By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Perhaps the best way to get the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs going is to start a day early.
The NCAA will announce its 20-team field Sunday morning, but many bubble teams are facing must-wins on Saturday. The biggest storyline involves both of last year's finalists trying to play their way into the field.
Villanova, the defending champion, faces a more difficult situation. Having lost two straight games to fall to 6-4, the Wildcats have to win at top-ranked Delaware to avoid the kind of disappointment that only the Dallas Cowboys could relate to this fall.
Montana is a win better at 7-3, but it surely has to defeat Big Sky co-leader Montana State at home to earn a playoff bid. With a loss, the Grizzlies would be left with only six of their seven wins against Division I competition, and that factor could very well keep them out of the playoffs for the first time since 1992 (after a record run of 17 straight appearances).
But the way the Wildcats failed to fire the last two weeks, first at below-.500 Rhode Island and then to New Hampshire, when they entered the game with a 15-game home winning streak, was surprising.
"I can't figure out if we are just battered a little bit," Villanova coach Andy Talley said. "We stopped lifting this week. We really did not seem very quick out there Saturday. New Hampshire was actually faster than us and we're a pretty fast team.
"We are still struggling with a team that does not play with the kind of emotion that I would like to see. We just have not been able to put our finger on it. I don't know what it is. We have a lot of guys that are good players, but they're just not that emotional, they just play. Sometimes you have a team like that. I think if we could raise the emotional level, we could be a little better than we are."
Szczur, who sprained both ankles, and had the right one heal quicker than the left one, is expected to play against Delaware for the first time since Sept. 25 against Penn. He will probably return with rust on his game.
Delaware (10-1), which trails 22-20-1 in the series, has plenty of motivation, too. With a win, the Blue Hens can wrap up an outright CAA Football title and the No. 1 playoff seed (an unlikely Appalachian State upset of Florida is all that could probably change the top seed).
Montana, the national runner-up in each of the past two seasons, also faces its chief rival in the 110th meeting with Montana State. The Grizzlies have built a 69-35-5 series lead by winning 21 of the last 24 meetings, and havae a 20-game conference home winning streak.
But the visiting Bobcats (8-2) have had a better season than Montana and can wrap up at least a share of the Big Sky title and the conference's automatic playoff bid with a triumph.
"Of course, it's obviously kicked up a notch," Montana senior center Alex Verlanic explained about this week's intensity. His younger brothers Andrew and Connor are players at Montana State.
Montana State is healthier than Montana and coming off a bye. A fast-paced game is expected, with the Grizzlies trying to contain MSU redshirt freshman quarterback Denarius McGhee and establish the type of physical run game that senior Chase Reynolds provided last Saturday in a win over North Dakota.
Montana first-year coach Robin Pflugrad, who spent ten seasons as an assistant coach in the series, laments his team's many season-ending injuries, especially to standout defensive end Severin Campbell. But he also realizes there's no looking back if Montana is going to move forward into the playoffs.
"I think the magnitude of this game should help," he said. "Obviously, I believe Montana State's gonna be much healthier than we are. Hey, what can you do about it? They're not going to cancel the game (he laughs). That's the way it is and we're gonna go play and we're gonna see what happens."
The season's journey can be as much fun as the actual playoffs. These two games go beyond a regular-season game.
FCS PLAYOFF SCENARIOS
Four teams have clinched their conference's automatic bids: Northern Iowa (7-3) in the Missouri Valley Conference, Robert Morris (8-2) in the Northeast Conference, Lehigh (8-2) in the Patriot League and Appalachian State (9-1) in the Southern Conference.
In the Big Sky, either Montana State (8-2) and Eastern Washington (8-2) will win the auto bid, with the other expected to receive an at-large bid. Of course, Montana (7-3) is trying to play its way in with a win over Montana State.
Stony Brook (6-4) appears headed to the Big South bid. However, if Coastal Carolina (5-5) suffers an upset to Charleston Southern, it would come down to the winner of Saturday's Stony Brook at Liberty (7-3) matchup.
Delaware (9-1) is playing for the No. 1 overall seed, with William & Mary (7-3) also seemingly in line for a bid. Who gets to seven wins is the big question for New Hampshire, Villanova, Massachusetts and Richmond, who are all 6-4.
Bethune-Cookman (10-0), the FCS' only unbeaten team, would get the MEAC's auto bid as long as it beats Florida A&M (7-3) or South Carolina State (8-2) beats lowly North Carolina A&T.
Either Jacksonville State (9-1) or Southeast Missouri State (9-2) will get the Ohio Valley Conference's auto bid. Jacksonville State seems assured of at least an at-large bid, but SEMO might not be as secure.
