By Chuck Burton
College Sporting News
We learned the identity of one, but only one, of the autobids to make up the twenty team field - congratulations, Robert Morris, on your first-ever trip to football's version of the Big Dance - and one of the most muddled conference title races, the Missouri Valley, got a whole lot clearer after Northern Iowa handled Indiana State this weekend. And Lehigh out of the Patriot League, with their win over Holy Cross this weekend, are firmly in control of their title race and autobid.
Still, to project the rest of the playoff field, I needed to go back to my playoff formula once again, a system which may or may not contain: the number of notepads the beat writers go through in a regular media session interviewing James Madison head coach Mickey Matthews; the number of nicknames that Roos Field out in Cheney, Washington ought to have, but doesn't; and the number of upsets that shouldn't happen, but do anyway, in the Southland to make what should be an easy conference prediction into a mess.
Let's see what the crystal ball come up with this week.
Big Sky Conference: Not much has changed here: With their 30-7 win over Eastern Washington earlier in the year, Montana State is still in the drivers' seat for the autobid - with only one game left to go, against Montana the final weekend of the season in the "Brawl of the Wild". If they lose to their bitter rivals, Eastern Washington is still right there, with only 1-7 Idaho State left on the conference slate. If both lose, Montana would be Big Sky co-champions along with the Eagles and Bobcats, but they cannot win the autobid since they lose on tiebreakers. Projection: Eastern Washington.
Big South Conference: With their 40-14 drubbing of Gardner-Webb, Liberty still remains undefeated in Big South play, with Stony Brook also remaining undefeated after their 37-7 smackdown of Presbyterian. Also, as they face the Flames in a crucial game this weekend, Coastal Carolina is still alive in the title race, too: but they need every game right this weekend and next, including an upset of Stony Brook by Gardner-Webb this weekend. Projection: Liberty.
Colonial Athletic Association: There are seven teams in contention right now for a share of the CAA championship, including Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Richmond, who will not be winning the autobid. William & Mary is technically in the drivers seat with two tough games against James Madison and ancient rival Richmond left to go. But with a couple of wins and some help, Delaware, Villanova or UMass are right on their heels - and the Hens play the Minutemen this weekend, and the ('Nova) Wildcats next weekend. There could still be four or more teams with two conference losses at the end of the year, and it still could very well be that the autobid will go to the winner of a coin flip. Projection: William & Mary.
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference: They faced a stiff challenge from Hampton, but still firmly in control of the MEAC autobid is undefeated Bethune Cookman. Still, Florida A&M and South Carolina State are eying the Wildcats' game against Howard very closely. If the Bison pull the upset, and the Rattlers take care of Hampton, Florida A&M will be rooting feverishly for either Morgan State or North Carolina A&T to upset the Bulldogs, because if that happens, Florida A&M will win the MEAC championship and the autobid. South Carolina State can also still win the autobid, but need Bethune Cookman to lose twice to have a shot. Projection: Bethune Cookman.
Missouri Valley Football Conference: Thank you, Northern Iowa, for squeaking by Indiana State. This puts the Panthers in control of the title and autobid: win their last two games, and they're in. Western Illinois, too, is in control: if they win their last two games against Southern Illinois and... Northern Iowa... they will be Missouri Valley champions. And as long as both the Panthers and Leathernecks win this weekend, a host of three-loss teams - North Dakota State, South Dakota State, Indiana State and Missouri State (who plays Northern Iowa) will not get a chance to become co-champions and make the question as to who will win the MVC autobid a complete mess. Projection: Northern Iowa.
Northeast Conference: This one's easy: Robert Morris clinched the autobid this past weekend with their win over Central Connecticut State.
Ohio Valley Conference: This one's easy, too. If Southeast Missouri State beats Jacksonville State this weekend - or the Gamecocks lose next weekend vs. Tennessee Tech - they will be OVC champs and win the autobid. If the Gamecocks win this week and next, they will win the OVC championship and the autobid. There is no other scenario. Projection: Southeast Missouri State.
