Kent Schmidt

November 23, 2004
I-AA West: Playoff Robbery!!
Kent Schmidt, I-AA Western Columnist
Just like many of you, I anxiously awaited the I-AA playoff announcement Sunday. I really couldn’t believe my ears as the playoff field was announced.

Of course, I was mostly concerned with where and whom the West (those in the Big Sky, Southland, and Great West) teams would be playing since that is the region I cover. I found out that Montana would be hosting Northwestern State, Eastern Washington would be traveling to Southern Illinois, and Sam Houston State would be hosting Western Kentucky.

What? There had to be something missing. It didn’t say where the Great West Football Conference champion Cal Poly would be playing. That was when I found out about the Mustangs and what the Playoff Committee had chosen.

Cal Poly had been left out!!!

Who took the last playoff spot away from Cal Poly?

Every conceivable scenario went wrong Saturday for Cal Poly to assure the Mustangs of making the postseason but Cal Poly still did their part in whipping Sacramento State 58-13 on Saturday. There were three teams that likely would have been home for the Thanksgiving weekend if they would have lost Saturday and Cal Poly would have been in with that win. However, these three teams (Lafayette, Delaware, and Northwestern State) all won.

Out East, Lafayette defeated their rival Lehigh to take the Patriot League automatic bid away from the previous league leading Mountain Hawks. Lehigh, despite losing, was rewarded with an at-large spot with their 9-2 record.

Defending champion Delaware defeated Villanova to get to 8-3 overall to get in from the leading GPI conference, the Atlantic 10. Conference mates New Hampshire, William & Mary and James Madison will join the Blue Hens in the Field of 16.

In the Southland, Northwestern State defeated Stephen F. Austin, while Sam Houston State defeated Texas State. With these scenarios, both Northwestern State and Sam Houston made the postseason. Northwestern State won the automatic bid with an 8-3 record, while Sam Houston State won a share of the title and was rewarded with an at-large bid with their 9-2 overall record.

The Lafayette win likely was the worst of the three scenarios to happen for the Mustangs. By the 8-3 Leopards winning and gaining the Patriot League automatic bid, it most likely pitted the final at-large playoff spot between Lehigh and Cal Poly for the playoff committee to choose.

Why did the committee pick Lehigh over Cal Poly?

Lehigh being picked over Cal Poly is puzzling to me. Lehigh just missed getting into the playoffs in 2003 and maybe that played into the playoff committee’s decision this year. And this year the Mountain Hawks were ranked in the Top 10 most of the year but that was before they lost to Lafayette.

Well, using last year’s misfortune for Lehigh for this year’s glory is plain just not right!!!

These are the 2004 playoffs, played with 2004 teams, played with 2004 players. The 2003 season should have no bearing on the 2004 playoff selection. Here is an excerpt of the playoff criteria from the NCAA playoff manual:

1. The committee shall select the best teams available on a national at-large basis to complete the bracket; 2. There is no limit to the number of teams the committee may select from one conference; 3. The won-lost record of a team will be scrutinized to determine a team’s strength of schedule; however, more than three losses will place a team in jeopardy of not being selected; 4. The committee may give more consideration to those teams that have played all Division I opponents; and 5. If the team of a committee member is under consideration, the member may not vote for the team being considered and will not be in the room when a vote is taken.”

Nowhere in this list does it mention past year’s results as part of the criteria.

Let’s breakdown what is in the criteria one point at a time.

1. Cal Poly won their conference (the Great West Football Conference) outright with a 4-1 conference record. Lehigh was 5-1 in the Patriot League and tied Lafayette for the league crown with Lafayette having the tiebreaker for the auto bid.

The Great West Football Conference was ranked as the #2 overall conference in the GPI rankings. The Patriot League was the #8 ranked conference in these rankings.

Advantage Cal Poly on strength of conference.

2. The number of playoff teams in a conference is not relevant when comparing the two schools. Either conference could have had more than one member selected. However, by not choosing Cal Poly the Great West did not receive a bid at all, where as the Patriot League received two bids. The Great West is in its first year as a conference and its champion does not receive an automatic bid for the post season.

