The 2016 FCS Playoffs — a review of the bracket

The Bracket

Links of interest:

The Citadel’s playoff path: a bye, then a familiar foe

– Lehigh football snubbed of home playoff game

New Hampshire makes field for 13th straight year

Albany left out of playoffs; coach calls exclusion “a sham”

Wofford earns playoff bid

Charleston Southern disappointed not to host playoff game

After being disappointed in the seeding, Sam Houston State coach: “It is what it is”

South Dakota State gets seed

Youngstown State in playoffs after a ten-year absence

“Samford shouldn’t even be in the tournament, let’s just get it straight”

North Carolina A&T makes playoff, but coach says “we’re still pretty down around here”

Chattanooga makes playoff field

Cal Poly gets bid, will host San Diego

Preview article on

First, let’s correct an error in that last article I linked above, the one posted on the NCAA’s own website:

Some other teams that will miss out on postseason action as a whole include Montana, Western Illinois and North Carolina Central, who all lost steam down the stretch and were defeated in Week 12.

North Carolina Central won on Week 12, defeating North Carolina A&T 42-21. The Eagles aren’t missing out on postseason action, either — North Carolina Central is going to the Celebration Bowl instead of the FCS playoffs, while the team that lost to the Eagles (North Carolina A&T) got a bid as an at-large team.

I also linked a “handicapping the field” article from the Bison Media Zone. Media members in North Dakota do not think Samford should have made the field.

Of course, being a resident of the Flickertail State isn’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to FCS expertise. In this particular preview, the writer referred to Charleston Southern as the “Mocs”.

I also think he has his guns pointed in the wrong direction when it comes to the exclusion of Albany. I tend to agree that Albany should have been in the tournament, but he failed to identify the most obvious beneficiary of the Great Danes’ absence — New Hampshire.

The two teams played in the same league (the CAA) and finished with the same overall record (7-4). Albany beat FBS Buffalo (admittedly, not the best FBS squad in world history). More to the point, the Great Danes won at New Hampshire.

The Wildcats also managed to lose to Ivy League cellar-dweller Dartmouth, and had no real standout victory. Albany’s worst loss was to Delaware, which strikes me as considerably more acceptable than losing to Dartmouth.

Albany head coach Greg Gattuso called the snub of his team “a sham” on Twitter. He had other comments:

I guess, if I had a question for the (selection) committee, it would be, what in (New Hampshire’s) body of work would be better than ours?

I just think the resume was better. Oh, by the way, we beat them head-to-head at their field. Remember us beating them at their field two weeks ago?


One criteria they might say is conference record. But to me, it’s a skewed point when (New Hampshire) didn’t play the second- and third-place teams. They didn’t play Richmond, they didn’t play Villanova. To me, conference schedule when you don’t play everybody should be thrown out (in picking the tournament).

I think Gattuso has a very legitimate argument.

New Hampshire had been in the playoffs in each of the previous 12 seasons; perhaps the committee just felt comfortable sticking them in the field. Maybe there is an unwritten rule that UNH has to be in the tournament.

Once New Hampshire was picked, the committee then got the chance to pair the Wildcats with Lehigh, and gave New Hampshire a home game in the first round. UNH’s average home attendance is 11,108, so it could be assumed its host bid (in terms of a cash guarantee) was quite good.

Albany’s average home attendance this season was 5,928. Could the committee have been thinking about the potential monetary difference if it came down to Lehigh-Albany or Lehigh-UNH? I’m sure the official answer is “No”, but cynics may have some doubts.

In related news, during an interview on a North Dakota radio show, selection committee chairman Brian Hutchinson referenced North Carolina A&T’s “bid offer” as a point in its favor.

I think he probably misspoke — after all, North Carolina A&T isn’t even hosting a first-round game — but what his comment really illustrates is that money is never far from the mind of the committee when selecting, bracketing, and seeding teams. That is unfortunate.

The committee apparently had no choice but to pair San Diego and Cal Poly against each other in the first round, despite the fact the two schools have already played this season. From the NCAA’s “Pre-Championship Manual“:

5. Regular season non-conference match-ups in the first round of the championship should be avoided, provided it does not create an additional flight(s).

