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The CAA Today: Playoff Selection Talk and CAA Round One Preview

floated rightBruce Dowd, CSN columnist

First of all, if you haven’t already read Chuck Burton’s superb article titled “The CSN Way: Woof, Woof, Woof”, then you need to read that first. I don’t think there is a single thing in there that I disagree with. He did a great job of laying out all the inequities of this year’s pairings and there were quite a few.

Due to the fact that I have been harping on the rankings all year and did a pre-selection interview with the Chair of the Selection Committee, John McCutcheon, I feel it necessary to address my concerns over the committee’s selections as well, especially considering that the Colonial Athletic Association is again right in the heart of the controversy.

...

floated leftI was also fortunate at the last minute just before I was going to take this article to press, to catch up with Mr. McCutcheon for a post-selection interview and try to get some answers to the controversial selections, pairings, and seeds that we all freaked out over. I will reference quotes from him as we go along and as it relates to the issue we are discussing.

I have already received a ton of emails concerning the choices and as you can imagine very few agreeing with the final selections by the committee. I am not defending the committee, but before you blame them we need to understand all the rules that they acted under. I do STRONGLY disagree with several of their choices, but we have to make sure we direct our anger at the right entity. Some of these choices were clearly the committee’s errors, but many of them were the fault of how the system is designed.

So with all that said, let’s dissect the main issues here and make sure the blame is placed on the committee when it should be, and on the system design when appropriate.

BREAKING IT DOWN

It is obvious from the emails I get that many of you are still not familiar with all the rules the committee has to follow. Before we go any further, and after my most recent interview with Mr. McCutcheon, I decided to break down the process that the committee has to go through into steps with all the mandates. This will make it much easier for you to see why things came out the way they did and where the blame belongs, either on the committee or on the system.

1) The sixteen team field is selected.
2) The four seeds are determined (note; at this point, teams 5 through 16 are now considered equal in ability. No value is assigned to one team being better than another).
3) The first four seeds are then matched with the closest teams not seeded and not in same conference, trying to at least stay within a 400 mile limit (bus trip) if possible.
4) The remaining 8 teams are matched up again by geography trying to keep within the 400 mile limit (bus trip) as much as possible to avoid costly flights.
5) The home teams are now determined in those other four games based on best bid submitted. This is the first time that the committee sees the bids.
6) Now the brackets are finished, again giving strong consideration to geography, NOT perceived rankings.

Every decision is decided by a majority vote of all 10 members of the committee. This vote is always anonymous. It looks rather simple when you break it down like I did above, but of course there are some rules that have to be followed and applied within each step, but basically the above outline covers it and if you examine it closely you can see why we have some of the inequities that we have.

Breaking in down further, the problems with the above system can also be simplified into four main criteria;

1) Financial concerns
2) Only seeding the first four teams, which is due to Criteria #1
3) Matching teams up by geography, again see Criteria #1
4) Financial concerns

So, you get the point. As with most levels of sports, it always seems to come down to the money and with the economy the way it is, it may get even worse. Now we will examine all the complaints about this year’s selections as I have heard them from all of you. As we discuss them, we need to keep in mind; was it the fault of the committee or the fault of the system? After all, we need to know where to direct our anger.

Complaint #1, The 16th Team
One of the biggest complaints was the sixteenth team in, a fifth CAA team, Maine. I asked Mr. McCutcheon how long the committee convened on Saturday and Sunday and here was his response; “We went from 6:00 Saturday evening until almost 11:00 and then reconvened at 8:00 Sunday morning and went another couple of hours Sunday morning. The thing that really took a long time is that we got it down to that last spot of the field and there were really five teams in contention for that sixteenth spot. And that one issue alone took us about two hours on Saturday night and another hour on Sunday morning. So it was not an easy decision.”

John went on to explain that they eventually got it down to three teams and then eventually Maine had the most support but he also made sure he let me know that it was NOT unanimous. He did identify the five teams for me which were Elon, Liberty, William & Mary, Maine, and Jacksonville State. He declined to identify which three teams it was narrowed down to. He went on to emphasize that you could make a case for any one of these teams to get in. He went on to say that; “When you considered strength of schedule, quality wins, bad losses and some other factors Maine emerged out of the group.”

