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New to the FCS Playoffs? Here's What Lehigh Fans Need To Know

For us Patriot League diehards, we know what the FCS playoffs are all about.  We know who's in line for the autobid, we know who the No. 1 teams are, and we have a pretty good idea about who can get in, and why.

But you, dear Reader, might not be as dialed into the FCS playoff scene as the rest of us.  You know that Lehigh will be practicing on Thanksgiving, and will be playing a football game after the 152nd meeting on the gridiron between Lehigh and Lafayette.

In the span of one blog post, let me tell you, new or old Lehigh fan, what you need to look for in regards to the FCS playoffs.




First question: What is all of this stuff, and why isn't Penn State involved?

In 1978, Division I football split into two subdivisions, "I-A" (where Penn State competes) and "I-AA" (where Lehigh competes).

Since renamed "FBS" (Football Bowl Subdivision) and "FCS" (Football Championship Subdivision), both sets of teams compete for different postseason prizes.

FBS has only ever had bowls as their postseason (and despite all the hype, FBS continues to have bowls as their postseason as a "plus-one" model), while FCS has had a championship system where some number of teams were invited to a postseason playoff with a subdivision national champion.

Over the years, the FCS playoffs have expanded from four, to eight, to sixteen, to twenty, to the current number of participants (24 teams).

From The Sports Arsenal's terrific FCS playoff primer, "Of the 24 teams that make the field, 10 will be conference champions that automatically qualify for the tournament. As of November 7, two teams have already qualified for the 2016 tourney — Lehigh (from the Patriot League) and The Citadel (from the Southern Conference)."

Second question: Why isn't 7-1 Harvard one of the teams?

While there are 10 automatic qualifiers, there are actually 13 FCS conferences, including the Ivy League,  Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC).
Harvard and the Ivy League at the present time choose to not send their champion to the FCS playoffs and actually prohibit their membership from accepting a bid to the postseason.  Why?  A shifting series of reasons have consistently been offered, not of which pass any serious scrutiny.

The first was that "they banned the postseason in the initial Ivy League Charter", that was disproven when someone took the time to actually read the Ivy Agreement.  Then it became "it interferes with exams", which was quickly debunked when it was shown that many other Ivy League championship teams balance exams and championships just fine.  Then it became "tradition", which means, we always prevented it before, so - "tradition!"

In any event, 7-1 Harvard will not be invited, and they will not accept, an invitation to the FCS playoffs.

For the MEAC and SWAC, it's a bit more nuanced.  Techinically, members of the SWAC and MEAC could be invited to the FCS playoffs.  However, the MEAC's regular season champion and the SWAC's divisional champions are contractually obligated to play in their own HBCU postseason opportunities, the SWAC Championship Game and the Celebration Bowl.

Which means that, at best, the SWAC or MEAC could only offer up their conference or division runners-up to the FCS playoffs.  In the history of the expanded playoffs, no second banana at-large teams have ever been deemed worthy of being in the field.

Third Question: Why is Lehigh in the field?  They have a game to play.

Lehigh is in the field of 24 teams because they have clinched the autobid thanks to their epic 20-13 win over Bucknell last weekend.  Lehigh is 5-0 in the conference, and are at worst co-champions of the Patriot League.  Even if the Mountain Hawks achieve their goal and go undefeated and remove the "co-" from their Patriot League Championship, they'd win the autobid anyway, because they've defeated the teams that could tie with them for the Championship.

The FCS Playoffs have 10 conferences that yield autobids:

  • Big Sky Conference
  • Big South Conference
  • Colonial Athletic Association (CAA)
  • Missouri Valley Football Conference (MVFC)
  • Northeast Conference (NEC)
  • Ohio Valley Conference (OVC)
  • Patriot League
  • Pioneer Football League
  • Southern Conference (SoCon)
  • Southland Conference
In each case their champions automatically make it into the field of 24 teams.  The field conisists of these 10 autobid champions and 14 "at-large" teams, selected by a playoff subcommittee.

Currently, only two schools in FCS are guaranteed to be playing in the playoffs at this point: Lehigh and The Citadel, who clinched the SoCon's autobid the same day as Lehigh.

Fourth Question: Could any other Patriot League teams make the field?

If a second team were to make it in as an at-large, the one team that is likeliest to make it might be Fordham - if, and only if, they win their last two games.  In my estimation, they would also need extra help to make the field as well.  

The reason is that if they finish at 8-3, with only 7 Division I wins (one of their victories came against D-II Fayetteville State), they may have a rough time arguing for inclusion based on computer rankings (they are not in the Sagarin Top 25 of FCS, and in the full Sagarin list currently sit under teams like Stony Brook and San Diego).  There is a possibility that they might get in on the basis of some craziness over the next two week, but to this reporter it seems unlikely.