Patriot League: The prohibitive favorite right now is Lehigh, who is still undefeated in league play and co-champions of the Patriot League at worst thanks to their 34-17 win over Holy Cross this weekend. They can wrap up the autobid if they beat Georgetown - who, along with every other team in the Patriot League, including Bucknell, Holy Cross, Colgate, and Lafayette, have a mathematical chance to win a co-Championship if Lehigh loses their last two games. Win this weekend, though, and the Mountain Hawks are outright Patriot League champions. Lose, though, and out come the calculators and the tiebreaker scenarios. Projection: Lehigh.
Southern Conference: Well, well, well. While Georgia Southern's 21-14 upset win over Appalachian State didn't completely dampen the Mountaineers' title chances, but it did make the calculations for the autobid a whole lot easier. If the Mountaineers defeat Wofford, they are SoCon champs, will win the autobid, and will most likely earn a seed no matter how they do against FBS Florida the following week. If the Terriers prevail, they will win the SoCon autobid, no matter they do against Chattanooga the following weekend. Projection: Appalachian State.
Southland Conference: All the possible teams in the title hunt won last weekend - which didn't clear up much. Stephen F. Austin is still in complete control of their title destiny - with a potential Southland title game against Northwestern State in two weeks as they battle for the "Chief Cadoo" trophy on November 20th, provided both teams win. McNeese State is still very much alive for the title and autobid, too - as long as they win both of their games and Stephen F. Austin loses one of its final two games. If all three teams lose one more time - and given the crazy history of the Southland, do not count that out - Central Arkansas can also still win the autobid if they win all their games and there is a four-team tie at 5-2. The tiebreaker? The Southland rulebook says in the event of a multi-team tie, the team that gets the autobid is the team that has been out of the playoffs the longest - and the Bears have never played in the playoffs, making them the potential winner. Projection: Stephen F. Austin.
The Ten At-Larges: Again, using my own special mix of the GPI, not considering six D-I win teams, and subtracting our conference champions, the current projected at-large teams are:
Western Illinois (7-4)
Georgia Southern (7-4)
Interesting developments indeed, as we see Jacksonville of the Pioneer Football League fall out of the projections, as does New Hampshire, who is projected to not get to the magic number of seven D-I wins. Also not included once again are South Carolina State (who could finish at 9-2, but have a comparably weaker schedule), Montana, Chattanooga, Richmond, and North Dakota State (all teams who, with one loss, puts them at six D-I wins). All of these bubble teams, with wins, will probably find themselves back into the fold for the at-large bids. Dayton, who could be Pioneer League co-champions with the Dolphins, could also potentially finish with a 10-1 record, and have to be considered on the bubble as well.
The sheer volume of teams at the magic number of 7 D-I wins means that the interesting potential six D-I teams, including Great West Conference champion Southern Utah, James Madison, Sacramento State, Weber State and Northern Arizona don't seem - at this point - to be in the game just yet.
About the only thing that is clear at the moment is - if you're a fan of a bubble team, there is still an awful lot to root for in the next two weekends. There are a whole lot of teams hovering around that magic 7 D-I win threshold - and every game is going to be huge this weekend and next in determining the final spots.
To close this out, let's take a look at my projections for the first and second-round matchups once again.
