By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
BOONE, N.C. — From the opening game of the 2015 Football Championship Subdivision season, it has been a year of parity. So it was no surprise when that equality displayed itself in Sunday morning’s announcement of the NCAA Division I Football Championship playoff brackets.
While it was pretty easy to pick Jacksonville State — with only an overtime loss at Auburn in a game where the Gamecocks throughly outplayed the Tigers smudging their record — as the No. 1 seed, things only became more difficult from there.
I can’t remember another season where the slivers of differences between playoff aspirants has been so wafer-thin and I’m in my 23rd season of covering FCS.
The 2015 tournament promises to be one of the most exciting and unpredictable ever. But I would have wanted no part in trying to put this bracket together.
Outside of one perplexing admission — putting Western Illinois and its 6-5 record into the field ahead of North Dakota and several other teams with better resumes — and some slightly odd seeding decisions, the NCAA Division I Football selection committee did about as good a job as you might have expected.
Even with some oddball decisions, this bracket foreshadows some intriguing games, starting with this weekend’s first-round games.
My top four seeds would have been Jacksonville State, McNeese State, Illinois State and North Dakota State, just slightly different than the order the committee decreed.
I am one who thinks that going undefeated — as McNeese State did in its 10-game schedule — is something that deserves respect, even if the Cowboys had an early-season game with LSU cancelled by weather.
Illinois State and North Dakota State shared the championship in the Missouri Valley Football Conference and are the defending national finalists, though both squads showed some vulnerability at times and both had two regular-season losses.
No. 5 James Madison looked like a potential national champion in the middle of the season before uber-talented quarterback Vad Lee broke his foot, but still slugged its way through a tough schedule to earn its share of the Colonial Athletic Association with automatic-qualifier Richmond and William & Mary.
But you could make a strong argument that Richmond deserved a higher seed with its wins over JMU and William & Mary. Though the Spiders were 8-3 and dropped two of their final three games, they still beat the top two teams in the CAA head-to-head.
Richmond instead had to settle for the seventh seed, with the committee obviously being impressed with JMU’s 48-45 FBS victory over SMU.
Sixth-seeded Portland State finished second in the Big Sky Conference behind Southern Utah, but the Vikings captured two FBS scalps this year (Washington State and North Texas) and finished strong with wins against SUU and Eastern Washington, so you’re not going to get a lot of argument there.
Charleston Southern didn’t play the greatest of schedules, but the No. 8 Buccaneers captured the Big South title and knocked off The Citadel, Coastal Carolina and a talented, yet underachieving Liberty squad along the way.
That 56-6 performance for CSU against Alabama on Saturday was almost like an exhibition game.
It would be hard to exchange any of the other playoff qualifiers for the top eight, though William & Mary, Chattanooga, South Dakota State and Southern Utah could all make cases for being included.
The committee also did a fairly good job on picking the 14 at-large entrants, with some minor exceptions.
There is little to disagree about The Citadel, Coastal Carolina, Montana, Northern Iowa and Sam Houston State making the field.
The Citadel sealed its bid with its win on Saturday over South Carolina, while Sam Houston State was dominant in a victory at Central Arkansas in what amounted to a playoff elimination game in the Southland Conference.
Montana had that season-opening win over North Dakota State and then closed the year like a Rocky Mountain storm with huge wins over Eastern Washington and Montana State with the Grizzlies getting some injured players back to finish at 7-4.
Northern Iowa has been a loss away from elimination after a brutal schedule to start the season, making the death march through the MVFC to also finish at 7-4.
Fordham had losses to a solid Villanova and Colgate in the Patriot League championship game, but the Rams beat Army for an FBS victory and won nine games again.
The bottom of the barrel is where the questions come in.
New Hampshire continues its streak as a playoff participant by winning a slot over CAA combatant Towson in a battle of 7-4 teams. The Wildcats didn’t play the Tigers for the second year in a row, but haven’t fared well in three previous meetings.
And maybe Towson deserved some payback after the atrocity of New Hampshire’s selection over the Tigers in 2012, a day after TU had destroyed UNH on the road, 64-35.
Another questionable selection is Eastern Illinois’ inclusion at 7-4 after a throughly undistinguished season. This smacks of a trade-off in votes between various conferences.
The Panthers, who started the season 0-3, were non-competitive in games against Western Illinois (33-5 loss), Northwestern (41-0), Jacksonville State (24-3). I guess that a 34-31 loss to No. 2 Illinois State somehow got EIU into the field.
If anything, Eastern Illinois was an even less desirable pick than Western Illinois, if you base things on head-to-head play.
I would suggest that the committee go back to the set-in-stone rule requiring seven Division I wins to be eligible for the playoffs, which would have eliminated a suspect Leatherneck squad.
Does an overtime victory in the snow over a top-five-ranked South Dakota State team that had to survive treacherous travel just to get to your stadium outweigh a mediocre season?
The only other highlight for WIU was its 24-19 win over Northern Iowa.
My picks for the final two spots would have been a 7-4 North Dakota squad that opened the year by beating FBS Wyoming (a team that I saw in person this season and a Cowboy squad that is better than its record) and closed the year with an impressive 45-21 victory at Cal Poly.
North Dakota didn’t have any other marquee wins, but its is better than including Eastern Illinois and Western Illinois.
The other team on my list of snubbed teams is 7-4 Northern Arizona, who battled Southern Utah like a playoff competitor on Saturday in a 49-41 road loss.
Well, that is enough for now after a long weekend of action-packed football. We will take a look at the games later this week.