The conclusion of February in the FCS spring season wrought the madness before March, as 11 of the 20 ranked teams playing over the weekend absorbed defeats, some shocking, all shaking up Monday’s Stats Perform FCS Top 25 and the limited at-large playoff bid projection conversation.
All of this came before the Colonial Athletic Association could kick off its conference slate.
With the Missouri Valley Football Conference and the Big Sky already underway to the tune of losses by traditional heavyweights North Dakota State and Eastern Washington, the CAA schedule, which begins this Friday when No. 13 Albany visits No. 14 New Hampshire, can be expected to pack some surprise punches of its own.
Right off the bat, CAA teams will feel the squeeze of playoff implications in a weekend that will serve as season-opening for most (among CAA programs, only James Madison and Elon played February nonconference games.) While the FCS “power conference” is typically good for at least three total playoff bids in a standard fall campaign, this spring cycle is anything but.
Three bids from the league (comprising the automatic slot awarded to the conference champion and two at-larges) would be sizable in this spring’s playoff format consisting of 16 teams in the bracket, only six of which carry at-large designations. With only six at-larges to go around across the country compared to the usual 14, any single conference producing two at-large qualifiers is far from a given, making league title chases all the more paramount.
There is a scenario in which the Valley has a fair probability of sending multiple at-larges to the postseason, and it centers around No. 6 North Dakota State. If the MVFC champion is not NDSU (perhaps it could be surging North Dakota?) and some two-school combination of NDSU, South Dakota State, Illinois State, and Northern Iowa has a strong at-large resume as a pair, the pathway to a three-bid Valley crystalizes.
Because this nightmare scenario for the CAA exists, the sprint to get in a good position for the conference title or the arguably equally coveted “second place” spot is on.
The nature of the pandemic-era season caused the CAA to move to a temporary divisional format of North and South. With the four-team South headlined by heavy favorite and top-ranked JMU and no conference championship game established by the league for this spring, the chatter has been concentrated on the North, in which seven squads will vie for, barring a slip-up by the Dukes, that “second place” slot associated with a North division title. The consensus entering the season is that beyond the auto-bid projected to be captured by an undefeated JMU, the North crown is the surest thing for playoff selection chances in the abbreviated format.
With that, it’s fitting that North powers Albany and UNH clash in Durham to kick things off Friday night. It’s a battle of “old money versus new money” as the perennially-contending Wildcats host the upstart Great Danes, led by prolific quarterback Jeff Undercuffler, who engineered a storybook 2019 season that saw the Danes break into the FCS playoffs and win a first-round game. The winner at Wildcat Stadium on Friday will have the inside track to challenge No. 5 Villanova for the North championship.
Villanova travels to Stony Brook on Saturday, seeking to exact revenge for a wild 2019 home loss caused by Seawolves quarterback Tyquell Fields’ clutch genes and kicker Nick Courtney’s last-second heroics. Nova is currently Sam Herder’s projected single at-large qualifier from the CAA, but SBU can throw a wrench in that with an upset in its home building on Long Island.
At the same time Saturday, Maine faces No. 25 Delaware in Newark, DE, where the teams will mark their first meeting since 2017. The Black Bears and Blue Hens finished 2019 going in entirely different directions. Maine got red-hot late in the year, winning four of its final five and averaging 31.2 points per game in that span under the direction of freshman quarterback Joe Fagnano.
Delaware sputtered late, limping to a finish in which it dropped four of five, sending Danny Rocco to his first-ever losing season as an FCS head coach (after prior stops at then-FCS Liberty and Richmond). Hens QB Nolan Henderson is healthy again to start spring 2021, a welcome change for a group itching to knock off rival and aforementioned North favorite Villanova, but star tailback Will Knight entered the transfer portal during the prolonged offseason.
That offseason can now be put to bed, however, and all CAA teams, especially those in the log-jammed North division, had better be wide awake from the opening whistle — because playoff spots (and even games themselves) are scarce, drastically thinning the margin for error.