In the FCS Huddle: Analyzing the FCS playoff field

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Updated: 11/24/2013 3:54 pm

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The addition of the NCAA's new Simple Rating System as a tool in the selection process for the FCS playoff field seemingly brought with it curious results Sunday.

The SRS, similar to the popular RPI rating of teams in college basketball, is a ranking system used to gauge team quality, including strength-of-schedule measure and a win-loss differential.

The selection committee clearly wasn't completely dependent on the SRS and used plenty of subjectivity in their at-large selections. There's nothing wrong with that.

Unless, of course, you're one of the teams left out of the field whose SRS was higher than some of the actual qualifiers.

Among teams eligible for the playoffs but not selected were Charleston Southern (16 SRS), UT Martin (22), Youngstown State (24), Chattanooga (26) and Lehigh (28). All five, however, lost their games on Saturday, with Youngstown State finishing the regular season on a three-game losing streak and Charleston Southern and Chattanooga on two-game losing streaks.

The late-season push apparently helped Southern Conference tri-champion Samford (two-game winning streak), New Hampshire (three-game winning streak) and Southern Utah (three wins in last four), but Sam Houston State (two-game losing streak) didn't have a late kick. The SRS of those at-large qualifiers: Southern Utah, 21; Sam Houston State, 24; Samford, 25; and New Hampshire, 29.

The question of the SRS's importance may or may not have a right answer because bubble teams left out of the postseason will always complain of inequity.

The following, though, are answers to pressing questions about the playoff field as we move onto the second season, and North Dakota State's bid for a third straight FCS championship:

What's new and improved?

Increasing the field to 24 teams doesn't lengthen the playoffs because there are still 16 teams alive after the first round. It comes in a better way, too, because 16 teams open action on Saturday with eight getting byes, as opposed to the funky 20-team format of eight teams playing in the first round and 12 getting byes.

It's good for the Pioneer Football League to have an automatic qualifier (Butler) in the field for the first time. Plus, the later end to the regular season means there is only a two-week break from the national semifinals to the Jan. 4 championship game instead of three weeks, as it's been the last three seasons.

What teams left out of the playoff field have a legitimate argument with the selection committee?

Charleston Southern (10-3) when going by the SRS. The Buccaneers from the Big South Conference had an SRS of 16 (as opposed to say New Hampshire's 29). However, they also lost by 17 points to Gardner-Webb and 42 to Liberty to end the regular season and had their conference title bid blow up, so there's plenty of validity with the selection committee saying no to the Bucs.

Chattanooga (8-4), though, clearly should not be happy considering it earned a share of the Southern Conference title and was 8-2 just a few weeks ago. An overtime loss at Samford turned out to be bigger for the Mocs than the actual score (17-14) considering there was no way they were going to beat the University of Alabama on Saturday. The playoff bid apparently rolled away before they encountered the Tide.

Who should be happy or mad about their draw?

Butler and the Pioneer Football League must love this playoff thing. Not only is Butler in the field as the first PFL qualifier, but the Butler Bowl will play host to a first-round game even though the Bulldogs' average attendance (2,709) is less than a quarter of Tennessee State's average. TSU, enduring declining attendance at LP Field in Nashville, didn't bid to host a Thanksgiving weekend game even though the stadium had availability.

Maine getting a No. 5 seed after falling 24-3 to New Hampshire on Saturday might have been unexpected up in Orono.

Conversely to Maine's good fortune, fellow CAA power Towson must not be happy with a No. 7 seed that puts the Tigers in the tougher half of the bracket that includes fellow seeds Eastern Illinois, Eastern Washington and McNeese State.

Montana will visit North Dakota State and the Fargodome next September in a terrific non-conference game. The problem for the Grizzlies is they likely have to go there in the quarterfinals as the No. 8 seed opposite the top- seeded Bison. That will be tough.

Would Pete Rozelle love the FCS?

There's no doubt the late NFL commissioner would praise "Every Down. Every Day." considering the parity that comes with spreading the field across conferences. Eight conferences received multiple bids, and the potential best conference - the Missouri Valley - only had two qualifiers amid the spreading of selections.

Are there any trends this year?

The selection committee liked teams that had strong endings to the regular season, giving at-large bids to Jacksonville State, New Hampshire, Samford and Southern Utah.

Six of the eight seeded teams beat FBS programs this year (No. 8 Montana didn't play one). Such a win strengthens a resume immensely.