Advantage neither, although having representation from another conference would have been more beneficial for I-AA football because it would give more recognition to the division nationwide rather than sending two teams from the same region in the Patriot League.

3. The records of both Cal Poly and Lehigh were 9-2 overall so both teams were well within the playoff criteria for number of losses. But Cal Poly had a tougher schedule, at least in my opinion.

Cal Poly had wins on the road against ranked teams in Montana State and North Dakota State. Cal Poly also defeated Texas State at home, a team who was up for the Southland title going into the final weekend of play before losing.

Cal Poly’s two losses were at playoff bound Eastern Washington and at home to in-state and GWFC rival UC Davis. Both of these teams have been ranked in the Top 25 most of the season. Cal Poly also went 3-1 against the Big Sky Conference opponents it faced this season and all four of these games were road contests.

Lehigh’s two losses were to Top 25 ranked Villanova and unranked Lafayette. Lehigh had one win over a Top 25 team in defeating Colgate at home. Probably the biggest road win for the Mountain Hawks was defeating the Ivy League’s Yale—a team who finished just 5-5.

Advantage Cal Poly in strength of schedule.

4. Both teams did play the majority of their schedules against I-AA opponents with Cal Poly having one exception in playing DII Humboldt (CA) State to open the season. Lehigh played an entire Division I-AA schedule. However, Lehigh did play two non-scholarship I-AA teams; Stony Brook and Albany from the Northeast Conference.

Advantage Lehigh slightly on playing an entire I-AA schedule.

5. I bring this item up just for the fact that no Great West school has a representative on the playoff council, where as the Patriot League does. This should not be an advantage to any team if the committee is looking for the best possible teams to make up the Field of 16 for 2004 but you have to think that in the back of a committee member’s mind what would be best for your own conference. The Patriot League had Bucknell’s AD John Hardt as one of the eight representatives on the playoff committee for selection.

Advantage Lehigh for having a Patriot League representative on the committee.

Well, it is a 2-2 tie on the five criteria the way I see it. However to me, the strength of schedule and strength of conference are the top two criteria and that should have meant we see Cal Poly in the playoffs. In saying this, I have nothing against Lehigh. I just feel Cal Poly would have been the better choice between the two.

Has the playoff committee snubbed Cal Poly in the past?

Yes, in 1997 the Mustangs finished 10-1 but were left out that year as well. The reason likely in 1997 ironically was the strength of schedule. That year, the Mustangs played as a I-AA independent team. The Mustangs, however, did defeat I-A New Mexico State and current perennial playoff hopefuls Northern Iowa and Montana State. Their one loss was at Liberty.

That 1997 Mustang team though did have four games against lower divisional teams and was likely the reason why they were left out.

Getting back to this year, people may make the argument that Wofford two years ago and Lehigh last year being left out caused those teams to be looked at more closely in the following season.

I will agree with that statement that these teams need to be observed more closely but I don’t agree that those teams necessarily need to be chosen if there is a close call.

One thing those two prior teams did not have over Cal Poly was an outright conference championship. Those two teams also had more losses than Cal Poly (Wofford 9-3 in 2002 and Lehigh 8-3 in 2003).

It is hard to believe that a 9-2, conference championship team would be left out of the playoffs, especially after what we have seen Cal Poly do on the field this year. It is also hard to believe that the rest of the country will not be able to see Cal Poly’s star players in action. Star linebacker and Buck Buchanan hopeful Jordan Beck and star kick returner/wide receiver Darrell Jones have played their last games as Mustangs since both were seniors this year.

Even though the playoff selection process seems to be flawed, I will take this process over the I-A Bowl system any day. I want to see the champion won on the field, not in the polls.

I just hope that in future years the best possible teams in the country are given their chance to prove it on the field and the committee members do not look at past seasons in determining the current season’s playoff field.

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I-AA West Game of the Week

Last Week—Montana 38 Montana State 22


Montana claimed a share of the Big Sky Conference title in defeating Montana State at home in Missoula. Montana will share the title with Eastern Washington (both have 6-1 conference marks) but received the automatic bid since the Grizzlies defeated the Eagles earlier this year for the tiebreaker.

