By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — This past week, tropical megastorm Sandy hammered, in one way or another, the entire East coast, causing bad weather and damage all the way from Conway, South Carolina up to Orono, Maine.
But it was out West where the biggest ripples happened in the FCS playoff picture happened this weekend, with the No. 1 team in the nation, Eastern Washington, falling to unranked Southern Utah, and previously undefeated Cal Poly fell to unranked Sacramento State.
Suddenly, an already-complicated Big Sky autobid scenario just got even more complicated.
Especially in the Big Sky, who has a chance at the autobid? And who doesn't?
We look at the latest – and make our own picks as to who might emerge with spots in the playoffs.
Ten Conferences, Ten Autobids
With three weekends to go, here are my updated picks as to how these autobids might play out:
Big Sky Conference: Going into last weekend there were three teams that could emerge undefeated from Big Sky league play: Cal Poly, Eastern Washington, and Northern Arizona.
After last weekend's huge upsets of the Mustangs and Eagles, however, only one undefeated team remains: the Lumberjacks of Northern Arizona.
The Lumberjacks (7-1, 5-0) didn't exactly win pretty last weekend at 2-6 Northern Colorado, squeaking by the Bears 12-10, but they did what the Mustangs and Eagles could not: come out with a victory.
This weekend features yet another sub-.500 opponent for Northern Arizona: a trip to the last-place Idaho State Bengals, who sit at 1-6.
Should they win this weekend, the Lumberjacks again would not have a win over a team with a winning record.
Even with their loss last weekend, the team still best situated to knock off the Lumberjacks is Cal Poly (7-1, 5-1), whose game against the Lumberjacks at the end of the year could determine the Big Sky champion — provided that Montana State and/or Eastern Washington, both with one loss each, don't figure in any tiebreaking scenarios. In this case, it's head-to-head that breaks the tie, and Cal Poly would get the autobid.
It starts to get very complicated, though, if Eastern Washington (6-2, 5-1) or Montana State (7-1, 4-1) win out as well.
Since Northern Arizona doesn't play the Eagles or Bobcats during the regular season, the tiebreaker that comes into play in this case is "common scheduled opponents in descending order".
Montana State is most adversely affected by this rule, since their loss to Eastern Washington would make them the first one out, and the autobid would most likely determined by the order of Sacramento State and Southern Utah in the standings — the two teams that defeated Cal Poly and Eastern Washington.
If Northern Arizona slips twice, and everyone else slips once — after this weekend's upsets, this seems more possible — Sacramento State could also enter back into the conversation for the title and autobid as well. (Even if they didn't get the autobid, the Hornets' playoff possibilities got a major boost with their win over Cal Poly this weekend.)
So who will emerge the winner? I'm thinking it will be Northern Arizona. NAU's path is abundantly clear: beat Cal Poly, win the autobid. Lose, and someone else will get it.
Big South Conference: The hope of Coastal Carolina (4-4, 2-1) this weekend was that the Chanticleers could find a way to beat Liberty (3-5, 2-1), and the Flames would find a way to beat Stony Brook on Nov. 10.
CCU did its part, beating Liberty 36-12 at home, and need to keep winning and wait for the matchup in Lynchburg on November 10th.
Then, the epic 1-1 tiebreaker between Liberty, Coastal, and Stony Brook would take effect, with every school with a shot at the title and autobid. (Additionally, the Chanticleers also need for Liberty to beat Charleston Southern (4-4, 2-1) this weekend.)
It still seems like Stony Brook's autobid (8-1, 4-0) is safe, and certainly every team on the bubble of the playoffs have to be hoping that that the Seawolves do indeed run the table, since at 9-2 with a win over Army, they would seem to be in the field one way or another.
Stony Brook didn't do anything to dispel this notion this weekend, either, after its 56-14 drubbing of Presbyterian this past Saturday.
Colonial Athletic Association: It's been said that William & Mary always, always beats New Hampshire. "It's what we do," one Tribe fan was quoted as saying last season.
This year, there are many teams in the running for the CAA championship and autobid that fans of many CAA teams are hoping that William & Mary's mastery of the Wildcats continues.
Reminding everyone that Old Dominion (7-1, 5-1), is not eligible for the conference autobid, New Hampshire (7-2, 5-1) and James Madison (6-2, 4-1) are currently the teams in the lead for the race to the conference championship.
With Villanova's loss to Towson last weekend, VU (6-3, 4-2), Richmond (5-3, 3-2) and now Towson (4-4, 3-2) now sit just behind the leaders with a chance at the CAA championship.