Pressing further I asked if there was one thing that might have put Maine over the hump. To which he replied; “They had eight wins, they didn’t have any bad losses and they won six out of their last seven games. I think that worked in their favor. They had two wins against teams that had winning records [Monmouth and Massachusetts]. That worked in their favor as well.”

The eight win comment above bothered me a little so I reminded him that I had asked a follow up question last week specifically about that situation and his response led us to believe that they wouldn’t penalize a team that only played 11 games instead of 12 games and as a result may have had one less win or one more loss. His response this week was a little different; ‘Well it depends on how you interpret that. They don’t put it up on the board and say this team played 11 games and this team played 12 games. What they do though is look at the number of wins you have . . . what that [11 game schedule] does is reduce your opportunity to have more Division I wins. If a team chose to play 11 games this year did it hurt them? No, other than if they had won all those 11 games it wouldn’t have made a difference . . . but what it does is it takes away one more opportunity for you. I’m not making sense here.” Clearly he wasn’t so I decided to help him and rephrase it and asked that if what he was saying was that 11 or 12 games schedules by themselves doesn’t make a difference only in that a team now has less of a chance to win more games and a key factor is number of D-I wins. To which he replied; “Correct. Number of wins DEFINTELY is a factor. So however you want to put together your schedule to position yourself to have the greatest number of Division I wins, that is what the key is.”

Summary; this puts a whole new slant on things and a different answer than we had last week. I also feel this is a little unfair. My understanding of the rules is a minimum of seven D-I wins, not who has the most wins, although that can be considered. In comparing William & Mary for example who had just seven wins in an 11 game season. How can you say Maine’s eight wins was stronger in a 12 game season when for example, one of those wins was against Iona. There is no Iona on the Tribe’s schedule and if there was it would be an instant win. That is a bad interpretation on the committee’s part and I don’t agree with that reasoning.

Was Maine the right pick? One thing that John was right about was you could make a case for each of those five teams that were on the bubble for the last spot. Actually if you were going to allow a fifth CAA team in, I think a better case could be made for William & Mary, except for that stupid 11 game schedule thing. This last decision comes down to opinion and for example, I got just as many emails saying Liberty should have gotten in as William and Mary and as Elon. So the choice was definitely a tough one. Now, this is going to surprise you, especially coming from the “All-time CAA-Homer” and at the risk of alienating many of my CAA readers, my pick would have been Liberty.

Where’s the blame here? Is it the system or is it the committee? In this case it is a little of both. I do not agree with the committee on this one and I certainly think the system should have been clearer on the 11 or 12 game season so that a situation like an extra game against a team like Iona doesn’t end up making a difference.

Complaint #2, The Seeds
Here was the one that bothered me the most; how is it possible that Villanova did not get a seed? Montana and Villanova should have had the third and fourth seed and you could argue which was third or fourth. That doesn’t matter much to me. But selecting Northern Iowa from a conference that is ranked sixth nationally over Villanova is a severe error on the committee’s part.

I asked John about this situation directly and he danced around the question for awhile talking about how several teams were tracking toward the spot all year. How at the end of the year Cal Poly had a shot if they beat Wisconsin, and how Weber had some strong consideration until the loss at the end of the year, and obviously Nova too. I pressed him further and said I don’t understand the lack of respect for ‘Nova, citing all their qualifications. He said other than the sixteenth team thing this issue got the most discussion and it was NOT unanimous and certainly there were committee members that shared my view. Unfortunately it was just not the majority.

While he continued to deny that having a second CAA team in the seeds was not the issue, I can’t help think that is was, even if in some indirect way. As you will see later, the committee has received some flack over the past years about favoring the CAA. I think that several members, even if subconsciously, were already concerned about five CAA teams getting in again and let that affect their judgment when they voted on this issue. At least that is how I see it.

Where’s the blame here? For me this was clearly a committee error and the biggest error of the entire process this year.

Complaint #3, Who Gets The Home Games
As a very glaring example of this one, most people, as did I, thought that New Hampshire should have gotten a first round home game for sure. This was a real eye opener for me as today’s interview and the rules listed above explained this one.

