In September, 504 schools that aren't members of Division I suited up and began a three-month journey. Last Saturday, most of them walked off the field for the final time this year.
They mostly play for the love of the game, and maybe some small hope of being noticed if they're a lot more talented than anyone suspected coming out of high school. As such, it would be improper to say those 400-plus teams failed.
But the 72 teams selected for the playoffs in Divisions II and III and the NAIA certainly succeeded, and the handful of schools selected to play in bowl games get one last chance to strap on the pads. Saturday, the playoffs begin. Here's what's up.
In the land of 30 scholarships, the playoff structure is clear: four super-regions, and the higher seed hosts each game. The lone exception is the semifinals, where the NCAA will decide which team out of each pairing hosts; Super Region One is paired with Super Region Three this year, and Two with Four. It'll be three weeks before we have to worry about that, though.
You'll note that the Massey Ratings and the seeds look a wee bit crazy. The NCAA uses different criteria, and a team's performance against other teams from within its region is vastly more important for seeding than what may have happened in cross-sectional contests. In Division II and III, the later rounds really are much more of a playoff between regional champions than a national tournament.
Super Region One
(6) Long Island-C.W. Post Pioneers (8-3, 56th in Massey's D-II rating)
at (3) Virginia State Trojans (9-2, 48th)
The Pioneers upset American International in the Northeast-10 Championship and managed to impress the committee enough to sneak into the final spot. Virginia State, from the Richmond suburb of Petersburg, also earned their way into the field the hard way, upsetting Winston-Salem State in the CIAA Championship.
(5) The Rock of Slippery Rock (9-2, 31st)
at (4) West Chester Golden Rams (10-1, 21st)
Another upset entrant, Slippery Rock knocked off Bloomsburg in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference title. They're up against their cross-state conference mates from West Chester, whose only loss of the season was to Bloomsburg.
(1) Concord Mountain Lions (11-0, 27th)
(2) Bloomsburg Huskies (10-1, 18th)
Despite the loss to the Rock, Bloomsburg's resume was more than enough to maintain the first-round bye. Concord, from way down in West Virginia and champions of the Mountain East, righteously earned the top seed by dispatching Shepherd in their season finale.
Super Region Two
(6) West Georgia Wolves (9-2, 16th)
at (3) Tuskegee Tigers (9-2, 55th)
Tuskegee earned their way in with a victory over Albany State in the SIAC Championship. West Georgia? Well, they're in because the top half of the Gulf South is stacked and SEC-ed one another -- West Georgia handed Delta State their only loss -- and also because Super Region Two is weak compared to others.
(5) Valdosta State Blazers (8-2, 11th)
at (4) North Alabama Lions (9-1, 7th)
Valdosta's in for the same reasons as West Georgia, but lost to Delta State and UNA. They get a first-round rematch with the Lions, whose only loss was to Delta State, and miss out on a bye. Getting the fourth seed ensures no rematch with Delta State in the second round.
(1) Lenoir-Rhyne Bears (11-0, 8th)
(2) Delta State Statesmen (9-1, 6th)
Lenoir-Rhyne, who lost last year's championship to Northwest Missouri State, hasn't lost since. The Bears, hailing from Hickory, N.C., cruised to the South Atlantic Conference title. The Gulf South champion Fighting Okra earned the other bye.
Super Region Three
(6) Harding Bison (9-1, 15th)
at (3) Pittsburg State Gorillas (10-1, 3rd)
Massey really runs at odds with seeding in SR3, as the top three teams in the country are in this region, yet two of them didn't even get a bye. The MIAA champion Gorillas' only blemish was an inexplicable -- for a team averaging nearly 40 points a game -- 7-6 loss to Fort Hays State. Harding, located just northeast of Little Rock, survived the scrum for the final spot in the region. Their only loss was to top-seeded Ouachita Baptist.
(5) Northwest Missouri State Bearcats (10-1, 2nd)
at (4) Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (11-0, 9th)
Losses matter, you see. The Bearcats' only stumble was at home to Pittsburg State, while Duluth rolled to the Northern Sun North Division crown. The SR3 second round will be insane.
(1) Ouachita Baptist Tigers (10-0, 17th)
(2) Minnesota State-Mankato Mavericks (11-0, 1st)
Ouachita's here because their Great American Conference championship and unbeaten record -- including wins over Harding and an 8-2 Henderson State that spent the first two months in the top five of the D2 poll -- was deemed more worthy than MSU-Mankato steamrolling a relatively weak division. The NSIC South, other than Sioux Falls, is pretty sad. Yet Massey has the Mavs No. 1.
