By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — It’s time.
Enough of the regular season has finally elapsed to be able to determine a potential playoff bracket for the 2015 FCS playoff field.
Ten conferences will qualify with autobids to the playoffs, and fourteen teams will be selected as at-large teams.
Finally, the playoffs come into focus.
Here’s my analysis of who’s going to earn the autobids.
Ten Conferences, Ten Autobids
Big Sky Conference:
With three games left, three teams have the inside track for the title: 5-0 (6-2) Southern Utah, 5-0 (6-2) Eastern Washington, and 4-1 (7-1) Portland State. The Vikings have the inside track: if they take care of business versus 2-4 (4-4) Northern Colorado, and then beat the Thunderbirds and Eagles in consecutive weeks, they’ll be sole champions and will receive the autobid.
If Eastern Washington and Southern Utah lose a couple of games, 3-2 (5-3) Northern Arizona or 3-2 (4-4) Montana can also sneak into the picture, raising the prospect of a four-way tie or more for the title. If that happens, good luck figuring out who gets the autobid.
I think Eastern Washington is the most likely team to emerge with the autobid. Why? Despite a ton of close calls against questionable competition, the fact remains that the Eagles have two games at home on the Inferno turf in Cheney and have found a way to win six straight games. That counts for a lot.
PREDICTION: EASTERN WASHINGTON
Big South Conference:
With their win over 2-1 (7-1) Coastal Carolina, 4-0 (7-1) Charleston Southern just found the inside track to the Big South autobid. First-time 2-1 (6-2) Kennesaw State, too, remains alive, as well as 3-5 (2-2) Gardner-Webb and 1-2 (4-4) Liberty.
A win this weeekend over Kennesaw State will see Charleston Southern clinch the autobid, and I think that’s what happens. A win would put the Buccaneers at 5-0 in the conference, and the worst they could finish is in a tie with Coastal Carolina for the title, and they would win the autobid by virtue of their head-to-head win.
PREDICTION: CHARLESTON SOUTHERN
Colonial Athletic Association:
Though there are a multitude of CAA teams with two conference losses, all signs point to the Richmond/William & Mary game at the end of the season determining the winner of the autobid.
The Spiders are 5-0 (7-1) and the Tribe are 4-1 (6-2), but face some potential pitfalls in 3-2 (4-4) Villanova, 3-2 (5-3) Towson, and 2-3 (4-4) New Hampshire.
As long as Richmond doesn’t lose twice – and I don’t think they will – I think they manage to win and get the autobid.
Missouri Valley Football Conference:
One of my pet peeves is when a conference doesn’t have all its members play each other. In the Valley, that’s a looming issue, as the two favorites for the autobid, 5-0 (7-1) Illinois State and 4-1 (6-2) North Dakota State won’t face off during the regular season.
The Bison’s only conference loss is to 2-3 (4-4) South Dakota, but oddly enough, the Rebirds end the season with the Coyotes, which means that, technically, North Dakota State could sweep their season to end 9-2, Illinois State could go 2-1 with a loss to South Dakota, and both teams would end up being in, essentially, a statistical dead heat for the autobid.
Illinois State and North Dakota State could also slip and leave an opening for 3-2 (6-2) South Dakota State or 3-2 (4-4) Western Illinois to steal the autobid away.
I’m going to predict that North Dakota State nabs the autobid away from illinois State, as the Redbirds have a tough game on the road vs. South Dakota State this weekend. A win by the Redbirds will make them very hard to beat, but I think the Jackrabbits pul off the upset, and help out the Bison.
PREDICTION: NORTH DAKOTA STATE
Good luck trying to untie this knot.
Five teams have a realistic shot at the autobid: 3-1 (6-3) Duquesne, 3-1 (4-5) Central Connecticut State, 2-1 (4-3) St. Francis (PA), 2-1 (4-4) Bryant, and 1-2 (4-4) Sacred Heart. Of the five teams, only the Sacred Heart Pioneers have played in the FCS playoffs.
If there’s a team with the “inside track”, it’s Bryant. The Bulldogs have the easiest remaining schedule, and already have a wins over St. Francis (PA) and Duquesne. My confidence level in this pick is low, but Bryant seems to have the inside track.
Ohio Valley Conference:
5-0 (7-1) Jacksonville State and 5-0 (5-3) Eastern Illinois are tied atop the standings, with 5-3 (4-1) Eastern Kentucky and 4-3 (4-1) UT-Martin right behind them. The Gamecocks have already beaten the Colonels and Skyhawks; the Panthers have yet to play either.
