In a normal FCS season, sometimes we can exaggerate a bit and say an early-season matchup has huge playoff implications. Unlike the cute little playoff in the FBS, one loss doesn’t crush your hopes of playing for an FCS national title.
But in this unique spring season with a reduced playoff bracket and only six at-large bids to go around compared to the usual 14, one loss puts you on the bubble. Two losses and you’re not feeling too optimistic on Selection Sunday.
So it’s no exaggeration to say the loser of this week’s No. 2 South Dakota State at No. 6 Northern Iowa game might have to run the table the rest of the way to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Let’s take a look at each week and which game has the biggest playoff implications.
Rankings based on HERO Sports’ preseason Top 25
No. 2 South Dakota State at No. 6 Northern Iowa
The loser of this game may not fall too far in the Top 25 rankings, but they will be fighting for their playoff lives the rest of the season with Illinois State and North Dakota State still on the schedule. A one-loss MVFC team gets one of the six at-large bids. But a two-loss Valley team puts its fate in the hands of the playoff committee that will likely divvy up the at-large bids among several conferences.
No. 23 Wofford at No. 24 Chattanooga
The race for the SoCon auto-bid between Wofford, Chattanooga, Furman, and The Citadel will be a tight one. A big question is will the second-place team get one of the at-large bids? The SoCon went 0-2 in the 2019 playoffs that saw its second-place team Furman lose 42-6 to Austin Peay.
If the conference is a one-bid league in this spring’s skimmed-down bracket, this could be an early elimination game.
No. 12 Albany at No. 17 New Hampshire
The CAA is split between the North and South division this spring. James Madison should run through the four-team South division with an undefeated record if it avoids injuries and a COVID outbreak. The North division will be a jam-packed race between preseason Top 25 teams likes Albany, Delaware, New Hampshire, and Villanova.
It’s a safe bet the North and South division winners get into the playoffs, one as the auto-bid and the other as an at-large berth. Would the second-place team in the North get in as well? Could the CAA get three teams in and receive two of the six at-large bids? The last time the conference hogged a lot of bids was in 2018 with six total, and the CAA went 1-4 in the first round. The committee may be hesitant to give a third of the at-large bids to one conference.
No. 15 Nicholls at No. 20 Sam Houston
Nicholls has overtaken Sam Houston as the top team in the Southland, making the playoffs in 2017, 2018, and 2019 while SHSU missed the postseason in 2018 and 2019. Yet the Bearkats are 2-1 against Nicholls in the last three years, including a 66-17 win in 2017 and a 17-0 win in 2019.
This looks to be SHSU’s best team compared to the last two squads. Nicholls loses a talented senior class but continues to build into a consistent playoff contender. The winner here is on track to earn the auto-bid while the loser is on the playoff bubble.
SEMO at No. 18 Jacksonville State
JSU brings a solid resume to the spring from the fall season: a 3-1 record, 2-0 against the FCS, and an FBS win. Teams from other conferences will want JSU to go undefeated and win the OVC’s auto-bid, because a second-place, one-loss JSU team would very likely take an at-large bid.
SEMO made the playoffs in 2018 and 2019. The Redhawks are overlooked going into the spring due to Austin Peay’s quarterfinal run in 2019 and JSU’s solid play in the fall. Keep your eye on this one, as it could shake up the playoff picture if SEMO wins.
No. 9 Illinois State at No. 2 South Dakota State
This could be a must-win for both teams this late in the season. By this point, Illinois State will have played UNI and North Dakota State. SDSU will have played UNI and a sneaky good Southern Illinois team.
The Redbirds could have two losses here, making this a must-win. SDSU could have one loss or be undefeated looking for a playoff seed a week before going to Fargo. The result of this game may knock a team out of the playoffs or out of the seeding discussion.
No. 2 South Dakota State at No. 1 North Dakota State
The MVFC title and auto-bid could come down to this game. The Bison should be undefeated going into the final two weeks of the regular season, where they play SDSU and UNI back-to-back.
How likely a conference is to get two of the four seeds is up for debate. But if one conference can do it, it’d be the MVFC because of its highly-ranked teams. The seeding implications in this one should be massive.
No. 7 Kennesaw State at No. 22 Monmouth
It’s safe to say the Big Sky, CAA, and MVFC will take three of the six at-large bids, if not four. That leaves second-place teams from conferences like the Big South, SoCon, Southland, and OVC fighting for 2-3 at-large bids.
The Big South was a one-bid league in 2018, then got two teams into the bracket in 2019 as Monmouth earned the auto-bid and KSU was an at-large. A lot of things in other conferences would have to shake out for the Big South to get a second team into the spring playoffs, making this a likely elimination game.
No. 13 Delaware at No. 5 Villanova
Something tells us there are going to be five different CAA North champion tiebreaker scenarios heading into the final week of the regular season. While JMU will probably get the CAA’s auto-bid out of the South division, there could be four teams in the South vying for one or two at-large bids.
Delaware and Villanova will be right in the mix. The loser here will be eliminated from playoff contention, while the winner could lock down a bid into the bracket.