It’s May. Spring football is over, and the preseason camps don’t start for a couple months.
We are in the doldrums of the FCS offseason.
But at this point, everyone is 0-0 and hope springs eternal.
127 schools think they have a shot to make the playoffs and compete for an FCS Championship in Frisco.
That seems great on the surface.
All of the schools will be putting out their hype material for the fall, but the reality is there are only 24 spots in the playoffs, so most of those teams’ seasons will end in November.
Below we will address a number of different playoff potential tiers, ranging from a lock to no chance. We’ll try to gauge which teams have a real shot at playoff football, and those that don’t have any shot.
The Pioneer Football League, Ivy, MEAC, SWAC, and the NEC
The Pioneer League and the Northeast Conference will only be one bid conferences, meaning only their conference champions will most likely make the FCS playoff field.
As teams like Duquesne and San Diego have shown recently, qualifying as an autobid out of these conference doesn’t mean they won’t have playoff success and won’t go down without a fight.
Within those conferences, there are a few teams that have a shot at the auto bid, and a bunch that don’t.
In the Pioneer League, the contenders appear to be Dayton, Drake, San Diego and Stetson. Put your early money on San Diego as they have been heads and shoulders above the rest of the league for many years.
Unfortunately, Butler, Davidson, Jacksonville, Marist, Morehead State and Valparaiso are just playing out their seasons this year.
In the Northeast Conference, Central Connecticut, Duquesne and Sacred Heart are your contenders for the automatic bid, while Bryant, Robert Morris, Saint Francis and Wagner are playing out the string.
The Ivy League, despite having some excellent teams that can compete with anyone, arrogantly declines invitations to the playoffs.
The MEAC and SWAC are playing to get to the Celebration Bowl, not the FCS playoffs, but it is conceivable that a strong second place team in either conference could get an at-large bid, like North Carolina A&T did just a couple of years ago
That brings us to the meat of the FCS teams. From the rest of the group, who might we see playing past the end of the regular season?
Let’s take a look.
TIER 1 – PLAYOFF LOCKS
Every year there are teams that you can mark in ink that will be in the playoffs, there are nine teams that I believe will fall into this tier this year.
They are, in alphabetical order: Eastern Washington, Jacksonville State, James Madison, Maine, Nicholls, North Dakota State, South Dakota State, UC Davis and Weber State.
You see teams here that you would expect to see.
The big three conferences take seven of our nine lock spots.
Look for at least six of our eight seeds to come from this group. I would also anticipate that three of our eventual semifinalists will come from this group. This tier shows how strong the top of the Big Sky should be this year as well, with three teams appearing in this group.
TIER 2 – STRONG CONTENDERS
This next group consists of teams that should find themselves in contention all season and will be looking to potentially host first round games.
There are 13 teams in this group: Colgate, Delaware, East Tennessee State, Eastern Kentucky, Elon, Furman, Kennesaw State, Montana, Northern Iowa, Southeast Missouri State, Towson, Villanova and Wofford.
Most of these teams have a good track record with some playoff success in the past. These teams lack something that could otherwise get them into the lock group. In many cases, it’s finding a quarterback to lead the team or new coaching staffs.
Two national seeds and a semifinalist could emerge from this group. This tier has your major SoCon contenders. One of them will get the automatic bid, but it’s so tight between them, it’s a tossup who it will be at this point, but they all should find themselves with a seat at the playoff table.
Clearly not all of these teams will make the playoffs, but they will be watching the selection show very carefully.
TIER 3 – PLAYOFF ASPIRATIONS
This tier is the biggest in our FCS landscape. This group of teams and their respective fan bases think they can make the playoffs.
Some of these teams recently made the playoffs and are hoping to take the next step, some had down seasons and are trying to rebound to get back to the dance.
Here are 23 teams to keep an eye on this year: Austin Peay, Central Arkansas, Chattanooga, Holy Cross, Idaho, Idaho State, Illinois State, Indiana State, Lamar, McNeese State, Monmouth, Montana State, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Sam Houston State, Samford, South Dakota, Southeastern Louisiana, The Citadel, Western Illinois, Youngstown State, and Northern Arizona.
Many of these teams would argue that they should be in the second tier of strong contenders.
For me, there are just enough question marks to hold them down from that tier.
There is no doubt that a number of playoff teams will wind up coming from this tier. I would not be surprised to see some of these teams even contend for their conference title.
This tier is where you will find the vast majority of Missouri Valley teams. We know who the top two are, but the next five may shake out in any order.
New Hampshire and Sam Houston State are two candidates to rocket out of this tier and make some real noise this year.
TIER 4 – LONG SHOTS
Every year, someone comes out of nowhere that you don’t expect and has a great season and finds themselves in the playoffs.
In recent years Stony Brook and Southeast Missouri State looked like also-rans before the season, only to wind up having a great season and finding themselves in the playoffs.
These are 18 the teams who have to get lots of breaks and win a lot of close games and like Lloyd Christmas says, “so you’re saying there’s a chance:” Lafayette, Abilene Christian, Charleston Southern, Eastern Illinois, Lehigh, Mercer, Murray State, Northern Colorado, Rhode Island, Richmond, Sacramento State, Southern Utah, Stephen F. Austin, Stony Brook, Western Carolina, William & Mary.
There may be one team from this group who can find their way into the bracket. Patriot League teams have Colgate to deal with, but if the Raiders take a step back, there are a couple teams that could potentially jump into that automatic bid that show up in this group.
Otherwise, I would expect that surprise team to come out of one of the conferences not considered the big three. From this list, keep an keen eye on Murray State and Charleston Southern.
Tier 5 – NO CHANCE
This final section is unfortunately all of the teams who won’t have the horsepower to get into the playoffs.
There are 16 in this group: Albany, Bucknell, Cal Poly, Campbell, Fordham, Gardner-Webb,
Georgetown, Hampton, Houston Baptist, Long Island, Merrimack, Missouri State, Portland State, Presbyterian, Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech, UT Martin, VMI.
All of these teams have shortcomings and/or play in conferences where there are many teams significantly better than them. These teams lack the overall talent to compete with the rest of the FCS.
This group also includes our two newest FCS members, Long Island and Merrimack.
Its tough, but someone has to be at the bottom.
We will come back in November when the bracket is released and review how the actual playoff teams fell out in this tiering exercise.
But when Frisco rolls around, look for one of the teams in the Lock tier to be holding the big trophy.
Jamie is a proud 2002 graduate of James Madison University. He’s witnessed the growth of the program from no one in the stands in 1998, to the hiring of Mickey Matthews, to the 2004 National Championship, to the 2008 team, to the struggles in the early 2010s, and finally the rebuild under Mike Houston. He also allegedly really enjoys Washington, DC-based Stanley Cup winners.
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