Super Region Four
(6) Angelo State Rams (8-2, 12th)
at (3) Michigan Tech Huskies (9-1, 19th)
Angelo State earned in with a victory over Texas A&M-Commerce in the Lone Star Championship. They have to travel all the way to the wilds of Michigan's Upper Peninsula to take on Tech, whose only loss on the year was to Ferris State.
(5) Ohio Dominican Panthers (9-1, 10th)
at (4) Colorado School of Mines Miners (10-1, 26th)
#StittHappens. It's not a reach to point at this as the most interesting game of the first round to SB Nation's brain trust. Dominican, otherwise known as "The Other Decent Football School in Columbus," suffered their only loss to Ferris State. Mines, meanwhile, had to sweat inclusion in the field despite their only loss coming at the hands of Pueblo; they probably wouldn't have been in that position if Pueblo hadn't lost a game.
(1) Ferris State Bulldogs (11-0, 4th)
(2) Colorado State-Pueblo Thunderwolves (10-1, 13th)
Ferris's resume is detailed above already. Pueblo has the best win in all of D2 -- they knocked off Sam Houston State, which is still alive in the FCS playoff conversation. But they also somehow managed to lose to 3-8 Fort Lewis, best known to you as the current employer of John L. Smith.
Sioux Falls (10-1) is the fifth-ranked team in Massey and a top-20 team in the polls. They're off to the Mineral Water Bowl in Excelsior Springs, Mo., against Central Oklahoma. Azusa Pacific (10-1) won the Great Northwest. Indianapolis (9-2) won the Great Lakes Valley, but only have themselves to blame after losing their season finale to 5-6 William Jewell.
The D3 field is a little more nebulous than Division II's. The bracket is set in stone, but who hosts each round can change. If you start on the road, you're on the road for good, unless you're up against someone else that started on the road. But the committee won't decide who hosts second-round games until the first round's done.
We have a pretty good idea who's set to host through the semifinals. As such, we'll refer to each bracket by the school we expect to host its quarterfinal. The five at-large entries and three Pool B entries -- champs of conferences that are too small or too new to possess auto-bids -- are in italics; each pair of games indicates the second-round pairing.
D3 games Saturday will all take place at noon local time.
Macalester Scots (9-1, 107th in Massey's D3 ratings)
at Wisconsin-Whitewater Warhawks (10-0, 7th)
Franklin Grizzlies (8-2, 87th)
at Wabash Little Giants (9-1, 22nd)
Saint Scholastica Saints (10-0, 171st)
at Saint John's Johnnies (9-1, 12th)
Saint Thomas Tommies (8-2, 19th)
at Wartburg Knights (10-0, 5th)
Although Wartburg may have the better resume, Whitewater's been the top-ranked team in both polls all year, and they're pretty much a lock to host. Other than Macalester, all of these teams are old hands; the Scots are making their first appearance after winning the Midwest Conference in their first year in the league.
Franklin won the Heartland and Saint Scholastica the Upper Midwest, both for the umpteenth year in a row. Saint John's hasn't won the MIAC since 2009, but they had a long history of appearances under the legendary John Gagliardi.
Whitewater is the favorite, but there are teams here that can dethrone the defending champs. As anyone not living under a rock knows, Whitewater has beaten Mount Union four of the last five years in the Stagg Bowl national championship.
Mary Hardin-Baylor Bracket
Texas Lutheran Bulldogs (9-1, 29th)
at Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders (10-0, 2nd)
Chapman Panthers (8-1, 24th)
at Linfield Wildcats (8-1, 13th)
Muhlenberg Mules (9-1,15th)
at Widener Pride (10-0, 9th)
Christopher Newport Captains (7-3, 70th)
at Delaware Valley Aggies (9-1, 20th)
Every year, due to travel considerations, the teams in Texas and on the West Coast end up together in one bracket with a random pair of other games. It leads to either a horribly imbalanced bracket or a nightmare. This is somehow both.
Texas Lutheran has already been pummeled by UMHB; they won the four-team Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference, which used to be a lot bigger before seven schools left to form the Southern Athletic Association. Delaware Valley was unbeaten four days ago; they lost the Middle Atlantic title to Widener.
Muhlenberg is in as an at-large out of the Centennial Conference, their only loss coming to Johns Hopkins. Chapman (Orange, CA) and Linfield (McMinnville, OR) make up the Pacific Coast contingent in this year's field. Getting to the quarterfinal will be a gauntlet, but then there looms UMHB, which seemingly hasn't lost a regular season game in years and has become a regular semifinalist. This year, they're just destruction personified; they've scored over 80 each of the last two weeks, over 70 four times this year, and over 50 six times.