When I put this question to him he first reminded me that the committee doesn’t see the bids until AFTER the pairing are made and that the bid goes to the best bidder. He continued with; “Once UNH was matched with Southern Illinois (step #4 above), the committee reviewed the bids and Southern Illinois’ bid was significantly better than UNH’s. And that is a big factor, but it is not the only factor. There can be a situation that if the committee feels that one location isn’t up to par in terms of perhaps their facilities or other conditions, then that can sway the decision as well. That wasn’t the case here. It definitely was because the financial component of Southern Illinois’s bid was better than the one from UNH.”

Where’s the blame here? This one belongs to the system, not the committee. See Rules #5 and #6 above as well as Criteria #1 and #4.

Complaint #4, The Brackets Are Unfairly Balanced
This is obvious to just about everyone who views them, the bracket with James Madison and Montana is much stronger than the bracket with Appalachian State and Northern Iowa. When I discussed this with John, he actually agreed that it seems that the JMU bracket is much more difficult but that is a result of how the system is designed. He is right (see Rule #6 and Criteria #3). So again, the blame here is on the system.

While agreeing with the inequities of the brackets and how the pairings are put together, especially with not being able to seed all the teams, John used Weber State as an example. “They lost their last game, but you have the co-champion of the Big Sky, a very good conference and they’ve got to go to Cal Poly in the first round, and then may have to go to Montana in the second round, and then go to James Madison in the third round. So there are a number of tough roads.“ Now I am not a bookie or a betting man, but I’ll guess those odds would be extremely high.

There are several other huge inequities with this year’s brackets, home games, etc. First of all, #1 James Madison gets Wofford, while #4 Montana gets a lesser ranked Texas State. Then, speaking of unfair, let’s look at that bracket out West. Assume for a minute that many of our readers out West that have been complaining about a lack of respect for the West are correct, and the three big teams out there are three of the best in the country. They are all in the same bracket which only gives one of them a chance to emerge into the semis. The examples go on and on, and are almost endless.

Where’s the blame here? The system.

FINISHING THE INTERVIEW

While the four major complaints above addresses most of the main issues expressed by you the readers and by me, there were a few other questions I asked John that I thought you would find interesting.

With so many of these problems being driven by the finances, I asked about getting the financial component after the fact, like who bid the highest, what was the bid, what are the finances, cost of travel, total profit on the playoffs for the NCAA, etc. He deferred that question to the NCAA Staff. Believe me; I will follow this up in the weeks to come.

If it is all about the money, and apparently it is, then let’s see the result. If we are to fix this system, we will have to attack the financial aspect or the NCAA will never listen to us. As an example, I think they are missing something here. Let me rephrase that. ONE of the things they are missing is that they might actually earn more money if they let the teams be seeded 1-16. For example, let’s take last year. They forced James Madison to go on the road and play Appalachian State in round one. That also happened a couple of year’s ago when JMU went to Youngstown. Now James Madison draws a lot of people to their games. If they had some home games then perhaps the NCAA would have actually made more money. But by using geography and saving money on travel, they could very well be losing money overall because they are matching up quality teams with good facilities that never got to have a home game.

John reiterated that the committee’s preference would be to seed the entire field which would solve most of the problems, at least the system faults anyway. I also interviewed all five CAA playoff coaches and coach Moore and coach Ayers from the SoCon. They all agree that they would rather see a full seed no matter how far they have to travel. Only coach Ayers hesitated a little as he understood the financial component and also said that you have to beat the good ones sooner or later.

I thanked Mr. McCutcheon for going under the microscope and answering what questions he could and told him maybe that might take some of the heat off of them if the fans had a better understanding. He replied with; “Most likely not [laughing] but the more information we can get out there the better. This year has been different than prior years and I think it speaks to the passion that fans have for their programs and that is a healthy thing. We got a great situation with FCS football. We have very loyal fans who are very much engaged and passionate about their teams and that is a great thing”

I followed it up with a direct question about the Mickey Matthews situation. With the difficult first round match-ups against Youngstown and then App State last year, and now, even with the #1 Seed they catch a brutal bracket. Many of you have felt that the committee has it in for coach Matthews. Here was his reply to that issue; “I can assure you that is not the case. And for a lot of the folks out there they think that it is all slanted toward the CAA and the committee does nothing but support the members of the CAA. It depends on which lens you are looking through, I assume. But the one half of the bracket because of the geography issue I would think does look like a pretty strong half of the bracket. But given the process and how we have to put this thing together that is the way it came out. I think if you look at it, the Cal Poly situation, there couldn’t be a tougher road to go then they have. Due to the geography, the one side of the bracket does look tougher.”

