teams from a conference that might be selected:
11-1 Fordham 11-1, 0-0 Beat BCS Temple
10-2 Towson 10-2, 6-2 Beat BCS Connecticut
9-2 Montana 10-2, 6-2, One Non-D-I win
9-2 Northern Arizona 9-2, 7-1
9-2 McNeese State 10-2, 6-1 Beat South Florida 53-21, One Non-D-I win
8-3 Tennessee State 9-3, 6-2, One Non-D-I
8-3 South Carolina State 9-3, 7-1, One Non-D-I win
8-3 Jacksonville State 9-3, 5-3, Beat FBS Georgia State, One Non-D-I win
8-3 Charleston Southern 10-3, 3-2, Two Non-D-I wins
8-3 Lehigh 8-3, 3-2
8-3 Marist, 8-3, 7-1
8-4 Chattanooga 8-4, 6-2, Beat FBS Georgia State 42-14
8-4 Youngstown State 8-4, 5-3
8-4 Samford 8-4, 6-2, Beat FBS Georgia State 31-21
8-4 South Dakota State 8-4, 5-3
7-4 Sam Houston State 8-4, 4-3, Wins over transitioning teams Houston Baptist and Incarnate Word
7-4 Southern Utah 8-4, 5-3, Beat FBS South Alabama, One Non-D-I win
7-4 New Hampshire 7-4, 5-2
7-5 William and Mary 7-5, 4-4
7-5 Delaware 7-5, 4-4
7-5 Tennessee-Martin 7-5, 5-3
7-5 Northern Iowa 7-5, 3-5, Beat BCS Iowa State
6-2 Mercer, 10-2, 6-2, Four Non-D-I wins
6-4 Liberty, 8-4, 4-1, Two Non-D-I wins
So who gets the call?
Fordham had its best season since its major bowl days of the 1940s, beating Colonial Athletic Association teams Rhode Island and Villanova (when the Wildcats were ranked in the top-five of the country, before injuries devastated them) and then dominated BCS Temple for most of that game before winning in the last play from scrimmage. The only loss was to Lafayette, with All-American-caliber quarterback Michael Nebrich sidelined with a knee injury. The Rams also beat a ranked Lehigh team and should be considered for a top-eight seed.
Towson is among the most talented teams in FCS and pummeled Connecticut on the opening night of the season. The Tigers only lost twice, in a turnover-plagued decision at home to Villanova and by allowing two touchdowns in the final 48 seconds at home against Delaware in CAA play. The Tigers were also shunned by the committee last year in one of the most controversial decisions in playoff history, being left out of the field as CAA co-champions after playing the toughest schedule in FCS and going 7-4 with losses to two teams (LSU and Kent State) bound for major bowls. The Tigers should be a shoe-in for a seed.
Montana began the year with a big win over Appalachian State at home and finished the season with a victory over arch-rival Montana State on the road — two teams that are playoff regulars. The Grizzlies also placed third in one of the top conferences in FCS, the Big Sky.
Northern Arizona finished second in the competitive Big Sky and came within a few seconds of earning a co-championship when Eastern Washington pulled out a late comeback against Portland State on Saturday night. The Lumberjacks didn’t play EWU and their only losses were to BCS Arizona and a Montana State team that was ranked in the top-10 most of the season. NAU’s best win was a dominating performance over Montana and the Lumberjacks beat Southern Utah, 20-10, Saturday on the road with both teams trying to secure playoff berths.
McNeese State had to come back in the final seconds to beat unsung Lamar, 42-38, in the final minutes on Saturday night in the last FCS game of the regular season. But the Cowboys have solid wins over BCS South Florida and Sam Houston State. The only losses were to Northern Iowa and Southeastern Louisiana. This is a team that is hopefully of a top-eight seed.
Tennessee State finished second to only Eastern Illinois in an improving Ohio Valley Conference and overcame injuries to win nine games. The Tigers had a huge win over Jacksonville State (31-15) that will probably eliminate the Gamecocks from the playoffs and beat Southwestern Athletic Conference East Division champion Jackson State. TSU’s losses were to Eastern Illinois and Eastern Kentucky.
Samford was probably the most talented team in the Southern Conference this season, but had to battle through injuries to make it to the finish line. The Bulldogs needed an overtime win over Chattanooga and that dramatic victory over Elon, both at home, to secure a share of the SoCon title.
