Setting Precedents For The NCAA Playoffs
To figure out what the current NCAA Division I Football Committee will do in 2010, it is wise to look at what the committee has done in the past when choosing the playoff field
By David Coulson
Executive Editor/Managing Partner
College Sporting News
PHILADELPHIA ó During my early college years, I was choosing a career path that included law school.
As I studied as a political science major, I found myself particularly fascinated by books about the U.S. Supreme Court, a subject I am still fond of to this day.
As I have contemplated the 2010 NCAA Division I Football Championship this week, I haven't been able to get away from the thought that there are similarities between what the Division I football committee will do this weekend in Indianapolis and the way the Supreme Court goes about its decision-making process in Washington, D.C.
As we enter a new era for the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, there are many questions facing the men who make up the football committee and are charged with selecting the field for the first 20-team playoff bracket.
Like the Supreme Court, there are rules that govern how the field is selected and there are precedents that guide the committee through the process. While the precedents might not serve as hard and fast rules, they are guidelines that have helped other committees make their decisions in the past.
And when a precedent is changed by the football committee, it has far-reaching consequences, just like it does in the Supreme Court.
THE FOUR-LOSS, EIGHT-WIN PRECEDENT
For many years the committee was reluctant to include teams with four losses, or less than eight wins, in the playoff field.
There were rare exceptions when Idaho made it as a 6-4 team after the Vandals tied for second in the Big Sky in 1995 and when Appalachian State was given a bid at 7-4 in 1992 after playing North Carolina State and Wake Forest to start the season.
Montana State advanced to the playoffs in 2006 with a 7-4 record in a year when the Bobcats handed a loss to Colorado, but also lost to Division II Chadron State.
Since 2006, however, the floodgates have been opened on four-loss teams. So don't be surprised to see multiple four-loss teams in this year's field.
THE THREE-CONFERENCE BID PRECEDENT
Likewise, the committee had set precedent by not allowing more than three teams from a conference to reach the playoffs in a given year.
When four teams, Hofstra, Maine, Villanova and William & Mary, tied for the Atlantic 10 title in 2001, the committee snubbed a Brian Westbrook-led Villanova squad and took the other three teams in the playoffs. Villanova was singled out for a loss to Division II New Haven.
A year later, Wofford went 9-3, with road wins against Georgia Southern and Appalachian State to finish in a three-way tie with ASU and Furman for the Southern Conference title.
But the Terriers were left out of the playoffs, while ASU and Furman received at-large bids and Georgia Southern won the auto bid. The committee used a loss to bottom-feeder VMI as the primary reason for Wofford's exclusion.
Maybe because of the fallout from Wofford's snub, the committee finally crossed that precedent in 2003 with the Gateway Conference receiving four bids, as Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois, Western Kentucky and Western Illinois earned bids.
In 2004, the Atlantic 10 took four bids, with eventual national champion James Madison, William & Mary and Delaware tying for the league title and being joined by New Hampshire.
In 2007, the three-bid precedent was pretty much destroyed when the Colonial Athletic Association received five bids, with James Madison, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Richmond and Delaware all making the 16-team field.
The CAA landed five more bids in 2008 and four in 2009. There could be anywhere from three to six CAA squads in the field this year. The only other conference with an outside chance at four bids is the Southern Conference, with Wofford, Chattanooga and Georgia Southern all still alive for at-large berths.
THE SEVEN DIVISION I WIN PROVISION
As we approach decision Saturday this year, the FCS world will be watching to see if the committee follows precedent and the NCAA playoff handbook as it decides what 10 teams will be selected for auto bids.
Will a team with less than seven Division I wins be included in the field?
That could be a problemic question with Montana sitting on the outside, looking in, with six Division I victories and a game against arch-rival Montana State looming on Saturday.
Montana State is playing for the automatic bid from the Big Sky Conference, at least a share of the league crown and a top-four seed in the tournament as it travels to Missoula, Mt. for the Brawl of the Wild.
Most FCS observers think that Montana must win to have a shot at its 18th straight postseason berth.
But could the committee view the chance to put 20,000 fans in the seats at Washington-Grizzly Stadium on Thanksgiving weekend as too rich of a financial gain and select Montana ahead of some teams with seven or more D-I wins?
