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« CSN SWAC Attack: Lack of LusterThe CAA Today: Week Four & Five – CAA Rules the Roost! »

Permalink 09/26/08 , The CSN Way, CSN Columns

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The CSN Way: How Many Teams Are Playing for Playoffs?

floated rightBy Chuck Burton, The CSN Way Columnist

If there was such a thing as “National FCS Game of the week”, it would have been the game in Harrisonburg, Virginia between James Madison and Appalachian State last weekend. It was a game that lived up to billing, with the Dukes outlasting the Mountaineers 35-32 in a game which featured not only the last two schools that were national champions, but perennial playoff participants.

Far away from the bright lights at Harrisonburg, however, there are teams in conferences without autobids that have never made the playoffs.

This year, thanks to a new rule set by the NCAA Division I Championships/Competition Cabinet, one team can look at their schedule and say they have a real definable path to the playoffs for the first time.

But what of the other non-autobid teams, who may find themselves meeting nearly the same criteria?


The Path

This offseason it was decided that the playoffs would be expanding in 2010 to twenty teams from the current number of sixteen.

The philosophy of playoff expansion really wasn’t in doubt, as FCS representatives had already agreed in principle to giving playoff access to all eligible conferences. The Big South, with only five members, never met the criteria; but as the Northeast Conference mutated from a limited grant-in-aid model to a limited scholarship conference, the reasons for excluding their conference from the playoffs was becoming more and more spurious.

Helping matters immensely was Albany’s upset of Delaware and Central Connecticut State upset of Georgia Southern two years ago. Once two NEC schools defeated two flagships of the FCS “brand", how could the subcommittee deny them a chance to do so in the playoffs?

But with the presentation of “Twenty in Twenty Ten” proposal came something else: a definition of what it might take for a team playing in a conference without an autobid to qualify “automatically” for an at-large bid in the meantime. The terms are not easy to meet, but they are a defined path to the playoffs for the first time.

(This does not apply to teams from the Ivy League, as the Ivy League “postseason ban” still stands today, nor does it apply to Grambling State, Southern, or Alabama State since they play in “Classic” games that preclude their playoff participation. The SWAC divisional champions also do not participate since they are contractually committed to the SWAC championship game.)

Say What?

It was originally reported that all a team needed to do was to achieve eight Division I wins, two wins over schools in autobid conferences (or an FBS win), and an average ranking of at least #16 in the GPI, Sports Network and Coaches polls. The average rankings begin after the 10/25 games.

However, there is a key caveat to this criteria. Not only does the team need to meet these criteria, they need to be the champion of a conference that currently qualifies for an autobid but isn’t currently an autobid conference. They also need to ask for an AQ. Only if they meet those parameters they will receive an at-large bid to the playoffs in 2008.

Based on this criteria by the NCAA, only one conference could achieve an autobid: the winner of the Northeast conference, or NEC.

For starters, that leaves serious questions from teams from the Great West and Big South conferences. These conferences all have teams that play autobid conference schools, but don’t have enough members or have members that haven’t played together for enough years to be considered for an autobid.

Teams from both of these conferences are very interested in competing for a national championship but according to the rules, they do not have an automatic path yet.

To be fair, you would think that the FCS committee would give very strong at-large playoff consideration for these teams that meet these same criteria. Both the Big South and Great West teams have had squads that have made the playoffs as at-large teams before - and also have had worthy teams denied as well.

But now that the NCAA has set a “bridge” for only one conference, how can that threshold be denied the other conferences should they meet nearly all the same requirements? In other words, what makes the NEC - a conference that has never had any team qualify for the playoffs - deserve an autobid over two conferences that have already had teams that have made the playoffs - and in the case of the Great West, has already won in the playoffs?

Conversely, it’s easy to imagine a scenario where a team goes 11-0 and only has one win over an autobid conference (something both Dayton and San Diego, both of the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League, could conceivably do) yet are denied an at-large playoff spot due to “strength of schedule".

