After two months of debate, we finally got an answer.
As you've likely already heard, the FCS Playoff Committee released a snapshot of how it currently sees the top FCS teams during halftime of the Wednesday night ESPN game between Ball State and Toledo. The list features 10 teams that we've spent a great deal of time talking about both recently and throughout the season:
1. North Dakota State
2. James Madison
3. UC Davis
4. Weber State
6. Kennesaw State
7. South Dakota State
9. Eastern Washington
One thing seems immediately clear after looking at this list — the committee is clearly placing an emphasis on strength of schedule in these rankings. In fact, this may be the first year in recent memory where the committee seems more interested in grading primarily on the strength of a team's record, rather than just rewarding the team with the highest number in the wins column.
-Surprised JMU is ahead of UC Davis
-Surprised Elon is that high
-Surprised EWU is that low
-This is why we say strength of schedule on repeat every week when KSU fans don’t like our predictions
-Stop scheduling D2 teams. You gotta find a way to get all D1 games
— Sam Herder (@HEROSportsHerd) November 1, 2018
COMPARE: UC Davis vs. Kennesaw State | Easton Stick vs. Chandler Burks
FCS MAILBAG: How Big is this Kennesaw-JSU Game?
What evidence do we have of this? Many are pointing to Kennesaw State, which hasn't lost an FCS game yet this season, yet is only ranked sixth here. That's a valid data point to consider. At the moment, Kennesaw's best win is a non-conference matchup with up-and-down Samford, which was struggling mightily back in September when the two teams played. Past that, the committee will ignore a win over Division II Clark Atlanta and a loss to Georgia State (Sagarin Ranking: 132) and consider the remaining nine games on Kennesaw's schedule. The main focus will be the outcomes of games with Jacksonville State and Monmouth — neither of which have yet to be played.
But it's not just KSU's placement behind multiple two-loss teams that suggests strength of record is the key factor in 2018. Weber State leads a host of two-loss FCS teams (along with Kennesaw) specifically because of it's challenging non-conference slate. Wins over North Dakota and South Dakota, coupled with a marquee Big Sky win over Eastern Washington, launched the Wildcats into the top four. EWU, on the other hand, would be playing as an unseeded team if the playoffs started today. That's partially because the Eags don't have the wins that a team like Weber does, but it's also partially because they filled one of their non-con games with Division II Central Washington.
You want more? Let's do more. How about Elon, injury problems and all, checking at at No. 5? Malcolm Summers hasn't registered a carry in nearly a month, and Davis Cheek is done for the season, but the committee cared more about the fact that Elon took zero Saturdays off when putting together its 2018 football schedule. Furman and Charleston Southern are both tougher opponents than most other CAA schools are willing to schedule, yet Elon won both by a combined 47 points. The win in Harrisonburg is obviously a factor here as well, but the fact that the committee valued what it did over the first six weeks of the schedule, versus the hardships of health that have come to light over the most recent four weeks, is another affirmation that the committee values what a team has already done versus what it could potentially do. Given Eastern Washington's parallel health concerns at quarterback, the Eags have reason for optimism, should they take down UC Davis in a key November Big Sky game.
3. #JMU clearly at No. 2 because of brand power and defensive metrics.
4. SDSU a fascinating case study.
5. Kennesaw fans: we tried to tell you.
— Chase Kiddy (@chaseakiddy) November 1, 2018
MORE RANKING REACTION: Brian's Rapid Reaction | How Seriously Should You Take These, Anyway?
The only piece that doesn't fit squarely here with the Strength of Schedule emphasis is JMU at No. 2. The Dukes very well could be the second-best team in the country, and they very well could make the trip to Frisco once again in January. That turn of events wouldn't surprise very many people. But the reality remains that JMU's strength of schedule — and it's strength of record, for that matter — aren't all that impressive. Madison's homecoming win over Stony Brook is the biggest resume indicator that the Dukes are a strong playoff team, but the remainder of their FCS wins have a combined record of 14-25. None of those teams rank among the Top 60 teams in our updated BennettRank. Everyone knows that JMU is a very good team with an elite defensive unit, but prior to its final three games (@New Hampshire, Rhode Island, @Towson), it's tough to argue this team has earned the No. 2 seed.
Even with the decisions surrounding James Madison, though, the playoff committee turned in a relatively strong peek at its top 10 teams here. This committee has established that teams won't be handed a high seed, and that teams that do choose to challenge themselves can be granted leniency after a stumble. After years of disappointingly early playoff exits by teams who skated through easy conferences, this feels like a welcome, necessary approach.
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