6. Teams from the same conference will not be paired for first-round games (except for teams from the same conference that did not play against each other during the regular season; such teams may play each other in the first round);

7. Once the first-round pairings have been determined, there will be no adjustments to the bracket (e.g., a seeded team may play a conference opponent that advanced out of the first round).

If Cal Poly and USD had been in the same league, the rematch would have been avoided — but since they’re not, they had to be matched up, because not doing so would have created two extra flights.

That is because Poly and USD were less than 400 miles from each other, but more than 400 miles away from every other unseeded team. Here is the rule on busing/flights:

During the championship, institutions that are playing within 400 miles (one way) of their campus will be required to travel to that site via bus. Institutions traveling more than 400 miles (one way) to their game will be approved for air travel to that site.

I think it’s absurd that the “allow one more flight” stipulation only applies if teams are in the same conference, but that’s the rule, and the committee had no other option. The rule needs to be changed.

Of course, when it comes to bracketing, the committee tends to take the path of least resistance anyway. This is the second year in a row there has been a regular-season rematch in the first round.

Last year, the Patriot League champion (Colgate) played at New Hampshire, with the winner facing James Madison. Colgate and UNH had already met during the 2015 regular season.

Naturally, this year the Patriot League champion (Lehigh) will again play at New Hampshire, with the winner again facing James Madison…

The manual has this to say about awarding host sites:

3. If the minimum financial guarantees are met, the committee will award the playoff sites to the higher seeded teams.

4. When determining host institutions for playoff games when both teams are unseeded, criteria shall apply as follows: (1) quality of facility, (2) revenue potential plus estimated net receipts, (3) attendance history and potential, (4) team’s performance (i.e., conference place finish, head-to-head results and number of Division I opponents), and (5) student-athlete well-being (e.g., travel and missed class time).

This is not exactly breaking news, but it does explain one aspect of hosting that apparently bothered Charleston Southern coach Jamey Chadwell:

…Chadwell expressed disappointment about having to go on the road, but said getting a playoff opportunity was the ultimate goal.

“It’s disappointing. I don’t know all of the details, but you would think a conference champion would get more favor in the bidding process,” Chadwell said.

As it happens, conference champions don’t get more favor in the bidding process — unless they are matched up against teams in their own league in the first round (which would only occur if the two teams had not met during the regular season).

Charleston Southern hosted last year, but that was because it was a seed and met a minimum financial guarantee. This season, the Buccaneers were unseeded and paired with Wofford.

The decision to hold the game in Spartanburg probably came down to Wofford offering a better financial package, but Charleston Southern fans should be concerned about “quality of facility” being a more significant criterion for hosting than “revenue potential”.

Attendance history is also a factor. Below is the average home attendance for the 16 unseeded teams in the field:

  • North Carolina A&T: 14,472
  • Youngstown State: 14,353
  • New Hampshire: 11,108
  • Illinois State: 10,156
  • Chattanooga: 9,494
  • Central Arkansas: 8,767
  • Weber State: 8,734
  • Richmond: 8,700
  • Cal Poly: 8,413
  • Wofford: 7,625
  • Lehigh: 6,527
  • Villanova: 6,153
  • Samford: 5,897
  • Charleston Southern: 2,712
  • San Diego: 2,405
  • St. Francis (PA): 1,617

Attendance affects both a potential bid by a school, and the committee’s evaluation of its revenue potential.

Only two of the eight first-round matchups are hosted by teams that had lower average home attendance than their opponents. Richmond is hosting North Carolina A&T, and Central Arkansas is hosting Illinois State.

The second of those involves two schools with fairly close numbers in terms of attendance, but the other matchup has a much wider differential. Either North Carolina A&T wasn’t particularly interested in hosting, or Richmond put in a major league bid.

I’m disappointed that for the FCS playoffs, there is yet again a mini-South Carolina bracket in what is supposed to be a national tournament.

This is the second year in a row The Citadel and Charleston Southern have both been bracketed in this fashion, and it is a lame, lame move by Brian Hutchinson and his committee for the second year in a row.

Bulldogs quarterback Dominique Allen:

It’d be nice to face somebody else, somebody besides teams we play all the time.