In the Southland Conference, three teams are alive for the auto berth. Stephen F. Austin (8-2) is in if it beats Northwestern State. McNeese State (6-4) is in with a win over Central Arkansas and a SFA loss. Northwestern State (5-5), which finished 0-11 last year, would be in with a win over SFA coupled with a McNeese State loss. SFA has an excellent chance for an at-large bid if it doesn't claim the auto bid.
Then it's let the dust settle on Saturday. Wofford (8-2), which could share the SoCon title, appears in line for an at-large bid. Among the other hopefuls are North Dakota State (7-3) and Western Illinois (6-4) of the Missouri Valley, Georgia Southern (6-4) and Chattanooga (6-4) of the SoCon, Sacramento State (6-4) and Weber State (6-4) of the Big Sky and Jacksonville (10-1) of the Pioneer Football League.
FCS PLAYOFF PROJECTION ...
The NCAA will announce its FCS playoff pairings on a 30-minute selection show on ESPNU on Sunday, Nov. 21, beginning at 10 a.m.
In the FCS Huddle has been projecting the potential playoff field since the preseason. The projection is a long-range look at the regular season - not based off current records or rankings - and can be found here.
The projection will be updated Saturday night.
Should Villanova accept an offer to join the Big East, PPL Park, the new Chester, Pa., home of the Philadelphia Union of MLS, is perhaps highest on the list of possible home venues (the on-campus Villanova Stadium is too small). "There's been a lot of ongoing discussions at the trustee level and within the university administration-level," Talley said. "They're continuing to work with the Big East and try to look at this thing. And in the end, I think Villanova wants to do the best thing for Villanova University and the football program. Nothing has been decided." ... Appalachian State safety Mark LeGree, who has a hamstring pull, will likely miss Saturday's game at Florida, but return for the second round of the playoffs ... Liberty redshirt junior wide receiver Chris Summers has set a Big South single-season record with 1,081 receiving yards, but won't be able to add to his 15 touchdown receptions (second-most in conference history) against Stony Brook because of a high ankle sprain ... Northern Iowa junior Tirrell Rennie will likely be the only FCS quarterback to finish the regular season with at least 1,000 rushing yards. He's shattered the barrier with 1,210 yards heading into Saturday's game at Western Illinois ... The most played rivalry in college football resumes Saturday in Easton, Pa., where playoff-bound Lehigh visits Lafayette in Patriot League action. The host Leopards lead the all-time series 76-64-5, with the first meeting contested in 1884 ... Colgate running back Nate Eachus would have led the FCS in scoring in 2009 if he had played in more than eight games (he had 16 touchdowns). This season, it looks like he will earn the distinction, with 19 TDs and 11.4 points per game heading into the Raiders' finale at Fordham ... Princeton will host Dartmouth on Saturday and attempt to avoid its second winless Ivy League season (joining the 1973 squad). The 1-8 Tigers' lone win was in non-conference action against Lafayette in overtime ... Austin Peay senior Terrence Holt enters his final game on Saturday against Eastern Kentucky as the NCAA's career kickoff return yardage leader with 4,634 yards. Last Saturday, he became the first FCS player to go over 1,000 yards in four different seasons ... After being a Pioneer Football League first-team selection as a wide receiver in 2008, Dayton senior Steve Valentino has wrapped up a 19-2 record as a starting quarterback (provided the Flyers don't make the playoffs) ... Go figure: Mississippi Valley State is tied for 12th in the FCS in turnover margin - plus-9 overall - yet has an 0-10 record.
JUST THE PICKS
Last Week's Record: 46-10 (.821)
Season Record: 536-164 (.766)
Thursday, Nov. 18
Southeastern Louisiana (2-8, 1-5 Southland) at X-Nicholls State (3-7, 2-4), 7 p.m.
Georgia State (6-4) at X-Alabama (8-2), 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Nov. 20
VMI (3-7, 2-3 Big South) at X-Gardner-Webb (3-7, 1-4), 11:30 a.m.
No. 15 Villanova (6-4, 4-3 CAA) at X-No. 1 Delaware (9-1, 6-1), noon
St. Francis, Pa. (1-9, 1-6 NEC) at X-Central Connecticut State (7-3, 6-1), noon
Duquesne (6-4, 4-3 NEC) at X-Bryant (7-3, 4-3), noon
James Madison (5-5, 2-5 CAA) at X-Maine (4-6, 3-4), noon
X-No. 22 Lehigh (8-2, 4-0 Patriot) at Lafayette (2-8, 1-3), noon
Towson (1-9, 0-7 CAA) at X-No. 14 New Hampshire (6-4, 4-3), noon
Yale (7-2, 5-1 Ivy) at X-Harvard (6-3, 4-2), noon
Bucknell (1-9, 1-3 Patriot) at X-Holy Cross (5-5, 2-2), 12:30 p.m.
X-No. 19 Massachusetts (6-4, 4-3 CAA) at Rhode Island (4-6, 3-4), 12:30 p.m.