SUMMARY

First let’s summarize the results. If you were keeping score it was system’s fault 2.5 and committee’s fault 1.5. We may never fix what we may perceive to be committee errors as it is always subjective on their part. It is not an exact science. At least they use 10 committee members in an effort to balance it out. As an example, I could put 10 of us in a room and we would not agree on the 16th team either. So we will have to live with that.

As far as the system’s errors, I believe we can try and do something about them. John mentioned that they will be meeting in February and discussing how they are going to choose and set up the rules for the 20 team field in 2010. This presents us with an excellent opportunity to try and get this system fixed.

In discussing this issue with John, more than likely they are going to have to do a play-in with the last eight teams (although that hasn’t been completely decided yet, but seems obvious to all). The normal NCAA rules dictate that no more than 50 percent of the bracket shall be available for automatic qualification of eligible conferences. Seeding 25% of the field as they do now would mean five teams, which is ridiculous. In order to determine the last eight teams, you will have to seed them anyway. You just can’t start from the bottom and work your way backwards then also start from the top and stop at No. 5, and then leave the rest in the middle.

As soon as the playoffs are finished I want us, meaning CSN together with you the readers to come up with a proposal to FIX THIS SYSTEM ONCE AND FOR ALL. I am open to any suggestions and I will keep you posted on this project. Rather than just sit back and complain every year, let’s do something about it and come up with a plan and then lobby the NCAA with our plan prior to their February meeting. Who knows, maybe we can have an impact.

This next statement is not going to help me with the NCAA, but it is bothering me and I need to say it and get it off my chest. The NCAA has so many rules to protect the “integrity” of the sport, like not accepting money from alum, not having players selling tickets for profit, using academically ineligible players, and so on. Yet, when it comes to the playoffs, suddenly it is all about the money. These rules that the selection committee has to use are in place for one reason and one reason only, MONEY! So, suddenly, when it comes to the NCAA’s pocket book, it is no longer about protecting the “integrity” of the sport. I find this highly hypocritical!

ONE PARTING THOUGHT

Even with all the inequities of how this playoff system is determined, at least we still get to determine it on the field. It is light years better what the FBS has in place.

Just the other day I read an article where it said that Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops is done with the politicking that has turned the national championship race into a campaign, and he thinks other coaches are getting tired of it, too. Here was a direct quote from him; “It’s unfortunate. No one likes to do it [campaigning for a spot] I think that’s why more and more of us say, ‘Hey, let’s find a way to get a playoff in place so that we don’t have to do that.”

Here is another one; “The whole thing screams for a playoff,” Texas coach Mack Brown said Monday. “If one of us [Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Texas] gets left out of the BCS, what a crying shame for everyone. . . . When we have voters that we don’t know and we have computers that weren’t at the game, we’re asking coaches to run up the score to get more style points.”

Even President-elect Barack Obama is advocating change (imagine that!) in the FBS system. On 60 Minutes he said, “If you’ve got a bunch of teams who play throughout the season, and many of them have one loss or two losses, there’s no clear decisive winner. We should be creating a playoff system.” He continued, “I don’t know any serious fan of college football who has disagreed with me on this. So, I’m going to throw my weight around a little bit. I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Even with all its faults, I still am glad we have the system we have. So even if Weber State, Villanova and New Hampshire have a tough road to go, at least they get to go down that road. In the FBS they wouldn’t get that chance.

CAA ROUND ONE PREVIEW

As I sit here on Turkey Day I find my self thankful for a lot of things, but as it relates to our beloved football I find myself most thankful that we are the FCS and not the FBS. There is nothing like the excitement of the playoffs, a winner take all mentality, “all in” so to speak.

