FCS Playoffs ‘Til I Die: CSJ Picks The FCS Playoff Field, 11/1/2021

It’s that time of year again!

It’s time to really start thinking about what this November’s FCS Playoff field might look like.

We come up with a composite list of 24 teams – teams based on CSJ’s staff picks on who we think will be in the field, not based on a formula, but who we project comes away with it. With the caveat that there is still everything to play for, and plenty can (and will) change, this is the field that we think, collectively, will be the field in November.

Before we dive in, here’s a short recap of the rules on FCS Playoffs participation and autobid qualification, with the most current changes for the 2022 football season.

As always, the field for the FCS Playoffs is determined at the conclusion of the FCS regular season, which is the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

There are 10 conferences that get autobids to the playoffs, the Big Sky, Big South, CAA, Northeast, Missouri Valley, Ohio Valley, Patriot League, Pioneer Football League, Southern, and Southland Conferences.

Like last year, an 11th autobid has been granted by the NCAA to the combined winner of the playoff-eligible teams from the WAC and Atlantic Sun conferences. (In 2021, this autobid was granted to get around an existing postseason rule that member schools needed to compete together for five consecutive years in the same conference to be allowed an autobid. In 2022, the NCAA allowed this “WACSUN Alliance” to have an autobid, based on a specific formula that will make your hair hurt.)

The rest of the field’s 13 teams are determined from the best remaining at-large teams. Conventions dictating who the at-large teams are from year to year vary wildly and the criteria are notoriously shifting and inconsistent. One year a five loss team makes the field; another it’s cited as a reason to exclude a team. The only way to truly be certain to make the FCS Playoffs is to win the conference autobid.

Unusually, there are a multitude of teams that are competing in FCS in name only, but either are ineligible because they have more than 63 scholarships in their transition to FBS (examples: Sam Houston State, Jacksonville State) or because they are still transitioning from Division II so their athletic departments are not yet in compliance (examples: St. Thomas (MN), Merrimack).

Two conferences, the SWAC and MEAC, choose to send their champions to the Celebration Bowl, a postseason event that’s separate from the FCS playoffs.  This is why undefeated Jackson State isn’t seriously seen as a playoff contender – thanks to their conference, they are contractually obligated to play in the SWAC Championship game, whose winner plays in the Celebration Bowl. (Additionally, the SWAC also have scheduled some regular season games on Thanksgiving or beyond.)  What this means is that their conference champions play in the Heritage Bowl and not the playoffs, though second-placed teams that don’t have Thanksgiving or later games could be considered instead.

A third, the Ivy League, chooses FCS playoff irrelevance instead of participation in the greatest Division I playoff system ever created.

CSJ’s Sagarin Projections

If Jeff Sagarin’s famous college football ratings system were used to project the field of 24 teams this week, it would pick the following bracket. For the full breakdown, click here.

Massey Ratings

Another well-regarded rating system many people use as a tool is the Massey FCS Ratings System. If the playoff participants and at-large bids were determined by Massey Ratings this week, the winners would be:

ASUN-WAC: Austin Peay
Big Sky: Sacramento State
Big South: Gardner-Webb
CAA: William and Mary
Missouri Valley: South Dakota State
NEC: St. Francis (PA)* *clinched
OVC: Southeast Missouri State
Patriot League: Holy Cross
Pioneer: Davidson
SoCon: Chattanooga
Southland: Incarnate Word

At Large Bids: Furman, Idaho, Mercer, Montana, Montana State, North Dakota, North Dakota State, Northern Iowa, Richmond, Samford, Southern Illinois, Weber State, UC Davis

Courtesy the Worcester Telegram

Who Wins the Autobids

As of the current week, one team has clinched their autobid – St. Francis (PA), who is 5-0 in NEC play and would win the autobid even if they lost their last two league games against Merrimack (who is ineligible) and Duquesne. All the rest are up for grabs. Several schools can clinch autobids this weekend, most notably Holy Cross if they beat Lehigh this weekend at home.

(Incidentally, Holy Cross won one of the best FCS games of the year when they beat Fordham 53-52 by going for 2 on their possession in overtime, and succeeding.)

Projected Autobids:

ASUN-WAC: Abilene Christian
Big Sky: Montana State
Big South: North Carolina A&T
CAA: New Hampshire
Missouri Valley: South Dakota State
NEC: St. Francis (PA)*
OVC: Southeast Missouri State/UT Martin coin flip winner
Patriot League: Holy Cross
Pioneer: Davidson
SoCon: Chattanooga
Southland: Incarnate Word

At-large (9): Elon, Idaho, Mercer, North Dakota, North Dakota State, Sacramento State, Samford, Weber State, William and Mary

Chuck Last Four In: Delaware, Montana, Richmond, SEMO/UT Martin coin-flip loser

Chuck’s Four Just Outside: Furman, Illinois State, Rhode Island, Southeastern Louisiana

Chuck’s Bubble Team: SEMO/UT Martin coin-flip loser,  Why am I so certain they are going to make it, if they both go undefeated in OVC play? Think about it. Think of the utter cruelty that would ensue if an NCAA FCS Playoff bid truly came down to a coin flip, and how fundamentally unfair and wrong that would be. It’s not SEMO’s and UT Martin’s fault that their conference leadership was forced to take in a D-II school in Lindenwood to keep the conference viable, causing both schools to adopt strange schedules where they could both end up undefeated in the conference yet not play each other. What precedence does that set for any NCAA championship that a team can do everything asked of it, be conference co-champions, and be denied an at-large bid? The FCS Playoff committee is too smart to let that happen.

Chuck’s Team to Watch: Southeastern Louisiana. If you look at the teams in contention, you see a lot of teams like Northern Iowa – teams where you have to suspend disbelief and say, “… and if they manage to win the rest of their games, including beating the No. 1 team in the nation, South Dakota State… they’re in!” The 5-3 Lions have no such worries. They will be facing off against three teams with losing records: 1-7 Lamar (who just broke a 15 game regular season losing streak last week), 3-5 Northwestern State, and 2-7 Nicholls (the team Lamar just beat). With the caveat this is the Southland, where Crazy November Things seem to happen a lot, on paper, at least, Southeastern Louisiana looks like a really solid team at 8-3, with a win over Incarnate Word, to boot.

CSJ Projected FCS Playoff Seeds

  1. South Dakota State
  2. Montana State
  3. North Dakota State
  4. Weber State
  5. Incarnate Word
  6. Holy Cross
  7. Chattanooga
  8. William and Mary