Philadelphia, PA – For member schools of the Pioneer Football League, a long-awaited FCS playoff debut is just months away.
For the first time in the history of the league, a PFL team will be sent to the postseason by way of an automatic bid following playoff system expansion this offseason.
PFL coaches could not be more excited about the prospect of playing for a chance at a national title.
Once November rolls around, 24 teams will be competing in the playoffs, as opposed to 20 teams in each of the past three years. The expansion allows for each eligible conference to send its regular-season champion into the playoff mix, something that has eluded the PFL in the past.
"It's certainly an important and historic time for the Pioneer Football League," PFL commissioner Patty Viverito said in a media conference call Thursday. "While there is plenty of media attention and much speculation about what college football will look like down the road, I have to say that the current landscape of FCS has never been better in general, and certainly never been better than it is for the Pioneer Football League today."
Of the 24 teams in the postseason, 16 will be playing in the first round (instead of eight teams playing while 12 received first-round byes).
The automatic bid is music to the ears of several programs like San Diego, Jacksonville, Butler and Dayton, who have all had standout seasons in the last four years and received no love from the selection committee.
Now there is something more to work toward, and coaches have noticed a buzz about the campuses and communities because of it.
Dayton coach Rick Chamberlin has been to the postseason with his squad when the program was part of Division III, and said he is excited about the prospect of going back to the playoffs with an FCS team.
Chamberlin won several national championships in D-III, and said the city is hungry for more playoff football.
"The people here in Dayton got accustomed to it," he said, "and now when we went to the FCS and the Pioneer Football League, we didn't have that opportunity truthfully to be able to get into the playoffs. It's something people in the Dayton community were missing. Now to have this opportunity again - a more legitimate opportunity - is really exciting for the city of Dayton."
San Diego coach Dale Lindsey's program was picked as a slight preseason favorite over Butler in the PFL preseason poll, but Lindsey is looking a little deeper into the automatic bid.
Superficially, the bid is a very good thing for the conference, which Lindsey agrees with. But he wants to see his team compete and win within the division before the Toreros can even think about making a splash in postseason play.
"In a secondary thought, our first thoughts are Pioneer Football League opponents," Lindsey said. "If we can't get through the tough guys in the PFL, then we don't deserve to be there. Let's play the PFL, and worry about the FCS when we get there."
But the automatic bid is seen by Viverito and league coaches as more than a simple test of football skill. It's also a way to brand the PFL and gain national attention from potential recruits and fans.
That is certainly showcased with the addition of two teams to the PFL in 2013 in Stetson and Mercer. Both teams were picked to finish at the bottom of the conference, but their coaches say there is an excitement level they have never seen before.
"Someone in our league has a chance to represent us at the national level," Stetson coach Roger Hughes said, "and frankly, if you're a competitor you want to play at the highest level. ... It's made a great difference in our recruiting; it's certainly made a place where kids know they can get a great education and yet play a very, very high level of football and get a chance to compete for the national title."
Viverito said one of the focuses this season is detailing the FCS as a Division-I entity, and not on the subdivision aspect of the league.
The consensus entering August training camp sessions among coaches is that the excitement for an automatic bid is palpable. National exposure for one team on the FCS' biggest stage is the draw, but it benefits everyone when it comes to the recruiting game.
"The automatic bid is something that has really perked the ears up of everybody that we're recruiting against," said Marist coach Jim Parady.
PIONEER FOOTBALL LEAGUE PRESEASON POLL
Voted on by Head Coaches
1. San Diego (5 first-place votes), 111 points
2. Butler (4), 110
3. Jacksonville (2), 99
4. Drake (1), 99
5. Dayton, 85
6. Marist, 67
7. Morehead State, 65
8. Campbell, 49
9. Davidson, 42
10. Valparaiso, 32
11. Mercer, 20
12. Stetson, 13
PRESEASON PIONEER FOOTBALL LEAGUE TEAM
WR -Sam Hoekstra, San Diego, Sr.
WR - Brendan Shannon, Butler, Sr.
WR - Nick Rosa, Drake, R-Sr.
TE- Reese Williams, Davidson, Sr.
QB- Matt Lancaster, Butler, Sr.
RB - Trae Heeter, Butler, Sr.
RB -Rees Macshara, Morehead State, R-Jr.
FB - Lawrence Larivee, San Diego, R-Sr.
OL - Dan Bostick, Jacksonville, Jr.
OL - Phede Celestin, Marist, R-Sr.
OL - Cody Tescher, San Diego, R-Sr.
OL - David Tiwari, Butler, R-So.
OL - Tramell Williams, Jacksonville, R-Jr.
DL - Pat Dowd, Dayton, Sr.
DL - Terrence Fede, Marist, R-Sr.
DL - Juan Pimienta, Jacksonville, Sr.
DL - Jeremy Stephens, Butler, Sr.
LB - Tre Davis, Jacksonville, R-Jr.
LB - Jordan Hendrix, Morehead State, Jr.
LB - John Hugunin, Drake, R-So.
LB - Travis Merritt, Drake, Sr.
LB - Colin Monnier, Dayton, R-Sr.
DB - Jordan Dewhirst, Jacksonville, R-Sr.
DB - Sean Grady, Butler, R-Sr.
DB - Mike Ratelle, Drake, R-Sr.
DB - Kyle Sebetic, Dayton, R-Sr.
PK - Dylan Lynch, Jacksonville, Sr.
P - Adam Lutz, Campbell, Jr.
RS - Sam Hoekstra, San Diego, Sr.
Note: Five linebackers selected due to tie in the voting.