We're halfway through the 2018 FCS season, which means the margin for error for playoff hopefuls is getting smaller. This is especially true for the 13-team Big Sky Conference that has more than half the teams still vying for a postseason bid. Throw in North Dakota, who is basically a Big Sky team but not in the standings, and the race toward the bracket is as close as it gets.
There's no doubt the Big Sky is as strong as it's been in recent years. Having five playoff teams is probably asking for too much, and three might be a bit too disrespectful to the strength of this conference. So four is the most realistic number, depending on how much these teams beat up on each other and how many bids conferences like the SoCon and Southland get.
Another realistic number is eight. The magic record for a Big Sky team to feel really comfortable is 8-3. Some teams may have to go 9-2 because of wins against non-D1 opponents. We saw three 7-4 teams get left out last year in EWU, Sac State and Montana. Northern Arizona barely got in at 7-4 to make it three conference teams in the field.
So let's look at every Big Sky team, including UND, at this point in the season and guess what percentage they have to make the 24-team bracket.
Record: 2-4 overall, 1-2 Big Sky
Remaining Games: vs. UC Davis, @ NAU, @ Mont. St., vs. Idaho St., vs. SUU
15 percent – Cal Poly had an impressive 41-27 win last Saturday against Sacramento State, a team that went 6-2 in the Big Sky last year. That's a good start to finishing this season strong. Five straight wins from here on out gets the Mustangs to 7-4 and on a six-game win streak. But these next four contests are against teams in playoff contention. The odds are stacked against Cal Poly.
Record: 5-1, 3-0
Remaining Games: @ Weber, vs. Idaho, @ N. Col., vs. UC Davis, @ PSU
95 percent – Barring something catastrophic, the Eagles are in the field. They also have a very good chance to earn a high playoff seed. EWU should be favored to win its remaining games. The only two that should be competitive are this weekend at Weber and in a few weeks against UC Davis. But even an injury to All-American quarterback Gage Gubrud doesn't appear to be slowing this team down.
Record: 2-3, 1-2
Remaining Games: @ Mont. St., vs. SUU, @ EWU, vs. UND, vs. Mont., @ Florida
10 percent – What a brutal stretch the Vandals face. Many assumed this team would compete in the Big Sky and the FCS, what with being an FBS team last year and all. But their results show the gap between top FCS teams and bottom FBS teams is quite equal, if not in the favor of the FCS. Idaho has gotten torched by two Big Sky teams already, 44-21 to UC Davis and 62-28 to Idaho State last weekend. It's hard to find five wins in these next six games to get this team to 7-4.
Record: 4-1, 3-0
Remaining Games: @ UC Davis, @ Liberty, vs. Mont. St., @ PSU, @ Cal Poly, vs. Weber
65 percent – The Bengals are the surprise team of the Big Sky so far, but the schedule does beef up. They have a terrific opportunity to earn some quality wins, including at 2-3 Liberty, freshly in the FBS from this subdivision. Games at UC Davis and against Montana State and Weber are toss-ups right now. We'll find out how good this team is soon. ISU has put itself in a good spot at 3-0, though. But keep an eye on the season-opening win against Western State Colorado, a non-counter win.
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Record: 4-2, 2-1
Remaining Games: @ UND, vs. UC Davis, @ SUU, @ Idaho, vs. Mont. St.
55 percent – The Griz were sitting so pretty at 4-1. Then the biggest upset in the FCS happened with a 22-20 Homecoming loss to Portland State. Montana needed this win to get some cushion. Only two of the five remaining games are basically locks to win if the Grizzlies play well. Then games at UND and against UC Davis and Montana State are 50/50. A 7-4 Montana team with a loss to PSU is going to need a lot of help to make the playoffs.
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Record: 3-2, 1-1
Remaining Games: vs. Idaho, @ Weber, @ Idaho St., vs. Cal Poly, vs. N. Col., @ Mont.
56 Percent – You better believe quality losses are a thing for the playoff committee. Whether you agree or not, the committee does look at who teams lost to. That's in MSU's favor so far with the two losses coming to two Top 5 teams, South Dakota State and EWU. Its wins against Western Illinois and PSU also gives the Bobcats the nod over Montana, even though the Griz have the better overall record. Of the six remaining games, three are considered 50/50 (Weber, ISU and Montana). That regular season finale could very well be a play-in game.
North Dakota (*)
Record: 3-2, 0-0
Remaining Games: vs. Mont., @ Sac St., vs. Weber, @ Idaho, vs. PSU, @ NAU
*UND is an independent team this year and next year while playing a Big Sky schedule. However, its record against Big Sky opponents is a big factor and its resume will likely be compared to other Big Sky teams.
