FCS playoffs
BROOKINGS, SD: NOVEMBER 18: Zach Heins #87 of the South Dakota State Jackrabbits crosses the goal line for a touchdown against the Missouri State Bears during their game at Dana J. Deckhouse Stadium in Brookings, SD. (Photo by Dave Eggen/Inertia)

Final FCS Playoffs Bracket Projection: After 12 Weeks

NOTE: Because you voted for the list without explanation ASAP on Twitter, this piece will be a rolling "explanation" blog for the next hour to about 2 A.M. (ET) as the results showed people want to see the list first and the explanation can come a bit later.

This will be my final piece of 2023 taking the entire 12 (and in some cases 13) weeks of play into account and trying to put this crazy puzzle together. The first four teams/seeds seem rock solid to me. I can't see it going any other way considering the overall record, strength of the conference, strength of the overall schedule and key wins, etc.

The second half of the seeding? Dear Lawd take a Tylenol as we often say, and try to put it in order. Further explanation is below. Same with the at-large picture. In the past we thought 7-4 was the key situation for a team hoping for a playoff spot, now I think it's 8-3 with maybe a couple 7-4s getting in.

The 2023 FCS Selection Sunday show is at 12:30 p.m. ET on ESPNU, so don't forget to tune in. Full listing of teams that will make it in (in my opinion) plus explanation:

FCS Playoffs Seeding Picture

FCS Playoffs

Idaho looks like it will now be home for the FCS Playoffs for multiple weeks (PHOTO CREDIT: Idaho Athletics)

THE OBVIOUS: First thought? Every potential seed this year seems to deserve one FCS hiccup. Exceptions? Let's see — there's South Dakota State and, well ...... nobody else.

THE TOP FOUR (easy): South Dakota may argue it doesn't have a "hiccup" and would have a decent argument. The Coyotes fell to South Dakota State (by 34), and the SEC's Missouri. The problem is, Montana had the most brutal schedule in Big Sky rotation and faced just about everybody and beat all of them — except for that hiccup back in September to Northern Arizona. Idaho? Scrappy Weber State was the hiccup, but beating an FBS team (Nevada) by nearly 30 points is pretty impressive, and the Montana State and Sacramento State wins also hold weight.

That's your top four. I feel very firmly about this top four and the order they are in. If it doesn't fall this way? I think it's wrong.

THE NEXT FOUR SEEDS (ugggh): Now, the No. 5 to No. 8 spots? That's a completely different situation when it comes to confidence in the order. Why? Because I could make arguments for all kinds of variations of the order, and also for teams right outside of the seeding picture.

I have a feeling Furman will get a mulligan with its loss to nasty rival Wofford, just like the schools mentioned above will not be torpedoed for their one-time hiccups. This seems to happen every year. Furman is damned good and lost by six this weekend to a team it really shouldn't have lost to — but we all know how those bitter "next-door neighbor" rivalries can go. But, the overall body of Furman's work and the Southern Conference title is big. Montana State is next in my order and beat one rankable team (Sacramento State - whose resume has dropped considerably in recent weeks). But MSU also gave No. 1 SDSU its biggest challenge all year by only four points — in Brookings, S.D.

The next two seedables also could figure in the order in different ways: North Dakota State has had its worst showing since before its famed FCS national title run (pre-2011). But at the same time, it has beaten two consecutive credible opponents (Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa) in a row by three touchdowns. And for those in the Austin Peay argument crowd, love y'all but here's a critical comparison: NDSU beat Central Arkansas by double digits earlier in the year, and APSU's best win all year is UCA by 2. That's why I have it this way.

Lastly — Albany at No. 8. Villanova ended up with the CAA automatic bid, yes, but Albany's resume is better in my opinion. I have problems and positives with both of these schools. Albany didn't end up playing potential playoff teams Delaware, Richmond, and landmine Elon because of CAA schedule rotation. Villanova had the tougher CAA schedule, missing only Richmond when it came to top-tier teams. That's nobody's fault, that's just the way the CAA works. But ultimately, this call was easy? Albany beat Villanova by 21 points in late September. To me (and Capt. Logic)? That's the obvious tiebreaker.

Just Missed A Seed

FCS playoffs

Villanova knocked off Delaware this weekend and as a result has taken the CAA automatic playoff bid (PHOTO CREDIT: Villanova Athletics)

WHO WAS A NEAR MISS: My order? The three that were near misses for a seed are as follows: Villanova, Austin Peay, and Sacramento State. They have varying arguments.

Villanova I already explained above in why the Wildcats — who did capture the automatic bid in the CAA — are behind Albany, a team that didn't get the auto bid. Again, Albany had its "hiccup" against New Hampshire, but Villanova's lone FCS loss was to Albany by 21 points. That's my reasoning.