Given the criteria, only Albany (1-2) from the NEC can potentially qualify for an autobid – and they haven’t even played at home yet. The Great Danes have already played a murderous schedule with three teams from the powerful CAA. But they’ve already beaten one of those teams (22-16, over Hofstra) - and should they repeat their feat from two years ago and beat powerful Delaware at Tubby Raymond field this weekend they might just be rewarded at the end of the year with an automatic berth in the playoffs. With two big wins over CAA teams - and, not to be forgotten, two scrappy losses against two nationally-ranked CAA foes in UMass and New Hampshire - they would seem to be a shoo-in for an autobid should they win out.

But should they not win this weekend, the FCS committee would conveniently be able to return to business-as-usual. It would be eight conferences, eight autobids, and the “criteria” for an autobid would not be written about again until next year.

The Teams

Suppose the NEC threshold for an autobid were applied to the rest of the non-autobid teams in the FCS? Without including the SWAC and their undeterminable (at this point in the season) conference race, there are four non-autobid-conference teams that can make the criteria as laid out by the D-I subcommittee excepting their conference not being eligible for an AQ.

One team currently is well on the way to meeting all these criteria. Cal Poly (2-1) has already upset an FBS team (San Diego State, 29-27), beaten a member of an autobid conference (Northwestern State last week, 52-18) and are currently listed in the Top 10 in the Sports Network FCS Poll. However they have only 10 total games this year after their match with McNeese State was cancelled, so they must win six of their last seven games - which includes FBS Wisconsin and transitional South Dakota (transitional D-I wins have been a sticking point in the committee’s eyes in past years as to whether they fully count). Cal Poly is still talking about finding a replacement game for the cancellation, which would help them in their quest for a playoff spot.

Another Great West team, UC Davis, isn’t nationally ranked but has one win over an autobid conference (Portland State of the Big Sky, 38-24) and has three more chances to get another autobid conference win (against Northeastern, Sacramento State, and Northern Colorado). At 1-3, it wouldn’t be easy, but if they win seven of their last eight games (which includes transitional North Dakota) to finish 8-4, they would be a candidate.

The third team with a chance? Liberty out of the Big South is 3-0 with wins over two sub-D-I teams, but their third win this year over Western Carolina out of the SoCon counts towards their total for the automatic bid. They could even slip a couple of times, but as long as they stay nationally ranked and win either against Youngstown State this weekend or Lafayette three weeks from now – they would have an excellent chance. And they’re well on their way to a higher national ranking, hitting #25 in this week’s Sports Network poll.

Gardner-Webb (2-1) out of the Big South has beaten one autobid conference team in Austin Peay of the Ohio Valley, and needs to beat either Sam Houston State at home this week or FBS Georgia Tech in two weeks, plus their other remaining six games. But should they pull it off, they would also be in the mix for a guaranteed automatic bid.

Finally, Coastal Carolina (1-2) would also qualify for a guaranteed automatic bid in this hypothetical scenario as well, based on their win over Towson of the CAA last weekend (31-3) and if they win over North Carolina A&T of the MEAC this weekend.

* * *

While the details unfold on who qualifies, the path for teams in conferences without autobids is very clear. The focus isn’t yet on conference races. For Albany, Liberty, Coastal Carolina and Gardner-Webb this weekend in particular, they have to feel like they’re playing playoff games.

Chuckles for Week #5 Ending 9/28

Boy did James Madison, Elon and Eastern Illinois make me look good last weekend. With their come-from-behind victories I finished at an incredible 23-3. That’s not a typo. To be clear, that’s twenty-three wins and three losses. And to be even more clear, two of the losses (Holy Cross to Harvard, Bucknell to Cornell) were by one point apiece, while the third (North Dakota State) almost came back for me as well. Simply put, it’s my finest week ever.

Overall I’m 83-22 on the year, putting me at 79% on the year.

Joys of the Week

There are no regrets this week. Games I got really right were Northern Iowa beating South Dakota State (picked: 31-24, actual, 34-20), Wofford hanging tough with FBS South Carolina (picked a 24-13 loss; actual, 23-13) – and my personal favorite, picking the Eastern Illinois Panthers to finally put one over on their in-state rival the Illinois State Redbirds (picked: 28-23; actual, 25-21). And lest I forget, the game of the week last week? (I picked James Madision to win 31-28; actual, 35-32).

How can I keep up this pace this week? I’ll do my best, as always.

