Big Sky has the best finish in the FCS

Nov 8, 2015 - 6:18 PM (STATS) - Earn your way into the FCS playoffs.

Football fans don't want it any other way.

The best teams in the Big Sky Conference face that prospect over what should be an incredible final two full weekends of the regular season.

Let's get your attention this way: Top 10 staple Eastern Washington could miss the playoffs.

The scenario is that precarious among the top teams.

Southern Utah (7-2, 6-0) needs one win to secure at least a share of its first Big Sky title. But the Thunderbirds, winners of seven straight, don't have it easy over the next two Saturdays as they travel to Portland State (7-2, 4-2) and host Northern Arizona (6-3, 4-2).

It's not quite time to hit the panic button at Eastern Washington (6-3, 5-1), but the three-time defending Big Sky champion needs to win one more game, and that must come from a pair of rivalry matchups, a trip to Montana (5-4, 4-2) and a home game against Portland State.

Portland State, after a surprising loss at Northern Colorado, probably needs a win over Southern Utah or at Eastern Washington to reach the playoffs. The Vikings would finish 7-4 at worst, but they don't want to have a three-game losing streak on their resume when at-large playoff bids are determined.

Montana (5-4, 4-2) has some top wins on its resume, but it will only feel secure being at the seven-win mark, and to get there the Grizzlies have to beat Eastern Washington and then archrival Montana State on the road.

Northern Arizona has moved itself back into the playoff picture with three straight victories, including a big one at Eastern Washington on Saturday, but the Lumberjacks surely need to win out against Sacramento State (likely) and at Southern Utah (difficult).

Adding to the fun is the surprising playoff-elimination game next Saturday when Northern Colorado visits North Dakota, where the winner will improve to 6-4. Although neither will have a particularly high strength of schedule even at 7-4, the way the teams above them play each other in the closing weeks can keep next Saturday's winner optimistic.

In the Big Sky, the schedule-maker deserves an award.



Ten more observations from the FCS weekend, when six teams in the top 10 suffered losses:

- How the top teams finish up against each other in CAA Football rivals the Big Sky schedule. The regular-season finale between William & Mary and Richmond determined a playoff bid last season, and this year's game at Richmond on Nov. 21 could decide the conference title. But the co-leaders have tough assignments next Saturday, as William & Mary hosts Towson (6-3, 4-2), which has won four straight to get into the playoff picture, and Richmond visits Villanova (5-4, 4-2), which hasn't allowed a touchdown in three of its last four games.

- The weekend results strengthened the case that the NCAA playoff selection committee may have to take the MEAC runner-up as an at-large team while the conference champion moves on to the Celebration Bowl instead of the playoffs. It's not what the committee would want, but if North Carolina A&T (8-1) or Bethune-Cookman (8-2) is 9-2, either would have to be considered over any 6-5 team and some 7-4 teams. North Carolina Central (6-3) is very much in the picture for the MEAC title and Celebration Bowl, but it's a boom-or-bust scenario because its resume wouldn't be strong enough for an at-large playoff bid.

- It may have seemed questionable to some when Jacksonville State gained the No. 1 ranking back Sept. 14, but nearly two months later, the Gamecocks (8-1) have solidified their spot to stand two home wins away from landing the top seed in the playoffs. They have been impressive no matter who has been on the schedule, and while playing in back-to-back matchups with unbeaten Ohio Valley Conference teams (Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Illinois), coach John Grass' squad gave up three points. The Gamecocks' remaining home games are against Southeast Missouri State (4-5) and Murray State (3-6).

- With teams ranked second through fifth losing Saturday, North Dakota State has a chance to shoot up to No. 2 in Monday's rankings after being No. 6 this past week. More important to the Bison, they might be no worse than a No. 2 playoff seed if they end Youngstown State's postseason hopes next Saturday and beat a struggling Missouri State team Nov. 21. The top two seeds are guaranteed home playoff games through the semifinals. The Bison only played in the Fargodome while leading up to the national final in Frisco, Texas, in each of their four straight championship seasons.

- The team of the week is Mercer. It was hard to foresee the Bears' 17-14 win over No. 3 Chattanooga as the third-year program had been winless in the Southern Conference. But the Bears (4-5, 1-4) forced four turnovers in their first-ever win over a Top 25 team. The final giveaway was a Zach Johnson interception of Mocs quarterback Jacob Huesman in the red zone with just under four minutes remaining. "I really think us playing them pretty well up (at Chattanooga) last year helped us," coach Bobby Lamb said, "but at the end of the day, it's a different Chattanooga team and a different Mercer team. But what a win, what a win."

- Duquesne (7-3, 4-1), on a bye next weekend, is ahead of Saint Francis (5-3, 3-1) and Bryant (5-4, 3-1) in the Northeast Conference, but Bryant has beaten the other two teams already. That gives the Bulldogs have the inside track to the conference's automatic playoff bid, which would be a first for them. The last five NEC title races have ended with two teams tying for the crown.

- An always-tough subjective concept rests in the Big South Conference. Last week, Coastal Carolina (8-1, 3-1) was ranked No. 8 and Charleston Southern (8-1, 5-0) was No. 15. Of course, this came after CSU beat Coastal 33-25. The Buccaneers started a long way behind Coastal in the poll and have earned the conference's FCS playoff bid. Not that Coastal's outstanding program being ranked higher is necessarily wrong, but it allows Bucs fans to question it.

- Charleston Southern was the first team to secure an automatic bid to the playoffs, but McNeese State later knocked through the door with an impressive 27-10 win over Sam Houston State in a top 10 battle within the Southland Conference. The Cowboys have been among the FCS leaders in scoring defense (third) and total defense (ninth), and they held what had been the nation's No. 2 team in scoring and total offense to 36 points and 170 yards below its season average. The Cowboys (9-0), whose season opener at LSU was canceled due to inclement weather, have a bye before they go for a perfect regular season Nov. 21 at Lamar.

