Indiana State football coach Trent Miles reaffirmed his belief Tuesday that a victory over Youngstown State on Saturday will propel the Sycamores into the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs for the first time since 1984.
While Miles puts a 100-percent probability on the Sycamores making the playoffs with a win, I’m not as convinced.
Don’t get me wrong. I think the Sycamores deserve the playoffs on merit. The Missouri Valley Football Conference has been the best in FCS by a substantial margin, and ISU is a big reason for that.
ISU also has a better resumé than it had in 2010 and 2011 when it also harbored playoff hopes.
The 17-14 victory over No. 1 North Dakota State on Oct. 13 is the best evidence in the Sycamores’ favor. Primarily on the strength of that win, ISU is also No. 7 in the Gridiron Power Index. Since the GPI came to be, 49 out of an eligible 49 top-10 teams have made the FCS playoffs.
So it’s all good, right? Not so fast. Merit doesn’t always matter in the 20-team FCS field.
ISU’s two FCS losses — South Dakota State and Illinois State — hurt. The Redbirds, and especially, the Jackrabbits, are ISU’s primary competitors to land one of the 10 at-large spots available in the FCS field. ISU lost to them both head-to-head … and at home to boot.
And as I wrote in Wednesday’s Tribune-Star, there’s a large body of two- and three-loss teams in FCS competing for a piece of the playoff pie. A deserving team or two or three is almost certainly going to be left out.
As for the historical precedents that favor ISU? Pardon my skepticism, but I’ve seen it end in tears for teams that have relied on it before.
Yes, 100 percent of the eligible GPI top 10 has made the field, but I was in Springfield, Mo., in 2006 for Selection Sunday when Missouri State’s men’s basketball team had a RPI of 21. Missouri State boosters thought the Bears' inclusion in the field would be a formality since no team with a RPI as strong as theirs had ever been left out of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament field.
If I were to objectively put a probability on ISU’s playoff hopes, I’d put it at 60 percent. There are so many variables out of the Sycamores’ hands.
But, being the poor man’s FCS version of Nate Silver that I’m attempting to be, that percentage can change — for the good or for the ill — as FCS scores come in from across the nation Saturday.
All ISU can control is what it does against Youngstown State. A loss and the Sycamores are out. A win? Then the fun begins. Scoreboard-watching, FCS-style, will be engrossing.
Here’s a guide to what to look for on Decision Saturday. Just for fun, I attached a Threat Matrix to each game. Defcon-1 means it will have the most impact on the Sycamores’ hopes.
Big Sky Conference
• Eastern Washington (8-2) at Portland State (3-7) — The Eagles, and their red turf, are a good bet to make the field win or lose, but a loss to Portland State would only help the Sycamores. Threat matrix: Defcon-4.
• Cal Poly (8-2) at Northern Arizona (8-2) — This game’s a bit of a wash as far as ISU is concerned. The winner is almost certainly in. The loser will likely be below ISU in the pecking order. Threat matrix: Defcon-3.
Big South Conference
• Liberty (5-5) at VMI (2-8) — The humble Big South Conference, and the Liberty Flames, did perhaps more damage to at-large teams than any other single conference or team.
Liberty defeated Stony Brook, a top-10 team and presumptive Big South auto bid team, 28-14 last Saturday. As a result, the Flames, who are 4-1 in the Big South, have a chance to be bid-stealers and grab the Big South’s automatic bid if Coastal Carolina also loses.
Every bubble team in the land will be rooting hard for the Keydets. Threat matrix: Defcon-2.
• Charleston Southern (5-5) at Coastal Carolina (6-4) — The Chanticleers also are 4-1 in the Big South and Liberty’s win gave CCU the inside track on the Big South’s auto bid on the strength of CCU’s win over Liberty and the most road conference wins in a tiebreaker with Liberty and Stony Brook.
Stony Brook can do nothing about any of this since it’s idle this week. Stony Brook can only regain the auto bid if both Liberty and Coastal Carolina lose. The Sycamores need to hope both VMI and Charleston Southern rise up, because Stony Brook could steal an at-large bid. Threat matrix: Defcon-1.
Colonial Athletic Association
• Towson (6-4) at New Hampshire (8-2) — UNH has the inside track on the Colonial’s auto bid, but a win over Towson is no gimme. The Tigers have been ranked most of the season and gave LSU fits in a nonconference game. ISU fans should root for Towson, but UNH might be in anyway. Threat matrix: Defcon-4.
• Richmond (7-3) at William & Mary (2-8) — The Spiders have been hot, with four wins in their last five. The Tribe are more threatening than their record indicates with five losses by three points or less. A William & Mary victory would deep-six the Spiders, so ISU fans should throw their weight behind the Tribe. Threat matrix: Defcon-2.
