Playoffs Till I Die: Projecting the FCS Playoff Field 11/10/2015

McNeese State 2015 Southland Champions (McNeese Athletics)By Chuck Burton

Publisher/Managing Editor
College Sports Journal

PHILADELPHIA, PA. — In the Southland Conference and Big South Conference, Week 10 of the FCS football season offered clarity.


McNeese State and Charleston Southern clinched their conference’s autobids to the FCS playoffs, and at least a share of a conference championship, in wins.


For the rest of FCS, though, clarity is nowhere to be found.


Four Top Ten teams got upset last weekend, which threw Missouri Valley, SoCon, and Big Sky watchers back to the rulebooks as to tiebreaker scenarios.  And in eight of the remaining autobid conferences, there’s a lot to sort through in terms of scenarios.


Let’s get right to it.



Here’s my analysis of who’s going to earn the autobids.


Ten Conferences, Ten Autobids


The following teams are IN.


Big South Conference:

CHARLESTON SOUTHERN beat Kennesaw State 28-24 this weekend, and cannot be caught by Coastal Carolina.  Even if the Buccaneers lose to Liberty this weekend, the worst they could do is a co-championship, and would hold the tiebreaker over the Chanticleers with their head-to-head win.


Southland Conference:

In most years, the Southland conference autobid decision is a hot mess of tiebreaker scenarios.  This year, though, with their 27-10 win over Sam Houston State, MCNEESE STATE becomes the earliest Southland Football Conference autobid qualifier in recent memory.  That’s because they only have one game left vs. 4-5 Lamar, and even if they lose they would hold tiebreakers against Central Arkansas, whom the Cowboys already beat 28-13 earlier in the season.


Here are the autobids still to be determined:

Big Sky Conference: 

The good news:  6-0 (7-2) Southern Utah is in the driver’s seat for the title.


The bad news: The Thunderbirds play two contenders with definite designs on the Big Sky title: , 4-2 (6-3) Northern Arizona, and 4-2 (7-2) Portland State.  


If Southern Utah loses once, 5-1 (6-3) Eastern Washington can possibly share the Big Sky title with the Thunderbirds – if they win their last two games versus 4-2 (5-4) Montana and Portland State.  Since the Eagles 


If they lose both games, and Eastern Washington wins both of their games, Eastern Washington wins the Big Sky outright and wins the autobid.


If Southern Utah loses both of their games, and Eastern Washington loses once, it opens things up for a Portland State or a Northern Arizona winning the autobid with the Big Sky title being shared amongst as many as 4 teams.


Still with me?


Southern Utah can make most of this go away with a win at Portland State this weekend.  If they can manage that, most of these loopy senarios go away.  Then again, the Thunderbirds have never been in this position of being able to clinch a Big Sky title on the road in this way.  It should be an interesting week, but it seems like the Thunderbirds are the most likely choice for the Big Sky autobid – for now.




Colonial Athletic Association: 

Five teams remain alive for the autobid, despite New Hampshire’s shocking upset over 5-1 (7-2) Richmond this past weekend.  But all signs point to the Richmond/William & Mary game at the end of the season determining the winner of the autobid.  The Tribe are also 5-1 (7-2).


For 7-2 (4-2) James Madison, 6-3 (4-2) Towson or 5-4 (4-2) Villanova to have a shot at the autobid, the Tigers would have to upset William and Mary this weekend and the Villanova Wildcats would have to beat Richmond, which would leave, potentially, as many five 5-2 teams going into the final weekend.


If it does go down to the final weekend, it could be a thrilling set of games to determine who the final teams will be.  Villanova and JMU would also be facing each other, meaning the conference champions could be the Villanova/JMU winner, the Richmond/William & Mary winner, and Towson, assuming they get past Rhode Island.


But I still like Richmond to get things done this week and next.  Much like Southern Utah, if Richmond gets by Villanova this weekend, most of these scenarios go away.




Missouri Valley Football Conference: 

In the Valley, 5-1 (7-2) Illinois State and 5-1 (7-2) North Dakota State won’t face off during the regular season.  That’s a problem, since the Redbirds’ upset at South Dakota State this weekend means that if both the Redbirds and Bison go 2-0, it will come down to tiebreakers other then head-to-head.