- Speaking of Lamar, Cardinals junior Kade Harrington's 255 rushing yards in a surprising home loss to Nicholls gives him four of the top 10 and five of the top 16 rushing performances of the season. At 1,805 yards, Harrington has two more games to try to surpass 2,000.

- It is unavoidable for some teams, but nonconference games in November don't fire people up. On a Saturday of hot conference matchups, the games that didn't merit any attention were the three unfortunate nonconference games. Stony Brook beat Howard 14-9, Robert Morris topped East Tennessee State 21-9 and Samford routed Clark Atlanta 43-0. Perhaps fittingly, all six of those teams have losing records.



Hah, we're bursting the bubble on the MEAC runner-up and going Griz (to avoid negative emails from Montana fans!).

Here is our projected playoff bracket factoring in anticipated results of the next two weekends (yeah, that's always smart):

Charleston Southern-North Carolina A&T winner at No. 1 seed Jacksonville State

Portland State-Northern Iowa winner at No. 8 seed James Madison

Colgate-Richmond winner at No. 5 seed William & Mary

UT Martin-Chattanooga winner at No. 4 seed McNeese State

Bryant-Montana winner at No. 3 seed Illinois State

Fordham-The Citadel winner at No. 6 seed Coastal Carolina

Southern Utah-Sam Houston State winner at No. 7 seed South Dakota State

Dayton-Eastern Washington winner at No. 2 seed North Dakota State



No. 1 Jacksonville State (8-1, 6-0 OVC) beat Eastern Illinois (5-4, 5-1), 24-3

No. 2 Illinois State (7-2, 5-1 Missouri Valley) lost to No. 11 South Dakota State (7-2, 4-2), 25-20

No. 3 Chattanooga (7-2, 5-1 Southern) lost to Mercer (4-5, 1-4), 17-14

No. 4 Eastern Washington (6-3, 5-1 Big Sky) lost to Northern Arizona (6-3, 4-2), 52-30

No. 5 Richmond (7-2, 5-1 CAA) lost to New Hampshire (5-4, 3-3), 30-25

No. 6 North Dakota State (7-2, 5-1 Missouri Valley) beat Western Illinois (4-5, 3-3), 59-7

No. 7 Sam Houston State (6-3, 5-2 Southland) lost to No. 9 McNeese State (9-0, 8-0), 27-10

No. 8 Coastal Carolina (8-1, 3-1 Big South) beat Gardner-Webb (3-6, 2-3), 46-0

No. 9 McNeese State (9-0, 8-0 Southland) beat No. 7 Sam Houston State (6-3, 5-2), 27-10

No. 10 Portland State (7-2, 4-2 Big Sky) lost to Northern Colorado (5-4, 3-4), 35-32

No. 11 South Dakota State (7-2, 4-2 Missouri Valley) beat No. 2 Illinois State (7-2, 5-1), 25-20

No. 12 William & Mary (7-2, 5-1 CAA) beat Elon (3-6, 2-4), 34-13

No. 13 Harvard (8-0, 5-0 Ivy) beat Columbia (2-6, 1-4), 24-16

No. 14 James Madison (7-2, 4-2 CAA), Idle

No. 15 Charleston Southern (8-1, 5-0 Big South) beat Kennesaw State (6-3, 2-2), 28-14

No. 16 Fordham (8-2, 4-1 Patriot) beat Bucknell (4-5, 1-3), 24-16

No. 17 Northern Iowa (5-4, 3-3 Missouri Valley) beat No. 23 Indiana State (4-5, 2-4), 59-13

No. 18 Eastern Kentucky (5-4, 4-2 OVC) lost to UT Martin (6-3, 5-1), 42-35

No. 19 North Carolina A&T (8-1, 6-0 MEAC) beat South Carolina State (5-4, 4-2), 9-6

No. 20 Southern Utah (7-2, 6-0 Big Sky) beat Montana State (4-5, 2-4), 34-23

No. 21 Youngstown State (5-4, 3-3 Missouri Valley) beat Missouri State (1-8, 0-6), 47-7

No. 22 Montana (5-4, 4-2 Big Sky) beat Idaho State (2-7, 1-5), 33-27, in OT

No. 23 Indiana State (4-5, 2-4 Missouri Valley) lost to No. 17 Northern Iowa (5-4, 3-3), 59-13

No. 24 Dartmouth (7-1, 4-1 Ivy) beat Cornell (0-8, 0-5), 21-3

No. 25 The Citadel (7-2, 6-0 Southern) beat VMI (2-8, 1-5), 35-14



Big conference matchups align the FCS schedule next Saturday, with at least four expected to match Top 25 teams: The Citadel at Chattanooga for the Southern Conference's automatic bid; North Dakota State visiting Youngstown State in the Missouri Valley, and Eastern Washington at Montana and Southern Utah at Portland State in the Big Sky.

Other big matchups include: Big South - Liberty at Charleston Southern and Kennesaw State at Coastal Carolina; CAA - Towson at William & Mary, James Madison at Delaware and Richmond at Villanova; Ivy - Penn at Harvard; Missouri Valley - South Dakota State at South Dakota and Illinois State at Southern Illinois; NEC - Sacred Heart at Bryant; OVC - Eastern Illinois at UT Martin; Patriot - Lehigh at Colgate; Pioneer - Marist at Dayton; SWAC - Prairie View A&M at Alabama State and Grambling State at Arkansas-Pine Bluff; FCS-FBS -Western Carolina at Texas A&M.

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