FCS review: It's SoCon … then a lot of hoping
(STATS) – If the FCS playoff field was announced a week earlier than next Sunday, the conference that might feel the best about itself is the Southern Conference, where champion The Citadel, Chattanooga, Samford and Wofford appear ready to go into the field.
The last time the SoCon had four qualifiers for the playoffs is … well, never.
Four would be one more than the SoCon had over the last two playoffs combined (two automatic qualifiers and one at-large bid).
But Wofford's road win over Chattanooga on Saturday was the result the SoCon needed to have the chance for its best playoff haul.
The attrition of conference play tends to overdue itself, leaving black and blue records, and the three conferences that had the most playoff bids last season – the Missouri Valley, CAA Football and Big Sky – didn't necessarily get the results to fall the right way this weekend to solidify their candidate pool.
Missouri Valley: North Dakota State is solidified and South Dakota State should be in the field as well. Youngstown State would make it simple with a win at Missouri State (but nothing's been simple during the Penguins' 10-year playoff drought) and Western Illinois hopes to nail down a bid with a road win at Southern Illinois. If both of those scenarios happen, it won't be good for Illinois State's 6-5 record or Northern Iowa's potential 6-5 record (with a win over SDSU).
CAA: Champion James Richmond and Richmond are safe. The playoff selection committee probably wants to put Villanova into the field considering coach Andy Talley is retiring after 32 seasons, but the Wildcats should avoid losing to rival Delaware. The New Hampshire-Maine rivalry game is a playoff eliminator, but does it guarantee an at-large bid to the winner? Probably, because the winner will be 6-2 in the tough CAA, but neither boasts big-time wins heading into their matchup. Albany also can get to 7-4 with a win over Stony Brook.
Big Sky: Here's the trickiest of the three conference. North Dakota and Eastern Washington are in the field. Then there are four teams hoping to get to 7-4: Cal Poly and Northern Colorado, who play each other, as well as Montana and Weber State. The one in the best shape with a win next weekend would be Cal Poly. The one with all the playoff history – Montana – might be on the outside looking in.
A team that finishes the regular season with a 7-4 record (especially one whose resume includes a sub-Division I win) usually goes into the same basket with so many at-large hopefuls. It's a precarious spot leading into Selection Sunday when there are only so many at-large bids to go around.
SECOND AND 10=
Ten more observations from the FCS weekend:
1.) The team of the week is Wofford after it went to Chattanooga and beat the seventh-ranked Mocs 36-28 for the first time since 2011. Coach Mike Ayers' 7-3 squad should find itself in the Top 25 on Monday and is an expected win over VMI away of returning to the playoffs after a three-year absence.
2.) While eight teams in the FCS Top 25 lost games this weekend, the top six continued to roll along, each winning by double digits. Sam Houston State, Jacksonville State, Eastern Washington, North Dakota State, The Citadel and James Madison – ranked in that order – are a combined 56-4.
3.) Half of the 10 automatic qualifiers are set: James Madison (CAA Football), Lehigh (Patriot League), San Diego (Pioneer Football League), Saint Francis (Northeast Conference) and The Citadel (Southern Conference). Saint Francis topped Central Connecticut State 31-21 behind Zack Drayer's three touchdown passes to clinch its first playoff appearance.
4.) In the Big South, the Kennesaw State-Charleston Southern winner next Saturday will earn a share of the title with Liberty, but then it gets really intriguing. Charleston Southern (6-3, 3-1) can't qualify for the playoffs unless it wins the game and claims the automatic bid, which would come from owning the tiebreaker over Liberty (6-4, 4-1). The Bucs don't have the necessary six Division I wins for an at-large bid. Kennesaw State (8-2, 3-1) may not make the field even with a win over CSU because Liberty owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over KSU. The Owls have the best overall record among the three, but their resume includes three wins below the D-I level and a loss to East Tennessee State. If Charleston Southern earns the auto bid, then Liberty likely needs to win at old rival Coastal Carolina Thursday night to be an at-large factor.