No. 2 Appalachian State (9-1) at X-Florida (6-4), 12:30 p.m.
X-No. 16 Penn (8-1, 6-0 Ivy) at Cornell (2-7, 1-5), 12:30 p.m.
Columbia (4-5, 2-4 Ivy) at X-Brown (5-4, 4-2), 12:30 p.m.
Austin Peay (2-8, 1-6 OVC) at X-Eastern Kentucky (5-5, 4-2), 1 p.m.
Davidson (3-7) at X-Presbyterian (1-9), 1 p.m.
Monmouth (3-7, 3-4 NEC) at X-Albany (5-5, 3-4), 1 p.m.
X-Colgate (6-4) at Fordham (5-5), 1 p.m.
X-Marist (3-7) at Georgetown (3-7), 1 p.m.
X-Dartmouth (5-4, 2-4 Ivy) at Princeton (1-8, 0-6), 1 p.m.
Campbell (3-7, 2-5 PFL) at X-Morehead State (4-6, 3-4), 1 p.m.
X-Wagner (5-5, 3-4 NEC) at Sacred Heart (3-7, 1-6), 1 p.m.
Charleston Southern (3-7, 1-4 Big South) at X-Coastal Carolina (5-5, 4-1), 1 p.m.
X-Delaware State (2-8, 1-6 MEAC) at Howard (1-9, 0-7), 1 p.m.
X-No. 12 South Carolina State (8-2, 6-1 MEAC) at North Carolina A&T (1-9, 1-6), 1:30 p.m.
Chattanooga (6-4, 5-2 SoCon) at X-No. 9 Wofford (8-2, 6-1), 1:30 p.m.
The Citadel (2-8, 0-7 SoCon) at X-Samford (4-6, 2-5), 2 p.m.
X-Norfolk State (5-5) at Savannah State (1-9), 2 p.m.
X-Old Dominion (7-3) at North Carolina Central (3-7), 2 p.m.
X-Jackson State (7-3, 5-3 SWAC) at Alcorn State (5-5, 4-4), 2 p.m.
North Dakota (3-7) at X-South Dakota State (4-6), 2 p.m.
Indiana State (6-4, 4-3 MVFC) at X-Southern Illinois (4-6, 3-4), 2 p.m.
X-Prairie View A&M (6-4, 5-3 SWAC) at Alabama A&M (3-7, 2-6), 2 p.m.
Tennessee State (3-7, 0-6 OVC) at X-Murray State (5-5, 4-3), 2 p.m.
No. 13 Northern Iowa (7-3, 6-1 MVFC) at X-Western Illinois (6-4, 4-3), 2 p.m.
X-No. 17 North Dakota State (7-3, 4-3 MVFC) at Missouri State (4-6, 3-4), 2 p.m.
X-Georgia Southern (6-4, 4-3 SoCon) at Furman (5-5, 3-4), 2 p.m.
No. 8 Montana State (8-2, 6-1 Big Sky) at X-No. 11 Montana (7-3, 5-2), 2:05 p.m.
No. 7 Bethune-Cookman (10-0, 7-0 MEAC) vs. X-Florida A&M (7-3, 6-1) in Orlando, Fla., 2:30 p.m.
Western Carolina (2-8, 1-6 SoCon) at X-Elon (5-5, 4-3), 3 p.m.
Texas State (4-6, 1-5 Southland) at X-Sam Houston State (5-5, 3-3), 3 p.m.
Northwestern State (5-5, 4-2 Southland) at X-No. 5 Stephen F. Austin (8-2, 5-1), 3 p.m.
Weber State (6-4) at X-Texas Tech (5-5), 3 p.m.
No. 18 Richmond (6-4, 4-3 CAA) at X-No. 6 William & Mary (7-3, 5-2), 3:30 p.m.
Stony Brook (6-4, 5-0 Big South) at X-No. 21 Liberty (7-3, 4-1), 3:30 p.m.
X-Hampton (5-5, 4-3 MEAC) at Morgan State (4-6, 3-4), 4 p.m.
X-McNeese State (6-4, 5-1 Southland) at Central Arkansas (6-4, 3-3), 4 p.m.
Idaho State (1-9, 0-7 Big Sky) at X-No. 3 Eastern Washington (8-2, 6-1), 4:05 p.m.
X-No. 4 Jacksonville State (9-1, 6-1 OVC) at Tennessee Tech (4-6, 3-4), 5 p.m.
Portland State (2-8, 1-6 Big Sky) at X-Northern Arizona (5-5, 3-4), 5:05 p.m.
X-Sacramento State (6-4) at UC Davis (5-5), 7 p.m.
Panhandle State (6-4) at X-Lamar (4-6), 7 p.m.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff (5-5, 4-4 SWAC) at X-Texas Southern (7-3, 7-1), 8 p.m.