FCS Playoffs ‘Til I Die: Finally, Things Start To Come Into Focus
November 5, 2019
To state the obvious, the month is now November. There are three more football weekends to go before FCS Playoff Selection Sunday, where FCS Nation hopes ESPN pronounces all the schools’ names correctly and don’t forget to specify who is home, and who is away in the first round. (I’ve seen a lot of these; in some years, ESPN is slick and perfect with their selection show, and in others, they are not just figuratively Mickey Mouse productions, they can be literally Mickey Mouse productions as well.)
Amazingly, we don’t have a single conference which has their autobid answer completed yet. Sure, there are a couple schools whose chances of losing the autobid are somewhere between “extremely slim” and “only an act of God would prevent this from happening”. But that’s not the case in most of the autobid conferences, where there are a lot of twists and turns yet to be discovered.
I wouldn’t call the FCS playoff picture clear by any stretch of the imagination, but you do get the sense that the haze around the season has lifted a little. For example, it’s clear that there are going to be multiple 7-5 teams in the field, simply due to the fact that there are a boatload of teams in the CAA, Big Sky and Missouri Valley that are hovering around that number. Whether an at-large team is “in” or “out” may come down to the smallest of things, like scheduling a NAIA or D-III school as one of your wins.
We’ll start really looking at the at-large situation a lot more closely after we talk autobids.
Once again, a quick recap of the rules for the ability to qualify for the FCS Playoffs:
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.
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 plays a championship game, and also have scheduled some 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.
Projected Conference Champions/Autobid Winners
7-2 (5-0) Weber State currently sits alone atop the Big Sky, but in two weeks, 7-2 (4-1) Montana looms in Missoula in a couple of weeks (with a tricky non-conference game against North Dakota this week as well, but that doesn’t bear on the autobid). If the Wildcats lose that game against the Grizzlies, that opens up all sorts of possible outcomes with all the current one loss Big Sky teams, including 6-3 (4-1) Sacramento State or 6-3 (3-1) Montana State, if those teams can win the rest of their games. For now, the Wildcats are red-hot. CSJ projects them to beat Montana, and win the Big Sky.
Everything fell exactly right for 7-2 (4-0) Monmouth this weekend. First, they pounded 7-2 (3-1) Kennesaw State 45-21, giving the Hawks a critical head-to-head win against the Owls. Then as a bonus, 6-2 (3-1) Campbell also lost to North Alabama on a last second field goal, putting Monmouth alone on top of the Big South. The Hawks have three games left, and the title will very likely not be settled until they play Campbell in two weeks. But Monmouth is looking really good to win the Big South’s autobid.
Colonial Athletic Association
In consecutive weeks 8-1 (5-0) James Madison will face off against the only other two teams that could potentially take the autobid from them: 5-3 (4-1) New Hampshire and 5-4 (4-1) Richmond. The path for the Dukes is simple; win both, and win the CAA, and secure at worst a Top 2 seed.
Technically, 9-0 (5-0) North Dakota State, could lose at least two of their last three against Western Illinois, South Dakota, and Southern Illinois, which also technically means that the Bison have not clinched any autobid yet. Win any two, and they are the autobid winners. Win all three, and the Bison will be a no-doubt-about-it No. 1 overall seed.
8-1 (4-0) Central Connecticut State, 6-2 (4-0) Duquesne and surprising 5-4 (4-0) Robert Morris will all play each other in the month of November to determine the NEC championship and autobid. The Dukes and Colonials face off this weekend, and the Blue Devils host Sacred Heart.
In the tight OVC, every game looms large, but two particularly enormous games loom this weekend. 6-3 (4-1) Southeast Missouri State hosts 5-4 (3-2) Eastern Kentucky, and 6-3 (4-1) Austin Peay hosts 6-3 (5-1) UT Martin. The Redhawks will have to take care of business against the Colonels, but afterwards the locker room might be tuned in to the game in Tennessee. If UT Martin wins, SEMO would hold the tiebreaker, since they beat Martin a couple of weeks ago, but if Austin Peay wins, the Governors would hold the tiebreaker since they beat SEMO in mid-October.
Could the OVC get an at-large bid for the team that doesn’t win the autobid? The winner of the Austin Peay/UT Martin game would have a pretty good case if they win the rest of their FCS games.
5-4 (3-0) Holy Cross beat 4-4 (2-1) Lehigh this weekend in a thriller at Murray Goodman Stadium, securing the Crusaders’ grip on top of the Patriot League. If 2-7 (2-1) Lafayette beats the Crusaders this week, the Leopards would suddenly be thrust into the Patriot League autobid conversation. If Holy Cross takes care of business, they wouldn’t clinch the Patriot League title and autobid unless Lehigh loses this week to Bucknell. It would take a dual collapse of Lehigh and Holy Cross to get any of the other schools with two conference losses into the conversation.
Technically, if Holy Cross goes 3-0 or 2-1 against the rest of their schedule, Lehigh, should they win the rest of their games, could potentially get at-large FCS Playoff consideration as a 7-4 team. But it’s highly unlikely they would leapfrog in front of many other 7 Division I win teams.
If 6-2 (5-0) San Diego wins this week over 6-2 (3-2) Stetson, the only team that could possibly catch the Toreros is 4-4 (4-1) Drake, whom San Diego dominated this weekend 49-7. The Toreros theoretically could lose two more games, but we at CSJ don’t see it.
