Breaking Down the FCS Football Playoff Picture (Again)
Last week’s results cleared up the playoff picture in some ways but muddied it in others. It is extremely hard to project what might happen since we don’t really know what the committee will value in this odd year. How much will they value fall results? How will they compare teams in different leagues when most teams didn’t play anyone outside their own conference? How will COVID will continue to impact the proceedings? We are in for a particularly fascinating selection Sunday. With just one week left to play, here is my best guess as to where we stand with the FCS postseason.
Big Sky Conference
Weber State (5-0) won their final game of the season (in a close one) over Idaho State to clinch the Big Sky automatic bid. The committee had them tied for 5th in their rankings from the beginning of the month and they have gone 2-0 since. I’d say that makes them candidates for a top four seed. WSU is also listed as one of the predetermined host sites, so there is a good chance they’ll be playing on their home turf in round one regardless of their seed situation. Eastern Washington (5-1) avenged their early season loss to Idaho with a thrilling come-from-behind win over the Vandals at home last week. They look to be a solid bet to make it into the field as well (and could be a host). If a third Big Sky team finds its way into the field, the best candidate would be UC-Davis (3-2) who was ranked 9th in the committee’s rankings from a few weeks ago. Since then, though, they lost to EWU and haven’t’ picked up any wins so a bid is a longshot for them. My Prediction: Weber State is already in, and I think EWU gets one of the six at-large bids. That is probably it for the Big Sky. Although UC-Davis has an outside chance, I think this is the most straightforward of the possible multi bid leagues.
Big South Conference
Last week I went against popular opinion and picked Monmouth (3-0) to win the autobid over Kennesaw State. The Hawks made me look smart with a dominant 42-17 victory over the Owls to claim the Big South autobid. It was not unlike what happened last season, when a favored KSU team got beaten badly by Monmouth to lose the autobid as well. That year Kennesaw State (4-1) overcame a relatively weak schedule to get an at-large bid and proved themselves a worthy playoff qualifier by getting a road win over Wofford to open the postseason and then taking 3rd ranked Weber to the brink. They were also a quarterfinal team in 2018 and 2017. The Big South is not thought of as a strong league, so if they get in it will be on the strength of their pedigree of recent postseason success. One has to wonder if their status as a potential host might help their odds as well.
My Prediction: Monmouth is in with the autobid. I think KSU is one of the bubbliest of bubble teams, but their lack of competitiveness against Monmouth is what I think will ultimately keep them out of this reduced field.
Colonial Athletic Association
They have only played one game in the last month and a half, but James Madison (4-0) was ranked #1 by the committee in their rankings a few weeks ago. If they finish the season with a win over Richmond, they’ll probably be the #1 seed and host the playoffs as long as they’re in them. Even if they lose to the Spiders it is hard to see them being left out. Richmond (3-0) has had trouble getting onto the field this year and only has a pair of wins over Elon and a win over William and Mary to show for their season. The Spiders are an obvious playoff team with a win over JMU this week, but will be extremely bubbly with a loss (they are not a potential host site). Delaware (4-0) is also a lock with a victory over Villanova, but would be a bubble team with a loss (although I see them as a strong bubble team at 4-1). They are a possible host site. Villanova (2-1) is also a possible host site, but probably needs to beat Delaware to get in.
My Prediction: I was very tempted to pick a Richmond upset over the rusty Dukes, but the Spiders should be equally rusty and the game is being played at JMU so I have to go with the purple and gold. Delaware/Villanova is being played at Nova which makes it interesting, but I am going to go with the favorite here and pick the Blue Hens who have not yet been seriously challenged this year. That would make JMU and Delaware locks with Richmond on the bubble. I think the Dukes and Blue Hens are the only two that ultimately get the call in that scenario as Richmond’s schedule just doesn’t have enough. I do think, should RU lose, their level of competitiveness in that game could be a big factor.
