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May 25, 2016

(STATS) - The NCAA Division I playoff selection committee called most of the FCS' bluff by giving Western Illinois at an-large bid last year.

The Missouri Valley Football Conference team became the first with a 6-5 record to earn an at-large bid. Quite simply, the committee favored that the Leathernecks played what the NCAA deemed the nation's toughest schedule during the regular season.

While strength of schedule has always been a factor come selection day, the WIU precedent put schools on alert.

Conference schedules are set, of course, and the strength of the 13 FCS conferences can play into how teams build their nonconference schedules. But among likely playoff contenders or traditionally strong programs, some nonconference schedules stand out as being too easy or too difficult this year.

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TOUGH NONCONFERENCE SCHEDULES=

Eastern Washington: The Eagles, the last FCS national champions (2010) before North Dakota State's five-year run, have long been the poster boys for difficult schedules. This year, they travel to NDSU's Fargodome in the first meeting since the Eagles' overtime win in the national quarterfinals on their way to their lone FCS title. The game falls between the season opener against 2015 Sun Bowl champion Washington State and the home opener against Northern Iowa, which beat the Eagles 38-35 in Cedar Falls last September.

South Carolina State: Coach Buddy Pough has gotten bold in his 15th season leading his Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference program. The Bulldogs are one of only two FCS teams (UT Martin is the other) to be playing three FBS programs, and they are doing it to open the season - at UCF, Louisiana Tech and 2015 FBS national runner-up Clemson.

North Dakota State: The reigning national champion Bison set the standard in many ways. They often devour a cupcake on the menu, but this year it's only top choice sirloin. They have a season-opening national spotlight by host Big South champion Charleston Southern in the FCS Kickoff. After a bye weekend over Labor Day, the Bison will get back to work against Eastern Washington and then travel to Big Ten power Iowa.

Northern Iowa: Tough Septembers have hurt UNI before, but it hasn't stopped the Missouri Valley power from continuing to face difficult opponents. The Panthers open at Iowa State, where they won in 2013, and then play two Big Sky powers, first hosting Montana and then traveling to Eastern Washington.

Western Illinois: The Leathernecks are at it again. They travel to rival Eastern Illinois, host Big Sky member Northern Arizona and its quarterback Case Cookus, the 2015 FCS freshman of the year, and then visit MAC power Northern Illinois - their 40th overall meeting but the first since 2009.

Jacksonville State: Give the 2015 FCS runner-up a pass on its season opener, which is against Division II North Alabama. That's a terrific program coming off a 9-3 season. The Gamecocks then have a trip to Death Valley to play LSU, a home game against transitioning FBS member Coastal Carolina (which went to the FCS playoffs in each of the past four years) and a visit to Liberty, whose average attendance last year was bettered by only five FCS programs, including Jacksonville State.

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EASY NONCONFERENCE SCHEDULES=

Sam Houston State: A game against New Mexico, which the Bearkats beat in 2011, was canceled, leaving the Southland Conference program to fill a date early in the offseason. The Bearkats probably should have looked harder because with a nine-game conference schedule, their two nonconference games are against Division II Oklahoma Panhandle State and struggling Texas Southern from the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

Harvard: Ivy League teams don't participate in the FCS playoffs, but there's a better way to prepare for the Ivy League title race than Rhode Island and Georgetown at home and a visit to Holy Cross. Often overlooked in the Crimson's great success is their nonconference schedule is rarely difficult.

Montana State: The Bobcats, under new coach Jeff Choate, play an opener that is like an FCS game (and it will be in 2018) by visiting old rival Idaho, which will start its second-to-last FBS season. The Big Sky Conference squad will then host Northeast Conference member Bryant and Division II Western Oregon without much trouble at home.

Southern Illinois: Missouri Valley teams usually face tough nonconference schedules, so the Salukis' stands out. New coach Nick Hill has a chance for an opening win at Conference USA member Florida Atlantic before the Salukis host a pair of second-tier Ohio Valley Conference teams in Southeast Missouri State and Murray State. It's probably what the Salukis need, though, coming off a 3-8 record - its worst since 2001.

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