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Five takeaways from the FCS playoff pairings

By CRAIG HALEY

STATS FCS Senior Editor

(STATS) - If the NCAA Division I Football Committee wanted fans to be talking about the playoffs, it succeeded on Sunday.

The brackets didn't necessarily shake out as the North Dakota State Invitational, even if the FCS dynasty up in Fargo is still an overwhelming favorite to win what would be a record seventh title in eight years.

The Bison are the best team in the FCS - hands down. But in a one-and-done postseason, the Bison are always vulnerable to a bad day, even if the No. 1 seed guarantees home games through the semifinals.

Here are five takeaways to how the committee has kept the 2018 playoffs more interesting than expected:

BRACKET OF DEATH

There are always going to be gripes over playoff pairings, and usually it's about who snuck in and who didn't, but the strength of North Dakota State's half of the bracket is clearly higher than the other half, and it's a big storyline.

A potential quarterfinal with James Madison, the 2016 FCS champion and runner-up last year, is more a semifinal or championship matchup. Plus, the Bison's side includes fourth-seeded Kennesaw State, which is second-ranked in the two national polls; fifth-seeded South Dakota State, which lost to the Bison 21-17 on Sept. 29 and beat them in the 2016 and '17 regular seasons; and eighth-seeded Colgate, which is unbeaten against FCS competition.

Sure, the members are constrained by regionalization and NCAA selection criteria, but at some point, somebody needs to pull back, take a look at the brackets and say, "This might not be right."

NOW ABOUT THOSE COMMITTEE RANKINGS

The release of the committee's in-season Top 10 rankings are highly anticipated across the FCS, but the weekly changes haven't always made sense. The bar was set low two years ago when Sam Houston State was No. 2 in the first public reveal and dropped to 5 the next week ever after posting what was its biggest win at that point of the season (and it was November already).

This year, the committee's only public reveal was Halloween Night (didn't they know they were interrupting the Michael Myers marathon?), and there are some questions when looking back.

No doubt, Eastern Washington is a national title contender. But how in the final three weeks of the regular season did it move from No. 9 in those rankings to a No. 3 seed when only one opponent was exceptional - a blowout of UC Davis - while Kennesaw State only advanced from No. 6 in the rankings to a 4 seed when its final three wins included Monmouth, which the committee deemed as one of the best teams outside the field, and Jacksonville State?

In addition, how did James Madison drop outside the seeds from No. 2 in the rankings that night when it had a 2-1 finish, including an 11-point loss at New Hampshire and a road blowout of Towson, but UC Davis only dropped from No. 3 in the rankings to a 6 seed when it had a similar finish, with its loss by 39 points to Eastern Washington?

TEAMS LEFT ON THE OUTSIDE

Indiana State (7-4), Monmouth (8-3) and North Dakota (6-5) were announced as the last three teams to be denied at-large bids. The biggest surprise was Indiana State (7-4), the most improved team in the FCS and a winner of its final five games, although against opponents that finished in the bottom six of the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Of note, was the Sycamores were a strong 4-1 in FCS road games. If they belonged in the field, it probably should have come at the expense of either Lamar or UIW out of the Southland Conference.

If there was a second surprise, it was Southern Conference tri-champ Furman not being one of the first three teams left outside the field.

BEST MATCHUPS

With James Madison's Thanksgiving plan getting a tad spoiled by playoff preparations - coach Mike Houston was not happy - it created the best first-round matchup. Fellow CAA blueblood Delaware is coming to town for its first playoff game since the 2010 national final.

In the second round, potential matchups that stand out include Jacksonville State at Maine, Northern Iowa at UC Davis, Wofford at Kennesaw State (can you say triple option?) and Delaware or James Madison at Colgate.

There's no sense jumping too far ahead, but, yes, the elephant in the room is James Madison at North Dakota State for the third straight year, this time in the quarterfinals.

AND THE WINNER IS

Whoever survives North Dakota State's side of the bracket will embrace the three-week break between the semifinals Dec. 14-15 and the national championship game Jan. 5 in Frisco, Texas.

The obvious choice is the Bison. If there is a silver lining to their draw, the Delaware/James Madison/Colgate winner might arrive in Fargo a little beat up and rival South Dakota State would surely be playing its second consecutive road game if it reaches the semifinals. If it's Kennesaw State, the Owls haven't faced a team of NDSU's level in its four seasons of football.

In the national championship game, NDSU figures to face a Big Sky team - Eastern Washington or Weber State - and break its tie with Georgia Southern for the most all-time FCS titles.

Updated November 18, 2018

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