Thursday, November 22, 2018

Paladins bewildered by FCS playoff snub

Clay Hendrix looks on during the Furman's 35-30 win at Mercer, which
clinched the Paladins' 14th SoCon championship. Photo courtesy of Furman
Furman football has much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. In Clay Hendrix's second year as head coach, the Paladins won six of their last seven games to earn a share of their Southern Conference record 14th conference championship. The run included a four-game winning streak to end the regular season, three of which came on the road.

Unfortunately for Furman, that's how the season came to an end. The FCS playoff selection committee deemed the Paladins not worthy of at-large bid to the FCS' 24-team postseason. Following Saturday's regular season finales, including Furman's 35-30 win at Mercer, quite a few FCS prognosticators had the Paladins in their projected fields. Going by Sagarin computer rankings would've also put Furman among the 14 at-large tearms. But they weren't even included in the committee's "last three teams out" of the field.

As his team gathered to watch Sunday's selection show, Hendrix used a football analogy to describe the process of watching the selections get revealed to his team.

"When you're a running back and you carry the ball, but when you come up at the end of the play and you don't have the ball. Even though you said you were down and you might have been down, you're putting that in someone else's hands to make that decision," Hendrix said. "I said that's what this (selection show) is - putting it in someone else's hands.
"But I thought we earned our way in."

Afterwards, he tried to console a disappointed group.

"I told them that if this is the worst thing that ever happens to them, they'll have a good life," Hendrix said. "We did all we could do down the stretch, but we got penalized for getting off to a bad start. I'll remember last night (celebrating a share of the SoCon title) much more than today or next week for that matter."

Furman is just the second Southern Conference champion to not make the FCS playoffs. Chattanooga shared the 2013 title with Furman and Samford, but didn't make the field after losing its last two games of the season at Samford and at Alabama. Ironically, both Furman this year and Chattanooga that year had lopsided wins over the SoCon's automatic bid winners. The Paladins beat Wofford 34-14 this year, while the Mocs beat Furman 31-9 in 2013.

The lone other SoCon team to make this year's field was ETSU, which was among the "last three teams in" the field. While times are obviously much different for the once well-respected SoCon, that's not the case for the Colonial Athletic Association. A record six CAA teams made this year's field.

"That's shocking to me," Hendrix said Sunday following the selection show. "If they were all playing each other, they wouldn't be talking about six teams because they would beat each other out.
"Maine played two of the other five (CAA playoff teams) and they get the automatic bid and a seed."

Of the five other CAA teams that made the field, Maine only played Towson and Elon. The Black Bears only conference loss came to 4-6 William & Mary. Maine also lost to 5-5 Yale.

Elon (6-4) played four CAA playoff teams, which included the Phoenix snapping James Madison's 22-game CAA win streak. After losing its starting quarterback and running back to season-ending injuries, Elon lost three of its last five games including its last two.

Delaware (7-4) played three CAA playoff teams. Half of the Blue Hens' losses came to teams that didn't make the field, including a 42-21 home loss to Villanova (5-6) on Saturday. It takes a two-game losing streak into the playoffs.

Towson (7-4) actually played all the other CAA playoff teams - and went 1-3 over the last four weeks against them. As a reward for that performance down the stretch, Towson gets to host the lowest (Sagarin) rated team in the field, Duquesne, in round one.

James Madison (8-3) played three CAA playoff teams. The No. 6-ranked Dukes' resume includes an 11-point loss to 4-7 New Hampshire and non-conference wins over Norfolk State and Robert Morris.

And then there's Stony Brook (7-4), who played three CAA playoff teams. Stony Brook opened the season with a non-conference slate of a 38-0 loss at 4-7 Air Force before wins over Bryant and Fordham. Stony Brook ended the season Saturday with a loss at Albany, which was 2-8 and 0-7 in the CAA entering the game.

"Some of them (CAA teams), there's no question they deserve to be in ... but that's a farce," Hendrix said. "That'd be like us not having to play Wofford and Samford every other year."

The CAA's advantage in its structure is highlighted when looking at the Missouri Valley Conference. Led by No. 1 seed North Dakota State, the MVC has four of the top six FCS teams in the Sagarin ratings. Only three are headed to the playoffs though because all the MVC teams actually play each other, for the most part. It's a 10-team league where each member plays eight conference games, so every team plays all but one team in the league.

MVC member Indiana State (7-4) was the biggest FCS playoff snub per Sagarin. Among the eligible at-large teams, they were the highest-rated at No. 138, followed by No. 139 Montana and No. 148 Furman.

