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College football’s best Cinderella story missed the FCS playoffs amid an NCAA contradiction

FCS-vs.-FBS games are welcomed, except when they’re not.

Austin Peay v Cincinnati
Austin Peay head coach Will Healy.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The best story in Division I football won’t be part of the postseason. The Austin Peay Governors, an FCS program in Clarksville, Tenn., had a nation-worst 29-game losing streak before beating Morehead State to snap it in Week 3.

The Governors kept winning, and they just wrapped up an 8-4 season by beating Eastern Illinois. Their 32-year-old head coach, Will Healy, crowd-surfed without a shirt in the locker room Saturday night.

Sunday morning was less fun.

“You could coach for a long, long, long time,” Healy tells SB Nation on Sunday, “and never, ever go from the expectation of ‘I hope we can win one game’ to absolutely devastated when you don’t make the national football playoffs in one season.”

The NCAA’s FCS playoff selection committee released this year’s 24-team bracket, and Peay wasn’t on it. The committee chairman, Richard Johnson, said Peay was one of the first two teams out. The committee took Nicholls State (8-3) and South Dakota (7-4) over Peay (8-4) and Delaware (7-4).

These are hard calls, but the reason Peay got left out is eye-catching.

From the 0:47 mark here:

Peay’s record against fellow FCS teams was 8-1, compared to 8-2 for Nicholls and 7-3 for South Dakota, though South Dakota had a handful of wins better than any of Peay’s. Every program that made the field had a strong case.

It’s just that the stated rationale for Peay’s exclusion is telling. Bolding is mine:

The committee looked at them very, very hard. They’re a compelling story. But when we looked at it, and you look at the three FBS losses and then a loss to Jacksonville State, they were 0-1 against teams in the field. We look at that consistently. We looked at head-to-head rankings, and because they played the FBS teams, they didn’t play any additional FCS opponents, and that [led Peay to] forego an opportunity there to beat an FCS opponent out of conference.

The only FCS team to beat Austin Peay was Jacksonville State, which earned the No. 3 seed in the playoffs and a first-round bye. The other three were FBS teams, which have higher scholarship counts, better resources, and compete at the top level of college football: Cincinnati, Miami (Ohio), and UCF.

The Govs were competitive at Cincinnati and slightly less so at Miami. They got crushed at UCF, currently the undefeated No. 15 team at the higher level, but scored 33 points, nine more than any FBS team has managed against the Knights. Healy thinks Peay should’ve gotten a bigger bounce for its respectable showings against FBS opposition.

“I’d love to know what [UCF head coach] Scott Frost thinks about our team being an FCS playoff team,” Healy says.

Peay was penalized for playing FBS games, which is awkward.

It’s awkward because the NCAA encourages those games, as does the structure of college football itself.

Each FBS team is allowed to count one FCS win toward bowl eligibility, per NCAA rules, and several teams get eligible for the postseason every year by doing just that.

FBS schools also pay out guarantees in exchange for FCS teams to visit — usually in the mid-six figures — and the FCS teams trade a likely loss for critical money and a selling point for recruits. These games are critical to the operations of small-school athletic departments like Peay’s.

“There are some schools that have enough money in their budget, or some of the private universities that don’t need that funding, that they don’t have go to play [FBS teams],” Healy says. “And I wouldn’t play ‘em if I didn’t have to go play ‘em either. But we need to for our athletic department, as do a lot of the schools in our conference, so we’ve gotta do it.”

Now Peay is a cautionary tale for FCS schedulers.

It turns out the Govs’ paths to this 24-team tournament were to either go undefeated against their own level or to nearly do that while also beating an 85-scholarship team on the road.

Peay’s schedule was written before Healy and athletic director Ryan Ivey came on board. Two of the FBS games Peay played were pre-scheduled, and the other was a hastily put-together visit to UCF after Hurricane Irma left UCF short of games on its schedule. The NCAA gave Peay a waiver to play that one but never would’ve to play an FCS game, Healy figures. Peay tried to get out of its Week 2 trip to Miami (Ohio) and replace that one with a more winnable FCS game, but couldn’t.

Healy and Ivey had already decided to schedule just one FBS opponent per year going forward and also to really make it a trip worth taking. Next year, Peay’s only FBS game is Week 1 at Georgia. Peay will lose that game, but it beats the alternative.

“When it comes to 85 full scholarships vs. 63, there’s gonna be a point in time in those games where it’s difficult to win, obviously, and to even compete at times,” Healy says. “But I would rather be able to go play in front of 85,000 people in a big-time SEC atmosphere than I would play two mid-majors.”

Healy expects Peay to bring in from the Georgia game about what it would bring in from scheduling two Group of 5 schools, as it’d planned to do this season, before UCF joined as well.

The two-game philosophy might work if you’re an FCS power and can pick off a decent mid-major, but it’s dangerous business for most FCS teams. In the future, Peay will add a more winnable FCS game to its slate, and maybe it won’t miss the playoffs again if it only loses one game at its own level.

Still, Peay’s season was magic. This outcome doesn’t change that.

Healy’s 45-minute meeting with his team Sunday morning was the hardest single moment of his coaching career, he says. Peay’s resurgence against a backdrop of overwhelming misery made this a year the school will never forget, playoff or not.