South Dakota State finished as the runner-up in the brutal Missouri Valley Football Conference and won a de-facto play-in game by crushing Youngstown State on the road, 42-13. The Jackrabbits also beat two auto bid recipients, Butler (55-14) and Southeastern Louisiana (34-26). SDSU recovered from four losses in the middle of the season to its final four games.
Chattanooga had an up and down year, typical of the Mocs play through the years, but managed to claim a tri-championship with Furman and Samford in the Southern Conference. No SoCon co-champion has ever been left out of the playoff field.
South Carolina State didn’t have a signature win, but won a share of the MEAC title with Bethune-Cookman, something that has often tipped the committee to choose teams.
New Hampshire probably secured an FCS-long 10th consecutive playoff bid with a resounding 24-3 victory at home over Maine to tie Towson for the runner-up slot in the CAA. But the Wildcats might have trouble getting in, if the committee looks at a 34-27, head-to-head loss at Lehigh, another team searching for an at-large bid.
Charleston Southern had a chance to wrap up an auto bid by winning one of its last two games and couldn’t get the job done in those losses to Gardner-Webb and Liberty, so despite wins over Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina, the Buccaneers will probably become the third team from an auto-bid league to win 10 more games and miss the playoffs.
Lehigh probably had its season end with its devastating loss to arch-rival Lafayette. The Mountain Hawks were terrible at the quarterback position after losing senior Brian Bialkowski to a broken collar bone and shaky on defense throughout the year. Quality wins over New Hampshire and Princeton will probably get overlooked by that loss to the Leopards with an auto bid on the line. It will be heartbreak for the second year in a row for the Mountain Hawks. who were left out with 10 wins last year.
Youngstown State also had a chance to pretty much wrap up a playoff spot by winning one of its last two games, but the loss of senior quarterback Kurt Hess to an ankle injury and porous defense will likely leave the Penguins short.
Sam Houston State would have been in the conversation for a possible seed with a win at Central Arkansas on Saturday, after back-to-back Southland Conference titles and two trips to the national championship game. But the Bearkats sit precariously on the edge with six Division I wins after playing two provisional teams and losing to Southeastern Louisiana and UCA to end the season.
Southern Utah had late wins over FBS South Alabama at the beginning of the season and Montana State near the end to work into playoff consideration, but a mid-season loss to UC Davis probably will sink the Thunderbirds. SUU was trailing by a touchdown late against Northern Arizona when an interception return for a TD sealed the Lumberjack win. A win over D-II Fort Lewis also doesn’t help.
Liberty is basically in the same boat as Sam Houston State. The Flames shared the Big South title with Coastal Carolina, but blew the auto bid with a fourth-quarter collapse and loss in overtime to CCU. Liberty also had final-second losses to FBS Kent State and Old Dominion and will not be helped by wins over Division II Kemntucky Wesleyan and Brevard.
Marist might have been a better potential playoff team that Butler, but the Red Foxes finished below the Bulldogs in those rankings and ratings and didn’t have the strength of schedule to get into the field as an at-large team after losses to playoff-bound Sacred Heart, Bucknell and San Diego.
Several teams fell out of contention with their fifth losses on Saturday.
William & Mary was dominated by Richmond, 31-20, in the oldest rivalry of the south.
Delaware blew the largest lead in school history, 22 points in the fourth quarter, as it lost 35-34 to Villanova in the Battle of the Blue rivalry game in Chester, PA. on Saturday. Mark Hamilton’s 24-yard field goal with one second left finished off the Blue Hens, who dropped their final three games. Villanova, going 6-5 against the toughest schedule in FCS this season would have snuck into the field with one more win, but dropped games to Fordham, Maine and New Hampshire in the final seconds.
Tennessee-Martin could have slugged its way into the field by beating Eastern Illinois, but the Skyhawks lost, 70-22.
Northern Iowa needed a 28-13 victory at home against Western Illinois just to get to seven wins, but a losing record in the MVFC should keep the Panthers out of the tournament, even though they beat Iowa State for a BCS win early in the year and lost by only one point to two-time defending national champion North Dakota State. Injuries in the middle of the season derailed what could have been a significant year for UNI.
My picks for the eight seeds would be as follows:
1.North Dakota State
2. Eastern Illinois
3. Southeastern Louisiana
7. McNeese State
8. Eastern Washington
Northern Arizona and Montana would have been just out of the seedings and in my top-10.