McNeese State, which is trying to earn a share of the Southland Conference title, is another team that could be considered with less than seven D-I wins. And don't forget that Cal Poly, another six D-I-win team, beat both Montana and McNeese State.
WHAT ABOUT BEING INCLUSIVE?
One of the major reasons that FCS leaders gave for the expansion of the playoffs from 16 to 20 teams was that allowing the Big South and Northeast conferences to have automatic bids made the subdivision more inclusive.
But then the committee turned around and denied the Pioneer Football League an automatic bid earlier this year when it asked to be included in the playoff party.
It could be that the PFL will eventually get an auto bid, just like the Big South and NEC, after a few years of waiting and maybe after improving the conference's out-of-league schedules.
It will be interesting to see if PFL co-champions Jacksonville and Dayton receive any consideration for at-large berths. Both finished the regular season at 10-1 and a perfect 8-0 in league, but the two teams didn't meet.
Jacksonville beat Old Dominion (7-3), a school that will be playoff-eligible with a seventh D-I win at North Carolina Central (3-7) on Saturday. The Dolphins' only loss was a 45-14 setback at possible top-seed Appalachian State in a game that was competitive well into the third quarter.
Dayton has a 28-14 win over playoff-bound Robert Morris (8-2), the winner of the Northeast Conference championship. But the Flyers also lost 35-31 to Duquesne (6-4) and are a long shot to reach the playoffs.
Dayton still could reach the postseason, however, as the PFL's representative in the Gridiron Classic against NEC runner-up Central Connecticut State.
Don't be shocked if the PFL earns its first playoff berth.
THE AUTOMATIC BIDS
It is four down and six to go in the race for the 10 automatic playoff berths. Appalachian State (Southern Conference), Lehigh (Patriot League) and Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley Football Conference) clinched bids last weeked, joining Robert Morris (Northeast Conference), which had wrapped up a berth the week before.
The five conferences that still have bids up for grabs and the teams that are still in the hunt for them are the Big Sky (Eastern Washington, or Montana State), the Big South (Coastal Carolina, Liberty, or Stony Brook), the CAA (Delaware, or William & Mary), the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (Bethune-Cookman, or Florida A&M) and the Southland (McNeese State, Northwestern State, or Stephen F. Austin).
The Ivy League has a team capable of making a deep run in the playoffs, but back-to-back champion Penn is stymied by the archaic rules of this tradition-bound organization.
The Southwest Athletic Conference gave up its auto bid when it decided to go to divisional play and host a league championship game in the late 1990s. I've been told that, even though Jackson State could be eligible this year, the Tigers don't hold out much hope of getting an at-large bid.
The PFL petitioned for an auto bid this year, but was rejected, as we discussed earlier.
Here are the auto-bid scenarios for each of the five undecided leagues:
If Montana State (8-2, 6-1) travels to Missoula, Mt. and beats Montana (7-3, 5-2) in the 110th Brawl of the Wild, the Bobcats earn no less than a share of the conference title and the auto bid. But Montana State has just one win in Missoula in its past 12 appearances since winning the 1984 national championship.
If Montana State loses, then Eastern Washington (8-2, 6-1) can grab the berth by beating Idaho State (1-9, 1-7) at home. If both MSU and EWU lose, Montana can claim a share of the title, but can't earn the auto bid. A three-way tie gives the auto bid to Montana State by virtue of its 30-7 home win against EWU.
Liberty's 45-31 loss to Coastal Carolina on the road last Saturday threw this conference into a mess and put Stony Brook into position to win the auto bid. The Seawolves can earn that honor by beating Liberty on the road, or by avoiding a blowout loss at Liberty in case of a three-way tie between Stony Brook (6-4, 5-0), Liberty (7-3, 4-1) and CCU (5-5, 4-1).
Coastal Carolina hosts Charleston Southern (3-7, 1-4) and a win by the Chanticleers and a loss by Stony Brook would result in a three-way tie for first. But CCU would need to win by a bunch, just like Liberty needs a large victory.
Defensive point differential is the key element in the tiebreaker and Stony Brook currently owns a 42-point advantage over Liberty and a 38-point lead over Coastal Carolina in points allowed in conference play.
