FCS Playoffs ‘Til I Die: CSJ Picks The FCS Playoff Field, 11/8/2021

BROOKINGS, SD – MARCH 13: at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium on March 13, 2021 in Brookings, South Dakota. (Photo by Dave Eggen/Inertia)

Two weekends left to the FCS regular season, we’re even closer to knowing what the 2022 FCS Playoff field will look like. For a big number of teams, there’s a lot to play for – and for some, a lot to see what develops for those precious at-large bids.

We once again 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 rankings formula, but who we project comes away with it.

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 (autobid clinchers highlighted):

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

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

Who Wins the Autobids

This week, two teams joined St. Francis (PA) officially in the FCS playoffs: South Dakota State, who won and qualified for the Missouri Valley Football Conference title, and 9-0 Holy Cross, who finished off Lehigh to win their fourth consecutive Patriot League title and autobid.

14 - 42
Fitton Field

Holy Cross 42, Lehigh 14

Highlights: Available

Projected Autobids (* clinched):

ASUN-WAC: Abilene Christian
Big Sky: Sacramento State
Big South: North Carolina A&T
CAA: William and Mary
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: Southeastern Louisiana

Why these teams?

In terms of the disaster that is the ASUN-WAC autobid, CSJ’s current projected outcome will be that Abilene Christian wins the autobid – because of the insane way the NCAA has allowed this “alliance”, where there is no official crowned champion, to organize to qualify for the autobid.

The ASUN-WAC’s determination of their “autobid” is so confusing, because not all the teams play one another and there are two distinct conference champions – the Atlantic Sun’s and the WAC’s. Making matters even worse is the presence of many teams that are ineligible for the FCS playoffs (like Sam Houston State, which is transitioning to FBS).

The first “tiebreaker” is the top finishing team in each of the distinctive conferences. In the Atlantic Sun, Jacksonville State (who is transitioning to FBS) could be dethroned by Eastern Kentucky, who (as based on the “power ranking” released by the alliance) is considered the top-ranked team by the conference’s own “power rankings” (itself a tiebreaker for the autobid determination – are you still following me?)

If EKU beats Jacksonville State, they will be tied for the top spot in the Atlantic Sun – thus putting them in a head to head matchup with Abilene Christian, current leaders of the WAC, for the autobid. If EKU finishes in first, and ACU finishes in first, EKU wins the autobid – as long as they are in 1st in the ASUN-WAC power rankings. (Still with me?)

But Central Arkansas could also derail things. If UCA beats Jacksonville State after Jacksonville State beats EKU, then the power ranking would be needed to figure out the highest-ranked team between UCA and probably ACU. That’s because UCA would be tied for first place in the Atlantic Sun.

Also, Abiliene Christian is currently in line for the WAC championship, but that’s to be determined. That’s because the Wildcats face off against Stephen F. Austin, who could still upset them and finish tied for the WAC championship (and is also currently ranked above ACU in their power rankings). That would be ironic, though, because ACU has already lost to SFA this year… as a non-conference matchup in Nacogdoches.

So the key to this autobid are not one, but two Atlantic Sun conference games against a team that not only is ineligible for the autobid (Jacksonville State) but is on its way out of the Atlantic Sun after this season to Conference USA. If Jacksonville State wins both games, they win the Atlantic Sun title, in which case the autobid goes to the WAC winner, which we are projecting as ACU… which sits fifth in the Alliance’s power ratings.

If this sounds batshit crazy to you, and sounds like a Keystone Cop way to determine an autobid, that’s because it is.

Certainly its tragic that some teams are unduly affected by their conferencemates abandoning ship for Conference USA (or for that matter, Incarnate Word reneging on its WAC commitment to return to the Southland), but the NCAA allowed its definition of what a conference is to be completely arbitrary and, in this case, meaningless for the postseason. How can you realistically determine a champion with teams only forced together, who largely don’t play one another, without a conference? The answer is something like the absolute mess the Atlantic Sun, the WAC and NCAA have concocted.

Why the NCAA didn’t tell them to follow their own rules – which would be to have them qualify as at-large bids, if their records are good enough, because the conferences don’t meet the NCAA’s requirements for getting an autobid – will just have to be a mystery. It certainly would have made it much clearer – and would have had the added benefit of having all the conferences following the rules of the subdivision. Instead, the ASUN, WAC and NCAA have devised a confusing backdoor the NCAA’s own conference system to shoehorn in a champion over a more worthy at-large candidate.

Solid At-large (9): Delaware, Chattanooga, Elon, Idaho, Incarnate Word, Montana State, North Dakota, North Dakota State, Weber State

In terms of at-large teams, much more seems to be riding on the “OVC Coin Flip Winner” now that 5-4 UT Martin lost to Kennesaw State last week. As mentioned last week, because UT Martin and 7-2 Southeast Missouri State don’t play one another, a coin flip is likely to determine the winner of the autobid if both go undefeated, but their resumes are not the same. UT Martin would very likely not have a win against a Massey FCS Top 50 school, while SEMO would be 9-2 with a win over a possible playoff team in playoff consideration (Southern Illinois) and their only losses coming to an FBS school (Iowa State) and a WACSun autobid contender (Eastern Kentucky).

If SEMO wins the coin flip, these nine teams seem to be very solid for the at-large bids. But if UT Martin wins the coin flip… one of these teams will likely be on the bubble, because SEMO’s at-large resume is very solid.

Chuck Last Four In: Richmond, New Hampshire, Youngstown State, Furman

Chuck’s Four Just Outside: Mercer, Fordham, Eastern Kentucky, Montana

Chuck’s Bubble Team of the Week: Youngstown State. Will the Penguins get in? If you look at Youngstown State’s record (6-3) and their conference (the Missouri Valley), you’d say “yes” right away. A closer look at their schedule, however, shows that Youngstown State maybe have gotten more lucky than good, with only two wins against teams over .500 (7-2 Dayton of the non-scholarship Pioneer League, and 5-4 South Dakota, resounding losses against MFVC teams in playoff contention (North Dakota, North Dakota State) and missing some key MFVC teams in playoff contention (South Dakota State, Northern Iowa). The sad truth is, if they beat 3-6 Missouri State, securing five wins against the non-contenders in the Missouri Valley, at 7-4 it will probably be enough to get into the field as one of the final at-larges, no matter how they do against possible playoff contender Southern Illinois.

Chuck’s Team to Watch: Eastern Kentucky. Of the non-power conferences aside from Southeastern Lousiana, the team I keep looking at is 6-3 (2-1) Eastern Kentucky, who, of all the teams in the ASun-WAC alliance, have the best overall resume with a fun 59-57 6OT win over an FBS team (Bowling Green) on their resume. Bowling Green isn’t a bad team – if they finish strong, they have a shot at the MAC Championship and bowls – and if they win out, they will probably get the WACAbid through strength of schedule over Abiliene Christian. (Yes, I just invented the term WACAbid.) If they don’t beat Jacksonville State, though, at 7-4, might it be enough? If I’m the committee, I’d definitely take a shine to their win over Bowling Green, and their brutal schedule, which technically includes 4 games against teams with more than 63 scholarships.

CSJ Projected FCS Playoff Seeds

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