Austin Peay? I love the Govs. Truly do. They're the nicest people out there and when you consider it wasn't long ago this program hadn't won a game in nearly three years? It's amazing what this program has done in recent years. My problem with APSU is this — where's the signature win? The hardest team Austin Peay played was Southern Illinois (outside of falling to the SEC's Tennessee, of course) — and it was a 26-point loss. APSU beat Big South-OVC champion Gardner Webb (7-4), but that's the biggest win. I'm not making an argument that APSU doesn't belong in the playoffs (Govs earned it) — but when you measure it up against the competition for a seed? APSU is just a tad outside the top eight.

Sacramento State — why the hell are the Hornets in this category at 7-4 coming off a loss to nearby rival UC Davis this weekend? The biggest reason is it was the only team in the FCS this year to beat a Power Five (Pac-12's Stanford). When you couple that and a win over Southland Conference champion Nicholls and a loaded schedule in the Big Sky rotation situation, this is a candidate for this spot. Honestly, in the argument for "near seed"? There are arguments for others, but I think Sacramento State is the top argument.

AUTO BIDS: These teams are in, guaranteed — but I didn't see them in the seeding picture. Congrats to Gardner-Webb (Big South-OVC bid with its win over UT Martin on Oct. 28), Duquesne (NEC bid), Lafayette (Patriot bid with massive wins over Holy Cross and Fordham), Drake (Pioneer, though I wish I could have seen it play Davidson), and Nicholls (Southland - with a big win over UIW being the key).

The Rest of the Hopefuls

FCS playoffs

Southern Illinois is one program that looks like it is good shape to secure an FCS at-large playoff bid Sunday (PHOTO CREDIT: SIU Athletics)

AT-LARGE LOCKS:  Honestly? I hate the word "locks" for most of these. It's so tough to try to figure out how the FCS Playoff committee feels about the schools mentioned in this category. All I can do is make the case school-by-school, so I will below.

The first five (listed alphabetically because these teams will all be playing two days after Thanksgiving and there is no seeding situation after that):

DELAWARE: The Villanova loss this weekend at home by 28 is brutal. It hurts for the Blue Hens. This was a seedable team just 48 hours ago. The program has a respectable record, but the CAA schedule rotation provided a welcoming record (no Albany, Richmond, or William & Mary). But again, schedule rotation is NOT Delaware's fault. Losses to P5 Penn State, Villanova, and even to CAA landmine Elon are understandable, but the argument is this — who do the Blue Hens hang their hat on? Winning eight games at the FCS level is the biggest argument, but there isn't a signature win.

MERCER: The problem with Mercer is how the SoCon — which looked a month ago like it may be making an argument as a Top 3 FCS conference — collapsed in the final few weeks. That hurts the Bears, but a second SoCon team in the playoffs seems logical this year and this is the best candidate, in my opinion. All of the top tier of the SoCon lost to Furman, and then there is the "next tier" circular firing squad of Mercer, Western Carolina, and Chattanooga — and to me, Mercer gets the nod by a hair here.

NORTH DAKOTA: Let's not mince words here - the blowout win over North Dakota State gets UND in. The non-conference win over Big Sky landmine Northern Arizona is also impressive. Losses to both schools in South Dakota and MVFC landmine Northern Iowa? That's the tough part of this. If you're a big strength of schedule junkie? UND deserves a spot. If you feel that more schools from the SoCon, Southland, UAC, and Big South-OVC range belong? You're going to have problems with this. The only question that matters? How does the committee view this mess?

SOUTHERN ILLINOIS: The Salukis beat an FBS, mid-range MAC school Northern Illinois, and also hammered an auto-bid team — the UAC's Austin Peay. But SIU was hardly perfect (is anybody in this realm's discussion?). The last few weeks have been a struggle, but again — those tough weeks have included seedable South Dakota State (lost by 7), South Dakota (lost by 7), and North Dakota State (by 24). How many teams have come within 7 points of the best team in the country, SDSU? Answer: Not many.

YOUNGSTOWN STATE: Easily the toughest argument for exclusion with the teams above, in my opinion. The Penguins beat Southern Illinois above (impressive) and played a brutal schedule within the MVFC like most teams do. Also, YSU didn't play NDSU in its schedule rotation.

Just Missed

FCS playoffs

UC Davis will make the arguments difficult when the FCS playoff brackets are released Sunday (PHOTO CREDIT: UCD Athletics)

AT-LARGES/LAST THREE IN (listed alphabetically): There are so many philosophies to consider here: Do you want to be inclusive? Do you want to go with the programs with the best strength of schedule situations? Are we cool with five or maybe even six schools making the FCS Playoffs from one conference (as a committee — trying to get a feel for how it feels to be in their shoes)? How does an HBCU figure into all of this, even though it doesn't bring a resume to the table that makes it an easy fit? Here's my take on my three schools that are "last three in".

