It's time to adjust the FCS playoffs

AP Photo

(STATS) - South Dakota State was ranked fifth in the nation going into its final regular-season game last Saturday before losing on the road in double overtime to an opponent (Western Illinois) that earned an at-large bid to the FCS playoffs.

The loss cost the Jackrabbits a likely top-five seed, a first-round bye and a home game in the second round of the 24-team playoffs.

Instead, they're going on the road to face a surging Montana squad that has been in the playoffs more than any other FCS program.

Jackrabbits coach John Stiegelmeier and his team might be the first ones to say it's time to reconsider how the FCS playoffs are constructed each year.

The size of the field - 24 teams for the third straight year - is perfect because it affords all eight seeded teams a holiday weekend off to rest bodies and prepare for a second-round matchup. The unseeded teams have to play an extra game on the road to Frisco, where the championship will be decided Jan. 9.

The 16 teams playing in the first round are not seeded 9-24, and the playoff selection committee is charged with creating geographic matchups as best as possible. So instead of the ninth-strongest team playing the 24th-strongest team, the ninth-strongest team - though not deemed that - could conceivably play the 10th-best team because they fit geographically.

After the committee composes the first-round matchups, envelopes are opened to see which team in each pairing has bid a higher amount (the minimum bid is $30,000) to host the game.

For South Dakota State, it was going to be hard to outbid Montana, which ranks No. 1 in the FCS in home attendance average - double that of the Jackrabbits.

So the (bad) luck of the draw fell against South Dakota State.

The Jackrabbits, however, were not alone in their fortune. Southern Utah, which won an outright Big Sky in the same conference as Montana, was paired with Southland Conference runner-up Sam Houston State and has to go on the road in the first round. That's never happened before to an outright Big Sky champ.

Conversely, New Hampshire, one of the final teams to gain an at-large bid, was paired with Colgate, the champ from the smaller Patriot League, and not likely to outbid the perennial CAA Football power. So the Wildcats not only were lucky enough to get in the field for a 12th straight year, but they get to host an opponent they beat back in September.

While seeding 1-24 would be the fairest way to construct the playoff field, the FCS schools want to keep travel costs down for the road teams, so they like having the geographic component.

But there's surely room for a happy medium, which would ensure an improved, fairer field. After the selection committee establishes the eight seeds, it could determine the next-best eight qualifiers and provide them with home games in the first round.

The committee wouldn't have to rank the middle eight teams in order, it would just have to establish the group of eight. At that point, those eight teams could be matched with the bottom eight with the best fits geographically.

Under such a format, South Dakota State and Southern Utah would have been deemed worthy of hosting games in the first round, while New Hampshire would be going on the road.

There's been plenty of vocal complaints regarding this year's field, but the selection committee did its job of administering the policies set forth in the guidelines.

It's the guidelines that need to be adjusted for future playoffs.

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THE PICKS=

LAST WEEK'S RECORD: 46-15 (.754)

OVERALL RECORD: 555-143 (.792)

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FCS PLAYOFF FIRST ROUND=

ALL TIMES EASTERN

SATURDAY, NOV. 28

Western Illinois (6-5) at Dayton (10-1)

Kickoff: Noon (ESPN3)

Quick Slants: Two redshirt freshman quarterbacks are at the controls, WIU's Sean McGuire and Dayton's Alex Jeske. But the best one-on-one matchup could be WIU wide receiver Lance Lenoir versus Dayton cornerback Cameron Stubbs (six interceptions, 16 passes defended). With McGuire making only his third career start, the visiting Leathernecks figure to lean on a heavy dose of running back Nikko Watson, who has averaged 160 yards in each of those first two starts. Dayton, whose first loss was to Drake last Saturday, is plus-14 in turnovers - the third-best margin in the FCS. The kickers (place-kicker William Will and punter Sean Smith) have been difference makers in the Flyers' outstanding season.

Prediction: WIU has faced what the NCAA ranks as the toughest schedule in the FCS, going 3-3 against playoff teams and facing Illinois as well. The strength of schedule separates these two teams. Western Illinois, 30-14.

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Fordham (9-2) at Chattanooga (8-3)

Kickoff: 1 p.m. (ESPN3)

Quick Slants: Fordham is playing in Tennessee for just the third time (losses to Tennessee in 1942 and Sewanee in 1967). Ram running back Chase Edmonds, who capped his FCS freshman of the year campaign last season with 385 all-purpose yards in a playoff loss to New Hampshire, ranks third in the FCS in rushing yards (1,643) and first in touchdowns (25). Chattanooga QB Jacob Huesman, the first three-time Southern Conference offensive player of the year, dictates games more as a runner (1,018 yards, 11 TDs) than as a passer. One of Fordham's shortcomings is protecting QB Kevin Anderson, and the Mocs have one of the nation's better pass rushers in defensive end Keionta Davis (10.5 sacks).

Prediction: Edmonds is the most explosive player in the game, so the Mocs will be methodical in imparting their physical style of play. Chattanooga, 28-17.

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The Citadel (8-3) at Coastal Carolina (9-2)

Kickoff: 2 p.m. (ESPN3)

Quick Slants: The visiting Bulldogs felt overlooked before their upset of South Carolina last Saturday. Now they take on a Coastal team that has come to shine the most among FCS teams in the state. The big question is whether Coastal can defend The Citadel's triple option offense, led by QB Dominique Allen and RBs Tyler Renew and Cam Jackson, and ranked second in the FCS in rushing yards per game (344.3). Coastal, which won the only other meeting - 31-16 at The Citadel last season - has reached the national quarterfinals two straight years and will rely on that experience, not to mention the excellence of the two most recent Big South offensive players of the year, QB Alex Ross and RB De'Angelo Henderson.

