Playoffs Till I Die: Projecting the FCS Playoff Field 11/17/2015

Colgate Patriot League Champions 2015By Chuck Burton

Publisher/Managing Editor
College Sports Journal

PHILADELPHIA, PA. — Suddenly, we have four more.


Joining McNeese State and Charleston Southern this week in the FCS playoff field are Dayton, Chattanooga, Jacksonville State, and Colgate, who denied a last-minute drive at the 5 yard line this weekend to punch their ticket to the playoffs.


We’re up to six autobids to the FCS playoffs, with four more yet to determine – with some real wacky tiebreakers, too, for some, possibly in play.  In another, a de-facto championship game is set: the winner goes to the playoffs, and the loser goes home.


It’s all right here in “Playoffs ‘Til I Die.”




Ten Conferences, Ten Autobids


The following teams are IN.


Big South Conference:

9-1 CHARLESTON SOUTHERN clinched the Big South outright championship this weekend by beating Liberty.


Ohio Valley Conference: 

9-1 JACKSONVILLE STATE did it with a minimum of mess and drama, dispatching of 4-6 Southeast Missouri State to clinch the autobid.  A loss to Murray State this weekend could mean a co-championship with 6-4 Eastern Illinois, if the Panthers beat Eastern Kentucky this weekend, but they’d win the autobid based on head-to-head tiebreaker.


Patriot League:

6-4 COLGATE did what they had to do: hold off Lehigh, and thus can do no worse than share a Patriot League Championship with 9-2 Fordham, thanks to their head-to-head victory.


Pioneer Football League:

10-0 DAYTON didn’t have it easy in clinching their conference championship over 6-4 Morehead State, but their 28-21 win means the worst they could do is finish 10-1 and be tied with San Diego for the conference championship, whom they beat head-to-head.


Southern Conference:

Have to give credit to 8-2 CHATTANOOGA where it’s due.  With a game against Florida State this weekend, the Mocs’ best chance at the FCS playoffs was to win the autobid and remove any doubt as to their at-large worthiness.  Their 31-23 win over the SoCon’s runner-up, The Citadel, puts the Mocs definitively into the field.


Southland Conference:

9-0 MCNEESE STATE clinched the Southland Football Conference autobid qualifier last week.  If they finish by beating 5-5 Lamar, they could be one of the two teams in the playoff field that could be undefeated (though part of that is due to the fact that their season-opening game vs. LSU was cancelled).


Here are the autobids still to be determined:

Big Sky Conference: 

Oh, Southern Utah, not like this.


Had the 7-3 (6-1) Thunderbirds simply defeated 8-2 (5-2) Portland State, we wouldn’t have to dust off the Big Sky tiebreaker scenarios.  But the Vikings’ 24-23 win complicates things, and 7-3 (5-2) Northern Arizona can make things even messier if they beat Southern Utah this weekend.


If the Lumberjacks prevail, there could be anywhere between three and four Big Sky teams tied for the championship, which includes 6-4 (5-2) Montana as well as the other aforementioned teams. 


From the league’s website:

If Southern Utah beats Northern Arizona in the season finale, the Thunderbirds will win the conference, outright, and receive the automatic bid. If Portland State defeats Eastern Washington, the Vikings could win the title with a Montana win over Montana State, and a Northern Arizona win over Southern Utah. The Vikings can also win with a Montana State win over Montana.


If Northern Arizona, Montana and Eastern Washington win, the Grizzlies would receive the automatic bid, thanks to wins over EWU and NAU. If Montana State, Northern Arizona, and Eastern Washington win, the Lumberjacks would win the bid, thanks to wins over Southern Utah and Eastern Washington.


Southern Utah is guaranteed at least a share of the conference title, regardless of the outcome of this weekend’s games, but I think they overcome their defeat to Portland State this weekend and clinch the Big Sky outright title and autobid at home.




Colonial Athletic Association: 

The Richmond/William & Mary game this weekend will go a long way towards determining the autobid.  So will another game: Villanova/James Madison.


