The Road to the Spring Playoffs
What a freaking zoo Covid has made of the FCS football spring playoffs! Sixteen teams will be selected (10 will be chosen by virtue of conference champion status), only six will be at large selections. To say this field will be watered down is an understatement.
First, several playoff teams are not going to play this spring. In the Big Sky, Montana, Montana State and Sacramento State aren’t participating. Athlon Sports had them ranked as 5th, 7th and 12th in the FCS Nation. In the Southland, 2019 playoff contender Central Arkansas is out (11th ranked). In the Northeast Conference, their champ, Central Connecticut isn’t dressing a team. As you can see, four high ranked teams aren’t in the hunt, so lesser ranked teams are going to populate the field.
The bigger problem is the disparity in the road to Frisco. Yes in the regular pre-Covid playoffs, Automatic Qualifiers (AQ’s) from weaker conferences had chances to knock off the big boys of the CAA, Big Sky or MVFC. The Patriot’s Colgate undid JMU in 2015 and 2018. The Pioneer League Champs, San Diego beat Big Sky foes Cal-Poly in 2016 and Northern Arizona in 2017.
The spring Covid schedules aren’t teams playing 3-4 non-conference games with the remaining conference games to fill out the normal 11-12 game schedule.
Let’s look at the Big South. Kennesaw State is a legitimate FCS playoff candidate (2021 Athlon spring pre-season ranking of #6). Three fellow conference members are taking the spring off (Campbell, Hampton & North Alabama), while not their fault it has led to a cake walk schedule. They open with Shorter (a Div II school), Dixie State (a Div II school in 1st year transition to FCS), and their 4 conference foes average 212 in the Sagarin rankings. The worst team in the MVFC is 30 teams better than this average.
Let me put this in perspective. In 2019 Youngstown State opened with four straight non-conference wins. They beat Southern Conference Samford 45-22. They then pounded Howard 54-28, Duquesne 34-14 and Robert Morris 45-10. These four teams averaged 209 in Sagarin. They were humiliating these teams by 44.5 to 18.5. These wins weren’t cheap. They dominated by running over 250 yards per game and stopping the opponents run game in its tracks. Were the Penguins a playoff caliber team? Not really. They went 2-6 in the MVFC to finish 6-6.
I think Kennesaw State is a better overall team than YSU, but adding in the two Div II teams, we won’t know how good or bad they really are. I fully expect them to go 6-0 and gain large margins of victory over this pathetic excuse of a schedule.
Let’s look at the Patriot League: Colgate (202), Holy Cross (182), Lehigh (233), Lafayette (220), Bucknell (232) and Fordham (216). The whole league averages 214 in Sagarin. Most of the CAA’s victories in the playoffs come from racking up victories over weak Northeast conference opponents (also some of their most embarrassing losses).
JMU get’s the prize for easiest and most beneficial spring schedule. The CAA set up two divisions with JMU getting a path to a high ranking playing absolutely NO ONE! They warm up against two of the worst teams in Div I football (240 & 252 out of 257 teams). Last time they played Moorhead they won 80-7 (What did I say about running up scores). They face no playoff or ranked teams from 2019 or the spring docket. This schedule puts them in a position of “it’s theirs to lose” as the AQ for the CAA. The North Division teams only play six games, so the two patsies will give them the advantage if say Villanova or Albany goes undefeated (more FCS wins).
With only seven starters coming back, this is a schedule made in heaven for team development. Also the lopsided scores they rack up should allow for the playing of more of their roster. JMU will really have to stumble not to get a high seed. With geographical first round pairings they will probably get a patsy in 1st round (Someone from the NEC, Patriot or Pioneer).
In the Southland: I think the winner of the Nicholls/Sam Houston game gets the crown. Loser stays home. Nicholls plays a seventh game (a Div II foe) and conference teams that average 191 in Sagarin. Sam Houston plays the same six Southland opponents as Nicholls. These teams are all worse than the lowest ranked MVFC team, Mo. State.
Who will be the quarter finalists this spring? Athlon Sports (Craig Haley, a dean of the FCS football world) has these eight teams in that role. In order: NDSU, Weber State, UNI, JMU, SDSU, Kennesaw State, Villanova and Nicholls.
I have already commented on UNI and the Jackrabbits in my article on the Valley Conference spring gauntlet. I called them 1A and 1B in the MVFC race behind the Herd. SDSU has tightened the separation by getting an FCS transfer running back from Sacred Heart. Who wins next Friday’s game will turn around can UNI generate a run game or can the Blue Bunnies get a passing game going to take heat off Pierre Strong. With the MEAC dropping out of the spring schedule, this should allow both to make the playoffs if they take care of business against the rest of the MVFC.
Weber State was one of my sleepers in 2019 to make the final eight. Why? Coach Hill has consistently reloaded on defense. His team didn’t disappoint. They made the semis. This spring a grad transfer has to step up at QB after last year’s starter transferred. We really won’t know how good this reload is until the playoffs because they PLAY NOBODY this spring (no ranked or playoff teams from 2019 or 2020-21).
How strong is JMU? I feel JMU’s roster is much closer to being 2018 in talent than 2016, 17 or 19 and most likely not as strong as 2018. I don’t think they have an NFL quality QB like Dinucci, DE’s like Daka and Carter, WR &TE like the Stapleton brothers, or LB’s like Holloway & Word, a CB as good as Rashad Robinson and return specialist in Amos D’Angelo’s league. As stated earlier, the football god’s gave them the weakest schedule of any team from the MVFC, Big Sky or CAA.
Even though Villanova lost a lot thru the transfer portal, I think they will win the CAA North Division and qualify for the playoffs.
I have two sleepers this year as well for the final eight and again it is based on their defenses. Sam Houston State seems to be morphing itself away from a no defense, wide open offensive team. I do feel their coach has a track record of winning and hasn’t totally forgotten how to be dynamic on offense. If that shows up this year with what he has coming back on defense, I think they will supplant Nicholls as the AQ from the Southland Conference (I think only one team will be in the playoffs from the Southland).
The other quarter final playoff sleeper is Eastern Washington. They had some key injuries last year on defense and slipped back to playing bad defense. If they rebound and stay healthy on that side of the ball and play just average D, they are explosive on offense and with a cake walk schedule, they would then make the playoffs (undefeated).
So the FCS playoff field this year won’t have four of last year’s top eight seeds (Sacramento State #4, Montana State #5, Montana #6 and Central Arkansas #8). Of the major conference contenders Big South favorite, Kennesaw State, CAA South Division favorite, JMU and Big Sky favorites Weber and E. Washington play a total of ONE PLAYOFF TEAM FROM LAST YEAR! Kennesaw plays Monmouth and this isn’t impressive since at a 175 Sagarin rating, Monmouth falls 25 teams outside of a solid playoff eligible team. Is this fair, not really, but it is what the mix has.
The MVFC should get two at large playoff spots, the CAA and Big Sky one each (these are over and above the leagues Auto Qualifier spot). This is all on paper. Injuries and Covid can reshuffle this deck at anytime. For those who question the Bison four peat prediction, I ask, who has a better roster?