Linebacker Tevin Floyd of The Citadel:

We have histories with both [Wofford and Charleston Southern], so I think we just wanted to experience something new.

Head coach Brent Thompson of The Citadel:

When it’s the playoffs, you look for some different opponents. You want to get some people to travel in and maybe work outside (the norm) a little bit. But it is what it is, and we have to win the state of South Carolina at this point.

Floyd also said he was happy to be playing at Johnson Hagood Stadium, and Allen referenced a “fun” matchup with either potential opponent, but the point is clear.

I also don’t understand why the committee couldn’t have swapped the Charleston Southern-Wofford pairing and the North Carolina A&T-Richmond pairing in order to avoid a potential second-round rematch.

In other words, the CSU-Wofford winner could have been matched up against North Dakota, while the survivor of N.C. A&T-Richmond played The Citadel (instead of the other way around, as the committee arranged things).

If the committee seeded all the teams, 1 through 24, it would be possible to have a balanced, fair tournament. Instead, bracketing decisions are made explicitly for geographic reasons, and they lead to inequities.

Weber State and Cal Poly both were 7-4 overall; Weber State was 6-2 in the Big Sky, while the Mustangs were 5-3. Now, due to unbalanced league schedules, Cal Poly played a slightly tougher slate than the Wildcats (and it also had a good non-conference win over South Dakota State). On the other hand, Weber State beat Cal Poly during the season.

You could argue that if every team in the tournament were seeded, Cal Poly might deserve a slightly higher seed than Weber State. If so, both teams would probably be seeded in the 17-20 range.

If that happened, each would play first-round road games against similarly-rated opponents. Instead, we have the current geographical setup and the “400 miles” bus/flight cutoff point.

Thus, Cal Poly plays a home game against San Diego of the non-scholarship Pioneer League, a team the Mustangs already defeated earlier this season 38-16. Meanwhile, Weber State travels almost 1,800 miles to play at Chattanooga, a solid SoCon squad that acquitted itself well last week against Alabama.

The decision to make Lehigh travel to New Hampshire also seems problematic to me; if anything, it should be the other way around. Again, however, cash is king in this tournament — though a few folks in Las Vegas are apparently putting their hard-earned money on Lehigh (which is a 4 1/2 point favorite despite having to go on the road).

Final “toughest schedule” numbers from the NCAA for Jacksonville State, James Madison, Sam Houston State, and The Citadel:

  • The Citadel: 19th
  • James Madison: 57th
  • Jacksonville State: 80th
  • Sam Houston State: 102nd

All four finished undefeated against non-FBS competition. SHSU, which was 11-0, did not play an FBS opponent, while the other three schools were all 10-1, with each losing to an FBS team from a power conference.

The committee decided to give Jacksonville State the highest seed out of this group. Did it help Jacksonville State that it made the finals last year? Probably. Did it help Jacksonville State that its director of athletics was on the committee? It couldn’t have hurt.

What it means is that if The Citadel is fortunate enough to advance to the quarterfinals, and its opponent is Jacksonville State, the Bulldogs will be the road team. It is not evident why that should be the case.

Another seeding oddity, in my opinion, was North Dakota being the #7 seed and South Dakota State being the #8. I’m not sure why the Jackrabbits would have been behind UND.

Because the committee seeded those teams in that way, SDSU has a potential rematch with North Dakota State in the quarterfinals. I don’t have a problem with regular-season rematches once teams advance to the quarterfinals, but it seems to me the committee had an easy opportunity to avoid that situation, and in a perfectly justifiable way.

Per at least one source that deals in such matters, here are the lines for the eight first-round games, as of Tuesday afternoon:

  • Wofford is a 1.5-point favorite over Charleston Southern, over/under of 51.5
  • Chattanooga is a 15-point favorite over Weber State, over/under of 51.5
  • Lehigh is a 4.5-point favorite at New Hampshire, over/under of 63.5
  • Richmond is a 13-point favorite over North Carolina A&T, over/under of 53.5
  • Illinois State is a 1.5-point favorite at Central Arkansas, over/under of 49.5
  • Youngstown State is an 8.5-point favorite over Samford, over/under of 50.5
  • Cal Poly is a 12.5-point favorite over San Diego, over/under of 65.5
  • Villanova is a 14.5-point favorite over St. Francis (PA), over/under of 37.5

As you can see, there are two road favorites (Lehigh and Illinois State).