The committee also didn't shy away from potential conference matchups in the second round. Among home teams in the first round, New Hampshire could move on to play a rematch at CAA Football champ Maine, Sam Houston State hopes to get to Southland Conference champ Southeastern Louisiana and Northern Arizona could earn a crack at Big Sky champ Eastern Washington. Also, Tennessee State can get another shot at Ohio Valley Conference kingpin Eastern Illinois with a likely road win at Butler.

What are the best matchups/potential matchups?

In the first round, it's hard-charging Zach Zenner and South Dakota State visiting the Walkup Skydome to take on Northern Arizona's opportunistic defense. The second round beckons with great possibilities, including New Hampshire at Maine only two weeks after UNH won their rivalry matchup, Sam Houston State's playoff-tested team getting a return visit against Southeastern Louisiana's untested-postseason team and Northern Arizona going to Eastern Washington for a Big Sky matchup that never was this year. It wouldn't get much bigger than perennial national power Montana going to North Dakota State in the quarterfinals, although a Towson-Eastern Illinois showdown would feature Towson running back Terrance West and EIU quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. In the semifinals, Eastern Washington at Eastern Illinois could be even better if EWU quarterback Vernon Adams and Garoppolo get to square off. That survivor taking on North Dakota State's defense in a national title game, wow!

Who has a lot to prove?

Conference-wise, it's the Ohio Valley Conference (its most qualifiers ever with three) and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, whose teams have suffered through a long drought of playoff wins, and the Colonial Athletic Association, whose teams have struggled in the last two playoffs.

Teamwise, it's Sam Houston State, which got into the field as an at-large selection despite losing its final two regular-season games. Having reached the national championship game in each of the past two seasons, it's a long way to Frisco considering this year the Bearkats would likely have to get through North Dakota State in the semifinals - not the final. And that's if they get to the semis.

Individually, Garoppolo is trying to make up for the Panthers' blowout loss to open last year's playoffs, West carries the fortunes of a Towson squad that lost at home in its 2011 playoff game, and North Dakota State cornerback Marcus Williams has to again raise his game to the level it's been at in previous seasons. And throw in Bethune-Cookman coach Brian Jenkins, who is taking his team on the road to Coastal Carolina after losing home playoff games in his first two attempts with the Wildcats.

Who wins it all?

At the risk of picking the obvious, it's tough to go against North Dakota State. The Bison's side of the bracket is the easier one, although it's not out of the question they could see old pal Sam Houston State again in the semifinals. If the Bison get back to Frisco for a shot at a national title three-peat, they might have to face the Walter Payton Award winner in either Garoppolo (Eastern Illinois), Adams (Eastern Washington) or West (Towson). Paint Frisco in green and yellow again.

2013 NCAA DIVISION I FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP

(Campus sites until the final)

(All times ET)

FIRST ROUND

Saturday, Nov. 30

Lafayette (5-6) at New Hampshire (7-4), noon (ESPN3)

Furman (7-5) at South Carolina State (9-3), 1 p.m. (ESPN3)

Bethune-Cookman (10-2) at Coastal Carolina (10-2), 1 p.m. (ESPN3)

Sacred Heart (10-2) at Fordham (11-1), 1 p.m. (ESPN3)

Tennessee State (9-3) at Butler (9-3), 1 p.m. (ESPN3)

Southern Utah (8-4) at Sam Houston State (8-4), 3 p.m. (ESPN3)

South Dakota State (8-4) at Northern Arizona (9-2), 8 p.m. (ESPN3)

Samford (8-4) at Jacksonville State (9-3), 8 p.m. (ESPN3)

SECOND ROUND

Saturday, Dec. 7

Sacred Heart/Fordham winner at No. 7 Towson (10-2), 1 p.m. (ESPN3)

Tennessee State/Butler winner at No. 2 Eastern Illinois (11-1), 2 p.m. (ESPN3)

Bethune-Cookman/Coastal Carolina winner at No. 8 Montana (10-2), 2 p.m. (ESPN3)

Lafayette/New Hampshire winner at No. 5 Maine (10-2), 2 p.m. (ESPN3)

Furman/South Carolina State winner at No. 1 North Dakota State (11-0), 3:30 p.m. (ESPN3)

South Dakota State/Northern Arizona winner at No. 3 Eastern Washington (10-2), 4 p.m. (ESPN3)

Samford/Jacksonville State winner at No. 6 McNeese State (10-2), 7 p.m. (ESPN3)

Southern Utah/Sam Houston State winner at No. 4 Southeastern Louisiana (10-2), 8 p.m. (ESPN3)

QUARTERFINALS

Friday, Dec. 13 and Saturday, Dec. 14

SEMIFINALS

Friday, Dec. 20 and Saturday, Dec. 21

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP

Saturday, Jan. 4

Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, 2 p.m.

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