Nov. 18, 2008

By Nate Crossman
Special to NCAA.com

With one weekend remaining in the regular season, only four of the eight automatic bids to the 16-team FCS Championship are secured, meaning they’ll be plenty of teeth gnashing right up until the selection show Sunday.

By far the biggest calculator destroyer comes in the Southland Conference, where the true champion might not be eligible for the postseason, leaving three teams to sort it out with a myriad of confusing formulas. Earlier this month, the Southland decided that Central Arkansas, which is in its transitional phase to the FCS, would not be eligible for the conference championship, since it’s not eligible for the postseason. That was good news for McNeese State and Texas State, who are tied for second, and Northwestern State, which is in third.

Now comes the confusing part. Since Texas State beat McNeese, if all three teams win (Texas State plays Sam Houston, McNeese plays Central Arkansas and Northwestern plays Stephen F. Austin) than Texas State earns a tie for the championship and the automatic bid. If all three lose, the same scenario applies. But if Texas State and McNeese State lose and Northwestern wins, they have to go to the third tie breaker. The only way Northwestern earns the automatic bid is if last-place Nicholls State beats Southeastern Louisiana.

The remaining three conferences are more straight-forward.

In the Ohio Valley Conference, Tennessee-Martin hosts Eastern Kentucky for the conference championship and automatic bid. That’s OK by Tennessee-Martin coach Jason Simpson.

“I’m happy to have it a one-game season,” Simpson said. “Because that’s what it is; and you got it at home.”

The OVC showdown truly is a one-game season, since both Tennessee-Martin and Eastern Kentucky will be on the bubble in terms of at-large bids, because of losses to Tennessee State.

The same goes for the Patriot League, where Colgate will host Holy Cross for the championship. The Crusaders lost to UMass, Harvard and Yale, while the Raiders fell to Stony Brook and Furman.

All Southern Illinois has to do is beat Illinois State to win the Missouri Valley Football Conference and the automatic bid, since it beat Northern Iowa during the regular season. But Northern Iowa, which closes out its season against non-conference Southern Utah, looks good for an at-large bid.

Although it’s not for a playoff bid, the Ivy League is set for an exciting finish. Harvard and Brown are tied atop the standings and any combination of a Crimson or Bears win or loss will crown a solo champion. But if both of them lose and Penn and Yale win, then there will be a four-way tie for the first time in Ivy League history.

So You’re Saying There’s A Chance

While a few of the at-large bids are spoken for by teams in automatic-bid conferences, there are still a few up for grabs, which could make for some interesting scoreboard watching.

New Hampshire and Maine will play for the CAA Northern Division title, with the loser potentially out of the playoff picture. The Wildcats have fared well without quarterback Ricky Santos, but still have losses to Villanova and William & Mary on their resume. The Black Bears are winners of six in a row, but lost back-to-back games to James Madison and Richmond.

The other matchup that carries implications for both teams is Elon’s game at Liberty. The Flames appeared to have squandered their opportunity to earn an at-large bid after losses to Lafayette and Presbyterian. But they bounced back with convincing wins over VMI and Gardner-Webb, and could give the selection committee something to ponder if they upset the Phoenix. Despite its losses to Richmond, Wofford and Appalachian State, Elon could solidify their at-large bid credentials with a win over Liberty.

Payton Tracker

With only one more week to go in the regular season, the Walter Payton Award race appears to be between multi-faceted quarterbacks. The two most-qualified candidates are Appalachian State’s Armanti Edwards and James Madison’s Rodney Landers, who play on possibly the two best teams in the FCS.

Edwards only played part of this past weekend’s game due to injury, but still threw for 147 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 104 more in his team’s 24-16 Southern Conference-clinching win over Elon. Edwards needs only 25 yards to become the 26th FCS player to accumulate 10,000 yards of total offense for his career, and 110 rushing yards to become the first FCS player to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in a season twice. He did it the first time when he was a freshman.

Landers joined the 1,000-1,000 club in the Bulldogs’ 48-24 Colonial Athletic Association-clinching win over William & Mary, throwing for 212 yards and three touchdowns on 14-of-19 passing. He also rushed for 145 yards on 18 carries and a touchdown. Landers has rushed for 100 or more yards seven times this season, to go along with 14 touchdown passes.

Perhaps the only two quarterbacks who’ll give Edwards and Landers competition are Central Arkansas’ Nathan Brown, and Holy Cross’ Dominic Randolph. Brown enjoyed another flawless game in his team’s 49-41 win over Stephen F. Austin, completing 31 of 40 passes for 335 yards and two touchdowns. For the season, he’s thrown 29 touchdowns and only three interceptions. Randolph has been more erratic, tossing 16 interceptions to go along with his 31 touchdowns. But he’s been prolific, with 3,522 yards passing, and he’s a penchant for the dramatic. He’s led his team to several close wins, including this past weekend’s 27-26 victory over Lafayette, in which he threw the game-winning touchdown with six seconds to play.

The player outside of the quarterbacks worth looking at is Cal Poly wide receiver Ramses Barden. He only had six catches for 70 yards and two touchdowns in his team’s 51-28 win over UC-Davis, but he’s been dominant at times this season for a team that looks like it could make a run in the postseason.

On The Defensive

It’s harder to pick the favorites for the Buck Buchanan Award, because defensive players don’t always stand out the way offensive ones do. But there are two ways voters could go: stat freaks or game changers.

Leading the way for the stat freaks is Eastern Washington defensive lineman Greg Peach, who’s registered an FCS-leading 22 tackles for a loss, including an FCS-leading 18 sacks. Running a close second is Murray State linebacker Nathan Williams, who leads the FCS with 167 total tackles.

In terms game-changers, voters couldn’t go wrong with Yale linebacker Bobby Abare, Maine defensive end Jovan Belcher or Nicholls State free safety Ladarius Webb. Abare has 68 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, four interceptions, and has returned an interception and a fumble return for touchdowns. Belcher has 13.5 tackles for a loss, including 6.5 sacks, and has the Black Bears a win away from a potential postseason berth. Webb has a pair of interceptions, seven pass break-ups, and has returned a kick-off, punt and fumble for touchdowns.

Extra Points

Northern Iowa was dealt some bad news prior to Saturday’s 28-0 win over Indiana State, as wide receivers Johnny Gray and Victor Williams were arrested on drug charges following a bust. Williams, who caught 23 passes for 362 yards and two touchdowns, was charged with marijuana possession, which is a serious misdemeanor in Iowa. Gray, who caught 24 passes for a team-leading 380 yards and two touchdowns, was charged with intent to deliver marijuana, which is a felony.