Massey Ratings predicted scores for this Saturday:

  • Wofford 26, Charleston Southern 24
  • Chattanooga 31, Weber State 19
  • Lehigh 33, New Hampshire 28
  • Richmond 36, North Carolina A&T 24
  • Central Arkansas 23, Illinois State 21
  • Youngstown State 28, Samford 20
  • Cal Poly 35, San Diego 29
  • Villanova 21, St. Francis (PA) 7

I’m not pleased with how the tournament was constructed. However, there is nothing that can be done about it, at least not for this season. All eyes will now be following the action on the gridiron.

If you’re in the field, you have a chance. That’s the bottom line.

The FCS playoffs — a primer

The purpose of this post is to explain some of the ins and outs of the FCS playoffs, particularly for people who may not be familiar with the basics of postseason play. I’m also going to delve into a few other aspects of the playoffs (including the way the teams are selected, seeded, and bracketed), some of which I believe are problematic.

The tournament has expanded over the years, from a four-team setup in 1978 to today’s 24-team field. The current format has been in place since 2013.

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).

While there are 10 automatic qualifiers, there are actually 13 FCS conferences. Three of those leagues do not have auto-bids to the FCS playoffs.

The Ivy League does not participate in the playoffs, so none of its schools will send a team to the tournament.

The other two conferences without automatic bids are the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC). Those two leagues send their respective champions to the “Celebration Bowl”, a separate post-season event.

However, SWAC and MEAC schools are eligible to receive at-large bids. In other words, if a team that does not win one of those leagues is deemed by the selection committee to be one of the 14 best at-large candidates, it may compete in the FCS playoffs. While that scenario would normally be unlikely, this season might provide just such a situation, thanks to two teams in the MEAC that are each having fine seasons.

North Carolina A&T is currently ranked 9th in the FCS Coaches’ Poll, with a record of 8-1 that includes a victory over an FBS opponent (Kent State). The Aggies’ only loss so far this season was to Tulsa.

Meanwhile, North Carolina Central is 7-2, with both losses to FBS schools. The two schools will play in two weeks for the MEAC title. I don’t believe North Carolina Central would receive an at-large bid at 8-3, but if North Carolina A&T were to lose to the Eagles, a 9-2 Aggies squad could be a viable at-large candidate.

The leagues that send automatic qualifiers to the playoffs:

  • 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

Here is this year’s tournament schedule:

  • Bracket announcement: Sunday, November 20, 2016 at 11:00 am (televised on ESPNU)
  • First round: Saturday, November 26, 2016 — eight games at campus sites (this is the Saturday after Thanksgiving)
  • Second round: Saturday, December 3, 2016 — eight games at campus sites (seeded teams will host in this round after getting a bye in the first round)
  • Quarterfinals: Friday, December 9, 2016 or Saturday, December 10, 2016 — four games at campus sites (higher-seeded team hosts)
  • Semifinals: Friday, December 16, 2016 or Saturday, December 17, 2016 — two games at campus sites (higher-seeded team hosts)
  • National Championship: Saturday, January 7, 2017 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas (kickoff at noon EST)

The FCS selection committee selects the 14 best at-large teams to join the 10 automatic qualifiers, and then ranks the top 8 teams.

The teams ranked in the top 8 are seeded, and also receive first-round byes. The remaining 16 teams are then bracketed and play first-round games.

It is important to understand that, unlike the NCAA basketball tournament, not every team is seeded. In fact, two-thirds of the field is not seeded. That is done on purpose, in order to allow the committee to make pairings “according to geographical proximity“.

Historically, that has resulted in the committee putting together what might be called a bracket of convenience, routinely pairing teams in first- and second-round matchups that have already played each other during the regular season, and/or in recent tourneys. This has been a source of frustration for many fans over the years, because the event is supposed to be a national tournament; after all, it is referred to by the NCAA as the Division I “National Championship”. However, it is rarely treated like one by the powers that be.