Two teams, 6-3 (5-1) Furman, and 5-3 (4-1) Wofford, sit on top of the SoCon, with 6-4 (4-2) The Citadel facing off against 4-5 (3-2) Chattanooga in two weeks to determine the only other team that can catch them. The Paladins and Terriers face off next weekend in a game that could determine the SoCon title – as long as neither of them slip this week.
The at-large situation with the SoCon is fascinating. If The Citadel wins their last two games against Chattanooga and Wofford, they’ll have a chance at the SoCon title and are probably in the field as an at-large team, with an 8-4 record and a win against Georgia Tech. If they lose twice, they won’t be in the field. But if they go 1-1, at 7-5, will it be enough?
Wofford and Furman face similar math. If they lose two FCS games, they are out. Win two games, and they will either capture the SoCon title and autobid and make the field. But if they go 1-1, they will have a sweaty selection Saturday night. Currently, we have Wofford as our projected winner.
At this point, I am rooting for normalcy in the Southland. As long as 7-2 (5-1) Central Arkansas keeps winning – and they play a big game against 5-3 (4-2) Southeastern Louisiana this weekend – the potential for crazy tiebreakers in the Southland are kept at bay. The team best poised to enter a tie with the Bears and make the Southland autobid question more thorny is 5-4 (4-2) Nicholls, who beat the Bears head-to-head.
For at-large consideration, there are five teams with four losses that could possibly run the table and get into the conversation – but good luck guessing who they are, and some of those four loss teams have some real cringe-worthy losses on the resume. The team with the best resume for a potential at-large seems to be 5-4 (4-2) Sam Houston State, but a pesky loss to North Dakota looms as a potential problem.
North Dakota State (↔️)
James Madison (↔️)
Weber State (↔️)
South Dakota State (↔️)
Wofford (2 ⬆️)
Sacramento State (2 ⬇️ )
Next Teams Up: New Hampshire, Illinois State, Furman, Montana State
This is the first week that the FCS Playoff Subcommittee releases their seeding rankings, which will give us an additional data point when looking at the seedings in the next couple of weeks. I think the rankings will look similar to those that I have done above.
Rest of the field:
As an added aid to our picks this week, I’m adding one more data point in terms of pools of victories – who have reached 8 or more D-I wins as a ceiling, 7 D-I wins, and 6 D-I wins. This will help in visualizing whose chances are better than others.
Already at 8 or more D-I Wins: Central Connecticut State, James Madison, North Dakota State
Currently at 7 D-I Wins: Central Arkansas, Monmouth, Montana, South Dakota State, Weber State
Currently at 6 D-I Wins: Austin Peay, Bethune-Cookman, Furman, Illinois State, Jacksonville State, McNeese State, Montana State, North Carolina A&T, Northern Iowa, Sacramento State, San Diego, The Citadel, UT Martin, Villanova
PLAYOFF PICKS: Austin Peay, Bethune-Cookman, Central Arkansas, Central Connecticut State, Furman, Holy Cross, Illinois State, Monmouth, Montana State, New Hampshire, San Diego, Southeast Missouri State, Southern Illinois, Villanova, The Citadel, Towson
Last Four In:
Towson, Bethune-Cookman, Austin Peay, The Citadel
First Four Out:
Kennesaw State, Albany, UT Martin, Sam Houston State
A word here on the MEAC. As mentioned earlier, the MEAC sends its champion to the Celebration Bowl to face off against the SWAC champions. But there is an opportunity for a second-placed team to qualify for the FCS Playoffs if they are not invited to the Celebration Bowl.
Currently, the situation around the MEAC is complicated. Florida A&M is competing in the MEAC, but they are under a self-imposed championship and postseason ban. So their games “count”, but they cannot play in either the FCS playoffs or the Celebration Bowl, though they are undefeated in MEAC play.
Currently there are three teams with some excellent resumes: North Carolina A&T (6-2, 4-1), Bethune-Cookman (6-2, 4-1), and South Carolina State (5-3, 3-2). The Aggies have beaten a potential FCS Playoff team (Elon) while the Bulldogs have upset a potential FCS Playoff team as well (Wofford).
In our projections, we have North Carolina A&T doing what needs to be done to make the Celebration Bowl, with Bethune-Cookman a close second. That’s why the Wildcats have our last at-large spot at the moment. If Bethune-Cookman loses twice, and South Carolina State wins out, the Bulldogs would be in the best position for an at-large bid.
Potential 1st Round Matchups
Holy Cross at Villanova Central Connecticut State at New Hampshire Bethune-Cookman at Furman Austin Peay at Central Arkansas Southern Illinois at Southeast Missouri State Monmouth at Towson San Diego at Montana State Illinois State at The Citadel
Potential 2nd Round Matchups
Austin Peay/Central Arkansas winner at No. 1 North Dakota State Monmouth/Towson winner at No. 2 James Madison San Diego/Montana State winner at No. 3 Weber State Southern Illinois/Southeast Missouri State winner at No. 4 South Dakota State Bethune Cookman/Furman winner at No. 5 Northern Iowa Holy Cross/Villanova winner at No. 6 Wofford Central Connecticut State/New Hampshire winner at No. 7 Sacramento State Illinois State/The Citadel winner at No. 8 Montana