The Picks
#1 Richmond at #19 Villanova. The cardinal rule is: Be very, very wary of picking CAA games on the road. I’m being asked to ignore Wildcat quarterback Antwon Young’s meltdown last weekend as backup quarterback Chris Whitney and the Wildcats escaped “Big 5” rival Penn 20-14 in overtime last week. I’m also asked to ignore that Villanova head coach Andy Talley is withholding his quarterback decision until basically gametime. It promises to be a battle where both defenses – both exceptional - are asked to carry the day. And even though they’re on the road, I think Richmond’s “D” – led by sophomore defensive back Justin Rogers, with three interceptions in two games – manages to squeak out a victory that some might think is too close to call.
Banana Spiders 18, “Hike it to Aaron” 15

#2 James Madison at Maine. Two rules at stake here: first of all, the “I’ve-got-a-huge-letdown-since-last-week-we-played-the-game-of-our-careers” factor with James Madison after their thrilling 35-32 win over Appalachian State. The other one is – you guessed it – CAA games on the road are fraught with picking danger. Add to this that defensive end Jovan Belcher and the Black Bears have their backs firmly against the wall with a 2-2 record and an 0-1 record in the conference – fall behind 0-2 in the CAA with three losses, and they will be pretty much done. Bears are dangerous, yes: but can they upset quarterback Rodney Landers and company? I just don’t see it: they’ll have to contain the Duke’s massive lines to have a chance, and I just don’t see it.
Mickey’s Men (Not Mice) 28, Man-Eating Killing Machines Lose To #1, then #2… Not Nice 13

Presbyterian at #3 Appalachian State.
I can’t think of a better tonic for the Mountaineers after their tough loss to James Madison than to beat up on a team that gave up 66 points to Elon. Saddle up, App fans.
Angry Apps 72, Pummeled Hose 13

Central Washington (D-II) at #4 Montana. It’s not worth dismissing this game out-of-hand – the Wildcats are a Division II powerhouse this year at 4-0 and ranked #4 in Division II, and Montana’s Cole Bergquist still doesn’t seem like he’s 100% healthy yet. But it’s a good bet that the Wildcats – who have already beaten Eastern Washington and Montana State in recent memory – will make the Griz’ lives very, very difficult. Montana wins – but it’s a lot closer than Griz fans might like.
Ursa Majors 28, Not Exactly Cattus Minors 20

Southern Virginia (NAIA) at #6 McNeese State. This one, on the other hand, is worth dismissing out-of-hand, unless the Cowboys are rusty after being unable to play games for two straight weeks. Um, nah.
Cold Cowboys 77, No Knight’s Tales 0

#7 New Hampshire at Dartmouth.
In this Granite State rivalry – dominated by the Wildcats the last 10 years – you’d think by reading the press reports that Dartmouth was ready to rejoin the national rankings rather than, as the Ivy League preseason poll indicated, being picked to finish seventh in the Ivy League. “They probably haven’t opened up half their playbook,” said Wildcat linebacker Matt Parent. News flash: if Buddy Teevens and the Big Green actually closed their playbook against Colgate – a game which was tied going into the final quarter before Dartmouth finally succumbed 34-20 – Teevens would have been run out of town. With Dartmouth’s new spread offense, and runningback Alex Jenny, they’ll be better – but they’ll still lose to a Wildcat team that is balanced and appears to have no glaring weakness.
Big Sandbaggers 29, Green Keggers 10

Samford at #8 Elon. Welcome to the Southern Conference, Samford, who has had a much easier time against sub-D-I competition (Faulkner, West Gerogia) than against Division I competition (FBS Ole Miss). But this three-headed quarterback and runningback Chris Evans is going to have their hands full with quarterback Scott Riddle and the high-powered Elon offense. It will be a tough baptism.
Feelin’ Phoenix 49, Auburned Bulldogs 13

Idaho State at #11 Eastern Washington.
After losing a heartbreaker 38-35 at home to transitional North Dakota last week, it doesn’t get any easier for quarterback Russell Hill and Idaho State: this time heading to Cheney, Washington to take on Eastern Washington, who represented well in two FBS losses to Texas Tech and Colorado in consecutive weeks. The contrast of losses couldn’t be greater: quarterback Matt Nicholls and the Eagle offense can take a lot out of their challenge games, while the Bengals have to be reeling after falling way behind the Sioux and being unable to come from behind to win. The confident team – Eastern Washington – gets the job done.
Eminent Eagles 44, Bungled Bengals 21