Missouri Valley Football Conference
With three teams in the committee’s top five ranking from April 1, this is the league with the best odds at getting three teams in the field. North Dakota State (5-1, 6-1 including fall) was #2 in the rankings and probably punched their ticket to the postseason with their win over UNI this week. The Bison can guarantee a playoff spot with a win over SDSU. Speaking of of the Jackrabbits, South Dakota State (4-1) was #3 in the poll and hasn’t played a game since it was released. They are a highly ranked team but will be on the bubble at 4-2 if they can’t beat NDSU in Fargo. They do have a 44-3 win over SIU on the resume that looks pretty good, and I think they get in either way. But it isn’t a foregone conclusion. North Dakota (4-1) was #5 in the poll and can feel pretty good about getting into the field if they win at Youngstown State this week. Their lone loss is to NDSU and they have a win over SDSU (along with a blowout win over SIU). They’ll get the autobid with a win and an NDSU loss. Missouri State (5-1, 5-4 including fall) finished their regular season with a win over Youngstown State to clinch a share of the league title (something they haven’t accomplished in 30 years). They are a big wild card here, as they are 5-1 in the spring but have three fall losses. They never played SDSU or UND and lost 25-0 to NDSU. The uncertainty of how spring games will be judged weighs heavily on this team, and things would look a lot more interesting for them if SDSU were to get blown out by NDSU and/or North Dakota loses to Youngstown. Southern Illinois (3-3, 4-3 including the fall) is another wildcard. Their three losses are to SDSU, UND and Missouri State but they have a huge win over NDSU on their ledger. They play a nonconference game against SE Louisiana this week to try and make a case for themselves. The winner of that game is at least going to be in the discussion. All these schools except Southern Illinois are listed as possible first round host sites.
My Prediction: More than half of the teams in this league could probably do damage in the playoffs, and I think they’ll be rewarded with three bids. NDSU, UND and SDSU get in, despite a close loss by the Jacks to the Bison. SIU has had QB issues so I am going to project a loss to SE Louisiana which would put them out. MSU is right on the bubble and their AD committee chair. Their case is extremely interesting, but I have them out for now.
Unlike my stellar prognostication for the Big South, my NEC prediction of Duquesne winning the championship didn’t come to pass. I did say that Sacred Heart had done better against common opponents and it “should be a good game”, and I was right about that as the Pioneers won the title game in OT. It will be Sacred Heart in the field as the only team out of the NEC.
My Prediction: Sacred Heart will be in the playoffs as the lone Northeast Conference rep.
Ohio Valley Conference
As I boldly predicted, it was Jacksonville State (6-1, 9-2 including fall) who claimed the Ohio Valley Conference automatic bid by winning at Murray last week, 28-14. As a possible host site, don’t be surprised if the Gamecocks are playing at home to open the postseason. Murray state (5-2) now needs to hope their once promising season didn’t come to an end with that loss. While the Racers were ranked tenth in the committee’s initial rankings, they were 5-0 at the time. They have suffered two losses since. It doesn’t look good for MSU, but in this weird season you never know. If the committee puts values on fall results, MSU might leapfrog a few schools who had rough fall outings and have a shot.
My Prediction: Jacksonville State has the autobid locked up. Unfortunately, I don’t think Murray will ultimately get one of the six at-large bids.
The Patriot League championship game is set for this weekend between Holy Cross (2-0) and Bucknell (2-1). However, Holy Cross recently announced a pause of all athletic activity “in conjunction with the school-wide pause announced by the college Friday afternoon, and due to an uptick in COVID-19 positive tests within the community”. The pause will last until at least Tuesday, which does not preclude the Crusaders from participating in the championship game. But it doesn’t bode well either. These things can quite often linger. If the game does get played, it would be their first contest since March 24, and they would be coming off limited practice.
My Prediction: I gotta go with Bucknell due to the problems at HC but I hope the game gets played.
After their upset win over San Diego last week, Davidson (4-2) had the league title and automatic bid all-but wrapped up. It was the only league in which I only put one option for the winner with no others seriously considered. Then the Wildcats went ahead and lost to Presbyterian. By my maths, though, the Wildcats still only need to win at home this week against winless Stetson to lay claim to the automatic bid. Should they choke, San Diego (4-1) would have the next crack at the bid with a win over Valpo. Should they both lose we’d have a real mess on our hands, but I don’t think that is likely.
My Prediction: Stetson is 0-4 but is not the pushover that their record makes it seem. They only lost to Davidson 26-20 in their earlier meeting and led San Diego at halftime last week. This may not be as straightforward as it seems, but I believe the Wildcats will get it done at home and be the Pioneer League playoff rep.