Seeds: No. 1 William & Mary, No. 2 Delaware, No. 3 Appalachian State, No. 4 Eastern Washington, No. 5 Stephen F. Austin
First-Round Byes: Liberty, Wofford, Northern Iowa, Southeast Missouri State, Montana State, Georgia Southern, UMass
Robert Morris at Villanova
1st round winner to play at No. 1 William & Mary
Southeast Missouri State at Northern Iowa
Blue Hen Bracket
Western Illinois at Lehigh
1st round winner to play at No. 2 Delaware
Wofford at Liberty
Bethune Cookman at Jacksonville State
1st round winner to play at No. 3 Appalachian State
UMass at Georgia Southern
Cal Poly at Central Arkansas
1st round winner to play at No. 4 Eastern Washington
Montana State at No. 5. Stephen F. Austin
Wouldn't this be a terrific bracket - Robert Morris playing the defending national champions, Western Illinois paying a return trip to Lehigh, after getting drubbed 37-7 in Macomb in the playoffs ten years ago, a and second-round matchup of a rematch of the 1998 I-AA national championship game between UMass and Georgia Southern? That doesn't even include potential rematches of thrilling regular season grudge-fests between Montana State/Eastern Washington, Villanova/William & Mary or Georgia Southern/Appalachian State.
Can you smell that? It's the playoffs. They are almost here.
Picking the Sports Network Top 25
No. 15 South Carolina State 56, Morgan State 3 - The Bulldogs seem set on making this a "show-me" game to prove that they belong in the FCS playoffs. That's why the Bears won't have much of a chance in this one.
Texas Southern 30, No. 20 Grambling State 26 - There's only one roadblock left to the SWAC championship for RB Frank Warren and Grambling - red-hot Texas Southern, and their incredibly stout rushing defense which is the best in the SWAC. The Tigers win - the ones from Texas, I mean.
Picking the Sports Network Top 25
Bryant 23, No. 25 Robert Morris 21 - I've seen too many teams fall into this "we're in the playoffs" trap, and Joe Walton's playoff-bound Colonials fall victim this week.
South Dakota State 31, No. 24 North Dakota State 30 - This "battle for the Dakota Marker" is a white-hot rivalry, and the Jackrabbits will continue to barely have the Bison's number.
No. 23 Western Illinois 27, Southern Illinois 20 - QB Matt Barr, coming off a bye week, will not let down the week before the big Northern Iowa matchup.
No. 22 Jacksonville 67, Campbell 0 - The Dolphins continue their blowout ways in an effort to impress the playoff subcommittee.
Rhode Island 21, No. 21 RIchmond 17 - These Rams are on some sort of roll, and it might just continue against the Spiders and their fourth-string QB.
No. 19 Cal Poly 25, UC Davis 24 - The "Battle for the 'Shoe" will not be an easy go for the Mustangs, but they'll find a way to win this one.
No. 18 Penn 28, Harvard 21 - The de-facto Ivy League championship game pits the two best in the Ivy League, and while the Crimsonare on a roll, there's no better team in the Ivy this year than the Quakers, and playing at home will be the difference.
No. 9 Villanova 24, No. 17 New Hampshire 23 - I think the loss to Rhode Island focused some minds at Villanova - that should be enough for a narrow win.
No. 16 Northern Iowa 30, Missouri State 13 - The Panthers, at home, cause progonsitcators of the FCS playoff brackets to rejoice, and not bring out the MVC tiebreak procedures.
No. 2 Delaware 20, No. 14 UMass 3 - Just a bad matchup for the Minutemen.
No. 13 Montana 40, North Dakota 6 - Welcome to the Big SKy, North Dakota.
No.12 Liberty 30, Coastal Carolina 13 - The Chanticleers are in this thing, but it's hard to picture them winning this, even at home.
No. 10 Bethune Cookman 70, Howard 0 - Upset meter here: A negative number.
No. 8 Stephen F. Austin 34, Southeast Louisiana 28 - It wouldn't be the Southland without a thrilling game that shouldn't be thrilling.
No. 7 Southeast Missouri State 35, No. 6 Jacksonville State 30 - The OVC championship game. Who'd a thunk it?
No. 5 Eastern Washington 35, Southern Utah 28 - At home, the Eagles are tops.
No. 3 Appalachian State 30, No. 4 Wofford 27 - The SoCon championship game will have a familiar winner.
No. 1 William & Mary 28, James Madison 14 - They don't win pretty, but the Tribe just win.