Wild sprint to the finish line
(STATS) - Win and you're in.
That scenario is always the most exciting when teams are trying to qualify for the FCS playoffs on the final full Saturday of the regular season.
It was the case a year ago when Richmond traveled to William & Mary for the last game of the night on the eve of the 24-team playoff announcement. Richmond went into the field with a win and William & Mary was left out with a loss.
Next Saturday, the Northeast Conference will feature the same scenario when Duquesne (7-3, 4-1) hosts Saint Francis (7-3, 4-1), with the winner claiming one of the 10 automatic bids to the playoffs.
It's similar in the Southland Conference, where Central Arkansas (7-3, 7-1) will host Sam Houston State (7-3, 6-2), with the winner expected to reel in one of 14 at-large bids. Also, in the Ohio Valley Conference, an at-large bid may go to the winner of Eastern Kentucky (6-4, 5-2) at Eastern Illinois (6-4, 6-1).
Clearly, all the twists and turns will make it a memorable fight to the finish line, although six automatic bids are locked up: Charleston Southern (9-1, 6-0) in the Big South, Jacksonville State (9-1, 7-0) in the OVC, Colgate (6-4, 5-0) in the Patriot League, Dayton (10-0, 7-0) in the Pioneer Football League, Chattanooga (8-2, 6-1) in the Southern Conference and McNeese State (9-0, 8-0) in the Southland Conference.
In addition to the NEC, the conferences still needing to fill automatic qualifying bids are:
Big Sky: Southern Utah (7-3, 6-1) has clinched at least a share of the title with a one-game lead over Portland State (8-2, 5-2), Northern Arizona (7-3, 5-2), Montana (6-4, 5-2) and Eastern Washington (6-4, 5-2). Everybody is a little antsy, though, because there may not be room in the field for all five of them. NAU heads to Southern Utah, Eastern Washington hosts Portland State and Montana goes to rival Montana State.
CAA: William & Mary (8-2, 6-1), which has clinched at least a piece of the title, heads to Richmond for their rivalry game holding a one-game lead over the Spiders (7-3, 5-2), James Madison (8-2, 5-2) and Villanova (6-4).
Missouri Valley: North Dakota State (8-2, 6-1) and Illinois State (8-2, 6-1), the 2014 co-champs and national finalists, have a one-game lead over South Dakota State (8-2). There are eight AQ scenarios following next Saturday's games, with four-time defending FCS champion NDSU securing the bid in five of them, Illinois State in two of them and SDSU only with a win and the other two suffering losses. But all three teams have done enough to make the playoff field.
SECOND AND 10=
Ten more observations from the FCS weekend:
- Teams that didn't win their conference's automatic bid but are safe for at-large bids no matter what happens next weekend: Coastal Carolina (9-1) in the Big South and Fordham (9-2) in the Patriot League. Fordham, whose only loss in the league was to Colgate, would share the title with the Raiders if the latter falls to Bucknell next Saturday.
- The FCS selection committee doesn't seem to hold FBS losses against FCS teams, so The Citadel (7-3, 6-1) hope to be safe for an at-large bid if - well, when - it loses to South Carolina next Saturday. The Bulldogs settled for a share of the Southern Conference title after losing to Chattanooga 31-23 on Saturday. But it's been a strong season for the conference, and The Citadel beat Western Carolina 28-10 to open the SoCon schedule, so the Bulldogs are in line for an at-large bid over the Catamounts.
- A late-season push has New Hampshire (6-4) back in the mix for an at-large bid from the CAA, where the Wildcats' 11 straight playoff appearances are the current high in the FCS. But while they have rallied to another winning season with three straight victories, including 24-14 at Albany on Saturday, there's probably too much of a logjam of teams ahead of them even if they beat rival Maine next Saturday.
- Northern Iowa (6-4) has one more step as it tries to barge through the playoff door with a home win over Southern Illinois next Saturday. Coach Mark Farley's team could still see the light when it was 2-4, and it's allowed only 27 points - none in Saturday's 41-0 shutout at Missouri State - during a four-game winning streak. But, and there's usually one of those, the Panthers have to finish the job against SIU and its outstanding quarterback Mark Iannotti.