Prediction: Behind Ross, Coastal is better equipped than The Citadel at playing from behind. Of course, neither team wants to be in that predicament. Coastal Carolina, 31-28.

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Southern Utah (8-3) at Sam Houston State (8-3)

Kickoff: 3 p.m. (ESPN3)

Quick Slants: The only previous meeting was in Southern Utah's first-ever playoff game in 2013, a 51-20 Sam Houston win. That was the only year in the last four that Sam Houston did not reach at least the national semifinals. With seniors James Cowser (defensive end), Miles Killebrew (strong safety) and Leshaun Sims (cornerback) all possibilities for the NFL Draft, the talented Thunderbirds have an FCS-best plus-21 turnover margin. But Sam Houston QB Jared Johnson has been quite efficient in directing a team ranked second nationally in total offense (544.5 ypg) and fourth in scoring offense (43.8 ppg), and running backs Cory Avery and Jalen Overstreet form a two-headed monster.

Prediction: A No. 6 national ranking suggests people believe Sam Houston is better than its results this season. The Bearkats have lived for the postseason this decade. Sam Houston, 28-27.

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South Dakota State (8-3) at Montana (7-4)

Kickoff: 3 p.m. (ESPN3)

Quick Slants: Montana is 7-0 in the all-time series, winning 61-48 in the most recent meeting in the 2009 playoffs after trailing 41-14 with under six minutes left in the third quarter. That type of explosive offense is back with QB Brady Gustafson's recent return from injury (the Grizzlies have scored 57 and 54 points in back-to-back wins). Linebacker Kendrick Van Ackeren and defensive end Tyrone Holmes have to produce up front for the Griz to be able to defend SDSU's big-play wideout Jake Wieneke (122.2 receiving yards per game). Linebackers T.J. Lally and Jesse Bobbit lead a veteran Jackrabbits defense which is built for the playoffs. On paper, this is the best first-round matchup.

Prediction: SDSU went on the road last year to knock out Montana State in the first round. Montana has come on too much to allow the Jackrabbits to gain a sweep in the Treasure State. Montana, 27-24.

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Colgate (7-4) at New Hampshire (7-4)

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. (ESPN3)

Quick Slants: New Hampshire, making its 12th straight playoff appearance and a national semifinalist each of the past two seasons, is a different team with Sean Goldrich under center, as he was when the Wildcats won 26-8 at Colgate back on Sept. 12. He's healthy again following an ankle injury and they bring a four-winning streak into the second season. Colgate LB Kyle Diener's next tackle will be his 100th and DE Pat Afiyie has 17.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. The Raiders need to play with a lead behind dual-threat QB Jake Melville to neutralize the Wildcats' home field advantage at what figures to be the final game at Cowell Stadium.

Prediction: Patriot League champ Colgate is better equipped the second time around, but the Wildcats are better offensively. New Hampshire, 27-14.

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Duquesne (8-3) at William & Mary (8-3)

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. (ESPN3)

Quick Slants: Northeast Conference champ Duquesne, making its first-ever FCS playoff appearance, didn't beat an FCS team with more than six wins and CAA Football co-champ William & Mary is at a higher level than what the Dukes have faced this season. While Dukes RB Rafiq Douglas is coming off national offensive player of the week honors, it's QB Dillon Buechel who has to play at an elite level for the Dukes to pull an upset. They face a strong Tribe defense featuring do-everything free safety DeAndre Houston-Carson and stud LB Luke Rhodes, who's had a brilliant four-year career. Running backs Kendell Anderson and Mikal Abdul-Saboor have combined for 1,911 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground.

Prediction: The Tribe are eyeing a rematch with rival Richmond in the second round, but they first have to take care of business. William & Mary, 35-14.

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Eastern Illinois (7-4) at Northern Iowa (7-4)

Kickoff: 5 p.m. (ESPN3)

Quick Slants: After opening the season with difficult stretches, EIU overcame an 0-3 start and UNI a 2-4 record to both surge into the playoffs, pushing their combined total of appearances to 34. While offense usually comes to mind with EIU, defensive tackle Dino Fanti has been ridiculously good in recent wins (school-record 21 tackles for loss this season). UNI answers with even better depth on its defense with DE Karter Schult, OLB Brett McMakin and safeties Deiondre' Hall and Tim Kilfoy. The Panthers improved to 200-51-1 all-time inside the UNI-Dome last Saturday as Aaron Bailey tied the Missouri Valley single-season record for rushing TDs by a quarterback (17, including 11 in the last three games).

Prediction: Since becoming UNI's coach in 2001, Mark Farley has a 46-8 record, including 11 straight wins, in November. He feels his red-hot team is still getting better. Northern Iowa, 34-17.

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SWAC REGULAR SEASON=

(X-Predicted Winner)

X-Texas Southern (3-6, 2-6) at Alabama A&M (2-8, 2-6), 2 p.m. - This game was never a candidate for a visit by ESPN's "College GameDay."

X-Alcorn State (7-3, 6-2) at Jackson State (3-7, 3-5), 3 p.m. - Defending SWAC champion Alcorn is surrendering an FCS-low 104.1 passing yards per game. Opponents have completed a mere 89 of 208 attempts (42.8 percent).

Southern (6-4, 6-2) vs. X-Grambling State (8-2, 8-0) in New Orleans, 5 p.m. - Southern holds a 32-30 series lead and a slimmer 21-20 advantage since the start of the Bayou Classic. The SWAC Championship Game-bound Tigers hope this is first of three straight games in NFL stadiums.

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