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The CSN Way: Woof, Woof, Woof
By Chuck Burton, The CSN Way Columnist
An annual rite of passage after the playoff selection is the analysis of who got “woofed"?
The term came from the great national FCS columnist David Coulson in 2002, who coined the term (a more generic form of Ralph Wallace’s “Wofforded") in this very column before moving to the Sports Network, home of the Walter Payton award and the FCS Top 25 poll. It was named after the aforementioned Wofford Terriers, who in 2002 were skunked from a postseason bid after posting a resume that many thought was worthy of an at-large selection.
After watching this year’s selection show, I’m left with a lot of head-scratching and a lot of candidates for Woofy awards. Though the GPI will help determine it more, I don’t think it can be given to just one school - there are plenty of Woofies to go around.
The Black Bears Make the Field?
Last year, when 5 teams from the CAA made the playoff field, most people thought that it was an unusual move, but largely justified. While 7-4 New Hampshire was the final team to make the field, they had one of the most brutal schedules in all of FCS - and had quality wins, including a victory over FBS Marshall, to prove it.
But can you justify 8-4 Maine’s inclusion over three teams you could make a case were woofed?
Start with 8-4 Elon, who were ranked in the Top 25 the entire year and were one quarter away from winning the SoCon championship and autobid on the road at Appalachian State. Yes, they lost their last two games and opened themselves up to the possibility of being woofed. But it’s hard to make the argument that the fifth placed team in the CAA is a better team than a third placed team in the powerful SoCon.
Another team who had a strong case for playoff inclusion was Liberty, whose 26-3 win over nationally-ranked Elon seemed to be the signature win that was going to propel them into the field. At 10-2, they didn’t have a strong schedule (with two D-II victories), and while they did beat teams from the power conferences of the MVFC and SoCon, they were wins over the cellar-dwellers of both conferences this year (Youngstown State and Western Carolina).
Losses to (at the time) nationally-ranked Lafayette and 4-7 Presbyterian, who is transitioning to full D-I status, evidently were the death blow to their playoff chances. Maine’s only losses were to FBS Iowa and three nationally-ranked teams; yet Maine’s best win was against a 7-5 UMass team that wasn’t even ranked in the Sports Network Top 25.
For Liberty out of the Big South, 2010, the year that their conference will get their first-ever autobid to the FCS playoffs, can’t come soon enough.
If you judge a playoff-worthy team by their best win, you’d probably have to put William & Mary ahead of anyone else in the “Woofed” list - they beat playoff-bound New Hampshire on the road 38-34. However, they finished the season 7-4 - and it appeared that the seven D-I win teams weren’t even on the table. Perhaps the Tribe should have scheduled non-scholarship Iona - who just discontinued their team last week due to financial concerns - as Maine did. That easy win would have given the Tribe eight D-I wins and most likely would have put them in line above the Black Bears - even with two losses to end the year.
There were other nominees, too, but their cases were probably not strong enough to win them “Woofies". 8-3 Jacksonville State only had a win over (at the time) nationally-ranked Tennessee State to hang their hat on, though they did finish the year strong. And Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman both didn’t have signature wins.
So give the first three “Woofies” to Elon, Liberty, and William & Mary. Three teams - one the third-placed team from a power conference, the second strongest available non-autobid team, and a team from within their own conference that many thought played a stronger schedule - who lost out to Maine for the 16th and final spot.
But wait. There’s more.
Southern Illinois did themselves no favors by going to overtime to beat Illinois State in the last game of the year. And Weber State also didn’t help their cause when they lost to Eastern Washington, too. But both conference champions had to wonder what more they needed to do to earn a seed over their leaguemates Northern Iowa and Montana, their Missouri Valley and Big Sky leaguemates that somehow leapfrogged over them to earn seeds in the playoffs.
And add to that list 9-2 Cal Poly, who shocked the world last weekend by taking bowl-bound Wisconsin to overtime last weekend after finally falling 35-34. Cal Poly, who already had beaten one FBS team in San Diego State, almost duplicated the feat pulled off by last year’s North Dakota State by beating their second one of the year.
