Eastern Illinois AD among those working to figure out spring FCS playoff puzzle

Head coach Nick HIll and Southern Illinois found a non-conference opponent when Illinois State and Western Illinois opted out of the spring season. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)

Choosing the FCS playoff field often presents a fair share of difficulties.

Selecting the field amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which 10 members of the FCS playoff committee will do this weekend in Indianapolis, is offering layer upon layer of challenges.

“There’s a ton of dynamics,” said Eastern Illinois Athletic Director Tom Michael, a first-year member of the committee. “It’s a difficult process, but this isn’t something that I and (all) of the others are taking lightly. We’re very passionate about doing this for FCS football.”

Not only has the season made the unique move to the spring, but the normal 24-team bracket has been pared to 16 teams, leaving only six at-large spots for teams that are not automatic qualifiers as a conference champion.

The field will be announced at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, April 18 on ESPNU.

Michael also noted that some teams have played non-conference games in the fall while others have played conference-only schedules in the spring.

Tom Michael

“There’s very little body of work for teams outside of conference,” he said. “So the crossover of being able to compare that this team played this team outside of their league, and how did they fare against them … there’s such little information on that.”

Some programs who have not been impacted by COVID have lost games due to opponents having virus issues, thus limiting their resumes.

Meanwhile, in Illinois, two of the state’s four FCS programs – Illinois State and Western Illinois – opted out during the spring season citing mounting injuries and roster concerns.

Both teams opted out just before they were going to face playoff hopeful Southern Illinois, which has caused plenty of frustration for Salukis head coach Nick Hill and the SIU administration.

SIU (4-3), which narrowly missed being in the playoffs in 2019, sought out a non-conference game with Southeastern Louisiana after one-win Illinois State and one-win Western ended their seasons.

Michael credited the Salukis – who ended North Dakota State’s 39-game winning streak in February – for seeking out another opponent.

“When you talk about the Missouri Valley Football Conference and those teams opting out midway through, and what impact it has not only on SIU but other folks in their league to be able to get games in, it certainly creates a different set of circumstances,” Michael said. “I applaud (SIU) for being able to go out and do that and to continue to try to improve their body of work.”

Michael, who played basketball at the University of Illinois and went through the NCAA tournament selection anxiety as an athlete, understands the emotions involved with teams jockeying for playoff position.

He acknowledged there will always be arguments among those who don’t make the field.

However, Michael hopes fans can understand that the committee has dedicated time since the fall to the selection process, which has included weekly calls during the spring season, watching condensed versions of games via the NCAA, regularly viewing games on ESPN-Plus and each committee member calling colleagues around the country to learn about potential playoff teams.

“There’s a lot of good football teams that are playing,” Michael said. “We’re going to do our best to get it right.

“There are 10 individuals that I know, from our calls, spend a lot of time and only want the best for FCS football and this playoff structure to provide a great opportunity for the 16 teams this year to compete for a national championship,” he said.

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