If the 8-2 (6-1) Tribe beat the 7-3 (5-2) Spiders, they will be the CAA champs outright and clinch the autobid that way.


If Richmond wins, the outcome will be determined by the 8-2 (5-2) Dukes and 6-4 (5-2) Villanova Wildcats.  


If Richmond wins and James Madison wins, William and Mary, Richmond and James Madison will be co-champions at 6-2 and then Richmond will win the autobid (thanks to their head-to-head win over both of them).


However, if Richmond wins and Villanova wins, the three-way-tie would be William and Mary, Richmond and Villanova at 6-2.  Here the tiebreaker goes down to conference wins against other CAA opponents – and the Tribe win all the tiebreakers.


I’m starting to think William and Mary will beat their longtime “Rivalry of the South” partner Richmond and win the CAA.




Missouri Valley Football Conference: 

The bad news is 6-1 (8-2) Illinois State and 6-1 (8-2) North Dakota State won’t face off this weekend.  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.


The good news is that the autobid tiebreak scenarios are very easy.


If North Dakota State wins, they are the odds-on favorite to win the tiebreaker, according to the league’s website.  In the scenario where they tie with Illinois State. they are both co-champions but the Bison get the autobid.  It’s only in the case where they lose and Illinois State wins, or a three-way-tie with South Dakota State,  where the Bison are denied the autobid.


Give me the Bison.




Northeast Conference: 

With Bryant’s 28-19 loss to Sacred heart, our first (and only) de-facto playoff play-in game will be occurring between 6-3 (4-1) St. Francis (PA) and 7-3 (4-1) Duquesne this weekend in Pittsburgh, PA.  The winner is the undisputed NEC champions and will be a first-time competition in the FCS playoffs.; the losers stay home.


I like that team to be Duquesne, playing at home.




At-Large Berths

Here’s my thoughts on the 14 at-large invites.


Almost certainly in Already:

Two Missouri Valley at-large teams.  Two teams, Illinois State (if North Dakota State wins the autobid), and South Dakota State, are still locks.  


One Big Sky at-large team.  Portland State’s win last weekend, in my opinion, puts them in the field no matter what happens this week.  If they beat Eastern Washington and end the season 9-2, you have to like their chances a lot to be selected as a seed.


Incredibly, after a weekend up upsets, that seems to be it in terms of safe at-large playoff bets.  I think it’s highly likely that one or more Big Sky teams end up in the field.  Who they are, though, is anyone’s guess.


One CAA at-large team.  Even if James Madison loses this weekend to Villanova, at 8-3 with an FBS win they are a lock to make the field.  At 9-2 they might have a slight chance at a low seed, depending on how things shake out.


Like the Big Sky, though, the path one or more playoff spots is fraught with possible scenarios.  There could be a multitude of 7-4 teams competing for bids.  I feel like it’s a good possibility that at least one makes it – but who?


One Big South at-large.  Coastal Carolina, at 9-1, is a mortal lock to make the playoffs.  I don’t see them as a seed.


One Patriot League at-large.  At 9-2 Fordham will have one of the stronger at-large resumes with a win over FBS Army and, to a much lesser extent, a win over Penn, who stunned Harvard this weekend and may hold at least a share of the Ivy League championship.  As Penn’s wins over Harvard and Villanova have looked more and more impressive, to me Fordham has a good chance to be an at-large team, but have no shot at a seed.


One Southland at-large.  The Southland seems like a mortal lock in having an at-large.  One of Central Arkansas or Sam Houston State, who play each other this weekend,  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.  At 7-4, Sam Houston State would have a restless night.


On the bubble?


By my calculation, that’s seven locks, which leaves seven spots open on my bubble. That’s three more than last week, thanks to the unsettled nature of the Big Sky and CAA autobids and final records.


This year’s bubble feels wide-open.


6-4 Northern Iowa is still on track, as I’ve been predicting, to be that third team.  A win over Southern Illinois is not a guarantee, and at 6-5 the Panthers are probably out, but I see UNI winning this weekend.