5.) The three conferences that don't send their champions to the playoffs are headed to great finishes. Harvard, Penn and Princeton are tied for first place in the Ivy League just one year after it had its first three-way share of the title since 1982. North Carolina A&T and North Carolina Central are both 7-0 in the MEAC and end the regular season against each other next Saturday at N.C. Central. Grambling State and Southern will meet in two for the West Division title on Nov. 26 and a spot in the SWAC Championship Game against East Division champ Alcorn State, also the two-time defending conference champ.
6.) It was a special Saturday for special teams players, as the season highs for punt and kickoff return yards came from a pair of senior cornerbacks, while the longest field goal of the season was matched. Lamar's Brendan Langley (six interceptions, six pass breakups) will get a look in an NFL training camp next summer, and his ability to return punts will boost his stock. He scored on punt returns of 90 and 75 yards against Incarnate Word while totaling 206 yards on six returns. Dayton's Cameron Stubbs needed only four kickoff returns to total 234 yards against Marist. Included were returns of 94 yards (not a touchdown) and 90 yards (a touchdown). Tennessee Tech sophomore Nick Madonia kicked a 57-yard field goal against Tennessee State to match the best that Tennessee State's Lane Clark and Wofford's David Marvin (twice) had earlier this season.
7.) Ironically, Eastern Washington wide receiver Cooper Kupp scored on a rush and a punt return against Idaho State, but not a reception while he completed a Division I triple, adding the career receptions record (396) to his marks for receiving yards (5,994) and touchdown receptions (68). He has caught a pass in 48 straight games, an FCS record he shares with Jacksonville State's Josh Barge.
8.) With Austin Peay on a 26-game losing streak that is the longest in the FCS, there are not a lot of positives coming from the Ohio Valley Conference program. But freshman Kentel Williams totaled a school record and FCS season high with 399 all-purpose yards against Eastern Kentucky, including a 97-yard kickoff return and 7-yard run for touchdowns. His yardage represented the 20th-highest single-game total in FCS history and consisted of 176 rushing yards, 42 receiving yards and 181 kick return yards.
9.) It took until top-ranked Sam Houston State's 10th game, but the Bearkats finally trailed against an opponent. Northwestern State went ahead 13-7 midway through the first quarter, but the Bears' Alfonzo McMillian blocked the extra point and the Bearkats went back ahead shortly after and went on to score the final 34 points of the first half for a 41-13 lead.
10.) The carousel known as conference realignment could be spinning again. Campbell has a major football announcement scheduled for Monday, and it's easy to believe the Fighting Camels, members of the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League, will add scholarships and begin a move toward the Big South Conference, where they play in other sports. Also, the Grand Forks Herald reports freshly minted Big Sky champ North Dakota is negotiating a potential move from the largest FCS conference to the Missouri Valley Football Conference and its sister Summit League for other sports.
A LOOK AHEAD=
All hail the conference schedule-makers, because next Saturday's schedule will match the top two teams in three conference races: MEAC, North Carolina A&T at North Carolina Central; Ohio Valley, UT Martin at Jacksonville State; and Southland, Central Arkansas at top-ranked Sam Houston State.
Other notable matchups (Saturday unless marked): Big Sky, Eastern Washington at Portland State (Friday night), Northern Colorado at Cal Poly and Montana State at Montana; Big South, Liberty at Coastal Carolina (Thursday night) and Kennesaw State at Charleston Southern; CAA, Richmond at William & Mary, New Hampshire at Maine and Villanova at Delaware; Ivy, Yale at Harvard; Missouri Valley, North Dakota State at South Dakota and South Dakota State at Northern Iowa; Patriot, Lehigh at Lafayette; and Pioneer, San Diego at Campbell.
There are seven FCS-vs.-FBS matchups, and Southern Conference heavyweights are involved: The Citadel will put its 10-0 record on the line at North Carolina and Chattanooga will go to No. 1 Alabama.