50 percent – Officially, UND doesn't have a Big Sky record. Unofficially, the Fighting Hawks are 1-1. The Hawks are big fans of Sam Houston State right now so their win over the then No. 5-ranked Bearkats looks as good as it did at the time. And right now, the two losses to FBS No. 9 Washington and Idaho State don't look bad, although the ISU loss was at home. These next three games against quality opponents are probably going to decide the season. If UND can go 2-1 to get to 5-3, the final three games are all winnable to hit 8-3 with an FBS loss. NAU might have stud QB Case Cookus back by then, so keep an eye on that Nov. 17 game as well.
Record: 3-3, 2-1
Remaining Games: @ N. Col., vs. Cal Poly, @ UC Davis, @ Sac St., vs. UND
45 percent – The Lumberjacks are battling tough without Cookus. A win over then No. 6 Weber looks terrific on their resume along with an FBS win against UTEP. But that 40-8 loss to Missouri State is an eyesore, even if NAU had a lot of stars out injured. Can NAU win out to finish 8-3? It's certainly possible. The timetable on Cookus' return is still uncertain. What the Lumberjacks can do in the meantime is avoid a letdown these next two games, then hope their stud QB can lead them to wins against three quality opponents.
Record: 0-6, 0-3
Remaining Games: @ PSU, vs. NAU, @ SUU, vs. EWU, @ Mont. St.
1 percent – So you're saying there's a chance? Well nothing's impossible, right? But the reality is five straight wins aren't likely. The Bears looked like a pretty decent team in their first two games, even though they were losses. But losing QB Jacob Knipp hurt big time. Playoffs are basically out of the question. And what's interesting about its schedule is UNC's bye week is the last week of the regular season on Nov. 17. So the Bears will be watching games from home earlier than most.
Record: 2-4, 1-2
Remaining Games: vs. N. Col., @ Sac St., vs. Idaho St., @ UND, vs. EWU
15 percent – Two FBS losses makes PSU's resume look a little better. And the Montana win certainly opened eyes. But its only other win is against a non-counter team, College of Idaho. Going 5-0 the rest of the way gets the Vikings in serious discussion to make the playoffs. But look who looms in the last game.
Record: 2-3, 0-2
Remaining Games: @ SUU, vs. UND, vs. PSU, @ Weber, vs. NAU, @ UC Davis
40 percent – The Hornets wanted to prove something this year after getting left out of the playoffs last season at 7-4 overall and 6-2 in the Big Sky. They haven't done much to impress, narrowly losing to Montana then suffering a head-scratching L against Cal Poly. That puts a lot of pressure to finish, at the minimum, 5-1. The offensive firepower is there. But two tough road trips in the final three weeks makes the postseason a less than 50 percent chance.
Record: 0-5, 0-2
Remaining Games: vs. Sac St., @ Idaho, vs. N. Col., vs. Mont., vs. Weber, @ Cal Poly
2 percent – Four of the last six games are at home, but it might be too late for the Thunderbirds. The defending Big Sky champs just don't have the juice this season. They have a decent chance to finish the remaining games 3-3 or even 4-2 if they figure things out. But the focus should be on building momentum for next year, not the playoffs.
Record: 4-1, 2-0
Remaining Games: vs. Idaho St., @ Cal Poly, @ Mont., vs. NAU, @ EWU, vs. Sac. St.
75 percent – UC Davis' resume is outstanding so far. Wins against FBS San Jose State and 2017 playoff participant San Diego stand out. The lone loss to No. 9 Stanford isn't really even a loss. But things beef up starting this week and we'll see just how good the Aggies are. This weekend's game against Idaho State is going to be a barn burner. Then games at Montana and EWU are going to be key. If UC Davis can solidify itself as the second-best team in the Big Sky and not suffer any "bad" losses, it has a chance at a seed. But first, the Aggies need to take care of business before looking too far down the road.
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Record: 3-2, 1-1
Remaining Games: vs. EWU, vs. Mont. St., @ UND, vs. Sac St., @ SUU, @ Idaho St.
60 percent – Weber looked like a legitimate national threat with a dominating win against then No. 22 South Dakota followed by a decisive win against Northern Colorado. That has cooled off with a loss to NAU last week. It's not a terrible loss, but one the Wildcats might get bitten on again in November. The bubble is so packed that these kinds of losses (in games you're supposed to win) can cost you. Five of the remaining six games are going to be battles. Weber has the defense to play with anyone in the country. The offense remains unpredictable. But the Wildcats have an above-average shot to make the playoffs, where no one is going to want to see a matchup with them.