While we’re at it, we could also include 9-2 Villanova, who only lost to FBS West Virginia and lost on a Hail Mary to James Madison. In a year where the playoff committee thought it right to honor the CAA with five playoff spots, certainly Villanova could have merited a seed, too?
By purposely bypassing two worthy conference champions for seeds (and two worthy at-large teams), the playoff committee has opened themselves up to the charge that they care more about attendance than play on the field.
If you compare the four seeds to their overall attendance numbers in 2007, you find that the numbers match up: Appalachian State (No. 1 of playoff-eligible teams, No. 1 overall), Montana (No. 2, No. 2 overall), Northern Iowa (No. 3, No. 7 overall), and James Madison (No. 4, No. 12 overall).
Did attendance play into the seeding of those teams over Southern Illinois (No. 5, No. 16 overall), Cal Poly (No. 11, No. 38 overall), Villanova (No. 13, No. 41 overall) and Weber State (No. 21, No. 90 overall)?
Few would argue with the selections of James Madison and Appalachian State as seeds, since they were the autobid champions in the powerful CAA and SoCon. But to purposely bypass the conference AQ champions of the Big Sky and MVFC for teams with higher attendances?
And to stiff a 9-2 team, with a FBS loss and a Hail Mary loss to the No. 1 team in the country - from a conference that was deemed worthy of four at-large bids to the tournament - against a team that couldn’t win their conference AQ?
Four more “Woofies". But wait. There’s more.
Who Hates Mickey?
I really wish the crew at ESPNU had the guts to ask the question of James Madison head coach Mickey Matthews what was on my mind when I watched the selection show. “So, Mickey, who has it in for you on the selection committee?”
James Madison, the consensus No. 1 team to finish the year, the team who has an undefeated league record in the toughest conference in FCS, with four wins against playoff teams (and a fifth against bubble team William & Mary), gets “rewarded” with a brutal game against the second-placed team in the SoCon.
Mickey hasn’t had it easy in the playoffs. Last year, all he had to do was travel to the two-time defending champs Appalachian State after compiling a resume that would have at least put the Dukes in line for a home game. Before that, another Dukes team with a great 8-3 resume was sent on the road to Youngstown State. In 2004, they got sent on the road to Lehigh - and became the first team to win four straight road games to win the national championship.
And No. 8 ranked Wofford also has to feel slighted too - for the second straight year. Last year after winning the SoCon autobid they were hauled off to Montana (and beat the Griz, 23-22). This year, the 9-2 Terriers thought they had earned a home game, with only losses to FBS South Carolina and Appalachian State.
There were definitely options, too. South Carolina State could have played at Wofford, setting up an intriguing South Carolina state battle, but the MEAC champions were instead sent to Appalachian State. Eastern Kentucky could have played at Wofford, too, but instead the OVC champions were shipped out to 9-3 Richmond.
Does the committee have it in for Mickey? Or were the Dukes and Terriers simply a victim of regionalization? It sure seems like the committee valued regionalizaion over all, setting up curious Top 10 battles in the first weekend of the playoffs and setting up no fewer than three possible conference rematches in the second round.
If, as some FCS fans want, all sixteen teams were seeded, No. 8 ranked Wofford would definitely have been in line to host a game.
But until all sixteen teams are seeded, count Wofford and - yes - even No. 1 seeded James Madison as Woofy award winners too. Regionalization will either cost the Terriers or Dukes dearly, as only one team can make it out of that game alive.
This year’s playoffs should be a time of celebration and anticipation for the most exciting games of football of the year. But you can’t look at this bracket and call it a success.
Next year, this process needs fixing - and most of all, it needs transparency. It needs reporters in the hotel where the teams are picked; it needs ESPNU reporters that ask the hard questions, not softballs.
No column should be able to list nine teams with a good case for saying they were stiffed in the playoffs. And ultimately that’s what the problem was with this year’s playoff selection.