- It seems opposing defenses are just living in Kade Harrington's world - they can't seem to stop the Lamar running back. He has gone over 2,000 rushing yards in 10 games - only the seventh back in Division I history to do so - and the junior can add to his sensational season next Saturday against unbeaten McNeese State. He became Lamar's career rushing leader during a 219-yard outing against Incarnate Word - a 28-21 win - and he's averaging 8.1 yards per carry with 21 of his 23 touchdowns on the ground. "Had you told me at the beginning of the year Kade would rush for 1,200 yards, I would've taken that," coach Ray Woodard said.
- While McNeese State (9-0) hopes to wrap up a perfect regular season against Lamar, the other unbeaten team in the FCS, Pioneer champ Dayton (10-0), heads to rival Drake. The Flyers, who have qualified for the playoffs for the first time, have come from behind in the second half of seven games, including in the final minute of Saturday's 28-21 win over Marist. Dating to last season, their 12-game winning streak is the longest in the FCS.
- The team of the week is Penn for its 35-25 victory over Harvard, which ended the Crimson's then-FCS-high 22-game winning streak. It protected the Quakers' Ivy League records for consecutive overall wins (24) and league wins (20), and, more importantly, moved first-year coach Ray Priore's team into a first-place tie with Harvard and Dartmouth. Penn has the easiest finish next Saturday, hosting a Cornell team that just won its first game, while Dartmouth hosts Princeton and Harvard heads to rival Yale.
- The MEAC and SWAC champions will meet in the inaugural Celebration Bowl on Dec. 19 in Atlanta. In the MEAC title race, North Carolina A&T (9-1, 7-0) will qualify with a win over North Carolina Central (7-3, 6-1) or if Bethune-Cookman (8-2, 6-1) beats Florida A&M. Bethune can't win the bid, but N.C. Central can with a victory over N.C. A&T coupled with a Bethune loss. In the SWAC, Grambling State (8-2, 8-0) has clinched the West Division spot in the conference championship game Dec. 5 in Houston, while Alcorn State (6-3, 5-2) needs only to win one of its final two games or have third-place Jackson State (3-6, 3-4) lose one of its final two games to represent the East Division. If there is a three-way tie at 5-4 between those two teams and Alabama State, Jackson State would go to the championship game.
- Plenty of big numbers on Saturday, but these two stand out from the Big Sky: Montana State's Luke Daly tied for the FCS season-high with a 57-yard field goal against Idaho State (Liberty's John Liberty has nailed two from that distance) and Northern Arizona freshman Case Cookus remained the hottest quarterback in the FCS with seven total touchdowns (six passing, one rushing) as well as 407 passing yards against Sacramento State. Cookus, the FCS leader in completion percentage and passing efficiency, has thrown for 33 touchdowns against only three interceptions, with a 14-to-0 ratio in his last three games.
- Two traditionally strong programs which can't seem to get righted: Delaware in the CAA and Southern Illinois in the Missouri Valley. Many Delaware fans were not happy when coach K.C. Keeler was fired after the 2013 season, and the situation has worsened under coach Dave Brock with the Blue Hens dropping to 3-7 this season after their last two teams missed the playoffs following November collapses. SIU was 50-14 in the five seasons prior to Lennon's arrival and went 20-5 in his first two seasons (2008 and '09), but the Salukis are 31-38 over the last six seasons, including 3-7 this year.