• Villanova (7-3) at Delaware (5-5) — Like Richmond, Villanova is finishing with a flourish, having won three of four. The Wildcats have a mixed playoff resume with wins over James Madison and Old Dominion, but losses to Richmond and Towson. The Blue Hens are no pushovers. ISU fans should think happy thoughts about the First State. Threat matrix: Defcon-3.
• Old Dominion (9-1) at James Madison (7-3) — This game is huge. Old Dominion is another oddball case that hurts ISU and other bubble teams. The Monarchs are not eligible for the Colonial’s auto bid as they are leaving to move up to FBS. But ODU is eligible for an at-large bid, which it will almost certainly get, win or lose.
James Madison lost to Villanova last week and is teetering on the brink. However, a win over ODU would be a big resume padder. Keep your eyes on Harrisonburg, Va., ISU fans, and spare a thought for the Monarchs. Threat matrix: Defcon-1.
Missouri Valley Football Conference
• North Dakota State (9-1) at Illinois State (8-2) — This is a huge game for conference implications — NDSU clinches the title outright with a win, the Redbirds likely get the auto bid with a win — but for ISU, it’s more about resume padding. Though a NDSU win would cost ISU a chance at a share of the MVFC championship, it would solidify the playoff resume. A Redbirds win would take a small bit of shine off ISU’s win in Fargo. Threat matrix: Defcon-3.
• South Dakota (1-9) at South Dakota State (7-3) — There is no other game in FCS on Saturday that will have a bigger impact on ISU’s fate than this one.
If SDSU loses, ISU’s likelihood of making the playoffs increases exponentially. But if SDSU wins, that head-to-head 24-10 home loss for ISU on Sept. 22 looms large in a bad way for the Sycamores.
The Coyotes are winless in their first MVFC go-around and the game is at SDSU’s Coughlin-Alumni Stadium, a difficult place to win for a team of any caliber.
The one thing going for USD if that it hasn’t played its bitter state rival since 2003 (USD transitioned to Division I later than SDSU did) and emotions will run high. A Coyotes‚ upset would do wonders for the Sycamores. Threat matrix: Defcon-Infinity.
Ohio Valley Conference
• Tennessee State (8-2) at Tennessee-Martin (7-3) — The one bit of good bubble news ISU got last Saturday was UT-Martin’s overtime loss to Tennessee Tech, which knocked UT-Martin out of OVC auto bid contention (Eastern Illinois clinched it), and probably, out of at-large consideration as well. A Tigers‚ victory keeps their playoff hopes in play, so a Skyhawks‚ win does more for ISU. Threat matrix: Defcon-3.
• Lehigh (9-1) at Lafayette (5-5) — Like Stony Brook in the Big South, Lehigh — ranked all season in the polls — seemed to be in cruise control to get the Patriot League’s auto bid, until it lost 35-24 to Colgate last Saturday. Colgate stole the Patriot League’s auto bid with the victory.
A Lehigh loss to rival Lafayette would likely kill the Mountain Hawks off for an at-large bid as the Patriot League isn’t as strong as other FCS conferences. If Lehigh wins, at-large teams like ISU will sweat. Threat matrix: Defcon-2.
• Wofford (8-2) at South Carolina (8-2) — Yes, you read that right. The Wofford Terriers are going toe-to-toe with Steve Spurrier and the South Carolina Gamecocks.
The SoCon adds a bit of bizarre to the weekend festivities. All of its at-large hopefuls are playing SEC schools. Wofford, Georgia Southern and Appalachian State (idle this week) have a three-way piece of the SoCon title, but none have the auto bid yet, pending results this weekend further down in the league that will sort out tiebreakers.
Needless to say, ISU needs to hope for SEC beatdowns of all of the SoCon schools and also need to hope the SoCon tiebreakers don’t give 8-3 Appalachian State the auto bid.
Wofford might be in the field no matter what happens against South Carolina. Threat matrix: Defcon-4.
• Georgia Southern (9-2) at Georgia (9-1) — Like Wofford, Georgia Southern probably doesn’t have anything to worry about at-large-wise. Threat matrix: Defcon-5.
• Samford (7-3) at Kentucky (1-9) — This one is a bit more worrying. Samford beat Wofford and a win over a FBS team, even over a horror show program like UK, would help the Bulldogs a lot. Threat matrix: Defcon-3.
• Sam Houston State (8-2) at Texas A&M (8-2) — Another strange late season FCS-SEC crossover game. The Bearkats, national runners-up last year, have probably already solidified their FCS at-large bona fides. Central Arkansas already has the Southland’s auto bid. Threat matrix: Defcon-5.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.