Do these teams have a chance? Absolutely, with New Hampshire's recent history vs. William & Mary, and James Madison's brutal final three games and a not-so-convincing 28-21 win at home against 1-8 Georgia State last Saturday.
This weekend, the Dukes travel to Maine for another tough matchup, and Towson will face a challenge versus Delaware, both the Tigers and Blue Hens remaining in a dogfight to keep postseason hopes alive.
Villanova has a bye week, while Richmond hosts winless Rhode Island, which certainly will keep pressure on the leaders assuming the Spiders take care of business.
Who emerges as the victor? As long as New Hampshire can buck recent history against the Tribe, I still like them to win the CAA autobid.
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference: Last week, six teams were still alive for the MEAC championship. One week and a couple upsets later, three teams remain with a realistic chance at the autobid.
With Howard's loss to South Carolina State, and Delaware State (5-3, 4-1) heading to North Carolina Central (5-3, 4-1) this weekend, as long as Bethune-Cookman (6-2, 5-0) manages to beat 4-4 Morgan State and finish off the rest of the sub-.500 teams on its schedule, it's the Wildcats' to lose.
It's not completely in the bag yet — Bethune-Cookman's game against Florida A&M to close the year in the "Florida Classic" is never an easy game, the type of contest where you always throw out the won/loss records. But the tiebreakers down the line favor the Wildcats over the Hornets, meaning effectively that Delaware State needs Bethune-Cookman to lose twice in order to have a chance to nab the title.
Missouri Valley Football Conference: Last week, the Missouri Valley Conference looked awful messy, but with three teams with one conference loss winning their games this weekend, the autobid situation cleared up a lot.
The team in the drivers' seat if they win out is South Dakota State (6-2, 4-1). If the Jackrabbits win the rest of their games, which, critically, includes a game for the "Dakota Marker" on November 10th against North Dakota State (7-1, 4-1), they would win the Missouri Valley title by virtue of their win over Indiana State (7-2, 5-1) on Sept. 22.
The Jacks, however, have no room to overlook a trip to Southern Illinois this weekend (5-4, 4-2), with the Salukis remaining mathematically in contention for the autobid and an at-large bid as well.
I feel like Indiana State is still the odds-on favorite to win the autobid. If the Sycamores hang on at home to beat Illinois State (7-2, 4-2), another team clinging for a chance at the autobid, they'll have one game left against freefalling 4-4 Youngstown State standing in between them and the championship. I like those odds.
Northeast Conference: The NEC championship race looked as clear as day before last weekend. One epic hurricane and one 23-20 escape by Albany (7-1, 5-0) over 2-6 Sacred Heart later, the NEC race has become less clear.
The issue is the aftermath of Sandy, which has already formally cancelled one game with possible NEC championship implications (Monmouth vs. Central Connecticut State) and threatens another (Albany vs. Wagner).
Sandy did not affect Albany's campus that much, but Wagner (5-3, 5-1) is another matter entirely.
Those students had classes cancelled this week, and all their athletes were sent home before the storm hit. The Albany Times-Union reported Wagner head coach Walt Hameline saying, in regards to his athlete's availability this week, "You hope so, but I don't know. Hopefully, most of them make it back."
If the NEC cancels the Wagner game this weekend, what happens if Albany loses to, say, Duquesne (5-3, 3-2), Nov. 10? The NEC would probably have to clarify their tiebreaker procedure, but there seems to be a path where the Seahawks could win the autobid without having beaten Albany.
I'm still thinking that the Great Danes will win out, cancellation or no, but it's quite possible Sandy-related cancellations might make the NEC title race a lot more interesting down the stretch.
Ohio Valley Conference: Is it time to break out the calculators? Not quite.
There's a three-way tie atop the OVC, with Tennessee State (8-1, 4-1), Tennessee-Martin (6-2, 4-1) and Eastern Illinois (5-3, 4-1) currently tied atop the conference standings. And critically, UT Martin and Tennessee State both play each other in the final weekend of the year, meaning that there can't be a three-way tie between the schools.
If Tennessee State wins its last two games against 3-5 Murray State and UT Martin, the Tigers will own the autobid. Even though TSU didn't play the Panthers head-to-head, it will win the championship by virtue of Eastern Illinois' 51-37 defeat over UT Martin.