Hampden-Sydney Tigers (7-3, 55th)
at Wesley (DE) Wolverines (9-1, 6th)
MIT Engineers (8-0, 80th)
at Husson Eagles (8-1, 133rd)
Rowan Profs (7-3, 41st)
at Johns Hopkins Blue Jays (10-0, 4th)
Ithaca Bombers (7-3, 32nd)
at Hobart Statesmen (10-0, 25th)
MIT! Hi there! The nerds earned their first-ever conference championship and first-ever playoff bid and went unbeaten and gosh things are just crazy in Cambridge. (MIT and Harvard are a combined 17-0. Madness.) Of course, they have to go to Maine to play Husson because their stadium's just not up to snuff.
Hampden-Sydney survived a four-way tie in the Old Dominion to get in, and Rowan won a three-way tie in New Jersey to claim a bid. All of these teams got auto-bids except Wesley, a Pool B selection, whose only loss was to FCS Charlotte.
Ithaca might have gotten a better break, except the season-ending Cortaca Jug rivalry game went sour at the final gun. You've probably seen the video, but just in case:
Mount Union Bracket
Adrian Bulldogs (8-2, 95th)
at Mount Union Purple Raiders (10-0, 1st)
Washington & Jefferson Presidents (9-1, 31st)
at Wittenberg Tigers (9-1, 21st)
Centre Colonels (10-0, 38th)
at John Carroll Blue Streaks (9-1, 11th)
Benedictine (IL) Eagles (6-4, 160th)
at Wheaton (IL) Thunder (10-0, 36th)
If the Whitewater and UMHB brackets are minefields, this is a cakewalk. The only real challenge to Mount Union here comes from the team they beat last weekend; John Carroll was seven yards away from the end zone and seven points down, but ran afoul of the spike rule when they tried to stop the clock with only two seconds to go.
Wheaton's a regular player, but their conference was uncharacteristically soft this year. Centre, champion of the Southern Athletic Association and forced into an at-large situation because the SAA doesn't get their autobid until next year, suffers from one of the worst SOS figures imaginable for an at-large entry. And the rest of the bracket is either mundane (W&J, Wittenberg) or bad (Adrian, Benedictine). A Union-Carroll rematch is the most likely outcome.
The most prominent is Framingham State. The champions of the MASCAC, which has no autobid until next year, were left out because their resume didn't hold up against the rest of the at-large entries. North Central (IL), runners-up to Wheaton in the CCIW, had their place stolen by Saint Thomas, largely due to the MIAC's stronger profile.
And then there's the two Wisconsin schools. 7-3 Wisconsin-Platteville lost to both Whitewater and Oshkosh, finishing third in the WIAC and thus needed Oshkosh to get in. Wisconsin-Oshkosh went 6-1 in the WIAC but 6-4 overall. SEC fans? You have nothing on WIAC aficionados. Oshkosh's argument? Those three other losses were to an FCS team (South Dakota State, probably going to the FCS playoffs) and two NAIA squads (including Marian, going to the NAIA playoffs).
The NAIA field is the top 16 teams in the final coaches' poll, unless there's one or more conference (or division, for conferences with more than 10 teams) champion ranked 17-20. Naturally, that happened.
Saturday's NAIA game times are still to be determined.
(14) Valley City State (ND) Vikings (9-1, 34th in Massey's NAIA ratings)
at (1) Carroll (MT) Saints (9-1, 1st)
(16) Langston (OK) Lions (7-3, 18th)
at (2) Grand View (IA) Vikings (9-1, 3rd)
(17) Campbellsville (KY) Tigers (7-3, 10th)
at (3) Saint Xavier (IL) Cougars (8-2, 4th)
(13) Ottawa (KS) Braves (9-2, 37th)
at (4) Morningside (IA) Mustangs (9-1, 21st)
(12) Northwestern (IA) Red Raiders (8-2, 38th)
at (5) Missouri Valley (MO) Vikings (8-2, 31st)
(11) Faulkner (AL) Eagles (9-2, 9th)
at (6) Lindsey Wilson (KY) Blue Raiders (9-2, 7th)
(10) Georgetown (KY) Tigers (8-2, 8th)
at (7) Marian (IN) Knights (8-2, 6th)
(9) MidAmerica Nazarene (KS) Pioneers (9-1, 33rd)
at (8) Southern Oregon Raiders (9-2, 2nd)
As far as Massey goes, it may not be able to properly calculate the trickle-down from higher levels. The four conferences in the Great Plains are sorely underrated. The most interesting matchup of the first round is that Faulkner-Lindsey Wilson tilt, the only pairing featuring conference foes.
Campbellsville made the field because they were the champions of the Mid-South Conference's west division. That leads to the only actual snub: Eastern Oregon, which finished the season ranked 16th.