If you are a fan of an at-large team not named Northern Iowa, you are big Southern Illinois fans this weekend, as a Saluki win could open up another slot for an at-large.


6-4 Eastern Washington is in deep trouble after a humiliating loss to Montana last weekend.  I think they almost require a win over Portland State to even merit consideration, and even that at 7-4 will see them losing two out of their last three heading to the playoffs and a restless night in Cheney.


7-3 Northern Arizona is still red-hot, winning their last four games.  If they beat Southern Utah, they’ll be a lock to make the field at 8-3 with 7 Division I wins, and might win the division.  However, 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 1-9 UC Davis really could be a resume-killer, and looks worse and worse with every passing week.


Other teams in contention for an at-large bid are 6-4 Montana and 6-4 North Dakota.  Win, and they have a chance.  Lose, and they’re out.  


The Nodoaks are going to be a very interesting case for the committee if they beat Cal Poly and get to 7-4.  They have an FBS win, some head-scratching conference losses, and a near-scrape against non-scholarship Drake, 21-18.  If they beat Cal Poly, they could steal a spot away from someone.  


The entire Big Sky scenario is still in serious flux.  The winner of the Northern Arizona/Southern Utah game could be the Big Sky champs and autobid winner, or could be 7-4 and in jeopardy of not making the field at all.  Eastern Washington could win and scrape into the playoffs… or lose and have a restless night.  Montana and North Dakota could win and get into the at-large conversation… or not.


Lets say that Southern Utah wins the Big Sky, to make this easier, and Portland State also wins, cementing a seed.  That might put Montana into the “safe zone” for the at-large, barely squeaking it out over Northern Arizona and Eastern Washington.  


How good is The Citadel’s at-large resume at 7-4?  They’d have two losses to FBS schools, assuming they lose to South Carolina this weekend, and a loss last weekend to playoff-bound Chattanooga, as well as a loss to playoff-bound Charleston Southern.  But they wouldn’t have a quality win to really show, either.


Western Carolina are in no better shape.  At best they would only get to the 7-4/6 Division I win club, with a win over VMI this weekend, and, like The Citadel, wouldn’t have any wins against playoff teams.


The SoCon’s 7-4 teams may not look like the strongest on paper.  However, they also don’t have any real head-scratching losses to explain away either.


The OVC will have one team that could get into an at-large situation: 6-4 Eastern Illinois or 6-4 Eastern Kentucky who play each other this weekend.  Neither team has an at-large resume that screams “pick me”: the Colonels, with two FBS losses, have more “tough losses” but their sole tough win would be EIU; Eastern Illinois would some decent wins against UT-Martin and EKU, but would have a loss to Western Illinois to explain.


The CAA could get one or more bids, and the playoff possibilities are numerous, but extremely bubbly.  


If Richmond loses, they would own an impressive win over James Madison but would be sliding into the playoff on a 3 game losing streak – hardly a position of strength for the committee.  


That might open the gates for a team like Villanova (if they beat James Madison), Towson (if they beat Rhode Island), or New Hampshire (if they beat Maine).  


6-4 Towson’s loss versus William and Mary really hurt their chances.  The best the Tigers could do is make 7-4, with a win against Villanova to shop to the committee.  It might not be enough.


6-4 Villanova can make a great case for the committee with a show-me win over James Madison.  6-4 New Hampshire could as well with a resounding win over their rival Maine.


I think the key to determining the “safe” at-large is the Villanova/James Madison winner.  The winner of this game, in my opinion, is in the playoffs.  If Villanova loses, and I think that will happen, Richmond will slide into the playoffs, despite their three-game losing streak.


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”):


6-4 Eastern Illinois

6-4 Eastern Kentucky

6-4 Eastern Washington

6-4 Montana

6-4 New Hampshire

6-4 North Dakota

6-4 Northern Iowa

7-3 Northern Arizona

7-3 Sam Houston State

8-2 San Diego

6-4 Towson

6-4 Villanova


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:


6-4 Western Carolina


So which six of these teams are in?


