Home > Div-I FCS > Figuring Out Who May Contend in the NCAA Football Division I Playoffs

Figuring Out Who May Contend in the NCAA Football Division I Playoffs

GREENVILLE, NC - SEPTEMBER 05:  DeAndre Presley #2 of the Appalachian State Mountaineers drops back to throw a pass against the East Carolina Pirates at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on September 5, 2009 in Greenville, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

2010 may be the most parity-driven year in college football, and it goes beyond the big-money power conferences and bowl football in general.  We can look at the fact that just this past Friday, a national title contender, Boise State, lost a conference game for the first time since 2008.  They lost on the road in heartbreaking fashion to a great-but-still-inferior Nevada team, who has now propelled itself into discussion for a pretty good bowl.  That’s parity: Boise State now splits the WAC title in a year where Boise State was expected as of last week to be in good probability to play for the National Championship.

This concept of parity isn’t just exclusive to elite college football in 2010.  There is only one team in the entire Division I – Football Championship Subdivision who made it through their schedule with fewer than 1 loss: the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats, a school that might be better known for its band than its football team.  While fans clamor angrily for a playoff in the Bowl Subdivision, imagine if coaches had to vote on the two most deserving teams in a subdivision where all the best teams have two losses.

The favorites to win the bracket this year are all the usual suspects: Appalachian State, William & Mary, Delaware, Montana State, Villanova, and Eastern Washington.

Delaware Blue Hens

The Delaware Blue Hens received the most favorable draw in the playoff bracket as the third seed.  They will face Lehigh at home next Saturday in a play-in type game.

Delaware is the highest rated team in the entire FCS subdivision per statistician Jeff Sagarin, who also is responsible for drawing up one of the six computer formulas that make up that division of the FCS equation.  Even after an overtime loss to neighboring Villanova, the Blue Hens have to be one of the playoff favorites.  Sagarin’s Pure Points system, which synthesizes margin of victory (or defeat) against the schedule a team has played this year ranks Delaware as the 56th best team in the nation, and they would likely be bowl eligible playing a C-USA schedule instead of the arguably more difficult Colonial Athletic Association.

Delaware brings the best scoring defense in the nation, as well as the only quarterback in the entire subdivision who is likely to be drafted into the NFL next year, Pat Devlin.  Devlin is having a fantastic year: he’s completing a preposterous 67% of his passes, and has been intercepted just twice in 266 passing attempts with 14 TDs.  I had the opportunity and pleasure of analyzing Joe Flacco’s final college season with the Blue Hens, and with an arguably superior supporting cast, Flacco never posted numbers anywhere near this.

The real reason that the Blue Hens have been so dominant is because they haven’t had to do much on offense to win, the defense — so maligned in 2009 — has been beyond spectacular this season.  This is a team that has a great running game to lean on, and a great rush defense.  The pass rush has some issues stemming from the fact that their most active tacklers aren’t great pass rushers, so teams with dropback passing games can get time to find receivers against a tight secondary.

The one thing the Blue Hens had during their 2007 run that they don’t have now is a great, reliable kicking game.  Both of their losses have come on the margins with either a missed field goal or a decision not to attempt one that could have decided the game.  Otherwise, this team is already beyond the level of that team that made it to the Championship round of the 2007 FCS tournament.

William and Mary Tribe

The Tribe is responsible for one of Delaware’s two losses on the season. This is strictly a dropback passing team who didn’t post great rushing numbers on the year, but plays very strong defense and gets their plays in the passing game (7.33 YPA average, 14 TDs, 5 INTs).  In essence, they are a CAA team who is here because of what their defense does for them, like Delaware.

The only real difference is that William & Mary lost badly to North Carolina, and they are a two loss CAA team also among the 60 best teams in college football.  They are seeded 2nd in the tournament, behind only Appalachian State.  Their offense is run by two different quarterbacks: Mike Callahan, and Michael Paulus.  Callahan had the better year of the two, but Paulus won some big games, including the big Delaware win that gave William & Mary a share of the CAA title.