A good example of the “regionalization” of the FCS playoffs came last year. For the 2015 tournament, the selection committee set up multiple potential second-round regular-season rematches. When the dust had cleared from the first-round games, five of the eight second-round matchups wound up being regular-season rematches (two of those were matchups between teams in the same league).

Most inexcusably, the committee set up a first-round regular-season rematch between Colgate and New Hampshire.

Five teams from the MVFC made the field last season (four at-large picks and the automatic qualifier, North Dakota State). All five were slotted on one side of the bracket. That did not sit well with the MVFC league commissioner:

Missouri Valley Football Conference commissioner Patty Viverito said she believes the Football Championship Subdivision playoff committee made “a conscious decision” to put five Valley teams in the same bracket…

Viverito said: “It seems to me the committee has enough latitude in how they break the quadrants up that they’d be able to put teams on opposite sides of the bracket fairly easily. I wasn’t in the room. I don’t know what challenges the committee faced when they came up with this. I can’t imagine it was just a horrible oversight and they didn’t realize they’d done it until the bracket was announced. I think it was a conscious decision. I just don’t know what went into the decision-making process.”

…Viverito called the committee’s pairings “the good, the bad and the ugly.” She said her league getting five teams in the playoff field “good.” She said the formulating of the bracket and the regionalization of it “bad.” And she [called] placing five Valley teams in the same bracket “ugly.”

The complaints from the MVFC led to a change for this year:

…the NCAA approved two FCS bracketing policies that should help spread out teams from the same conferences and also avoid rematches in the early rounds. The playoff committee will now be allowed to add a flight in the first or second rounds to avoid placing four or more teams from one conference in the same side of the bracket. The committee also has the license to avoid matchups in the first round for teams that played during the regular season in a non-conference game, providing that change doesn’t result in an additional charter flight.

That won’t change a lot, but it’s better than nothing. It primarily benefits larger leagues that regularly have three or more teams make the tournament (like the MVFC, CAA, and Big Sky).

For the SoCon and Big South, however, there is no mechanism to prevent the committee from doing what it seems to like doing most — namely, pairing two teams from each conference in a first-round matchup, with the winner playing a seeded team from one of the two leagues.

This year, the FCS selection committee decided to do something that I’m guessing a few of the committee members will wind up regretting.

The NCAA Division I Football Championship Committee will reveal the top-10 teams in rank order three times during the month of November.

The committee will be releasing the top-10 teams for the first time in history. The rankings will be announced as part of College Football Daily on ESPNU Nov. 3 and 10 at 4 p.m. (ET).

The final release will take place Nov. 15 at 10 p.m. (ET) on the ESPNU Championship Drive: Power Hour.

This move was officially made for reasons of transparency. However, if part of the idea for releasing a preliminary list was also to help promote the FCS playoffs, the first reveal (November 3) on “College Football Daily” was not a success.

Show anchor Brendan Fitzgerald and analyst Jason Sehorn knew next to nothing about the FCS (including how many teams actually make the playoffs). The entire segment lasted less than two minutes; the producer did not even bother to use recent video clips for a highlights package that accompanied the release of the rankings.

Clearly, the committee is taking a page from the College Football Playoff (CFP) and its weekly rankings. When it comes to the CFP, though, the weekly rankings release may not be the best thing to emulate.

Ten people make up the FCS selection committee. All are directors of athletics, representing schools from each of the ten leagues with automatic bids:

  • Brian Hutchinson, Morehead State — Pioneer League [chairman]
  • Chuck Burch, Gardner-Webb — Big South
  • Richard Johnson, Wofford — SoCon
  • Kyle Moats, Missouri State — MVFC
  • Nathan Pine, Holy Cross — Patriot League
  • Marty Scarano, New Hampshire — CAA
  • Paul Schlickmann, Central Connecticut State — NEC
  • Greg Seitz, Jacksonville State — OVC
  • Brad Teague, Central Arkansas — Southland
  • Jeff Tingey, Idaho State — Big Sky

One of the things I noticed about the committee is the dual-league nature of its chairman, Brian Hutchinson. Morehead State competes in football in the Pioneer League, which is the league he represents on this committee. However, in other sports Morehead State is a member of the OVC.