#12 Central Arkansas at Tulsa (FBS). Three opponents for Tulsa; three games where they’ve scored over 45 points. While Central Arkansas quarterback Nathan Brown certainly has been known to generate some offense himself, the Bears won’t be able to handle this particular meat grinder. They’ll start well, but ultimately the Golden Hurricane will prevail.
Golden Ikes 62, Purple Spikes 36

Western Carolina at #13 The Citadel. Hope Western Carolina doesn’t bring their band into Charleston: the last time a band did that was when Princeton’s scramble band marched through the campus and were reportedly physically and verbally harassed by cadets. While this game won’t be the “culture war” that the Princeton game was (which was taken by The Citadel, 37-26), the Catamounts, struggling under first-year head coach Dennis Wagner, will have no easier time against quarterback Bart Blanchard. One less band fracas for The Citadel; but one more victory for the boys in Powder Blue.
Bulldog Bullies 47, Cowed Catamounts 10

#14 Wofford at #24 Georgia Southern.
Georgia Southern at 2-2 fits that “home team, back against the wall” look which I look to immediately as a red flag. But I don’t like the fact that for three straight weeks quarterback Antonio Henton has played nailbiter games, losing one – and facing powerful Wofford this week, coming off a hard-fought 23-13 loss to FBS South Carolina. I think the Wofford defense – which is quietly becoming a fearsome unit led by linebacker Seth Goldwire – has too much against a Eagle team that is still, as head coach Andrew Hatch says, rebuilding.
Golden Wires 31, Hatching Eagles 23

Chattanooga at #16 Furman. Hard to see the Mocs, who only managed fewer points (3) than turnovers (5) against Jacksonville State, putting up much of a fight against quarterback Jordan Sorrels and the Paladins, who seem quite ready to reestablish themselves as a part of the SoCon elite.
We’re Not Looking Ahead to Elon… We Promise 42, We’re Not Going to Score Less Than We Turn It Over.. We Promise 9

Albany at #17 Delaware. This is a critical crossroads game for both teams. For Delaware – already at 1-2 with losses to Furman and FBS Maryland, and with their sole win an unimpressive one over D-II West Chester – another out-of-conference slip-up could mean that the Hens could afford no slip-ups the rest of the way in their always-brutal CAA schedule. For Albany, this is a playoff game, pure and simple. Win, they keep their chance at an autobid alive; lose, and it’s unlikely they will get any consideration for the postseason. Defense will set the tone: Delaware linebacker Erik Johnson leads a fearsome Hen “D” who haven’t given up more than 23 points a game, while Great Dane linebacker Justin Brancaccio leads an equally impressive unit on the other side. Who wins? The key will be tone: if it’s a slugfest, Albany will win this game behind runningback David McCarty’s pounding. If the Hens can forge some early offense and get some key scores from quarterback Rob Schoenhoft, the Hens will prevail. Advantage? Scandanavians.
Slugging Vikings 20, Slugged Hens 17

#20 South Dakota State at Stephen F. Austin.
After the Jackrabbits suffered their first-ever Missouri Valley Football Conference defeat (34-20 to powerful Northern Iowa), they travel to Nacogdoches, Texas to take on hapless Stephen F. Austin, whose only win over the last two years was against D-II Langston. It’s the perfect breather for the Jacks (and a chance, finally at a road win) before the schedule gets even more brutal, with McNeese State, Cal Poly, and the always-challenging MVFC slate coming up.
Remember the Jackrabbits 55, Wasn’t Custer a Lumberjack? 7

