From the Tarpit: Thoughts on the FCS playoff field

The final weekend of the Football Championship Subdivision regular season features a slew of important games, followed by announcement of the playoff field Sunday.

In our corner of the world, William and Mary aims to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2010, but must defeat rival Richmond in their traditional season-ending taffy pull and hope for an at-large invitation.

The playoff field is expanded to 24 teams this season, with two more automatic qualifiers (Northeast Conference, Pioneer League) and two at-large berths. There are 11 automatic qualifiers and 13 at-larges.

Here’s a look at where things presently stand, with some predictions and gut feelings – with assists from our friends at Colonial Athletic Association World Headquarters and The Sports Network.

CAA: Maine (10-1, 8-0) already clinched the automatic bid. Towson (9-2, 5-2) is a lock for an at-large, regardless of Saturday’s outcome versus James Madison. W&M (7-4, 4-3), New Hampshire (6-4, 5-2) and Delaware (7-4, 4-3) are on the bubble. All three must win to remain in the discussion.

New Hampshire has made nine consecutive playoff appearances, the longest active streak in FCS. The Wildcats get Maine Saturday. Good luck with that. Delaware closes with Villanova. The Tribe gets in with a win over UR. If all three win, the Tribe has the strongest resume’ among the group, having beaten both head-to-head, and has no bad losses. UNH makes it 10 in a row if it beats the Black Bears.

The CAA has had at least three teams in the field every year since 2005. Unless all three bubble teams lose, expect that trend to continue.

Big South: If Charleston Southern (10-2) beats Liberty, it gets the automatic bid. If not, Coastal Carolina (10-1) gets the automatic bid. Coastal would get an at-large bid if CSU wins, but the hunch is that CSU would get left out if it doesn’t get the automatic bid – two of its 10 wins are against non-Division I teams, and the Big South isn’t a highly rated league.

Big Sky: Eastern Washington (9-2) has clinched the automatic berth. Montana (9-2) probably has an at-large berth, regardless of the outcome against Montana State (7-4). Montana State gets in with a win. The winner of Northern Arizona (8-2) vs. Southern Utah (8-3) gets an at-large as well.

MEAC: Bethune-Cookman (9-2, 6-1) has the inside track on the automatic berth. The Wildcats hold the tiebreaker over South Carolina State (8-3, 6-1). Bethune-Cookman gets an at-large if it loses to Florida A&M. South Carolina State gets an at-large with a win, but doesn’t if it loses to Norfolk State.

Missouri Valley: Two-time defending champ North Dakota State (10-0) clinched the automatic berth. Youngstown State (8-3, 5-2) hosts South Dakota State (7-4, 4-3). Winner gets an at-large berth. Loser stays home. Though Youngstown would be 8-4, it would have lost its last three.

Northeast: Sacred Heart (10-2) clinched the automatic berth.

Ohio Valley: Eastern Illinois (10-1) already clinched. Tennessee State (9-3) concluded its season and gets an at-large berth. Jacksonville State (8-3) gets an at-large berth if it beats Southeast Missouri State (3-8) but stays home if it loses, since one of its wins was against a Division II program.

Patriot: The Lehigh (8-2)-Lafayette (4-6) winner earns the automatic berth. Lehigh stays home if it doesn’t win. Fordham (10-1) gets an at-large berth, regardless. The Rams aren’t eligible for the conference title this season because of athletic aid and scholarship policies within the league, but their resume’ is too good to leave out: wins against FBS Temple, Lehigh and Villanova.

Pioneer: Butler (9-3) gets the automatic berth.

Southern: Several possibilities. Chattanooga (8-3, 6-2) already has finished its conference schedule. Furman (6-5, 5-2) plays Wofford and can tie for the title, as can Samford (7-4, 5-2), which plays Elon. In the event of a three-way tie, Furman earns the automatic berth. In two-way ties, Chattanooga holds the tiebreaker over Furman, and Samford has the tiebreaker over Chattanooga. The hunch is that Chattanooga gets an at-large berth if it doesn’t get the AQ, but neither of the other two does.

Southland: Southeastern Louisiana (10-2) clinched the AQ and the outright title. McNeese State (9-2, 5-1) gets an at-large, regardless of the outcome of the game versus Lamar. Sam Houston State (8-3, 4-2) is probably in, regardless of what happens in the finale versus Central Arkansas. Though SHSU has been a strong program for the past several years, you can question its credentials if it loses and finishes 8-4. Two of its wins were against schools reclassifying to FCS – essentially non-Division I programs.

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