To me, that leads to a potential “optics” issue, namely the possible impression (almost certainly unfair, but still) that the OVC has two representatives on the committee — Hutchinson and Greg Seitz, the director of athletics at Jacksonville State.

When the first set of preliminary playoff rankings were released last week, the top-ranked team was, somewhat controversially…Jacksonville State.

Week 1 rankings:

Rank School
1 Jacksonville State
2 Sam Houston State
3 Eastern Washington
4 North Dakota State
5 James Madison
6 The Citadel
7 Richmond
8 Chattanooga
9 Charleston Southern
10 Central Arkansas

This will look a little different in Week 2. Charleston Southern will fall out of the top 10 after losing at home to Gardner-Webb, and so could Richmond (which lost at home to James Madison). However, how much change in the rankings is really possible? Is the committee already hamstringing itself on that front?

Brian Hutchinson gave two radio interviews after the rankings were released last week, both to stations in North Dakota. He should get some credit for agreeing to the interviews, because he is in the difficult position of having to speak for a committee. He may not even agree with all of the committee’s decisions, but he has to defend them anyway.

A few thoughts on his comments:

  • I got the distinct impression that the committee members weren’t prepared for a public rankings release
  • It’s conceivable that the rankings will wind up being close to valueless when it comes to the actual selection and seeding
  • Somewhat surprisingly, there is no established order of criteria when evaluating teams

Hutchinson was asked about the difference in seeding between two currently undefeated teams, Sam Houston State and The Citadel. One of the interviewers compared the two squads and noted that The Citadel had a better strength of schedule, including a win over another top-10 team (Chattanooga).

When asked about the “value of Sam Houston State to the committee”, Hutchinson said:

The value of Sam Houston State is that they are an 8-0 team right now [that] is averaging close to 60 points per game and close to 600 yards of [total] offense. That’s the value that people see.

I really hope that members of the selection committee aren’t using total offense as a criterion (particularly as a stand-alone benchmark) when comparing teams.

However, Hutchinson also added this:

The question about The Citadel as it relates [to Sam Houston State] is absolutely fair, though. They have a really good win over a conference opponent in Chattanooga. They’ve been undefeated. They have not yet played an FBS game, though I believe they have one the last week of the season.

So for all intents and purposes, the criteria the committee will get to evaluate them on will be done prior to the [game versus North Carolina]. Now should they win that game, obviously that would be a big feather in their cap. Should they lose it, I think most people if you look at it on paper would say they were supposed to [lose the game] — and so, that’s just how you evaluate those kinds of things.

The selection committee chairman was also asked if “there had been a lot of reaction around the country [to the preliminary rankings], or has it been isolated pockets like Cheney [Washington] or Fargo [North Dakota]?”

“It has been very isolated,” replied Hutchinson.

Those “isolated pockets” referenced in the interviewer’s query are the cities in which Eastern Washington and North Dakota State are located, of course. Fans of those schools are (justifiably, in my opinion) miffed that they were ranked 3-4 in the initial rankings, rather than 1-2. The committee seemed to ignore schedule strength and quality victories when ranking the teams.

The issue in question relates to potential seeding. The difference in being a 1 or 2 seed versus a 3 or 4 seed, for example, is this: if a seeded team keeps winning, it will host every game until it plays a higher-seeded team. Therefore, if a team is a 1 or 2 seed, it will host every game until the national title game (assuming that it continues to win). A 3 or 4 seed, however, might have to go on the road in the semifinals.

Obviously, that can be significant.

Each seeding “break” matters when it comes to hosting. For teams like James Madison and The Citadel, receiving a 1 or 2 seed may not be possible — but a 3 or 4 seed might be a realistic placement. The difference between being a 4 seed or a 5 seed could be the difference between playing a home game in the quarterfinals or going on the road. That matters.

There are two weeks left in the FCS regular season. A lot of things can (and will) change over the next two weeks.

One thing that won’t change, though, is the level of interest in the FCS playoffs from those who support teams still in the running for a spot in the field. That interest is intense, and will remain so until the bracket is revealed on November 20; it will then continue for fans of the 24 schools in the tournament.

It’s not often that people dream about making a trip to Frisco, Texas, but here we are…