Though it’s possible that EIU will sweep through the rest of their schedule, it seems a lot more likely that Jacksonville State will go at least 2-1 through their schedule and get the autobid.
PREDICTION: JACKSONVILLE STATE
Until this past weekend, it seems like the Patriot League title was 3-1 (7-2) Fordham’s to lose. But with Colgate’s 31-29 upset win over the Rams, the 3-0, 4-4 Raiders suddenly got the inside track to get the autobid, with 2-1 (4-4) Lehigh also having a shot to win the title as well, if they win the rest of their games and Fordham loses once more.
It seems like the autobid is Colgate‘s to lose, though with them hosting Lehigh at home in two weeks and 0-4 (1-8) Lafayette and 1-2 (4-4) Bucknell left on the schedule.
Pioneer Football League:
5-0 (9-0) Dayton has the inside track for the title, with 4-1 (6-2) San Diego right on their heels. However, the Flyers have already beaten the Toreros, so they would require Dayton to lose twice to have a chance at the autobid.
The Flyers have a huge game verss 4-1 (5-3) Morehead State, who also could find themselves in the thick of the title if they can upset Dayton at home. If they do, it will be a dogfight to the finish between the top three teams. If Dayton takes care of business, though, and I think they will, they’ll coast into the home stretch only needing to win one of two remaining games.
Two teams could come away with the title, and both are undefeated in conference play. 5-0 (7-1) Chattanooga and 5-0 (6-2) The Citadel. Both play each other in two weeks, and the winner can do no worse than qualify for a co-championship. The winner, additionally, will own the tiebreaker as well.
You’ve got to give the slight edge to Chattanooga because they’re playing at home. I think the Mocs do it.
In most years, the Southland conference autobid decision is a hot mess of tiebreaker scenarios, and most years it seems to come down to the final weekend. This season, though, if 7-0 (8-0) McNeese State can beat 5-1 (6-2) Sam Houston State on the road this weekend, they’ll clinch at least a share of the title, even if the lose their final game to 3-3 (4-3) Lamar the final weekend of the year.
Should both Sam Houston State and McNeese State falter, 5-1 (5-3) Central Arkansas still has a chance to steal the title, but I like McNeese State to put things away this weekend and make a whole lot of bracketologists breathe easier.
PREDICTION: MCNEESE STATE
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 locks. After that, I figure one team will get to 7-4, and in the tough Missouri Valley that should be enough. It could be Western Illinois, Indiana State, Youngstown State or South Dakota, but I like Northern Iowa, who have won their last two and are trending in the right direction.
I do not believe that a 6-5 Missouri Valley team will have a strong enough resume to make it in over a comparable 7-4 team. South Dakota State might sneak in at 6-5 with an FBS win on their resume, but they would be entering the playoffs in a major tailspin if that were the case.
Three Big Sky at-large teams. Portland State can do no worse than 7-4, and their two FBS wins make them a mortal lock to make the field. If they go 9-2 or 10-1 and win the Big Sky, they will almost certainly be seeded and should host a playoff game or two.
Southern Utah is an interesting case, because they are 6-2 but have two very challenging games remaining against Northern Arizona and Portland State. Even if they lose two games, they will sit at 7-4, but they would only have six Division I wins, which should theoretically sit them behind other 7-4 candidates.
A possible scenario comes about where a 7-3 Northern Arizona and a 7-3 Southern Utah ends the season and the winner makes the playoffs, and the loser is out. I think that might be what happens, but I think the Thunderbirds, hosting the Lumberjacks, should have the edge.
I feel strongly that another Big Sky team will run the table and get in at 7-4. I think that team very well could be North Dakota, who have some questionable losses but do have an FBS win over Wyoming that will impress the committee. Northern Colorado, Montana and Montana State have a chance too, but the Nodoak’s have an easy schedule.
Two CAA at-large teams. Even at 7-4 and in a major tailspin, James Madison should probably have enough to make the playoffs, even if they lose out the rest of the season. William and Mary has two challenging games left. If they lose two, they’ll be 7-4 and in danger of not making the playoffs, and if they lose all three they’re definitely out, but I think they mange to win two of three and thus be safe.
After that comes some teams that need help that I don’t think they will get. New Hampshire needs to run the table and beat Richmond. Villanova needs to beat Richmond and James Madison and run the table as well. Towson could get into a much safer position off the bubble if they beat William and Mary, but I don’t think that happens.