Montana took control of the game late in the first quarter, when Lex Hilliard's one-yard run gave UM a 14-7 lead. Hilliard scored from five yards out for a 21-7 UM lead in the second quarter, before EJ Cochrane trimmed the lead to 11 at the intermission with a 27-yard field goal.

Montana quarterback Craig Ochs was nearly flawless on the day, throwing 280 yards on 22-for-29 passing. Grizzly running back Lex Hilliard rushed for 120 yards.

Travis Lulay threw for 356 yards for MSU on 27-of-56 passing.

The win upped the Grizzlies to a 9-2 overall record, while the Bobcats finished the season at 6-5.

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I-AA West Playoff Preview

As mentioned earlier in the column, three games involve four members of the I-AA West (now just the Big Sky and Southland Conferences). I will breakdown these games and give a prediction on these three this week.

Northwestern State (8-3) @ Montana (9-2)

This marks the third playoff meeting between the Demons and the Grizzlies and all three have been in Missoula. The Grizzlies have won the two prior meetings in 2001 and 2002, also first round match-ups, 29-19 and 45-14 respectively.

Both teams are their respective conference’s (Northwestern State—Southland, Montana-Big Sky) automatic bid qualifiers this year but that is basically where the similarities stop.

The Demons are more of a swarming defensive based, run orientated team, where as the Grizzlies are more of a passing team with a “bend but don’t break” type of defense.

The Demons are led offensively by the rushing combination of juniors Derrick Johnese (1035 yards, 140 attempts, 9 TDs) and Shelton Sampson (687 yards, 130 attempts, 11 TDs). Demon quarterback, junior Davon Vinson, also likes to run the ball. He has 320 yards on 56 attempts and five TDs on the ground. Through the air, Vinson had 1138 yards on 76-of-143 and nine TDs this season.

Senior quarterback Craig Ochs leads the Grizzlies offensively. Ochs has 2741 yards passing on 215-of-321 and 21 TDs so far in 2004. The Grizzlies leading receiver is senior Jefferson Heidelberger with 1000 receiving yards on 62 catches. The Grizzlies, this year, have also used the ground game. Running backs Lex Hilliard (630 yards, 132 attempts, 10 TDs) and Justin Green (541yards, 140 attempts, 7 TDs) have given the Grizzlies a more balanced attack then in previous Grizzly teams.

Defensively, the Grizzlies have given up 24.6 points per game and an average of 430.4 yards per game. The Demons “Purple Swarm” (as they are nicknamed), conversely, have given up 20.4 points per game and 250.3 yards per game.

One stat that may be the deciding factor in this game is the road and home records for each team. Montana is 7-0 at home in Washington Grizzly Stadium. Northwestern State is just 2-3 on the road.

I will take the Grizzlies in this game by two touchdowns in a game that likely will see the Grizzlies score in the 30’s despite the great Demon defense.

Eastern Washington (8-3) @ #1 Southern Illinois (10-1)

Eastern Washington is making its fourth overall trip to the postseason and first since 1997. Southern Illinois is making its second straight playoff trip and also its fourth overall.

Eastern Washington is a team on the rise and has to be scary for the #1 overall seeded Salukis. EWU lost their first two games of the season on the road to Nicholls State and I-A Air Force. However, the Eagles have won eight of their final nine games, with the only blemish being at the last seconds to Montana as their tying field goal attempt was blocked.

Southern Illinois went through their Gateway Conference schedule unblemished at 7-0 and their only loss was a 23-22 defeat at I-A Northern Illinois.

Junior quarterback Erik Meyer leads the Eagles offensive attack. Meyer is 207-of-308 passing with 28 TD and seven interceptions. The EWU quarterback has a passer rating of 175.49 and threw for 3,037 yards during the regular season.

Eagles’ wide receiver Eric Kimble caught 68 of Meyer’s passes for 1,207 yards this season and 16 were for touchdowns.

Mainly from Meyer and Kimble’s work, the Eagles are the fifth ranked total offense (468.9) in I-AA play.