In theory, seven Missuri Valley teams could get a piece of the conference title in the unlikely event that North Dakota State and Illinois State lose twice: 4-2 (7-2) South Dakota State; 3-3 (5-4) Youngstown State; 3-3 (5-4) Northern Iowa; 5-4 (3-3) South Dakota; and even 3-3 (4-5) Western Illinois have a chance to tie for the title with a 5-3 record.


But North Dakota State, with a home game vs. 1-8 Missouri State left, still seem like the odds-on favorite to win both of their games and at least be co-champions of the Missouri Valley. I still like their chances.




Northeast Conference: 

With Sacred Heart and Central Connecticut State losing this weekend, Bryant’s path just got simple.  Win both their games against the Pioneers and 3-6 Robert Morris, and they’re in the playoffs.  They hold tiebreakers over both of the other teams that could tie them if they win out: 3-1 (5-3) St. Francis (PA) or 4-1 (7-3) Duquesne.


If the Bulldogs lose one (or both) of these games, the NEC championship and autobid could come down to the Duquense/St. Francis (PA) winner, who face off on November 21st.  But I think Bryant takes care of business.




Ohio Valley Conference: 

The regular-season OVC title is 6-0 (8-1) Jacksonville State‘s to lose.  They have two more games against sub-.500 OVC teams, 3-6 Murray State and 4-5 Southeast Missouri State, left to go.  If they somehow lose both, 5-1 (5-3) UT Martin, 5-1 (5-4) Eastern Illinois or 4-2 (5-4) Eastern Kentucky could sneak into the conversation, but it seems extremely unlikely that they would be able to dislodge the Gamecocks.




Patriot League:

This weekend did little to clarify the Patriot League title race as 4-0 (5-4) Colgate won, 4-1 (8-2) Fordham won, and 3-1 (5-4) Lehigh also won.  This weekend, however, the Mountain Hawks travel to Hamilton, New York to take on Colgate in a game with great implications.


If Colgate wins, the Raiders will clinch the Patriot League autobid, since even if they lose to 4-5 Bucknell the following week they could do no worse than tie Fordham, whom they beat head to head.  But if Lehigh wins, then focus will be on the Rams’ game against 4-5 Georgetown.  If the Rams lose, Lehigh then has the inside track on the title.


At home, Colgate still seems to be holding most of the cards.  A Lehigh upset is possible to upend the race, but the Raiders seem to have the inside track.




Pioneer Football League:

Dayton, who squeezed past Morehead State 20-15 last week, is one win away from clinching at least a share of the title.  If they lose their last two games, 7-2 (4-2) Jacksonville could finish atop the standings, but was declared to be ineligible for the postseason autobid prior to the season.  5-1 (7-2) San Diego can cling to a chance if Dayton slips two weeks in a row, but it seems unlikely.




Southern Conference:

Two teams could still come away with the title, but only one is undefeated in conference play.  5-2 (7-3) Chattanooga and 6-0 (7-2) The Citadel are the only teams that could win the title, and they play each other this weekend, meaning the winner will win the conference.


Last week I gave a slight edge to Chattanooga because they’re playing at home, but their shocking 17-10 loss to Mercer truly puts that though in serious question.  I think The Citadel, the hotter team, takes the championship, and in the process make the Mocs the bubbliest of bubble teams.




At-Large Berths

After that, which teams get the at-large bids, and who’s on the outside looking in?  There are 14 invites to hand out.


Almost certainly in Already:

Three Missouri Valley at-large teams.  Two teams, Illinois State (if North Dakota State wins the autobid), and South Dakota State, are still locks.  One more team is on the path towards becoming that 7-4 at-large team, and in the tough Missouri Valley that should be enough.  I still like 5-4 Northern Iowa to be that team, who simply need to beat two teams not in contention for the title.


Many fans of at-large teams probably heaved a sigh of relief that South Dakota State beat Illinois State this weekend.  At 7-2 with a win over FBS Kansas, they can now pretty much be considered a mortal lock for the playoffs, even if, somehow, they were to lose their last two games.  It’s theoretically possible, with an upset or two, that Youngstown State, Northern Iowa, and South Dakota all end up with 5 losses and no FBS wins on their resume.  That may help another team sneak in.


Two Big Sky at-large teams.  Portland State can still do no worse than 7-4, and their two FBS wins make them a mortal lock to make the field, even if they lose out.  They may have lost their chance at a seed, but might sneak back into the conversation if they win their last two games..  It will be interesting.


