With the regular season wrapping up Saturday, Western Illinois is most certainly in the FCS playoffs. Should the Leathernecks defeat rival Southern Illinois Saturday in Macomb, the question of whether WIU gets one of the eight seeds and first-round byes remains up in the air.
Head coach Charlie Fisher's Leathernecks are 7-3 overall and 4-3 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, viewed by many as the top FCS league in the land. What's even more impressive is that Western had just four home games on its schedule. WIU won its school-record sixth road game with a 45-0 shutout of Indiana State.
"We have to continue to stay on that rise," Fisher said after Saturday's win in Terre Haute. "You want to stay on that upward plane this time of year. I certainly hope win No. 7 puts us another step closer to our goal. Quite honestly, in that locker room, these guys know we can play better, and they know where we are capable of getting another one."
While outside observers have been impressed with WIU, particularly should the Leathernecks close out the regular season Saturday with a win, the competition for one of the eight seeds is fierce.
"Western Illinois' chances of getting a seed are pretty slim," Jason Groomes of College Sports Madness said in an e-mail. "Provided they finished 8-3, they'll be in the conversation, but they will need some help. At this point, James Madison, North Dakota State, Central Arkansas, Jacksonville State, Sam Houston State and Wofford are locks for seeds. WIU will be in contention with the Big Sky champion (Southern Utah or Weber State), Stony Brook, South Dakota State/South Dakota winner, Big South champion (Monmouth or Kennesaw State). General thought is SDSU, SUU, Stony Brook and Weber State are probably ahead of WIU. I'd give the Leathernecks chances of getting a seed, at best, 15 percent."
STATS FCS Senior Editor Craig Haley tweeted, “With an 8-3 finish, WIU would be in the mix for a seed and first-round bye. But first-round games are bid on and WIU is averaging less than 3,700 (attendance).”
Kelly Burke, host of the the Missouri Valley Football Conference Extra Point series and sideline reporter for ESPN3, is impressed with what Fisher's Leathernecks have accomplished.
"Should Western Illinois take care of business against Southern Illinois this weekend at home, I definitely think the Leathernecks are worthy and will get one of the final eight seeds in the field," Burke said. "Their six road wins are really impressive, as well as wins over ranked Northern Iowa and Illinois State on the road, plus they played NDSU really competitively.
"The fact South Dakota lost three of its last four takes the Coyotes totally out of the picture for getting seeded, further boosting WIU's case. Elon (the number 2 team in the CAA and probably another 5-bid league) lost to New Hampshire over the weekend, which also helps the Valley's stake for 3 seeded teams."
The path for Illinois State, meanwhile, appears treacherous.
Seeking their fourth straight postseason appearance, head coach Brock Spack's Redbirds stand at 6-4 overall and 4-3 in the MVFC. ISU faces a daunting task Saturday at Hancock Stadium to close out the regular season. The Redbirds host No. 4 North Dakota (8-1, 6-1 MVFC). The Bison clinched at least a share of a seventh straight Missouri Valley Football Conference championship with a 49-14 rout of 10th-ranked South Dakota this past weekend.
So, where exactly is ISU's playoff outlook?
"Obviously a win at home next week against NDSU gets the Redbirds in. That's a no brainer," Brian McLaughlin of HERO Sports wrote. "A 7-4 finish with wins over NDSU, South Dakota and a shutout win over the defending national runners up in Youngstown State are nice resume points. But a loss next week is going to make it very tough to get in.
"The program will literally be battling non-conference teams like Northern Arizona for those last few playoff bids and NAU beat Illinois State by 21 points on Oct. 7. Stuff like that will come into play. ISU is going to be one of the more perplexing teams to figure out come next week if they finish 6-5, because last year they were the only 6-5 team and they very nearly knocked off a 9-2 Central Arkansas team. We'll see."
Burke said, "I think the Redbirds have to upset North Dakota State to make the postseason. The reality is that no (6-5) teams will be getting into the 24-team postseason this year; there are too many 8- and 9-win teams, which is too bad because the Redbirds are better than a lot of those 9-win teams and many of the teams who will earn automatic bids. I think the WIU loss a couple weeks ago really hurts them, but if there's one game they have to point to, should they miss the playoffs, it's definitely the blowout loss to Southern Illinois, early in conference play."
According to nobowls.com, a website dedicated to projecting the FCS playoff bracket, "In each of the last three years, a 5-loss has been included as an at-large bid (albeit all from the MVFC): 2016 Illinois State 6-5; 2015 Western Illinois 6-5; 2014 Indiana State 6-5."
That being said, nobowls.com did not have the Redbirds in this year's field when its projections were posted on Monday.
Groomes of College Sports Madness said, "Illinois State is a win or stay home situation. A win over NDSU is an e-ticket into the first round. Falling to 6-5 will leave them at home. It's very cut and dry. If they do make the playoffs, they would likely play Northern Iowa in the first round."