FCS Playoffs ‘Til I Die: CSJ Picks The FCS Playoff Field, 11/9/2023

Just like last week, 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.

Some of the picks will shock you.

Before we dive in, once again 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. None have been determined yet, but two teams can clinch autobids this weekend.

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.

Over the years there have been a multitude of teams that are competing in FCS in name only, but are ineligible because they have more than 63 scholarships in their transition to FBS. This year, the one school that qualifies is Kennesaw State.

Similarly, some teams are ineligible 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, but if they win their division or league, they play a different postseason.

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: Gardner-Webb
CAA: Elon
Missouri Valley: South Dakota State
NEC: Duquesne
Patriot League: Lafayette
Pioneer: Drake
SoCon: Furman
Southland: Nicholls
UAC: Austin Peay

At-large (10): Albany, Delaware, Idaho, Montana State, Northern Iowa, Sacramento State, South Dakota, Southern Illinois, Villanova, Youngstown State.

Chuck Last Four In: North Dakota, UT Martin, Central Arkansas, Incarnate Word

Chuck’s Four Just Outside: North Dakota State, Chattanooga, Holy Cross, Western Carolina

Chuck’s Tiebreakers of the Week: There are so many to choose from, so it’s easier to pick the matchups that will reduce chaos rather than increase it.

Despite their loss to Colgate this past weekend, Lafayette still controls their own destiny in the Patriot League. Beat Fordham and their bitter Rivals Lehigh, they win the autobid. Should they lose either game, Holy Cross could steal the title back with a win over Georgetown. If Georgetown beats them, any of five different teams could still win the autobid, including Colgate, Fordham or Georgetown. (Fordham might have a good case for an at-large bid with an 8-3 record and one of the few FBS wins this season by an FCS team, a 40-37 victory over Buffalo.)

With Nicholls’ upset win over Incarnate Word, the Southland has entered “mess” territory as well, but not if the Colonels beat Lamar this weekend. Win, and Nicholls wins the autobid. Lose to Nicholls, and Incarnate Word, Lamar and Nichols could end with identical 6-1 conference records, with a terrible twist – since Northwestern State cancelled the rest of their season due to the death of Ronnie Caldwell, it appears like Lamar would win the Southland title.

The explanation is this: “The FCS Selection Committee will not take forfeited contests into consideration when evaluating teams for possible postseason inclusion.” Lamar played Northwestern State earlier in the year; Incarnate Word and Nicholls had their games with the Demons cancelled. To me, this reads that Lamar would have a 6-1 record and IWU and Nicholls would have 5-1 records.

Those are not the only two crazy postseason autobid possibilities (looking at you, Austin Peay, and looking at you, every single team in the CAA), but they’re the most unique. It’s actually simply crazy that it requires a fine-toothed comb and an intimate knowledge of cosines and integrals in order to properly figure out the field. If you ask me, this is not how this is supposed to work.

Chuck’s Bubble Team: UT Martin. Speaking of chaos, the Skyhawks are in a crazy position this week in the Big South-OVC scheduling alliance autobid. (Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?)

If UT Martin beats 4-5 Southeast Missouri State and 3-6 Tennessee Tech upsets 5-4 Gardner Webb, they win the BSOVCSA autobid (which, frankly, is the monstrous acronym that it should honestly be called). If anything other that outcome happens… which puts the BSOVCSA into sheer and utter tiebreak chaos, what are the prospects of the Skyhawks for an at-large bid?

At 8-3 with losses to Georgia, Gardner-Webb and SEMO (or, alternatively, Samford if Gardner-Webb wins both of their remaining games), UT Martin’s at-large case seems like one of the weaker in the field at first. But would the committee really keep an 8-3 team out in favor of, say a 6-5 North Dakota State team that finished 7th out of 12 teams in the Missouri Valley? My guess is “no”.

UT Martin could also finish at 9-2 and not win the autobid, which would only seem to buttress their at-large case. Would a 9-2 record guarantee an at-large? CSJ thinks so for now, but 10-1 at-large teams have been denied inclusion in the past. It will be a long night for UT Martin in any case if they don’t get the autobid.

Chuck’s Team to Watch: North Dakota State. It wasn’t easy to exclude North Dakota State from the playoff field, considering you could put the Bison in with a Sharpie every year for the last decade and more. But when you go through the math, and look at the projected matchups, I have North Dakota State losing to both Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa – arguably the worst possible November conference draw for the Bison I feel like even as FCS National Champs Emeritus, at 6-5 they’re sitting at home.

It’s worth mentioning that I feel like 7-4 will be the magic threshold for the playoffs in the Missouri Valley. That puts South Dakota State (presumed champions and MVFC autobid winner after this week’s game) and South Dakota as playoff locks, with six different teams able to play themselves in or out. The 6-3 Bison is one of those teams; win just one game, and they’re likely in. The other five (UNI, North Dakota, Illinois State, Southern Illinois, and Youngstown State) have the same challenge but an easier road.

CSJ Projected FCS Playoff Seeds

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

CSJ Projected Bracket

Lafayette/Villanova winner at No. 1 South Dakota State
Gardner-Webb/Elon winner at No. 2 Montana
Central Arkansas/Incarnate Word winner at No. 3 Idaho
Youngstown State/Sacramento State winner at No. 4 Montana State
North Dakota/Southern Illinois winner at No. 5 South Dakota
UT Martin/Austin Peay winner at No. 6 Furman
Drake/Northern Iowa winner at No. 7 Southern Illinois
Duquesne/Albany winner at No. 8 Delaware