Jacksonville State at #21 Eastern Illinois. Say what you want about this young football season, but this year the OVC has had a buzz around it that they haven’t had in years past. The Panthers, fresh off their come-from-behind win over in-state rival Illinois State 25-21 now face Gamecock quarterback Ryan Perriloux and Jacksonville State. Compelling storyline abound. Can Eastern Illinois quarterback Bodie Reeder and runningback Travarous Bess generate a balanced attack against a Jacksonville State defense that has given up only two touchdowns in three games? And can the Panther defense, led by defensive end Pierre Walters contain the dynamic Perriloux and force a bunch of turnovers (Eastern Illinois already has 12)? As fired up head coach Bob Spoo will have his troops for this game in a sea a blue at O’Brien stadium, Perriloux has seen this before – and he’ll carry Jacksonville State on his back for a huge OVC victory.
NOW Will You Put Us In Your Top 25? 34, Blue Panther Fans 23

Florida A&M vs. #23 Tennessee State (Bank of America Atlanta Football Classic). Is there any hotter quarterback than Tennesee State quarterback Antonio Heffner right now? Leading his Tigers to a 4-0 start, he’s completing 68% of his passes and generating a ridiculous 1,359 yards in total offense en route to 9 touchdowns. (He’s also 1-for-1 in something else: wedding proposals, which he “completed” two weeks ago after the Tigers’ 41-18 drubbing of Jackson State.( But this 2-1 Florida A&M team will be no patsy, who is only getting better and whose only loss was in overtime to Delaware State. Quarterback Eddie battle may not have the same numbers as Heffner, but he appears to have won the starting quarterback job after a 51-24 pounding of Howard. It’s time for the Tigers to be reeled in a little bit – and FAMU head coach Joe Taylor is the coach to do it. I’m not saying that the Rattlers are quite to the point that they win this sort of game. But they will give the Tigers a major scare. Heffner’s not going to be able to run away with this one.
Heffalumps 34, Baby Rattlers 28

#25 Liberty at Youngstown State. A win over Youngstown State of the Gateway would certainly put 4-0 Liberty squarely on the map for the playoffs (autobid be darned) and FCS Nation would all of a sudden look a lot more closely at the dynamic rushing duo of Rashad Jennings (216 yards) and Zach Terrell (231 yards) and how they might match up against potential playoff teams. But the Penguins’ effort last week – a 32-24 thumping of heavily-favored North Dakota State – seems to have been just the sort of season-defining moment that could propel Youngstown State to a resurgent season. The Penguins have their own rushing duo - Kamryn Keys (227 yards) and Jabari Scott (299 yards) – that Liberty will need to contain in order to win. They won’t.
Penguins Get Better As the Weather Gets Colder 28, Flames Get Weaker as the Weather Gets Colder 21

Five Outside the Top 25
Harvard at Brown.
Even in week two, this could be the Ivy League matchup of the year and nobody even knows it yet. I’ve got a feeling that the Bears, led by defensive lineman James Develin and an interesting spread offense, will give the Crimson fits this week – and win the game too.
Man-Eating Killing Machines 25, Crimson Crimson 20

Yale at Cornell.
Cornell is a fearsome place for Ivy foes to play on the road, but with a resurgent passing attack and runningback Mike McLeod on their side, the Eli still come away with the win.
O.B. – Original Bulldogs 31, O.G. – Original (Chewing) Gum 21

Colgate at Fordham.
Runningback Jordan Scott, who almost single-handedly carried the Raiders to victory over Dartmouth last week, outduelled Fordham runningback Xavier Martin for Patriot League Player of the Week honors despite Martin’s four rushing touchdowns. I think Martin carries the grudge into this week and the Rams prevail.
The X-Men 35, The J-Men 21

UC Davis at Northeastern. Think about this a second: if you’re a UC Davis fan, you can follow your favorite team tomorrow over breakfast (the game starts at 12:00 p.m. Eastern time, 9:00 A.M. Pacific time) and the game will done by lunch. Maybe I should move out west and become a John Faleotese fan? (Unless it just means more yardwork.)
Faleo-riffic Aggies 29, Orio-iffic Huskies 20

Central Connecticut State at Delaware State. Is Delaware State, fresh off their bye week, good enough to be considered for Top 25 consideration? A win at home over Central Connecticut State probably won’t be the sort of win that makes people pause, but it probably should be. Quarterback Vashon Winton gets over the kinks from his first two games and comes back with a victory.
Winton Marsalis 31, Aubrey Meadows 17