RICHMOND — The Spiders could very well get one of those at-large berths. The Spiders got to this point with a win over William & Mary this weekend, but the anti-Richmond argument is that it didn't have to play Delaware, Villanova, and Albany because of CAA schedule rotation. Does Richmond get in because of its overall CAA record, or does this program get excluded?

NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL — The history of 9-2 HBCU programs performing in the FCS playoffs hasn't been really strong in the past several years. The Eagles were pounded by Howard (6-5) by 30 points last weekend, knocking them out of the HBCU National Title argument. The positioning here as one of the last schools is based on FCS committee decisions in past years to have FAMU and North Carolina A&T get in when they didn't qualify for the Celebration Bowl (basically meaning this is a program that is at best third in the HBCU realm). I'm not sure if NCCU is the clear candidate to be here.

UC DAVIS — I didn't see the Aggies in this picture until they knocked off Sacramento State in their neighborhood rivalry this weekend. But UCD could easily be left out, too. Losses to Big Sky landmine NAU and Eastern Washington hurts UCD's argument, and not having Montana State and Idaho State on the Big Sky schedule thanks to conference rotation? That could hurt this program's argument. How will the committee view it? I will say this — if UCD played North Carolina Central (above), I don't see it being pretty. UCD would win that game by double-digits.


FCS playoffs

Eastern Illinois has a chance to make the FCS Playoffs, depending on how the committee views its resume (PHOTO CREDIT: EIU Athletics)

NEAR MISSES: This article? It's just my take, obviously. I think UT Martin, Eastern Illinois, Chattanooga, Western Carolina, and Incarnate Word all have arguments to get in — but also reasons why they'll be left out. I wouldn't be mentioning these schools if I thought they're clearly eliminated — this will come down to a committee philosophy thing.

UT Martin and Western Carolina would be in the playoffs if not for losses this weekend to Samford and VMI this past weekend. Chattanooga lost to P5 Alabama Saturday, yes, but the SoCon "chopping each other up" leads to the Mocs and Catamounts' problems more than anything else. Two 7-win SoCon teams keep this conference from getting three teams in, in my opinion. Lastly, Incarnate Word was incredible last year, but its best win this year is arguably Abilene Christian, and the Cardinals lost to Nicholls in a battle that ended up being the Southland Conference title game. I think that could end up leaving UIW out this year.

The FCS Playoff Picture

(after all results are in)

(*) — Have beaten an FBS opponent in 2023. (#) — Clinched automatic playoff berth via conference title.

NOTEIn the Pioneer League, St. Thomas-MN is having a strong season, but is ineligible for the FCS playoffs because of NCAA transitioning rules (up from D-III), as is Tarleton State out of the UAC. Also, MEAC Champion Florida A&M is in the HBCU National Championship — the Celebration Bowl — and thus will not be in the playoffs.

1 SDSU (#) 11-0 11-0 WON 11
2 Montana (#) 10-1 9-1 WON 7
3 South Dakota 9-2 9-1 WON 3
4 Idaho (*) 8-3 7-2 WON 1
5 Furman (#) 9-2 9-1 LOST 1
6 Montana St 8-3 8-3 LOST 1
7 NDSU 8-3 8-3 WON 2
8 Albany 9-3 9-1 WON 5
ALMOST 1 Villanova (#) 9-2 9-1 WON 6
ALMOST 2 Austin Peay (#) 9-2 9-1 WON 9
ALMOST 3 Sac St (*) 7-4 6-4 LOST 1
BIGSO-OVC Gardner Webb (#) 7-4 7-2 WON 5
NEC Duquesne (#) 7-4 6-2 WON 1
PATRIOT Lafayette (#) 9-2 9-1 WON 2
PIONEER(&) Drake (#) 8-3 8-2 WON 8
SOUTHLAND Nicholls (#) 7-4 7-2 WON 2
AT LARGE Delaware 8-3 8-2 LOST 1
AT LARGE Mercer 8-3 8-2 WON 4
AT LARGE North Dakota 7-4 7-3 WON 1
AT LARGE SIU (*) 7-4 6-4 WON 1
AT LARGE Youngstown 7-4 7-3 WON 1
LAST IN 1 Richmond 8-3 8-2 WON 6
LAST IN 2 N.C. Cent 9-2 8-1 WON 1
LAST IN 3 UC Davis 7-4 7-3 WON 3
FIRST OUT 1 UT Martin 8-3 8-2 LOST 1
FIRST OUT 2 East. Illinois 8-3 8-2 WON 4
FIRST OUT 3 Chattanooga 7-4 7-3 LOST 2
FIRST OUT 4 West. Carolina 7-4 7-3 LOST 1
FIRST OUT 5 UIW 8-2 7-1 WON 1

: The answer, with current standings