It is hard to pick any one game that will be more exciting than another, especially when it is the playoffs and we have some very intriguing match-ups this week. Arguably, our fourth and fifth best teams, UNH and Maine are both traveling to the two best teams from the Missouri Valley Football Conference. I will be very interested to see how those match-ups turn out. But for me, the best one of the week is probably the Wofford at JMU game and I will be making the trip over there to see that one.

Wofford (9-2) at No.1 James Madison (10-1) 3:00 pm (JMU big plays too much for Wofford)
As has already been well documented, James Madison’s first round draw is a tough one for a No. 1 seed. Wofford finished second in the SoCon behind App State and could be a tough out for the Dukes. This is the one team of the five CAA opponents that I got to see play in person this year, although it was their worse game of the year in a Halloween blowout in Boone. But I saw enough to know that JMU better be careful because Wofford is good enough to beat them.

One of the keys for James Madison will be to hold onto the ball. I am sure coach Matthews has already hammered that home to them but it is even more important in this game as it could play right into the hands of Wofford. Wofford is a run first and throw later kind of team. They will try to control the clock on you but it isn’t with the “3 yards and a cloud of dust” type of stuff. They will hit you with every type of option you can imagine and a little bit like JMU, they will lull you to sleep with the run and then nail you with a big play pass. On the season statistically they have three times the yardage on the ground as they do through the air. So if JMU ends up turning it over that will only play into Wofford’s hands. Wofford is plus 10 in the turnover department this year. On the other hand, if JMU can get up early the Terriers are not set up as a team that can score often and quickly.

Another thing that JMU has to be careful of is staying disciplined and playing assignment football, which is crucial to stopping an option game like Wofford’s. The reason that this concerns me is because of what I saw in the App State game earlier this year. In that game, I felt that the Dukes very over-hyped if you will and as a result they tried to do too much and got out of position many times and feel behind 21-0 at half. So James Madison needs to keep their focus and especially on defense stay in position, because if Wofford gets up big early it could be a long tough day for James Madison.

In the final analysis I just think that JMU has too much for Wofford to handle. Wofford will eventually have to try and load the box to stop the running of JMU and when they do, Landers will burn them for the big play.

I had a chance to speak with coach Ayers of Wofford this week and asked him the McGee question. I was a little surprised by his answer. He said that they would try to kick it deep, wind and conditions permitting and try to keep it away from him the best they could. But if McGee burns them then Scotty probably won’t see the ball again. Well it isn’t a question of if, but rather when so it looks like McGee might get at least seven for JMU in this one. When I asked him about Landers, especially having played against Armanti and to compare them, here was coach Ayer’s reply; “I have the same fears with Rodney as I had with Armanti. Outstanding players. Difference makers. Playmakers.” So the respect is there, but I think Landers is going to do to Wofford what Armanti did and this game goes to JMU.
The Upset Meter Rating here is; [ - - - - - 5 - - - - - ]
TV Coverage: None

Eastern Kentucky (8-3) at Richmond (9-3) 1:00 pm (No penetrating the “Stonewall” defense)
This is a rematch of last year’s first round game won by Richmond and I think this year’s Richmond team is better.

It is eerie how similar these teams are. They both have good defenses, both like to run the ball and generally nothing fancy more like physical over powering football. Both teams have new first year coaches too. Another weird fact, both teams are from Richmond (KY and VA).

In examining all the CAA opponents this week I kept finding myself saying wow, this team is pretty good, but then again they all are at this point or they wouldn’t be in the playoffs. Eastern Kentucky is no exception. They dropped their first two games of the year, both to FBS teams, and after starting out 1-3, they have now ripped off seven straight wins including a 33-31 thriller last weekend on the road against nationally ranked Tennessee Martin for the conference championship. Since that heartbreaking last second loss to Scotty McGee, I mean James Madison; Richmond has won five in a row including road wins at Massachusetts and William & Mary.

