Six burning questions as the FCS playoff field comes together

National Sports

(Stats Perform) – The FCS playoffs will be rounding into a neat little picture if the final two weeks of the regular season go to form.

Oops, that’s right, college football’s wild, wacky subdivision is anything but stable with its results. A number of key questions still need to be answered while the games head to the finish line.

Here are six burning questions prior to the 24-team playoff field – 11 automatic qualifiers and 13 at-large bids – being announced on Nov. 21 during an ESPNU selection show:

1. Can the SoCon get four bids or will a contender be left at the altar?

The Southern Conference has positioned itself for as many as four playoff teams, but four? Yeah, that seems likes a lot, but it happened in 2016 for what is perhaps the fourth-strongest conference this season. Mercer (6-2) has the toughest final two weeks against fellow first-place squads Chattanooga and ETSU. With a sweep, the Bears will earn the automatic bid. Anything less than a sweep and they will be in jeopardy of needing an at-large bid, and then would fall short of the seven Division I wins that are preferred in the selection criteria. ETSU (8-1) has an FBS win at Vanderbilt, so it surely needs to win just one more time against Western Carolina and Mercer. Chattanooga (6-3), on a defensive roll recently, still has to face Mercer and The Citadel. While defending champ VMI (6-3) is a game behind in the conference standings, it has wins over Chattanooga and Mercer, so additional victories over Furman and Western Carolina could provide a convincing resume.

2. Is the CAA the power conference that must avoid a collapse?

The CAA had a record six playoff teams in 2018, but this season, it’s in jeopardy of having far fewer qualifiers. James Madison (8-1) is likely a playoff lock and Villanova (7-2) would be fine with one more win, but there are only three more possibilities, each tasked with a difficult final two weeks of games. Delaware (5-4) definitely needs a sweep of Richmond and Villanova, while the 6-3 teams, Rhode Island (games against New Hampshire and Elon) and William Mary (James Madison and Richmond), should feel encouraged about getting to 7-4 because CAA teams with that record are often playoff material. The CAA has never had only two qualifiers in a playoff above 16 teams (2010-19 seasons).

3. Can Nicholls rally back in the Southland?

Second chances usually don’t come around in conference play, but Nicholls could steal the spotlight from the two teams that have had it in the Southland all season, UIW and Southeastern Louisiana. The Colonels (5-4) lost to both teams previously and trail them by one game in the standings. A sweep of the co-leaders in the next two weeks would mean the Colonels would at least earn a share of the title with one or both of them. The AQ would then come down to a tiebreaking procedure, which in this case appears to be which team would be highest ranked in the NCAA’s Simple Rating System (SRS).

4. Will sub-.500 SEMO claim the OVC auto bid?

Following a bye week, Southeast Missouri (3-6) is set to take its shot at earning the Ohio Valley Conference’s automatic bid with a losing record. It’s only happened previously in the Patriot League with Lafayette in 2013 and Lehigh in 2017, but coach Tom Matukewicz’s program would do it through a difficult season-ending sweep of Murray State and UT Martin. The Redhawks have lost to Murray State (32-31) and UT Martin (38-30), but the games didn’t count in the conference standings – these final two matchups are considered the OVC games.

5. Will the SWAC land an at-large bid?

Despite being bigger and stronger this season, the top HBCU conference is 0-19 all-time in the playoffs, but who’s counting. Certainly not the selection committee, right? With the SWAC division winners headed off to the Celebration Bowl, the only realistic at-large possibility would be Florida A&M (7-2) winning its final two games and ending the regular season on an eight-game winning streak and only with an FBS loss to USF and a one-point loss to Jackson State. If Jackson State doesn’t continue on to the Celebration Bowl as the East Division champ, then it will have played itself out of any postseason bid. West Division leader Prairie View A&M, nationally ranked for the first time since 2010, has a regular-season game over Thanksgiving weekend, when the playoffs get underway, so the Panthers are not under consideration.

6. Is 24 still the right number for playoff teams?

The impending losses of FCS championship programs James Madison and Sam Houston plus Jacksonville State to the FBS should quiet talk of playoff expansion from the current 24 teams to 32. What 24 does is reward eight seeded teams with an extra week of rest over a holiday weekend while the other 16 teams play in the first round as well as keep the field from being watered down by at-large qualifiers barely over .500. Moving to a field of 32 wouldn’t provide a week off for the top teams. There’s an all-time-high 128 FCS programs this season (not all are eligible for the playoffs), but that’s barely more than the 125 in 2009, the last time the field was only 16 teams other than in the pandemic-impacted spring season earlier this year.

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