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Some Playoff Speculation

Lehigh ain't won anything yet, but as we're coming down to the wire in this 2006 I-AA season, I thought it best to tell you, dear Reader, a little about the I-AA playoffs, how they work, and who's got the inside track for playoff bids. Every year it's confusing, but after you read this tidbit the smoke should clear to some extent.

First, who gets in? On November 19th, the NCAA will announce the playoff field for the playoffs. Sixteen teams will be in the field - eight of whom will be automatic conference qualifiers (the Patriot League, Gateway, Atlantic 10, Southern Conference, Southland, Big Sky, Ohio Valley, and Mid-Eastern Athletic).

The other eight will be at-large selection determined by the NCAA I-AA football committee, comprised of athletic directors of I-AA member schools. All schools are eligible for selection as an at-large team, as long as:

1. Their conference allows postseason play (the Ivy League does not).
2. That the team does not have scheduling conflicts or another postseason championship game (the SWAC divisional champions, Alabama State, Grambling State, and Southern all choose not to participate).
3. You cannot be "in transition" to I-AA, meaning, recently reclassified to I-AA in the past four years. (This eliminates teams like North Dakota State and Central Arkansas, two teams who have been in the Top 25 this year.
4. That teams that do not get the magic number of seven Division I wins (which eliminates most other teams).

For example, if you go 11-0 but play five Division II or lower teams, you cannot qualify for the postseason. If you go 8-3, but two of those wins were against D-II or lower teams, you cannot qualify (since only 6 of those wins are "D-I" wins.).

Not easy, is it? In any event, in the Patriot League this year only Holy Cross has the potential to be seriously considered as an at-large team if they beat Colgate next weekend. They would finish at 8-3 and meet all the criteria. Lehigh or Lafayette can only make the playoffs by winning the Patriot League autobid. If Lehigh wins against Forhdam and the following weekend, they are in the playoffs.

Clear as Mud, isn't it?
Now that that's out of the way, let's handicap the playoff spots right now. First, let's peek at the autobids as they stand right now.

Atlantic 10: The two teams in the drivers' seat would be 8-1 UMass and 8-1 James Madison. Both are undefeated in their respective divisions, but if they both win out UMass would win the autobid since their only loss is to I-A Army. Right now, it's UMass.

Gateway: Any one of four teams could still take this thing, and it's a dogfight for the autobid or autobid spots. But the fact remains that if 8-2 Youngstown State beats Western Kentucky this weekend, they'll basically lock up the autobid. If they falter, Illinois State, Northern Iowa, or Southern Illinois could pick up the pieces.

SoCon: 9-1 Applachian State (the defending national champions) have already punched their ticket for the playoffs by beating The Citadel this weekend.

Big Sky: It will come down to the "Brawl of the Wild" as it does every year, but 8-1 Montana is in the driver's seat. If they beat 7-3 Montana State, they will get the autobid and the Bobcats will sit at home. I should know better, but give me Montana right now.

Ohio Valley: The spunky 8-1 Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks are in the driver's seat, though if they stumble 6-4 Eastern Illinois or 5-4 Tennessee State could nab this autobid. Right now though, the odds-on favorites are the Skyhawks.

MEAC: It seems like every year 9-1 Hampton is in the driver's seat, and this year is no exception. If they lose to Florida A&M next weekend and 7-2 Delaware State wins out, the Hornets will get the crown, but I wouldn't bet against the Pirates here.

Patriot: It will come down to Lehigh, Lafayette or Holy Cross. If Lehigh wins their last two games they will get the autobid. If Holy Cross loses and Lafayette wins their last two games, they will get the autobid. If Holy Cross wins, Lehigh beats Fordham, Lafayette beats Georgetown and Lafayette beats Lehigh, it will come down to a vote of the athletic directors of Colgate, Fordham, Georgetown and Bucknell. Hopefully it won't come to that.

Southland: Another mess, the two most likely teams to emerge from the fog is McNeese State or Sam Houston State. McNeese has the edge since they beat Sam Houston State already, but nothing feels like a done deal here yet. If McNeese and Sam Houston both lose, it will be very, very, very ugly as to who wins.

After the autobids comes the chances at the at-large bids. Here's the odds as to who will be the at-large teams.

#1: The second-placed team in the A-10. Odds: 1:100,000. Both UMass and James Madison already have enough wins, so even if they both lose a couple games they are in.

#2: The second-placed team in the Gateway. Odds: 1:100,000. Sure, 7-2 Illinois State could lose to Indiana State and Northern Iowa, but I wouldn't put any money on that. Even if Youngstown falters, Illinois State appears to be in first or second with just one win, and even the "worst case scenario" somebody gets it, probably Youngstown State.

#3: The second-placed team in the OVC. Odds: 3-1. Even if Tennessee-Martin falters, they seem like a lock for an at-large bid if they win just one of their last two games. But the interesting case comes in if there is a tie for the OVC crown and Eastern Illinois or Tennessee State win the autobid because of a... coin toss. Even if Tenn-Martin wins the toss, the committee may reward an 8-4 Eastern Illinois team with an at-large bid with eight D-I wins. I like these odds.

#4: Furman. Odds: 6-1. At 7-3, all they need to do is beat struggling Georgia Southern to clinch a spot, but since this is a big rivalry game, this is no gimme.

#5: The third-placed team in the Gateway. Odds: 6-1. This looks strong since Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa play each other and both are fighting for 8-3 records. What could be a stumbling point, though is if UNI wins out and is looking for an at-large but but have a D-II loss to North Dakota to explain to the committee. That uncertainty brings these odds down.