Villanova Wildcats

Villanova is the third rated AA team in the Sagarin rankings, behind only Delaware and William & Mary, it’s two CAA rivals.  Villanova is a four loss team, so they do not have a a great seed in this tournament, but one of the three losses came to a Temple team that entered the season as the MAC favorite, and two of the other losses came to teams in the FCS playoff field: New Hampshire and Williams & Mary.  The predictive difference between Villanova, Delaware, and William & Mary is basically nil: I’d take these three teams and give you the field in a gambling situation, but Villanova is really hurt by it’s tournament seed, having to start on the road at Stephen F. Austin, and then likely over to Appalachian State to keep playing for it.

Villanova is good enough to win both those games, possibly convincingly.  It’s still a tough draw, no matter how you look at it.  For Delaware and William & Mary, the worry is about being each other to advance to the Championship route.  Villanova has its toughest matchups before the semifinal.

The Wildcats are lead by dual threat rusher-runner Chris Whitney at quarterback, and their best offensive weapon is RB Aaron Ball, who is strictly a runner.  Villanova’s struggles with scoring defense are a cause for concern, because even though they can score points without great offensive numbers, this is still a team in a defense-first conference, and it’s the defense that will have to get them deep into the bracket.  Villanova has made just three field goals all season, which has helped in some ways because it’s given them four downs to get in the end zone, but it’s also why they have struggled in close games (2-4 in games decided by less than a TD).

Appalachian State Mountaineers

This year, perennial powerhouse Appalachian State may be number one purely on the strength of their rich history (and hey, someone who lost two games HAD to be number one), but this team has won a championship in a year which they had two regular season losses.  In fact, that year was the year they beat Michigan at the Big House.  They actually went on to lose to both Elon and Wofford before going undefeated in the postseason to take the title.

There’s a couple of troubling trends for this App. State team.  Number one: former QB Armanti Edwards was the most dynamic player in the subdivision for four consecutive seasons.  He’s in the NFL now.  Number two: Appalachian State was blown off the field in Gainesville by a Florida team that has struggled prior to, and since that game with even the most pedestrian conference opponents.  Their other loss came to a Georgia Southern team that is in the playoff field.

They have another top dual-threat QB in DeAndre Presley, who leads the team in both rushing and passing, and RB Travis Cadet is having a great season on the ground.  This offense is still the best in the field.  The defense is not up to the standard of a great App. State defense, which you probably figured when this Florida offense hung 40+ on them.

Montana State Bobcats

It’s difficult to find any information about a team that doesn’t keep it’s own stats, but this team played a lot of quality opponents this year.  They lost a bad one point decision to Pac-10 also-ran Washington State, but they convincingly beat Eastern Washington, who is the 5th seed in this tournament, and they will likely have a rematch at the same location next week, provided both teams win.

Montana State has a bunch of close wins over inferior opponents this year, and they are probably overseeded in this bracket based on the head to head result with Eastern Washington.  This team was blown out by Northern Arizona, and they rank 104th in the Sagarin Pure Points poll.

Eastern Washington Eagles

This is the team of the red turf fame who is probably the best bet to come out of their half of the bracket and make the Champhionship round.  They don’t have a great draw in front of them, but SE Missouri State and Montana State aren’t powerhouses, and then if they do have to go to Appalachian State for the national semifinal, they are rated just behind them in the Sagarin poll.  If they match-up with Villanova in the semis, Villanova has to travel all the way across the country to get to them.  Overall, that’s pretty good position.

Eastern Washington features a superstar back, Taiwan Jones, who has rushed for 1344 yards on 176 carries and has 11 TDs.  Their passing game is deceptive: they have 25 passing TDs, which is a lot, but inflated by their weaker opponents.  In the playoffs, they will lean heavily on Jones to get them to where they want to go.

The Eagles are strictly a big-play high-risk offense.  They outscore their opponents on average by 5 PPG.  They, however, give up more first downs both on the ground, and through the air than their opponents.  Big play offenses tend to shine in the playoffs, so as long as they keep doing their thing, Eastern Washington is a team that could go all the way.

Liveball’s Pick

Your writer likes the Eastern Washington Eagles to come out of their bracket on the strength of a Villanova upset against the Appalachian State Mountaineers, hosting the National Semifinal in Cheney, Wash.  The Championship game is as far as they will go.  The CAA is the SEC of this subdivision, and given the success that that conference has had, it’d be foolish to not take a CAA powerhouse to go all the way.

My pick is that the Delaware Blue Hens will defeat the William & Mary Tribe in the National Semifinal in a revenge game, and then beat the EWU Eagles to win the NCAA Div-I FCS National Championship.

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