If UT Martin wins its last three games over mathematically-alive Jacksonville State (5-3, 4-2), 2-6 Tennessee Tech and the Tigers, they would win the autobid no matter what Eastern Illinois does by virtue of their head-to-head win. Eastern Illinois needs both the Tigers and Skyhawks to lose once in order to nab the autobid.
It's still Tennessee State's to lose.
Patriot League: Off a bye week, Lehigh (8-0, 2-0) is still in the driver's seat as they face 1-7 Holy Cross on the road this weekend. With 4-5 Georgetown's 20-17 win over Lafayette (5-3, 2-1), coupled with Colgate's (5-3, 3-0) win over 1-7 Bucknell, should Colgate beat Lafayette this weekend and Lehigh beat Holy Cross, it sets up a winner-take-all for the Patriot League championship on Nov. 10 at Murray Goodman Stadium in Bethlehem.
Southern Conference: It couldn't have been much harder, but Georgia Southern (7-1, 6-1) did what it had to do by beating Chattanooga (4-4, 3-2) last weekend.
If the Eagles beat hated rival Appalachian State (6-3, 4-2) at home this weekend, the Eagles will be your SoCon champions and nab the autobid.
In addition, GSU would be a Howard win away for being a mortal lock at a seed – perhaps the No. 1 overall seed.
Wofford (7-1, 5-1), waits in the wings should Appalachian State emerge victorious in Statesboro this weekend. Coupled with an Eagle loss, if they beat 5-3 Samford and 4-4 Chattanooga in consecutive weeks, it will be the Terriers that would be the sole champions this year.
Appalachian State, still playing for its playoff life, need to win this weekend to keep itself off of the playoff bubble.
If the Mountaineers do run the table by beating rivals Georgia Southern and Furman, they still have a chance to win the SoCon championship with the right combination of Georgia Southern, Wofford, and Chattanooga wins and losses.
At home, though, give me Georgia Southern.
Southland Conference: At-large teams breathed a sigh of relief this weekend when 5-3 McNeese State took out 3-5 Stephen F. Austin this weekend, 35-24.
By dispatching of Southeastern Louisiana (3-5, 3-1) 34-14 this weekend, Central Arkansas owns tiebreakers over both the Lions and the other team that could tie the Bears, Sam Houston State (6-2, 4-1). Thanks to their 24-20 win over the Bearkats on Sept,. 22, if Central Arkansas beats 4-4 Northwestern State this weekend in their last conference game, they've won the auto bid.
If Central Arkansas loses this weekend, it opens up a spot for either Southeastern Louisiana or Sam Houston State — who also play each other this weekend. There's another interesting subplot between the Lions and Bearkats, too.
If Southeast Louisiana wins, the Bearkats would have to beat Texas A&M on the final weekend of the year (not to mention Northwestern State next weekend) in order to be playoff-eligible with seven Division I wins. At-large teams will be big Lion — and Bear — fans this weekend.
At-Large Berths: So who, now are the at-large teams? Here is my take, in no particular order.
In: Cal Poly, Eastern Washington, Montana State, North Dakota State, Old Dominion, Sam Houston State, Richmond, South Dakota State, Villanova, Wofford.
Just Outside: Appalachian State, Delaware, Delaware State, Eastern Illinois, Fordham, Illinois State, James Madison, Sacramento State, Towson, UT Martin.
So why do these teams sit outside the FCS playoff bubble?
For the SoCon, CAA and Big Sky teams, I am projecting that no 7-4 teams will make the field, and all the teams in the "Just Outside" pool I am projecting to be at 7-4. An 8-3 Villanova team will make it in front of a 7-4 James Madison team, for example.
After that come the "non-power conference" at-large teams of the Patriot, MEAC and OVC who will have enough Division I wins but probably won't have enough to overcome the sheer number of power conference teams. It's still in the realm of possibility, but a lot needs to happen.
Finally this week, let's take a look as to how the seeds could shake out, and a sample bracket:
Seeds: Georgia Southern, North Dakota State, New Hampshire, Montana State, Eastern Washington.
Georgia Southern Bracket
Bethune-Cookman @ Richmond winner at No. 1 Georgia Southern
Indiana State @ Old Dominion
Montana State Bracket
Northern Arizona @ Central Arkansas winner at No. 4 Montana State
South Dakota State @ No. 5 Eastern Washington
New Hampshire Bracket
Albany @ Stony Brook winner at No. 3 New Hampshire
Villanova @ Lehigh
North Dakota State Bracket
Wofford @ Tennessee State winner at No. 2 North Dakota State
Cal Poly @ Sam Houston State