#6: The third-placed team in the A-10. Odds: 8-1. If 6-3 New Hampshire beats Rhode Island and 6-3 Maine upsets UMass, the third-placed team will definitely be in since they play each other in two weeks. 6-3 Towson could get this spot too, but they'd have to beat Richmond AND James Madison to do it. Some slim odds, but a lot of possibilities exists where a third team gets in, and only one scenario has to come true.

#7: Montana. Odds: 8-1. They would lose an autobid only if Montana State beats them the last week of the season (or lose to Northern Colorado, but that's unlikely to happen). Knowing this rivalry, this absolutely could happen, which is why this sits at 8-1.

#8: Cal Poly. Odds: 8-1. At 6-3, they need to beat #4 ranked North Dakota State and Savannah State to win the Great West conference and make the playoffs, no mean feat. I really don't know if they'll be able to pull it off. The Bison are really tough and want that Great West title.

#9: Coastal Carolina. Odds: 9-1. At 7-2, they have to win their last two games versus 6-3 Gardner-Webb and 9-0 Charleston Southern, neither one a gimme, to have a shot at winning the Big South conference and an at-large bid. A 9-2 Coastal team with wins against Wofford and Furman are a pretty good at-large resume. An 8-3 record with a loss to G-W or Chuck South probably wouldn't be enough.

#10: Delaware State. Odds: 10-1. Although the Hornets will have a good 9-2 schedule like Coastal, they won't have a quality win to show the committee. Still, they may be rewarded for a schedule with 8 D-I wins and only losses to Hampton and Northwestern State.

#11: Holy Cross. Odds: 12-1. With a win next week over Colgate, they are in the mix at 8-3 if they win and do some of hoping. Like Delaware State, they wouldn't have a quality win to show the committee, but they will have 8 D-I wins and no embarassing losses. A little pandemomium, and they could find themselves in.

#12: Monmouth. Odds: 12-1. At 9-1 the Hawks would have to beat Albany next week and hope just like Holy Cross. They would have 10 D-I wins, but their lone quality win versus Northeast Conference league-mate Albany could be nullified by weak out-of-conference wins versus Colgate, Fordham and Morgan State. Another factor: they could host the Gridiron Classic against the Pioneer Football League representative should they not make the playoffs. It will be interesting to see if a NEC team will be picked for the first time in their history.

#13: San Diego. Odds: 14-1. They are expected to win out and end the season with a 10-0 record in the non-scholarship Pioneer League, but could be punished for playing a weak D-I schedule (with only 8 D-I opponents), and letting transitional UC-Davis twist in the wind to try to accomodate playoff dreams (they tenatively scheduled a game with them during the first week of the playoffs). Still, they beat Yale (who might win the Ivy League title) and are ranked highly in the Top 25. Furthermore, if they get in the playoffs with this schedule, they would be the first-ever Pioneer League school to make the field and open up a huge can of worms for future years. I think the cons outweigh the pros, and this brings them way down my list.

#14: Charleston Southern. Odds: 20-1. They would have to run the table to get consideration, and even with a Big South title and a win over nationally-ranked Coastal Carolina, to me it's basically out of the question that a school that scheduled four sub-D-I schools will get invited. I seriously doubt it.

#15: The #4 team in the Atlantic 10. Odds: 25-1. Stranger things have happened, but Towson would have to run the table while Maine/New Hampshire take the #3 spot. I don't think this is happening.

#16: The #4 team in the Gateway. Odds: 30-1. This involves the "thermonuclear" option in the Gateway with UNI winning the autobid and Youngstown State, Southern Illinois and Illinois State all sitting at 8-3. Unlikely, but nonetheless still possible.


Anonymous said…
Chuck, nice analysis, as always. I would rate the odds of Coastal Carolina and [sigh] San Diego a bit higher. I don't see Coastal losing and unfortunatly San Diego should be undefeated with nealy all games blow outs. The lack of other 8-3 teams with quality wins makes a backdoor case for San Diego. Also, I would give slightly higher odds to a third A-10 team vs a third Gateway team.
Anonymous said…
I heard winner of the PL will get to go to Umass. Did you hear the same? If Lehigh does get into the playoffs, i like their chances in that game. Rematch of a few years ago.
Anonymous said…
I gotst know - What could possibly make you like Lehigh's or any P.L. teams chance against UMass? UMass is absolutely loaded and probably one of the favorites to win it all.

It's a long way from 1998 and that team which was loaded.
Ngineer said…
IF Lehigh makes it , they could be sent anywhere in the East: UMass, JMU, UNH or YSU. IN addition, Lehigh COULD, YES, COULD host a game should it decide to bid. Remember 2004 when unseeded LU hosted JMU. I wouldn't bet the ranch on this scenario, but strange things have happened on Selection Sunday....
Anonymous said…
Referring to my comment above, i like their chances compared to playing App St or Montana or some other top 5 team. Yes Umass is stacked, but Umass plays the same style of play Lehigh does and they would match up as good as a Lehigh could v. a #1.
Ngineer said…
Following up on the UMass possibility, while the Minutemen would certainly be heavy favorites the fact that Villanova played them fairly well would indicate that we, too, could hang with them so long as we avoided the self-destructive mistakes that we have been prone to make all too often this year. PLus the ride to Amherst isn't all that bad and shorter than YSU or JMU or UNH.
Anonymous said…
I'd rather go to JMU. It's warmer. Cold beer tastes better when it is warmer out.
Anonymous said…
lehigh can play with any A-10 team, they have proven it.

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