Of course, if Stony Brook beats Liberty, the Seawolves claim the first-ever Big South auto bid without any tiebreakers.
Delaware (9-1, 6-1) is in with a win at home against arch-rival Villanova (6-4, 4-3) in the Battle of the Blue, or qualifies with a loss by host William & Mary (7-3, 6-1) to Richmond in the 120th version of oldest rivalry in the south.
William & Mary holds a tiebreaker edge over Delaware, due to a 17-16 head-to-head victory and would win the auto bid by beating the Spiders (6-4, 4-3), if the Blue Hens fall to Villanova.
Villanova has beaten Delaware four consecutive years, including its past two appearances at Tubby Raymond Field, and 10 times in the past 14 seasons. Richmond has won five straight over William & Mary, the past two by a field goal.
It is simple for Bethune-Cookman (10-0, 7-0), win the Florida Classic against Florida A&M on Saturday before a crowd of over 70,000 in Orlando's Citrus Bowl and the Wildcats finish with perhaps the best turnaround in FCS, in addition to clinching the MEAC title and the auto bid.
Should Florida A&M (7-3, 6-1) win, the Rattlers could earn a share of the title and the auto bid, if South Carolina State (8-2, 6-1) also loses at woeful North Carolina A&T (1-9, 1-6).
South Carolina State could end up with a share of the title with wins by the Bulldogs and Rattlers, but Bethune-Cookman would hold the tiebreaking advantage.
OHIO VALLEY CONFERENCE
Jacksonville State put itself into the driver's seat for the auto bid by beating Southeast Missouri State last week with a final-minute comeback, 29-27. The Gamecocks (9-1, 6-1) can clinch the auto bid by beating Tennessee Tech on the road on Saturday. If JSU falls, Southeast Missouri (9-2, 7-1) would win the OVC title and auto bid.
Stephen F. Austin (8-2, 5-1) is in the driver's seat and would clinch the auto bid with a victory at home over Northwestern State (5-5, 4-2) in the battle for Chief Caddo, the 7-foot-6, 300-plus-pound wooden Indian, college football's coolest rivalry trophy.
McNeese State (6-4, 5-1) can claim a share of the title by knocking off Central Arkansas (6-4, 3-3), but the Cowboys can only win the auto bid if Northwestern State beats Stephen F. Austin, due to 32-27 loss to the Lumberjacks.
If both SFA and McNeese State lose, Northwestern State would snatch the automatic berth and forge a three-way tie for the league championship. The Demons would earn the auto bid due to the fact they were the last team of the three to win an auto bid in 2004.
THE AT-LARGE BERTHS
This is where things get tricky. Heading into the final weekend of regular-season play, 20 teams have met the seven-victory provision and 12 more can reach that summit with wins on Saturday.
Once you eliminate the 10 teams that will grab auto bids, you are left with 22 schools fighting for those 10 at-large berths, each with their strengths and warts exposed for all committee members to see.
A number of those teams are long shots for playoff berths, however.
Remember that teams like Grambling (8-2 out of the SWAC and ranked 46th in the Gridiron Power Index) and Texas Southern (7-3, 48th in the GPI) could be ineligible for the playoffs, due to their schedules (Grambling plays Southern on Thanksgiving weekend and Texas Southern could be playing in the SWAC championship game in December).
And we've already been over the Ivy League and its ridiculous postseason policies.
Here is the breakdown of teams that have seven or more D-I wins, with their Gridiron Power Index (GPI) rating (special thanks to CSN publisher Ralph Wallace for his research):
Teams that are the actual AQ, or the highest ranked team in their conference:**
*1 Delaware CAA 9-1
*2 Appalachian State SoCon 9-1
*3 Eastern Washington BSC 8-2
*5 Stephen F. Austin SLC 8-2
*6 Jacksonville State OVC 9-1
*9 Northern Iowa MVFC 7-3
*31 Bethune-Cookman MEAC 10-0
*38 Robert Morris NEC 8-2
*40 Lehigh PL 8-2
*47 Liberty Big South 7-3
Saturday's schedule for these 10 teams is: Villanova at Delaware, Appalachian State at Florida, Idaho State at Eastern Washington, Northwestern State at Stephen F. Austin, Jacksonville State at Tennessee Tech, Bethune-Cookman vs Florida A&M (Florida Classic in Orlando), Lehigh at Lafayette, Stony Brook at Liberty. Robert Morrid has a bye.