The more I look at this game the more I think it could come down to the wire putting some pressure on Eric Ward and the Spider’s rookie coaching staff. But in the end, I don’t think that the Colonels have seen anything like Sidbury and Logan. The “Stonewall Defense” rules and Richmond wins a close one.
The Upset Meter Rating here is; [ - - - - 4 - - - - - - ]
TV Coverage: None

Colgate (9-2) at Villanova (9-2) 1:00 pm (No stopping a disrespected Wildcat team)
In speaking with coach Talley this week he also felt that his team had done everything it could to be a seeded team and was clearly disappointed that they didn’t get one. However, he made it clear that they are very happy to be in the playoffs and to be at home during the first round over Thanksgiving which is always a tough time for teams to travel.

Colgate, the Patriot League Champion, is making its eighth appearance in the playoffs the most of any Patriot League team. They made it all the way to the 2003 championship game before losing to Delaware. Villanova and Colgate have played four times in the past with Nova holding a 3-1 edge having won the last three.

Coach Talley feels that his team is right where they want to be, that they are ready. He commented on how his seniors have been through a lot. Over these last four years they have seen a steady progression from 4-7, 6-5, 7-4 and a near playoff bid, and now 9-2 and a home playoff game.

Colgate is a very good football team, ranked No. 16 in the country at 9-2 and riding an eight game winning streak, which is third in the country right now just behind JMU and Appalachian State. Having said all that, you need to examine the level of competition and the strength of schedule. Their two losses have come to Stony Brook by 16 and Furman by 21 and they haven’t exactly blown anybody out either. They beat Coastal Carolina, Fordham, Princeton, Lehigh, and Holy Cross by 4, 7, 3, 1, and 1 respectively.

Villanova is just flat out too good for Colgate and they should win this one going away. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Whitney rested in the second half and Antwon Young getting some significant playing time.
The Upset Meter Rating here is; [ - - 2 - - - - - - - - ]
TV Coverage: None

New Hampshire (9-2) at Southern Illinois (9-2) 2:00 pm (UNH wins a tight one)
Now we get into the games that are a little more difficult to figure out. I have been studying the Missouri Valley Conference the past few days and I can’t seem to get a good handle on them. The GPI has them sixth and if that is correct then UNH should match-up pretty well.

The Salukis are a playoff savvy team as this is their third straight year hosting a first round game. They are also well balanced with the run and pass. While they are riding a seven game win streak, they have struggled a little their last few games and last week, with the playoffs on the line, they had to go into overtime to beat a 3-8 Illinois State team.

I also don’t think that Southern Illinois has seen anything like the New Hampshire offense and with just one holiday week to prepare they could be at a big disadvantage. I like this match-up for New Hampshire and if the Wildcats can keep the mistakes down, both turnovers and penalties, I think they come out on top in this one. I feel the CAA is a stronger conference and I feel that UNH is a better team, so despite being on the road, New Hampshire should come away with a playoff road victory.
The Upset Meter Rating here is; [ Does not apply, no real clear favorite here ]
TV Coverage: None

Maine (8-4) at Northern Iowa (10-2) 5:00 pm (Maine too one dimensional for this one)
So, continuing with my Missouri Valley CAA comparisons and looking at both of these teams, I think Maine is not as good as UNH and I think Northern Iowa is probably better that Southern Illinois.

Another big factor here in this game is the huge home field advantage the Dome is for the Panthers. This will be a very tough environment for Maine and some of their young players to perform in. I fear that Northern Iowa will jump out on top early before Maine gets use to the Dome and the noise and by then it might be already too late.

Physically, Maine matches up. If Maine is to pull the upset here it is critical that they get off to a good start. If they can do that, then they may be able to hold onto the ball and win a close one. I suspect whatever team gets up early is going to win this one. If Maine gets behind early they might have to open up their game plan a little and I don’t think they have the passing game to handle that. I wish this one was on TV as I think this may be the most intriguing match-up of the week, especially as it relates to game planning and strategy.
The Upset Meter Rating here is; [ - - - - 4 - - - - - - ]
TV Coverage: None

The Rest of the Games: The above analysis represents five of the eight playoff games, so just for the heck of it here are my predications for the other three; Montana wins easily over Texas State, Cal Poly beats Weber State in a tough game and in a surprise, App State struggles but ends up beating South Carolina State.

THE CAA-TODAY SIGNING OFF
That’s all for now, enjoy this week’s playoff games. Hope you enjoyed the column and don’t forget to email me your thoughts and comments. See you next week for round two.