While the Eagles mainly move the ball through the air, the Salukis mainly do it with a mixed offensive attack.

SIU quarterback junior Joel Sambursky has 175.3 rating (63.1 percent, 2,061 yards, 19 touchdowns, four interceptions); just second to EWU’s Meyer in I-AA quarterback rankings nationwide.

SIU has depth at the running back position. The Salukis are lead by sophomore Arkee Whitlock (874 yards, 135 attempts, 12 TDs). However, two more backs (senior Brandon Jacobs (826 yards, 125 attempts, 15 TDs) and senior Terry Jackson (441 yards, 87 attempts, 2 TDs) have also given SIU multiple options for their running attack.

The Eagles defense has given up 23.4 points per game and 356.3 yards per game. The Salukis have been much stingier this season. They have given up just 11.2 points per game and just 280.4 yards per game.

Even though the Eagles have played extremely well as of late, I do not think they will be able to handle the Salukis this week. I like SIU to win by ten in a game that likely will be in 20’s for the winning team.

Western Kentucky (8-3) @ Sam Houston State (9-2)

Sam Houston State defeated Texas State on Saturday to capture a share of the Southland title with Northwestern State. This is the fourth trip to the I-AA playoffs for the Bearkats and first since 2001.

Western Kentucky is making its fifth straight I-AA postseason tournament and eighth overall. The Hilltoppers won the I-AA title in 2002.

Quarterback Dustin Long leads Sam Houston State’s spread offense. Long has accounted for 3408 yards on 229-of-373 passing and 31 touchdowns. The Bearkats have scored 37.8 points per game.

Jarrod Fuller (1111 yards, 74 receptions, 7 TDs) and Jason Mathenia (985 yards, 51 receptions, 11 TDs) are SHSU’s leading two wide receivers.

Running back Jason Godfrey gives the Bearkats a running threat. He has gained 581 yards on 103 attempts on the season.

The Hilltoppers are ranked 12th in the country in yards per game on the ground and are averaging better than 400 yards per contest of total offense for the first time since 1998. Quarterback Justin Haddix has accounted for 2,000 yards of total offense, while a trio of running backs — Lerron Moore, Brian Porter and Stephen Willis — have each run for more than 450. Maurice Perkins is WKU’s leading receiver with 746 yards on 38 catches.

Defensively, the Hilltoppers are ranked fifth nationally after allowing just 15.7 points per outing (second among I-AA scholarship programs). Western Kentucky has given up 334.5 yards per game.

The Bearkat defense is giving up 22.4 points per game and 375.0 yards per game.

Sam Houston State is undefeated (7-0) at home this year, while Western Kentucky is just 4-2 on the road.

I like the home winning ways to continue for the Bearkats this week but this likely will be the closest game of the three playoff games involving a West team. I will take SHSU by three on a last second field goal.

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I-AA West News & Notes

-Weber State Head Coach Jerry Graybeal has resigned after seven years with the Wildcats. Graybeal will be reassigned within the Weber State athletic department as a Special Assistant to the Director of Athletics, effective immediately. Graybeal compiled a 32-46 record overall, including a 20-32 mark in the Big Sky Conference in his tenure.

-Stephen F. Austin released Head Coach Mike Santiago after the team’s loss to Northwestern State Saturday. SFA never reached the playoffs under Santiago’s guidance but his teams posted a 39-27 record overall and was 21-14 in Southland Conference play.

- Big Sky Conference Commissioner Doug Fullerton has suspended Weber State wide receiver Wiley King for the first half of the Wildcats first game of the 2005 season. King was ejected for fighting in Weber State’s season finale on November 13. The Wildcats lost to Portland State 34-15.

-Portland State has agreed to open the 2005 season at Oregon State, September 3.

-Cal Poly is scheduled to renew their long lost rivalry with I-A San Jose State starting in 2006. The Mustangs and Spartans, who haven't played since 1958, have signed a contract to play in San Jose during the 2006 and 2009 seasons.

-North Dakota State and Montana State have signed a deal to play September 17th in the 2005 season for a game in Bozeman.

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