Three More Games I’m Watching
Sam Houston State at Gardner-Webb.
Aside from the fact that this game would give the Runnin’ Bulldogs a legitimate case for eventual playoff inclusion, this trip by Bearkat quarterback Rhett Bomar to remote Boiling Springs, North Carolina features a matchup between not one, but two enigmatic teams. What it boils down to is: Can the Bulldog’s defense, led by Jeffrey Willams, hold the line against Bomar? With linebacker Mario Brown I might have given them a fighting chance: but I don’t’ see them pulling this one off.
Fictional Cats 30, Boiled Peanuts 17

San Diego at Drake. With all the focus in the Pioneer League on Dayton these days, it’s worth also looking at San Diego despite the loss of their runningback J.T. Rogan. Quarterback Sebastian Trujillo is picking up where Josh Johnson left off: 819 yards passing, 10 touchdowns, while 2-1 Drake’s defense has shined against two sub-D-I opponents, last blanking NAIA William Penn 36-0. At 4-0, the Toreros with a win here might just get back into the conversation, and with a big win here they bump Dayton out of the headlines – for this week, anyway.
Trujillo’s Toreros 44, Ostermann’s Osteopaths 14

Southern at Alcorn State. Southern quarterback Bryant Lee is just starting to hit his stride (272 total yards, 3 touchdowns vs. Mississippi Valley State), but so is the Alcorn State defense (only giving up a field goal versus Arkansas-Pine Bluff last Thursday). Southern seems to always struggle against Alcorn lately – losing four of their last six against the Braves – but take Lee and Jaguar Nation in this one.
Jaguar Nation 32, Brave Braves 12

Game of the Week
#5 Northern Iowa at #15 Southern Illinois

Every year, you can circle this one on the calendar: this game will have severe consequences for the rest of the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Since 2003, either the Panthers or Salukis have won the Gateway (now MVFC) title: and this game, of course, has been pivotal for either team’s postseason chances.

Last year, it took a last-second tackle to prevent Southern Illinois’ consummation of a crazy final hook-and-ladder play to tie the game in a 30-24 Panther victory. That’s how these games always seem to go.

While these teams have changed from last year, their success has not.

floatedleftGone is Panther quarterback Eric Sanders, and in his place is junior signalcaller Pat Grace, who had his coming-out party last week, with 284 yards of total offense and four touchdowns. Gone is the bulk of last years’ powerful “O” line, replaced by a younger unit led by senior lineman Bob Swift.

But returning on offense are wideout Johnny Gray (10 receptions, 145 yards) and runningback Corey Lewis (285 yards rushing, 72 yards receiving). Returning on defense is defensive tackle Mark Huygens (6 tackles). And returning, of course, is wily head coach Mark Farley, who brings a balanced offensive attack and a sound defense to the gridiron every Satruday.

The Salukis, on the other hand, have even more questions.

Start with the departure of head coach Jerry Kill to Northern Illinois, as former North Dakota coach Dale Lennon takes the reins of the Salukis. With a win over Hampton to start the year and a loss to FBS Northwestern two weeks ago, it’s hard to tell how this team will react against what has historically been one of the best teams in one of the best conferences in FCS.

floatedrightQuarterback Nick Hill is gone, but sophomore quarterback Travis Dieker (30-51 passing, 3 touchdowns) has done well replacing him in the lineup. Other people with bigger roles on offense include 5’5 runningback Larry Warner (227 yards, 2 touchdowns), wideout Jeff Evans (5 catches, 75 yards, 1 touchdown), and – like Northern Iowa – a mostly new “O” line, led by Aaron Lockwood.

But returning are some familiar faces from the team that made last year’s playoff semifinals: linebackers James Cloud (12 tackles, 2 ½ tackles for loss) and Chauncey Mixon (11 tackles) and defensive end Kendrick Young. The fearsome Saluki defense should continue to be as fearsome as ever.

Will Farley’s experience in these games prevail? Or will the Salukis, playing at home, have the edge? The key of the game will be the Salukis’ young offense and how they come together against one of the best units in the MVFC. I see the progress that Dieker will make in this game, but I don’t think it’s going to be enough. Gray, Huygens, and Farley will get the upper hand, and win this year’s version of the Midwest Mash.

Northern Iowa 28, Southern Illinois 24