Fifth question: Will Lehigh get a home game?

This is the trickiest question to answer, and the short answer is: we don't know.

In the 24 team bracket, the way to ensure a team gets a home game is to be one of the top eight seeded teams in the entire subdivision as defined by the FCS Subcommittee.  Last week, they gave their initial ranking of the Top Ten teams, which (to put it mildly) were lathered in controversy.  

From a Lehigh perspective, though, the Mountain Hawks were not included on the list.  Depending on what happens during the next two weeks, it is possible Lehigh has a percentage chance of making that Top Ten list as a No. 8 seed, which would guarantee a home game.  But again, it depends on other outcomes of games.

If Lehigh is not seeded, they have a chance to host a game in the first weekend after Thanksgiving.  The who, and where, though, won't be determined until Sunday, November 20th at 11:00 AM on ESPNU.

The "who" and the "where" are related.  

Let's start with the "who".

The FCS National Championship is a bracket that encompasses 24 teams from across the country.  However, for a variety of reasons, it can lead to impractical situations for certain schools, especially if a road team wins.  A team can theoretically have a road game in South Carolina, followed by a road game in Washington, followed by a road game in Texas, followed by a road game in North Dakota.  That's a lot of money for schools, not to mention fans.  Ever try to fly commercial to Fargo on a week's notice?

As a result, baked into the rules is a guideline (and contrary to what people have said, that's all it really is) to "regionalize" the first couple of rounds in the playoffs.  For example, last year, Colgate played at nearby New Hampshire in their first round game, and then were sent to James Madison after they beat them.  

The benefit of this is that it makes it convenient for fans of the away teams to travel to the games.  Rather than fly to Cheney, Washington Thanksgiving weekend, they're hopping in their cars and going to Durham, New Hampshire instead.  It also means more attendance.

The drawback is, when taken to its logical extreme, you end up with either repeated matchups (Colgate had already played New Hampshire that season) or worse, rematches against conference teams (several times, North Dakota State and South Dakota State had to meet each other in the playoffs).  In years past, such matchups tended to be artfully avoided, occasionally with one more plane trip, but last year, the first round was larded with a dizzying number of them - and flocks complained.

Then there's the subject of home games.

Since the field is not "seeded", there is no preference for the 9th team in the listing and the 24th.  Whether a team is awarded a home game depends on the opponent, and something called a "bid".  The "bid" is a dollar amount that a school offers, which includes NCAA expenses, travel for a visiting team to come to the stadium.  If that school's bid is higher, then they have to give the bid amount to the NCAA to cover the costs of the game.  That bid can be covered by the revenues from the game, mostly through ticket sales.

This is why it's so hard to handicap who Lehigh might play, and where.  

Remember Bridgeforth Stadium?  If James Madison isn't seeded, and they play Lehigh, their bid should theoretically be higher than Lehigh's (simply based on looking at their attendance at Bridgeforth, and the revenues it seems like they could generate from that home game).  However, that hasn't always happened.  One year, James Madison was shipped out to Eastern Kentucky, the official explanation being that James Madison put in a minimum bid only, and EKU actually outbid them.

That's too many words.  Net it out.  Who, and where?

Assuming there is some level of regionalization for Thanksgiving weekend, there are a number of teams from a number of conferences that can theoretically play the Mountain Hawks.  Here they are:

Albany
(5-4, 2-4 CAA)

Pluses: At 205 miles away, if Albany is in the field it will be difficult not to pair them with Lehigh, who has played them in the past.  Any other potential 1st round matchup with them that's a bus ride would be a rematch of a conference games.

Minuses: They will certainly need to play their way in to make the field by beating Stony Brook and New Hampshire.  Though they have a win over an FBS team (Buffalo), in the CAA they have struggled mightily.

Lehigh Chance To Host: Strong.  Bob Ford Field is newer and can cold 8,500 fans.

James Madison
(8-1, 6-0 CAA)
No. 5 in Coaches' Poll

Pluses: It's a doable bus trip (269 miles) and is in the sweet spot of being a team Lehigh has played recently (2014 and 2015) but not too recently (this season).

Minuses: James Madison currently sits at No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings, and even with a loss seem like a very good shot at earning a seed instead of playing a 1st round game.  Only losing twice, I think, would put them in this pool.

Lehigh Chance To Host: Near Zero.  Bridgeforth Stadium can hold 25,000 fans.

Liberty
(6-3, 4-0 Big South)
No. 24 in Coaches' Poll

Pluses: It's a great trip to Lynchburg, and it also sits in that nice sweet spot of being a team Lehigh has played recently, but not this season.