6-3 Eastern Washington, in my opinion, needs to finish strong in order to have a strong chance to make an at-large bid.  Beating both Montana and Portland State would definitely be enough, but a loss to either puts them at 7-4 and losing two out of their last three heading to the playoffs.  It’s also theoreticlaly possible that all seven of their wins might come against sub-.500 teams.  Their inclusion is not a foregone conclusion by any means.


6-3 Northern Arizona is also an interesting case.  Unlike Eastern Washington, they are red-hot, winning their last three games.  If they beat Sacramento State and Southern Utah, they’ll be a lock to make the field at 8-3 with 7 Division I wins, but if they don’t beat Southern Utah, suddenly at 7-4 with 6 D-I wins their resume looks a lot more suspect.  A loss to 1-8 UC Davis really could be a resume-killer.


Other teams that need to finish strong are 5-4 Montana, 5-4 North Dakota, and 5-4 Northern Colorado.  The Bears and Nodoaks both play each other this week, a game which might be worth a follow if you’re an at-large team.


In the end, I see two of these five teams in the playoffs, though I only feel midly comfortable with calling Northern Arizona one of those teams.  It could be that only one of these teams join Portland State as an at-large from the Big Sky.


Two CAA at-large teams.  All James Madison needs to do to make the playoffs is to win one of their last two games.  and all William and Mary needs to do to be safe is to win this week.  These seem like the safest assumptions.


One Big South at-large.  Coastal Carolina, at 8-1, is a mortal lock to make the playoffs.  The Chanticleers’ chance at a seed involves them winning their last two games, and Liberty upsetting Charleston Southern, which could happen.  If Chuck South wins, I see them with a seed and not Coastal Carolina in their swan song season at the FCS level.


Liberty could become an interesting case if they go 7-4.  If they manage to do that, they would have beaten a potential playoff-eligible team (Montana), an FBS school (not a very good one in Georgia State, but one nonetheless), and two wins over playoff teams (Chuck South, Coastal Carolina).  They have some real head-scratching losses, like one to 3-6 Monmouth, that could be offset by that FBS win.  But that also may not be the case.


One Patriot League at-large.  Right now, 8-2 Fordham is on the outside looking in.  If they get to 9-2, which I think they will, they still will have one of the stronger at-large resumes with a win over FBS Army.  If they falter against Bucknell or Georgetown, they might be in trouble for that bubble spot.


Fans of at-large teams might be big Lehigh fans this weekend.  A Mountain Hawk win over the Raiders would open up the chance of Fordham winning the autobid, and possibly making the Patriot a one-bid conference.  A 7-4 Lehigh team with a co-championship could also get a look as an at-large team, but they’d be squarely on the bubble.


One Southland at-large.  Suddenly the Southland seems the best bet in having an at-large.  Assuming both Central Arkansas and Sam Houston State both win this weekend, one of those two teams will go 8-3 and thus become a lock for the playoffs.  8-3 will certainly be enough out of the Southland, and I think Central Arkansas is that team.


On the bubble?


By my calculation, that’s ten locks, which leaves four spots open on the bubble.  It’s awfully tough to figure out who those final four teams could be at this point.


Last week, I picked an at-large from the OVC and an at-large from the SoCon, but the goings-on has put that into serious doubt.


Chattanooga’s loss to Mercer really puts them in a pickle if they lose to The Citadel, in my opinion.  If they lose to the Bulldogs, and (as anticipated) lose to FBS Florida State in two weeks, suddenly the Mocs become a part of the 7-4/6 Division I win club, with no wins against playoff teams, on a three game losing streak.  That’s not a great position.


Western Carolina, too, assuming they lose to FBS Texas A&M this weekend, are in no better shape.  At best they would only get to the 7-4/6 Division I win club, too, and, like Chattanooga, wouldn’t have any wins against playoff teams.


The OVC’s at large resume, too, seems pretty bubbly as well.  5-3 UT Martin, 5-4 Eastern Illinois, and 5-4 Eastern Kentucky all have a shot to get to 7 wins.  The Skyhawks can only get to the 7/6 D-I club at best, and Eastern Illinois would have to beat both the Skyhawks and Colonels to get to 7-4.  At-large teams would absolutely love UT-Martin upsetting Eastern Illinois, but then having the Panthers upsetting Eastern Kentucky, making the OVC only have one at-large team at best.