"For us (SoCon) to get two teams in, our league was penalized for being really balanced," Hendrix said. "I guess we should just go to 12 teams and two divisions. ... If you catch it right, you won't have to play the best teams."

The biggest head-scratcher has to be the fact that three Southland teams made the field, including at-large bids for first-time playoff participants Incarnate Word and Lamar. Samford, the SoCon's fourth-place team, had a higher Sagarin rating that any Southland team. Five SoCon teams rank higher than No. 173 Incarnate Word, while seven SoCon teams are ahead of No. 186 Lamar. Lamar's resume includes losses to 5-6 Northwestern State, 4-7 Southeastern Louisiana and a 77-0 loss to FBS member Texas Tech (5-6).

Southland champion Nicholls State gets to host San Diego, who earned the automatic bid out of the non-scholarship, non-defense Pioneer League. At No. 202 in Sagarin, San Diego is the second lowest-rated team in the field and had a strength of schedule that ranked No. 249. San Diego went 9-2 this season, including overcoming a 789-yard rushing performance by Davidson a 56-52 home win. The FCS playoff committee is chaired by Brad Teague, AD of the Southland's Central Arkansas, by the way.

Duquesne, who earned the automatic bid out of the Northeast Conference, ranks No. 209 in Sagarin. It's one of six playoff teams, including four at-large teams, that Furman ranks ahead of in Sagarin.

While there a few teams who will still be playing football the next two Saturdays that had one or more losses to teams with losing records, that wasn't the case for Furman. The Paladins' losses came to Clemson, a healthy Elon team that ended James Madison's 22-game CAA winning streak, SoCon co-champion ETSU and a Samford team that beat all three SoCon champions. Of those four losses, Furman starting quarterback Harris Roberts only played more than half a quarter against ETSU because of injuries. That was also Roberts' first game with any significant snaps in his career.

There's also plenty of playoff teams who don't have a win as impressive as Furman's 20-point win over Wofford, which was ranked No. 4 nationally at the time.

"They say the schedule matters, but obviously it didn't," Hendrix said. "And what does it matter to play your best at the end of the year?
"I just hate it for our kids because I don't know of anybody who had more adversity than we did."

Of all things, the weather could be partly to blame for Furman's snub as well. While Clemson was able to host Georgia Southern at noon on the Saturday that Hurricane Florence threatened, other teams in the Carolinas moved their games up from Saturday. But Colgate didn't want to visit Furman earlier to get in a rematch of a game that the Paladins won on the road, 45-17, last season. So Furman didn't get a chance against a team it led 31-0 less than 20 minutes into the game in 2017, and could find nobody else willing to play on the Paladins' off date.

"I'm sitting there thinking if we had played a Division I non-scholarship team, we'd be in," Hendrix said. "There was a team or two from a league that could've played us and wouldn't play.
"They can say what they want, but we got penalized for the hurricane."

The cancellation certainly didn't hurt Colgate (9-1). Facing a schedule that ranks 223rd-toughest in Division I, Colgate went undefeated against FCS teams to get a No. 8 seed in the playoffs.

Of course, all this could've been avoided for Furman if it had not blown a 27-6 third quarter lead in a 29-27 loss at ETSU. If the Paladins held on that night and everything else went like it did, Furman would've been the SoCon's outright champion and in the playoffs with the automatic bid.

But why does a bad quarter-and-a-half against a conference champion haunt Furman while other at-large teams had losses to teams with losing records? While Elon seems to have received the benefit of the doubt for its late-season injuries, the same courtesy wasn't granted to Furman over its early-season ones.

Some may point at the lack of a impressive non-conference win as what doomed the SoCon on Sunday. But one has to wonder what the Southland's impressive non-conference showing was? Nicholls overtime win at FBS' punching bag Kansas? Surely, you can't be serious.

In terms of national respect for the SoCon, does having the FCS' all-time passing leader, Samford's Devlin Hodges, playing for the fourth-place team not count for anything?

Something's definitely not right here, but there's nothing Furman can do about it now. While it's an especially tough deal for senior leaders such as captains Jaylan Reid, Aaquil Annoor and Roberts, there will be 29 different juniors, sophomores and freshmen who earned starts in 2018 coming back next season. That doesn't include freshman bandit Adrian Hope, who led all of Division I in sacks with 15 despite not making one start.

It's a pretty safe bet they'll be back in 2019 with a big chip on their shoulders.

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