Goodbye regional matchups
As hard as they try, the NCAA FCS playoff committee will have a headache on Sunday.
Not only will they have to determine the 14 at-large bids and determine the seeding of the top-eight, but they will also have to deal with a rule of their own doing.
The NCAA tries to determine the early round games regionally. At the moment, expect five of the eight seeded teams to be located in Fargo, Brookings or further to the West. There are just three unseeded teams that are located along that line or further west.
With that in mind, here is a potential look at the FCS Playoff bracket with one week of play before the committee gets to work.
No. 1 North Dakota State vs. Montana State at San Diego winner
NDSU gets a top-seed, that much is easy to predict. The path to Frisco runs through Fargo, again.
The focus then turns to the potential opponent, and that is harder to predict.
It is likely that the Pioneer League champion Toreros will face Montana State in the first round, as the Wildcats are the closest opponent. Whether they will be paired with NDSU is hard to determine, but with Montana State playing the big three from the Big Sky in the regular season, they shouldn’t be paired with those teams.
The Wildcats are also flirting with the playoff bubble. They are at home against Montana this weekend and could drop out of the field with a lopsided loss, though it would have to be a huge loss and other results would have to go against them.
No. 8 Northern Iowa vs. Towson at Wofford winner
There are three tiers in the top-eight this year, NDSU-James Madison, the Big Sky and then the Missouri Valley teams. The Panthers sit at the bottom of the Valley group, losing big to South Dakota State 38-7 last week. Good enough to gain the eighth seed, however.
Wofford claimed the automatic qualifier by winning the Southern Conference, defeating Furman last week. The Terriers will be visited by another bubble team, though Towson is closer to dropping out than Montana State.
Towson’s best win was against a Maine squad that sits on the outside at the moment and has lost to each of the teams above them in the Colonial Athletic Association. The Tigers face Elon and should get in if they take care of business.
No. 5 Weber State vs. Southeast Missouri State at Central Arkansas winner
The Wildcats were consistently the best of the rest behind NDSU and JMU this year, and then last week happened. Weber got crushed in Missoula by the Griz, and that loss dropped them to the bottom of the Big Sky group.
SEMO is engaged in a battle for the Ohio Valley Conference title with Austin Peay. While the Redhawks lost to Austin Peay already, the seven FCS wins are enough to get in, even with a winnable game this week to sew up an at-large bid.
Central Arkansas will look to finish with nine wins as well in a competitive Southland Conference. In the three-way race at the top of the conference, the Bears have lost to the other two teams. If the Southland only fields two teams this year, the Bears might be the odd one out, depending on the results of the Nicholls State-Southeastern Louisiana game.
No. 4 Sacramento State vs. Southeastern Louisiana at Kennesaw State winner
Despite losing to Weber earlier in the year and beating Montana, Sacramento State gets the fourth seed. The Hornets have been the surprise of the FCS this year, battling with the Wildcats and the Griz through the season. The Weber loss is the only FCS loss on their record.
SELA heads into the final week with the biggest game remaining, hosting a Nicholls team just outside the bubble. More on that game later, but SELA should be in.
Kennesaw State has just one FCS loss this season in the Big South, to conference champion Monmouth.
No. 3 Montana vs. Furman at Austin Peay winner
The big win over Weber State make the Griz the hottest team in the Big Sky, so they claim the No. 3 spot. The loss to Sacramento State is the only FCS blemish on their resume. Add in a win over Monmouth earlier in the year and a potential win over Montana State, Montana gets the third seed.
Furman was in-line for a potential seed before falling to Wofford last week. The loss also cost the Paladins the SoCon title, but they should get in the field. With Point University on the docket this week, their resume is completed for the committee.
Austin Peay is in-line for claiming the Ohio Valley this year, needing to beat one-win Eastern Illinois this weekend to claim the title.
No. 6 South Dakota State vs. North Dakota at Villanova winner
Down their starting quarterback, the Jacks demolished UNI last week, making them the hottest team in the Valley. The Valley sits behind the Big Sky this year, so SDSU gets the sixth seed. Playing well against their loss to NDSU helps their cause.
Villanova has nine wins already and with a winnable game against Delaware this week, they are in. Six wins in the CAA is good enough to demand an at-large bid.
UND, on the other hand, is the final team in the bracket. The Fighting Hawks will have to win this week to finish at 7-4, and while they had a bad loss at Idaho State, the win against Montana State cancels it out. All the other losses have been quality losses. That being said, they get a long trip in the first round.
Slip up on the final day, and the Hawks miss the playoffs, just as they did last year. Even with a win against Southern Utah, it might not be enough.
No. 7 Illinois State vs. Albany at Central Connecticut winner
The Redbirds fit the same role as Sacramento State for the Valley, but they just have not claimed a resume-topping win. Yes, they beat SDSU in Brookings, but the Jacks were on their first week with a new quarterback, so that takes some shine off that win.
Albany took advantage of not playing JMU in the regular season and looks to finish 6-2 in the CAA this year. Their win at Towson helps their cause.
Central Connecticut claimed the Northeastern Conference title to punch their ticket in. The one-loss team played a fairly weak schedule and the playoff matchup will be the hardest game yet.
No. 2 James Madison vs. Holy Cross at Monmouth winner
James Madison is just like NDSU but with a loss to West Virginia to open the season. Simple as that.
Holy Cross look to wrap up the Patriot League automatic bid, which was out of their possession for most the season after a loss to Layfette. The Leopards stumbled down the stretch and the Raiders are in possession of the automatic bid if they win this week.
Monmouth, however, is a team that may spring a surprise in the playoffs. Their only FCS loss came in Missoula early in the year. Wins at home against Albany and at Kennesaw would make this team good enough for an at-large bid, but Monmouth has already claimed the Big South title.
Five teams looking to get in
UND is the last team in the field at the moment, just behind Towson. If any two teams were to drop out of this field, it is those two, and here are the teams that could replace them.
The Nicholls-SELA game Thursday night is the game with the most playoff implications. A win for Nicholls will give them a 7-3 record in the committee’s eyes. A close win here will likely move UND out, but a big win could see Nicholls move in over SELA. A must watch, for sure.
The committee will be hard-pressed to avoid taking a team taking a 6-2 Valley team. The issue for the Salukis is that to reach that mark, they need to go through NDSU on Saturday. If they fall like many of the Bison’s victims this year, the season is done.
A surprise team from last year sits on the fringes of the playoff discussion. The Black Bears could finish 5-3 in the CAA and 6-3 disregarding FBS losses with a win over another fringe CAA squad New Hampshire. A win and someone else in the CAA losing could pave the way for a surprise.
The Skyhawks have the same number of conference wins as Ohio Valley foes Austin Peay and SEMO, but losses to both. Skyhawks face an FBS foe Kentucky this week. A major FBS upset is a lot to ask, but that is the only way forward for UT Martin.
Last season’s FCS finalists have had an odd year. One D-II win was the only good thing that happened to the Eagles in the first month of the season. The committee will evaluate EWU at 6-4 if they beat Portland State this week. Their potential 6-2 mark in the Big Sky means little when they failed to play Weber State and Montana State and the loses came against Montana and Sacramento State. It is a long shot for Eastern to get in this year.