Minuses: First, it's on the outer edge of the NCAA bus trip zone, and last time Lehigh went to Williams Stadium, they flew a charter plane down.  Second, Liberty has had issues so many times putting teams away in the Big South.  If they don't beat Charleston Southern this weekend, they might fall to 7-4 and might not even make it, and if they fall to 6-5 by losing to Coastal Carolina, they'd almost certainly be out.  Third, if a team like Richmond or James Madison are in the running, they're almost a perfect match for them.

Lehigh Chance To Host: Near Zero.  Williams Stadium can hold 25,000 fans.

Maine
(5-4, 4-2 CAA)

Pluses: If they can win their last two games vs. Stony Brook and New Hampshire, at 7-4 and a 6-2 record in the CAA, they'll have to play somewhere, and Lehigh might actually be the closest place to play.

Minuses: At 536 miles away, there's little doubt that a flight would need to be involved, and the NCAA might actually prefer the dreaded rematch with a more nearby team, like UNH, Stony Brook or Albany, instead.  

Lehigh Chance to Host: High if the Bears are in the field.  Alfond Stadium holds 10,000.

New Hampshire
(6-3, 5-1 CAA)
No. 23 in Coaches' Poll

Pluses: Like Maine, if they can win their last two games, they're definitely in the FCS Playoffs and might be looking at Lehigh, at 358 miles away, as being the closest team the Wildcats haven't played yet this season.

Minuses: Like Maine, if you don't look at rematches, there are potentially closer matchups with Maine, Albany, or Stony Brook than a Lehigh matchup.

Lehigh Chance To Host: Medium. Wildcat Stadium has a capacity of 11,000 and has hosted FCS playoff games recently.

Richmond 
(7-2, 4-2 CAA)
No. 8 In Coaches' Poll

Pluses: At 301 miles away, Lehigh is a decent destination for the Spiders if the committee decides to match them up.

Minuses: The Spiders' CAA schedule is the easiest of all the contenders (Delaware, William and Mary)  and since they sit at No. 7 on the FCS Playoff seeding ratings at present, they'd need to stumble, most likely, to get into a situation of playing Lehigh in the 1st round.  And even if they do, they will surely be tempted to match up a team like Liberty (113 miles) with them.

Lehigh Chance To Host: Medium.  Robins Stadium is newer, and pretty, but relatively small (8,700).

St. Francis (PA) 
(6-3, 4-0 NEC)

Pluses: At 232 miles, it's a doable bus ride for either team.  Lehigh and St. Francis already play each other in other sports, so in a way a setup for this game is a natural.  DeGol field is new and pretty, but it's small (7,000).

Minuses: The Red Flash only need to win one of their last two games to clinch the autobid, and if they do win, the committee might be very tempted to pair them up with Youngstown State (128 miles away).

Lehigh chance to host: Strong, if it's in consideration.  DeGol Field can host 7,000 fans.

Stony Brook
(5-4, 4-2 CAA)

Pluses: An obvious bus trip to nearby Long Island (143 miles).  LaValle Stadium is a pretty venue that hosts 12,000 fans and would be a team Lehigh has only played once, back in 2004.

Minuses: The Seawolves almost certainly need to run the table to get in vs. Maine and Albany, and a single loss could doom their chances, though at 7-4 and with wins over Richmond and North Dakota, they have a pretty good resume in terms of quality wins.

Lehigh chance to host: Medium.  LaValle Stadium holds 12,000 fans.

Villanova
(7-2, 5-1 CAA)
No. 11 in Coaches' Poll

Pluses: By far the closest school to Bethlehem.  At 8-3 or 7-4 could still be matched up with Lehigh in a bus trip and might not even require an overnight stay.

Minuses:  If they win their last two games and make it to 9-2, they are very likely to be CAA champs and also a seeded team, meaning they wouldn't be in a first-round Lehigh matchup.  It's also a rematch of the 26-21 loss played in Week 2 on the Main Line.

Lehigh chance to host: Medium, if the cards fall right.  Villanova Stadium can hold 12,500.

Youngstown State
(6-3, 4-2 Missouri Valley)
No. 15 in Coaches' Poll

Pluses: If the Committee is looking for a different sort of matchup and trying to break up multiple Missouri Valley teams, having the Penguins host Lehigh might be a way to do just that in the first-ever meeting between the two schools.  The best Bo Pelini's squad can do is make it to 8-3, and are probably not in the conversation for a seed, but at 8-3 or 7-4 they are squarely in the at-large pool.

Minuses: At 340 miles from Bethlehem, it's a possible bus ride between the two schools - but a very long one, and one that might only be in the cards if St. Francis (PA) doesn't become the NEC champions. 

Lehigh chance to host: Near zero.  Stambaugh Stadium has a capacity of 21,000+ fans.

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