The SoCon’s odds at being a multi-bid league took a hit this week when East Tennessee State (4-2) lost to Mercer. With losses to Mercer and 3-4 Furman, it seems unlikely ETSU will get a bid, however they do have a good win at VMI. Unmentioned last week, Mercer (5-2, 5-5 including the fall) is now in the conversation after the win. Should the Bears beat Samford and VMI lose to the Citadel, you’d presumably have Mercer with the automatic bid…..although I am not really sure. You’d have three two loss teams, and Mercer with the most wins (but a loss to VMI who would be half game back). Depending on how fall games are judged, Mercer could also get an at-large although with a blowout loss to VMI and a loss to 1-4 Wofford on their ledger I don’t know how strong of a case they would have. What we know for sure is that VMI (5-1) is in the driver’s seat. If the Keydets win at home against their rivals the Citadel, they win the automatic bid and a playoff spot. It is worth noting that none of these schools are possible first round hosts.
My Prediction: VMI hasn’t had a winning season in 40 years, and they’re clearly pumped about this one. The game against the Citadel is sold out (albeit with limited capacity) a week in advance. Citadel is coming off an easy win over Furman and is playing well, but I think VMI will ride this momentum home for the title. I also am going with Mercer as my very last team in. This pick assumes that fall results won’t kill you, and Mercer would be 6-2 in the spring. They would also have good wins over Chattanooga and ETSU, with only a respectable loss at VMI since a season opening loss to Wofford. I also think, with a lack of nonconference games, the committee will make an effort to spread bids around to conferences. That is what pushes the Bears over the top for me relative to Missouri State and Richmond, and the decent quality of wins pushes them past Murray and Kennesaw for me as well.
This conference didn’t do itself any favors (from a multiple bid standpoint) with its results this weekend. The one thing we know for sure after this weekend’s results is that Sam Houston State (5-0) is going to be in the playoffs (COVID willing) with the Southland’s autobid. Ranked fourth in the initial committee poll, a win over UIW this weekend would give the Bearcats a shot at a top 4 seed and they are listed as a host site. Southeastern Louisiana (4-2) with losses to SHSU and UIW has weaseled into the convo after their win over Nicholls. They played Sam Houston close and are currently in 2nd place. If they can get a nonconference win at Southern Illinois that might just put them over the hump as one of the last teams in. UIW (3-2) hosts Sam Houston in what was supposed to be the game that decided the Southland autobid before the Cardinals lost to lowly Northwestern State this week (after getting blown out by Nicholls last week). They are a longshot but an upset of Sam Houston would sure help their cause.
My Prediction: Sam Houston is already in, and they will win this week to snag a top 4 seed. I am going to go with Nicholls as the second Southland team in after they beat Southern Illinois on the road.
By my count, here are the teams I have in the field.
-Big Sky (2): Weber State, Eastern Washington (Also Considered: UC Davis) -Big South (1): Monmouth (Also Considered: Kennesaw State) -CAA (2): James Madison, Delaware, (Also Considered: Richmond, Villanova) -MVFC (3): NDSU, SDSU, North Dakota (Also Considered: Missouri State, SIU) -Northeast (1): Sacred Heart -Ohio Valley (1): Jacksonville State (Also Considered: Murray State) -Patriot League (1): Bucknell (Also Considered: Holy Cross) -Pioneer League (1): Davidson (Also Considered: San Diego) -Southern (2): VMI, Mercer (Also Considered: ETSU) -Southland (2): Sam Houston State, SE Louisiana (Also Considered: UIW)
I have 27 teams still in this thing with a week to go. In a scenario where all my predictions come true I would feel good about EWU, SDSU, UND and a second CAA team getting in. My picks of Mercer and SE Louisiana would be educated guesses and I wouldn’t be surprised to see either of them replaced by Missouri State, Richmond, Murray State, Kennesaw State or UC-Davis.
All that said, it is very unlikely all my projections come true. I think Richmond and Villanova can probably play their way into the field with wins. That would make it very difficult for the committee not to include 4 CAA teams. A blowout loss by SDSU to NDSU, or a loss by North Dakota to Youngstown State would really muck up the MVFC picture as well. I don’t know what to make of Missouri State with their weird resume and their AD as the head of the committee. I can’t decide if that helps or hinders their chances. SIU could just as easily beat SE Louisiana. I picked the Lions, but that game is a tossup. If the Salukis win that one, that muddies it up even more for the MVFC. Either or both of VMI and Mercer could lose too, and it would be hard not to include UIW if they beat Sam Houston.
The committee has an unenviable task of trying to put together a bracket with almost no cross-conference data available. It seems unlikely that we have a cut-and-dried scenario on our hands. It will be fascinating to see how they judge teams relative to one another without much data to go off. Best of luck to you, committee. You’ll need it.