Montana did themselves a huge service with a statement win against Eastern Washington.  If they beat Montana State in their “Brawl of the Wild” rivalry game, I think they’re in the field, with big wins over North Dakota State and Northern Arizona.


I’ve been high on Northern Iowa for weeks.  If they beat Southern Illinois, with their schedule, I believe they’re in the field.  I think that will happen.


I happen to think that The Citadel, with an anticipated loss to South Carolina this weekend, will have done enough to make the field.  Their steady schedule, with no great wins and no bad losses, will be enough to pull them through, whether they upset the Gamecocks or not.


That leaves three final spots for three imperfect teams.


My projection has Southern Utah, Portland State, Cal Poly, and Montana winning.  In that scenario, I see Northern Arizona as the final possibility for an at-large team.  I frankly don’t think 7 wins, and 6 D-I wins, will be enough.


The CAA could have anywhere up to four different teams at 7-4, and I see one of these teams making the field.  If William and Mary beats Richmond and James Madison beats Villanova, which I’m predicting, as long as New Hampshire beats Maine, which I think will happen, they will be that third team, with Towson just behind them, just missing the field.


I think the winner of the Eastern Illinois/Eastern Kentucky game in the OVC will have a rough night of sleep, but in the absence of another team sneaking in, I think Eastern Illinois, against all odds, makes the field with a win on Saturday.


I have North Dakota in my bracket.  I have to believe that if they beat Cal Poly, and I think they will, they are in with an FBS win over Wyoming.


Finally, I have Richmond, at 7-4 with a resume that is only marginally better than the first four teams out in my bracket: Northern Arizona, Sam Houston State, Towson, and Western Carolina.  I think their win over James Madison, barely, is the degree of separation that gives them the final spot.


What bubble teams are rooting for:

Southern Illinois over Northern Iowa

James Madison over Villanova

Cal Poly over North Dakota

Rhode Island over Towson

Maine over New Hampshire

Montana State over Montana

William and Mary over Richmond

Southern Utah over Northern Arizona

VMI over Western Carolina


It’s worth pausing and thinking about how seven at-large bids could be at stake after the outcomes of these games.  The loser of the Sam Houston State/Central Arkansas game might slide into the field, for example, if enough craziness happens in the above games.  That’s pretty remarkable.


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.  The winner of the Duquesne/St. Francis (PA) game will be the conference champs; the loser would only have at most 6 D-I wins and wouldn’t have a strong enough resume for inclusion.


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.


In theory, a second-placed MEAC team, like 8-2 Bethune Cookman, or a runner-up SWAC division team, like 7-2 Prairie View A&M, could qualify as an at-large team.  (The SWAC’s divisional champs are required to play in the SWAC championship game, and the MEAC champion is now obligated to play in the new Celebration Bowl.)


But I don’t see their strength-of-schedule being strong enough to merit consideration for the playoff conversation.  Even at 7-4, I think, when the doors are closed, a team like Richmond, with a win over James Madison, will win out over an 8-2 Bethune Cookman who might have to explain a 7-3 win over Division II Lane College and with no wins over Top 30 teams.


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, William and Mary, Charleston Southern, McNeese State, South Dakota State, Portland State.

North Dakota State Bracket
Colgate @ Coastal Carolina winner at No. 1 North Dakota State
Eastern Illinois @ Northern Iowa winner at No. 8 Portland State


William and Mary Bracket
Duquesne @ Fordham winner at No. 4 William and Mary

Richmond @ Chattanooga winner at No. 5 Charleston Southern

Jacksonville State Bracket
Dayton @ James Madison winner at No. 3 Jacksonville State
Central Arkansas @ Montana winner at No. 6 McNeese State

Illinois State Bracket
New Hampshire @ The Citadel winner at No. 2 Illinois State

North Dakota @ Southern Utah winner at No. 7 South Dakota State