With two weeks remaining in the regular season, Western Illinois is making its bid for one of the top eight seeds in the FCS playoff brackets.
In their weekly "if the season ended today" playoff predictions, four major FCS media outlets have WIU solidly in their bracket projections. College Sports Madness, HERO Sports, nobowls.com and STATS all place the Leathernecks among the 24 teams that will comprise the playoff grid.
And while what the actual pairings will turn out to be is still speculative, the projections are interesting to examine. Brian McLaughlin of HERO Sports has Western hosting Montana in a first-round matchup. College Sports Madness and nobowls.com each have the Leathernecks hosting Duquesne. STATS predicts WIU playing on the road at Western Carolina for the first round.
That could, however, change should WIU win its two remaining regular season games. In the final fortnight, the Leathernecks travel to Terre Haute to play a winless Indiana State team Saturday. WIU then closes at home against Southern Illinois, a team that recently lost starting quarterback Sam Straub to injury.
Should Western close its regular season with an 8-3 overall record and five wins in the best FCS conference in the country, its reward would likely be a first-round bye as one of the top eight seeds in the playoff field. In addition, WIU would then host a second-round game at Hanson Field.
Western is coming off one of its most important wins of the season. Charlie Fisher's Leathernecks rallied with a 31-point second half to knock off Illinois State 31-14 in Normal.
The victory boosted WIU to 6-3 overall and evened its conference record to 3-3. The Redbirds slipped to 6-3 and 4-2.
“We executed better, we played with more energy, we played with more fire," Fisher said of his team's comeback. “It was like, ‘we have to get out of our own way.’ Football is a game of momentum, you have to seize it, keep it, build on it and in the second half, we were able to do that.”
Western not only kicked its offense into gear, but revived its defense. After giving up 198 total yards in the first half, the Leathernecks allowed 113 in the second half.
“Defensively, I think that the demeanor changed,” defensive lineman Khalen Saunders said.
Illinois State quarterback Jake Kolbe said, “We got outplayed, there’s no other way to say it. In the second half we did not have enough energy, we did not execute, we did not do anything right in the second half.
“We could not sustain a drive to keep our defense off the field, we got outplayed.”
Despite its loss to Western, Erik Pitzer, operator of nobowls.com, projects Illinois State into the playoff field. Pitzer has Brock Spack's Redbirds playing at first-round game against Missouri Valley Football Conference foe Northern Iowa. Due to the unbalanced league schedule, ISU and UNI have not faced each other this season.
Meanwhile, Illinois State plays at suddenly red-hot South Dakota State Saturday. The Jackrabbits are 7-2 overall and 4-2 in the MVFC. South Dakota State, ranked in the Top 5, is fresh off a 33-21 win over No. 2 North Dakota State. The Redbirds host the NDSU Bison at Hancock Stadium Nov. 18.
"The final two weeks of the FCS regular season look to be a dandy with teams jockeying for conference titles and playoff bids," Craig Haley wrote earlier this week for Athlon. "There’s not enough elbow room with only 24 spots (10 conference champs, 14 at-large) to go around and a large bubble. Some teams will earn bids starting this coming weekend."