The CAA could get another bid, and the playoff possibilities are numerous, but extremely bubbly.  


If 6-3 Towson wins this weekend, they become the strongest possibility of an at-large candidate, and at 8-3 that would certainly be enough.  But a loss versus William and Mary would mean the a 7-4 Tigers team would only have a win against Villanova to shop to the committee.  That might not be enough.


Then you have 5-4 Villanova and 5-4 New Hampshire, who, if they win both of their games, would have stronger resumes than Towson with a 7-4 record.  If New Hampshire beats 3-6 Albany this weekend, fans of at-large teams across the nation could be buying up Black Bear gear in the hopes that the Wildcats’ biggest rival, Maine, ruins New Hampshire’s playoff prospects.


Fans of at-large teams should be big fans of Richmond, William and Mary and Albany this weekend.  If all three win, it could limit the CAA to two at-larges.


The messy Big Sky also has some possibilities in having a third team, either Eastern Washington, Montana, North Dakota, or Northern Colorado joining Portland State and Northern Arizona.  


Here are the playoff-eligible bubble teams from autobid conferences that can get to at least 7 D-I wins (not including the ones I have as “most certainly in”):


7-2 Chattanooga

7-3 Duquesne

5-4 Eastern Illinois

5-4 Eastern Kentucky

6-3 Eastern Washington

5-4 Lehigh

5-4 Liberty

5-4 Marist

5-4 Montana

5-4 New Hampshire

5-4 North Dakota

5-4 Northern Iowa

6-3 Northern Arizona

5-3 St. Francis (PA)

6-3 Sam Houston State

7-2 San Diego

5-4 South Dakota

6-3 Towson

5-4 Villanova

6-3 Western Carolina

5-4 Youngstown State


Here are the playoff-eligible bubble teams from autobid conferences that can get to what I call the “7-4/6 Division I win” club:


5-4 Morehead State

5-4 Northern Colorado

5-3 Western Carolina

5-3 Tennessee-Martin


Two of these teams stick out, 6-3 Eastern Washington and 6-3 Towson.  At 7-4 and 7 D-I wins, in most years, they’d be firmly on the bubble, but it seems like it will be enough this year to make it in.  If they both lose both of their games, I see them out of the at-large picture.


I will also take one team from the very likely “7-4/6 D-I win club”, a club which includes UT-Martin, Western Carolina, Sam Houston State, and Chattanooga.  In what may seem like a shocker, I would have UT-Martin as the leader in the race between these four teams, followed by Chattanooga and Western Carolina.  The Skyhawks, if they go 2-0, will have a better recent resume than either SoCon team or the Bearkats.


For the final team, it’s a huge toss up.  Will the committee take a 7-4 team with 7 D-I wins over a member of the “7-4/6 D-I win” club?  Will they dip into the 6-5 teams in power conferences like North Dakota or Furman, with an FBS win?  Or might they entertain taking a second-placed 8-2 Bethune Cookman out of the MEAC, without a signature win?


With a whole lot of possibilities, and without a great deal of confidence, I think Chattanooga will be tapped as the final team even though they would, at best, be 7-4 with six D-I wins in this scenario.



No shot

I do not feel any team from the Pioneer Football League or the Northeast Conference will have any candidates that are strong enough to merit consideration as an at-large.  Most won’t even get to 7 D-I wins.


The Ivy League has two, or perhaps three, teams that would be strong cases for consideration in Harvard, Dartmouth and Penn, but the Ivy League chooses not to participate in the playoffs.


Finally this week, let’s take a look as to how the seeds could shake out, and a sample bracket:

Seeds: North Dakota State, Illinois State, Jacksonville State, McNeese State,   Southern Utah, Charleston Southern, Richmond, South Dakota State.

North Dakota State Bracket
Bryant @ James Madison winner at No. 1 North Dakota State
UT-Martin @ Chattanooga winner at No. 8 South Dakota State


McNeese State Bracket
Northern Arizona @ Portland State winner at No. 4 McNeese State

Central Arkansas @ Eastern Washington winner at No. 5 Southern Utah

jacksonville State Bracket
Dayton @ UNI winner at No. 3 Jacksonville State
Fordham @ William and Mary winner at No. 6 Charleston Southern

Illinois State Bracket
The Citadel @ Coastal Carolina winner at No. 2 Illinois State
Colgate @ Towson winner at No. 7 Richmond