PROJECTED PLAYOFF BRACKET=
Our projected playoff bracket, factoring in anticipated results of next weekend (the potential wild finishes in the Big Sky and CAA make it difficult):
Dayton-Chattanooga winner at No. 1 seed Jacksonville State
Eastern Illinois-Montana winner at No. 8 seed Portland State
Sam Houston State-Eastern Washington winner at No. 5 seed McNeese State
Fordham-James Madison winner at No. 4 seed Illinois State
Southern Utah-Northern Iowa winner at No. 3 seed South Dakota State
Villanova-The Citadel winner at No. 6 seed Charleston Southern
Duquesne-William & Mary winner at No. 7 seed Coastal Carolina
Colgate-Richmond winner at No. 2 seed North Dakota State
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD=
No. 1 Jacksonville State (9-1, 7-0 OVC), beat Southeast Missouri State (4-6, 3-3), 56-28
No. 2 North Dakota State (8-2, 6-1 Missouri Valley), beat No. 20 Youngstown State (5-5, 3-4), 27-24
No. 3 McNeese State (9-0, 8-0 Southland), Idle
No. 4 Coastal Carolina (9-1, 4-1 Big South), beat Kennesaw State (6-4, 2-3), 45-13
No. 5 South Dakota State (8-2, 5-2 Missouri Valley), beat South Dakota (5-5, 3-4), 30-23
No. 6 Illinois State (8-2, 6-1 Missouri Valley), beat Southern Illinois (3-7, 2-5), 42-21
No. 7 William & Mary (8-2, 6-1 CAA), beat Towson (6-4, 4-3), 31-17
No. 8 Chattanooga (8-2, 6-1 Southern), beat No. 21 The Citadel (7-3, 6-1), 31-23
No. 9 Richmond (7-3, 5-2 CAA), lost to Villanova (6-4, 5-2), 21-20
No. 10 Eastern Washington (6-4, 5-2 Big Sky), lost to No. 22 Montana (6-4, 5-2), 57-16
No. 11 Charleston Southern (9-1, 6-0 Big South), beat Liberty (5-5, 2-3), 31-24
No. 12 Harvard (8-1, 5-1 Ivy), lost to Penn (6-3, 5-1), 35-25
No. 13 Sam Houston State (7-3, 6-2 Southland), beat Northwestern State (3-7, 3-5), 59-21
No. 14 James Madison (8-2, 5-2 CAA), beat Delaware (3-7, 2-5), 24-21
No. 15 Portland State (8-2, 5-2 Big Sky), beat No. 18 Southern Utah (7-3, 6-1), 24-23
No. 16 Fordham (9-2, 5-1 Patriot), beat Georgetown (4-6, 2-3), 38-31
No. 17 Northern Iowa (6-4, 4-3 Missouri Valley), beat Missouri State (1-9, 0-7), 41-0
No. 18 Southern Utah (7-3, 6-1 Big Sky), lost to No. 15 Portland State (8-2, 5-2), 24-23
No. 19 North Carolina A&T (9-1, 7-0 MEAC), beat Delaware State (0-10, 0-7), 27-6
No. 20 Youngstown State (5-5, 3-4 Missouri Valley), lost to No. 2 North Dakota State (8-2, 6-1), 27-24
No. 21 The Citadel (7-3, 6-1 Southern), lost to No. 8 Chattanooga (8-2, 6-1), 31-23
No. 22 Montana (6-4, 5-2 Big Sky), beat No. 10 Eastern Washington (6-4, 5-2), 57-16
No. 23 Dartmouth (8-1, 5-1 Ivy), beat Brown (4-5, 2-4), 34-18
No. 24 Eastern Kentucky (6-4, 5-2 OVC), beat Murray State (3-7, 2-5), 41-34, in 2 OTs
No. 25 Grambling State (8-2, 8-0 SWAC), beat Arkansas-Pine Bluff (1-9, 0-8), 49-31
A LOOK AHEAD=
Rivalry week is ahead in the FCS, with many games impacting conference title races and postseason bids.
The big games include: Big Sky, Montana at Montana State, Northern Arizona at Southern Utah and Portland State at Eastern Washington; Big South, Coastal Carolina at Liberty (Thursday night) - OK, not so much this year; CAA, Villanova at James Madison, William & Mary at Richmond, and Maine at New Hampshire; Ivy, Princeton at Dartmouth, Cornell at Penn and Harvard at Yale; MEAC, North Carolina Central at North Carolina A&T and Bethune-Cookman vs. Florida A&M in Orlando; and Missouri Valley, South Dakota at Illinois State, South Dakota State at Western Illinois, Missouri State at North Dakota State and Southern Illinois at Northern Iowa.
Also: NEC, Saint Francis at Duquesne; OVC, Eastern Kentucky at Eastern Illinois, Murray State at Jacksonville State, and UT Martin at Southeast Missouri State; Patriot, Lafayette at Lehigh and Bucknell at Colgate; Pioneer, Dayton at Drake; Southland, Stephen F. Austin at Northwestern State (only in rivalry purposes), Sam Houston State at Central Arkansas and McNeese State at Lamar; and SWAC, Alabama A&M at Alcorn State.
Three ranked FCS teams visit FBS opponents: The Citadel at South Carolina, Chattanooga at Florida State and Charleston Southern at Alabama.