One Big South at-large. Coastal Carolina, at 7-1, would have to collapse to get to 7-4, and I simply don’t see it happening. At 10-1 I see the Chanticleers with a seed if they end up with the Big South Championship, and even if they don’t they might sneak up to be the 8th seed and get a first round bye.
Kennesaw State I don’t see as a realistic chance for the playoffs with only three Division I wins. Liberty could sneak into the conversation at 7-4, and would have a fairly good resume if they could close the season with comprehensive wins against Charleston Southern and Coastal Carolina (and even if they do, they still might not win the conference autobid). I just don’t think the Flames will close the deal.
1 Patriot League at-large. Right now, 7-2 Fordham is on the outside looking in. If they get to 9-2, which I think they will, they 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.
1 OVC, 1 Southland, 1 SoCon. Of all the at-larges from these conferences, The Citadel seems the safest, even with a loss to Chattanooga. At 7-4 (assuming a loss to FBS South Carolina), they would have the toughest out-of-conference schedule of all the remaining SoCon teams. Western Carolina could get to 7-4, but only have 6 D-I wins thanks to a victory over D-II Mars Hill.
Furman has an interesting case for an at-large at 7-4, thanks to their FBS win over UCF. However, it requires them running the table, specifically beating Western Carolina this weekend. Personally I think of them as a strong at-large candidate at 6-5 as well. As of now, though, I have them both out.
One thing Furman might want to root for is panic in the OVC, where Eastern Illinois, Tennessee-Martin, or Eastern Kentucky all have a chance to finish 8-3, 7-4, or out of contention. My feeling is Eastern Kentucky has the best chance to get in, most likely with a 7-4 record, with EIU and UTM finishing out of the money.
Sam Houston State, at 6-2, needs to beat one (or both) of McNeese State and Central Arkansas to get in the field. At 9-2, they’re a lock, but I think they manage to get to at least 8-3 and make the field. The question becomes whether Central Arkansas can get two wins, or Incarnate Word, Lamar or Southeastern Louisiana can get a three-game winning streak to get to 7-4.
Even at 7-4 Central Arkansas’ at-large resume is not strong, with a loss to Samford looming large in their plans.
On the bubble?
By my calculation, that leaves one last team on the bubble. That team will almost certainly have a 7-4 or 6-5 record in my estimation, unless some craziness happens.
Of the teams not mentioned above as qualifiers, here are the teams from autobid conferences that can get to 7-4 with 7 D-I wins:
5-3 Central Arkansas
5-3 Eastern Illinois
4-4 Holy Cross
4-4 Incarnate Word
4-4 Indiana State
4-4 New Hampshire
5-3 Northern Arizona
4-4 South Dakota
4-4 Southeastern Louisiana
5-3 Western Carolina
4-4 Western Illinois
4-4 Youngstown State
Talk about a hot mess! All these teams have a chance to finish strong and get to be part of the conversation. Which will it be?
So many are one-loss-and-done. I will eliminate all the 4-loss teams from my prediction, which leaves six teams that have a loss to play with.
That appears to leave Towson as the final team making the field. This makes sense on a lot of levels; I don’t think the committee will take 4 at-large teams from one conference, the Tigers have a game of fudge room, and they have an excellent shot anyway if they beat William and Mary this weekend.
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.
The winners of the MEAC and SWAC are contractually obligated to participate in their conferences’ postseason events. The only two possible teams that would be considered for the postseason is a 9-2 North Carolina A&T or a 9-2 Bethune-Cookman, but I don’t think either one would make the field regardless. Neither team has a signature out-of-conference win that would force the playoff committee to pay attention.
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, Eastern Washington, Richmond, Chattanooga, Jacksonville State, Portland State, McNeese State.
North Dakota State Bracket
Bryant @ James Madison winner at No. 1 North Dakota State
North Dakota @ Eastern Kentucky winner at No. 8 McNeese State
Charleston Southern @ Fordham winner at No. 4 Richmond
Colgate @ Towson winner at No. 5 Chattanooga
Eastern Washington Bracket
Southern Utah @ UNI winner at No. 3 Eastern Washington
Dayton @ South Dakota State winner at No. 6 Jacksonville State
Illinois State Bracket
The Citadel @ Coastal Carolina winner at No. 2 Illinois State
William and Mary @ Sam Houston State winner at No. 7 Portland State