Teams that have seven D-I wins and are the next highest ranked GPI team(s) in their conference:***
*4 William & Mary CAA 7-3
*7 Montana State Big Sky 8-2
*10 Wofford SoCon 8-2
*15 North Dakota State MVFC 7-3
*17 Southeast Missouri State OVC 9-2
*36 Jacksonville PFL 10-1
*50 South Carolina State MEAC 8-2
*57 Dayton PFL 10-1
59 Jackson State 7-3
*83 Florida A&M MEAC 7-3
Saturday's schedule for these 10 schools is: Richmond at William & Mary, Montana State at Montana, Chattanooga at Wofford, North Dakota State at Missouri State, Alcorn State at Jackson State. Jacksonville and Southeast Missouri State and Dayton have byes.
There are 12 more teams that can get to seven D-I wins with victories on Saturday.
8 New Hampshire CAA 6-4
11 Villanova CAA 6-4
12 Montana Big Sky 7-3
14 Massachusetts CAA 6-4
16 Chattanooga SC 6-4
18 Richmond CAA 6-4
20 Georgia Southern SoCon 6-4
21 Western Illinois MVFC 6-4
51 Old Dominion Independent 6-3
62 Stony Brook Big South 6-4
73 Duquesne NEC 6-4
74 Colgate PL 6-4
Saturday's schedule for these 13 teams is: Towson at New Hampshire, Villanova at Delaware, Montana State at Montana, Massachusetts at Rhode Island, Chattanooga at Wofford, Richmond at William & Mary, Georgia Southern at Furman, Northern Iowa at Western Illinois, Old Dominion at North Carolina Central, Stony Brook at Liberty, Duquesne at Bryant, Colgate at Fordham.
There are eight teams that cannot reach 7 D-I wins
13 Sacramento St Big Sky 6-4
22 Weber State Big Sky 6-4
25 McNeese State SLC 6-4
28 Cal Poly GWC 7-4
30 Indiana State MVFC 6-4
34 Central Arkansas SLC 6-4
52 Central Connecticut State NEC 7-3
78 Drake PFL 7-4
SO WHO WILL WIN AT-LARGE BIDS?
Over the 18 years this writer has covered FCS, I've learned some things about how the NCAA football committee does its business. Most years, I missed on about team per year in the 16-team fields.
Those misses have become somewhat legendary in FCS circles. When Wofford was left out of the playoffs in 2002, I came up with the term that the Terriers were Woofed by the committee. Every year since, the one team that most people think was left out most unfairly is considered to be Woofed.
Over the years, we've seen teams like Cal Poly, Lehigh, Youngstown State, Portland State and William & Mary join the ranks of the Woofed, like like Wofford.
We will know who will be the latest to make that list when the committee reveals the 2010 playoff field on Sunday at 10 a.m. eastern time on ESPNU.
But with that in mind, here are my 20 picks for the field:
1. Appalachian State
2. Jacksonville State
3. Montana State
4. William & Mary
5. Stephen F. Austin
Big Sky: Montana State
Big South: Stony Brook
Colonial Athletic Association: William & Mary
Missouri Valley Football Conference: Northern Iowa
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference: Bethune-Cookman
Northeast Conference: Robert Morris
Ohio Valley Conference: Jacksonville State
Patriot League: Lehigh
Southern Conference: Appalachian State
Southland Conference: Stephen F. Austin
2. Eastern Washington
4. Southeast Missouri State
5. New Hampshire
6. North Dakota State
8. South Carolina State
9. Georgia Southern
1. Appalachian State
2. Jacksonville State
3. Montana State
4. William & Mary
5. Stephen F. Austin
7. Eastern Washington
8. Northern Iowa
11. Southeast Missouri
Robert Morris at North Dakota State
New Hampshire at Lehigh
Jacksonville at Georgia Southern
Stony Brook at South Carolina State
As you see from above, I'm picking a few upsets on Saturday. I'll leave the rest of the bracketing for Saturday night. Stay tuned for an exciting Saturday of FCS.