Update: The MEAC has informed the NCAA that it will not meet the criteria to maintain its AQ into the spring playoffs. The three programs — Howard, Delaware State and South Carolina State — that are playing this spring will not play each other as required by the NCAA. Howard & SC State were unable to play each other due to the District of Columbia’s restrictions on travel to & from the state of South Carolina. The cancellation of their game scheduled for April 10 prevented the three teams from playing each other, as required to be eligible for an AQ.
On Sept. 22, 2020, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors approved the proposed plan of holding fall championships in the spring, including the FCS playoffs. The FCS bracket was reduced from 24 teams to 16 teams. Typically, the playoff field includes 10 auto-bids from 10 conferences and 14 at-large bids. This spring, the format was set to 11 auto-bids and five at-large bids.
The extra AQ was given to the MEAC, who usually meets the SWAC champion in the Celebration Bowl during fall seasons.
On Feb. 11, the MEAC suspended its spring football season due to six of the nine teams opting out. Conference policy states if 50 percent or more institutions cannot participate in any championship, the championship for that sport will be suspended. Delaware State, Howard, and South Carolina State were the three MEAC teams that decided to play games this spring.
On Feb. 14, the NCAA published a story titled “How the 2020-21 FCS football season will work.” The story stated there will be 10 auto-bids and six at-large bids, and it omitted the MEAC as an AQ. However, when Delaware State, Howard, and SC State announced their revised schedules shortly after the MEAC suspended the season and the new schedules featured all three teams playing each other, it gave an AQ back to the MEAC due to NCAA guidelines for the spring season.
“After the cancellation of the Celebration Bowl, the MEAC submitted an application for Automatic Qualification,” Associate Director of NCAA Championships Chad Tolliver told HERO Sports. “That application was reviewed and approved by the NCAA Division I Football Committee and the NCAA Division I Football Oversight Committee on Sept. 24, 2020. On Nov. 5, 2020, the NCAA Division I Football Oversight Committee approved a recommendation to reduce the minimum number of games required to be considered for at-large selection for the championship to four games. Part of that recommendation recognized that a conference may retain their AQ so long as that particular conference has at least three teams playing during the regular season and all of those teams play against each other.”
The MEAC retaining its AQ was unknown to media members who cover FCS and HBCU football. It wasn’t communicated by the NCAA or the conference.
On April 1, James Madison beat writer Greg Madia first reported the MEAC would have an AQ into the playoffs, which is set to begin the weekend of April 24. A source confirmed the report to HERO Sports.
We reached out to the NCAA, and Tolliver provided clarification on why the MEAC kept its auto-bid despite suspending its season and how Howard’s Academic Progress Rate penalties impacted the MEAC’s AQ status.
“It was determined that due to the impact of COVID-19 on so many FCS football programs, as long as a conference has three teams competing and those teams are all playing each other that a conference will remain eligible for Automatic Qualification (AQ) for the 2020-21 NCAA Division I Football Championship,” Tolliver said. “As long as Howard is participating/playing the other two MEAC schools, then Howard counts as the third school needed for the MEAC to retain access to an AQ. The fact that Howard is not eligible for postseason competition does not prevent their regular-season participation from helping their conference retain access to an AQ.”
Howard was ineligible for postseason play due to APR penalties. But on Oct. 28, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors suspended the application of APR penalties for two years. Schools will not be subject to a loss of postseason competition due to low APR during the same time period. The impact of the COVID pandemic on APR data and the variability in underlying factors contributing to the data led the board members to agree with the recommendation by the Committee on Academics to suspend penalties.
Regardless of Howard’s eligibility, the auto-bid will come down to SC State and Delaware State.
- Howard is 0-2 with no games remaining. Howard only played Delaware State. Its two games vs. SC State were canceled due to the District of Columbia’s restrictions on travel to and from the state of South Carolina.
- SC State is 2-1 (including a win over Delaware State) with one game at Delaware State left on April 17.
- Delaware State is 2-1 with two wins against Howard and a loss to SC State. The Hornets have two games remaining against Delaware and SC State.
If SC State beats DSU on April 17, the Bulldogs would presumably be the MEAC’s auto-bid into the playoffs at 3-1 with two wins over DSU. If DSU wins, it could come down to tiebreaker scenarios since the two teams split the head-to-head series and played a different number of conference games.
As part of the AQ application, a conference is required to provide details to the NCAA on how they will determine who their AQ will be. When asked how the MEAC would determine its auto-bid between the three teams, the NCAA directed HERO Sports to get that information directly from the conference. We have been in communication this week with the MEAC asking for details on what the tiebreaker procedures would be to determine the conference’s AQ. We will update this story when we receive that answer.
Here are the conference tiebreaker procedures provided by the other conferences.