In a lot of ways, getting into the FCS playoffs is like making it onto an overbooked flight. The auto-bid winners have confirmed tickets and are already on board, stowing away their bags and thinking about their destination. For the rest of the teams, they've gotten past security, i.e. qualified for consideration, and are now just sitting in the waiting room on playoff standby. Some teams have been sitting there for a while, like Sam Houston State and Montana State, but others just got here after running through the terminal, like Towson. Let's check the manifest.
By Sam Partridge
The CAA Today Columnist
College Sporting News
FCS Airlines Flight 20 - Destination: Frisco, Texas - Making Multiple Stops
Eastern Washington - Big Sky auto-bid
Coastal Carolina - Big South auto-bid
Villanova - CAA auto-bid
Bethune-Cookman - MEAC auto-bid
North Dakota State - MVFC auto-bid
Wagner - Northeast auto-bid
Eastern Illinois - Ohio Valley auto-bid
Colgate - Patriot auto-bid
Georgia Southern - Southern auto-bid - won the tiebreaker by a point over Wofford
Central Arkansas - Southland auto-bid
Sitting comfortably, charging an iPhone and reading a book on their Kindle
Montana State - won the Brawl of the Wild to finish 10-1 and in a tie for Big Sky conference title. Very likely in line for a seed.
Old Dominion - De facto CAA conference champs even if the league office won't make it official. 10-1 still might not get them a seed because of soft computer ranking.
Sam Houston State - Yes, they only have seven wins but have pounded people all season and their two FBS losses were to teams that beat #1 in the last two weeks. Defending runners-up will get a chance to get back to Frisco.
Cal Poly - Mustangs were under the radar early in the season, but wins over FBS Wyoming and in the season finale against Northern Arizona proved that they belong in the field.
South Dakota State - The runners-up in the best conference in the country deserve to get in. Plus, the computers love them
This leaves us with 5 spots and the following teams:
15 teams with an argument for an at-large? That's unheard of. Usually there might be 6 or 7 for the last 15 spots. But we need to cull the herd, so let's send UT-M, TSU and The Citadel home for Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, the Great Danes of Albany fall short as well due to weak computer numbers and the magnitude of a 30-0 loss to Wagner in their biggest game of the year. I think Youngstown is gone as well with four conference losses simply being too much to overcome even with an FBS win. In other years maybe, but not 2012.
So we're down to this:
How do you separate 7 teams that all finished 8-3 and have pretty similar profiles? I have no real idea and I doubt the committee does either. But we've got to leave some teams out so let's start with Northern Arizona which lost it's last two games, had only seven DI wins and didn't have to play either Montana State or Eastern Washington. On the flip side, I think Towson gets in. One of the hottest teams in the country to close the season, they swept their last four games, including impressive wins on the road at Delaware, Villanova and New Hampshire, the last one to the tune of 64-35. Also in is Appalachian State because of a solid non-conference schedule and a win over Georgia Southern.
I'm not quite as confident in the next pick, but I think Stony Brook gets the nod. The Seawolves played impressive football all season, including a rout of Army and a really good effort at Syracuse. One hiccup against Liberty shouldn't keep them at home and I think their rankings are good enough to get a spot. I think Illinois State is going to get in as well given strong computer ratings and rankings, an FBS win and finishing third in the strongest FCS conference. That leaves us with one spot for 5 teams:
In most years, the first three teams would be safely in, having put together solid seasons in a top conference. But not this year. Wofford has been ranked highly all season but they only have seven wins, lost to Samford and have a history of getting edged out of a spot. New Hampshire was also ranked highly all season, but their resume is thin and I'm not sure a win over Richmond is enough to get them in. As for the Spiders, it's been a heck of a surprise this season, but it simply seems like the numbers just aren't good enough, even with the win over auto-bid champ Villanova. Eastern Kentucky is another one, a good but not great profile.
And that leaves us with Lehigh, in some ways the strangest team left, but also the most fascinating. They were undefeated and in the top 10 before losing to Patriot champ Colgate. Still, they finished 10-1 and just outside the top 10 in the polls. The problem is the computer numbers are terrible. As a result, this would be a gutsy pick for the committee, but to me, in a strange way, it's the easy one. Pick any of the 8-3 teams and you need to explain why that squad over the others. Pick Lehigh and just let the 10-1 mark speak for itself.
So, there you have it. The CAAToday FCS projection. Here's the bracket:
North Dakota State
South Dakota State
Sam Houston State
Tray tables in the upright and locked position. FCS Airlines Playoff Shuttle is ready and loaded for departure!