FCS Playoffs ‘Til I Die: CSJ Picks The FCS Playoff Field, 11/2/2023

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 2023 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 autobids to the playoffs.

Eight come from tradional conferences: the Big Sky, CAA, Northeast, Missouri Valley, Patriot League, Pioneer Football League, Southern, and Southland Conferences.

The Big South and OVC have combined forces to be a “league” with a single autobid between them.

Similarly, the WAC and Atlantic Sun conferences for the third straight year have combined for a single autobid as well. To avoid confusion, they have rebranded the alliance the “United Athletic Conference”, despite the fact that they are a scheduling alliance, not an all-sports conference.

The rest of the field’s 14 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 an 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 (this year, the one school that qualifies is Kennesaw State) or because they are still transitioning from Division II so their athletic departments are not yet in compliance (examples: Stonehill, Utah Tech).

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. (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. Florida A&M (SWAC) and North Carolina Central (MEAC) as of right now are nationally-ranked.

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

Who Wins the Autobids

Based on the current records and the upcoming schedule, here’s the projected autobids according to CSJ.

Projected Autobids:
Big Sky: Montana
Big South-OVC: UT Martin
CAA: Delaware
Missouri Valley: South Dakota State
NEC: Duquesne
Patriot League: Lafayette
Pioneer: Drake
SoCon: Furman
Southland: Incarnate Word
UAC: Austin Peay

At-large (10): Albany, Idaho, Montana State, North Dakota State, Northern Iowa, Sacramento State, South Dakota, Southern Illinois, Villanova, Western Carolina

Chuck Last Four In: North Dakota, UC Davis, Chattanooga, Central Arkansas

Chuck’s Four Just Outside: Youngstown State, Richmond, Holy Cross, William and Mary

Chuck’s Tiebreaker of the Week: The Pioneer League. My animus towards incomplete league schedules is well known, and this season the two frontrunners for the Pioneer League title, Davidson and Drake, don’t play each other, setting up a possible two undefeated teams in league play at the end of the regular season. The PFL’s tiebreaker is interesting if this happens – it comes down to something called “strength of victory”, which is the combined record of PFL teams defeated, and there it’s Drake that comes out ahead since they played St. Thomas (MN) who has a 5-1 conference record, and Davidson did not.

It’s a cruel way to determine an autobid, but those are the rules in a world of large conferences with no true champions.

Chuck’s Bubble Team: Central Arkansas. The Bears, technically, are in control of their own destiny in terms of winning the UAC autobid – if they win their last three games, including one apiece against Eastern Kentucky and Austin Peay, they should win the UAC. But that’s not what I’m projecting – I project the Bears to go 2-1 and squeak in with their resume with a 7-4 record. They are the quintessential bubble team at the moment: win, and they are guaranteed a spot; lose, and they are one of the bubbliest teams out there.

Chuck’s Team to Watch: North Dakota. I was very hesitant to include this many Missouri Valley teams in my FCS Playoff field, but I see little choice as long as any of the “MVFC Six” stay above the magical 4 loss threshold, because all of them have signature wins. North Dakota’s game against iconic North Dakota State, and I can’t see them left out if they sit at 7-4, or maybe even 6-5. Still, history shows that in most years at least one MVFC team stumbles down the stretch and loses their shot at the playoffs. Will that be North Dakota?

CSJ Projected FCS Playoff Seeds

  1. South Dakota State
  2. Montana
  3. Idaho
  4. Montana State
  5. Delaware
  6. Southern Illinois
  7. Furman
  8. North Dakota State

CSJ Projected Bracket

Lafayette/Villanova winner at No. 1 South Dakota State
Western Carolina/Central Arkansas winner at No. 2 Montana
UC Davis/Incarnate Word winner at No. 3 Idaho
Chattanooga/Sacramento State winner at No. 4 Montana State
Duquesne/Albany winner at No. 5 Delaware
Drake/Northern Iowa winner at No. 6 Southern Illinois
UT Martin/Austin Peay winner at No. 7 Furman
North Dakota/Southern Illinois winner at No. 8 North Dakota State