By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) – Is this finally the year? That’s what teams in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and Ohio Valley Conference have been asking themselves for too long.
They’re hoping the first half of the season suggests the FCS playoffs will be different – for whomever comes out of their respective conference.
But they might have an idea already the way OVC front-runners Eastern Illinois and Tennessee State and MEAC leaders Bethune-Cookman and South Carolina State are playing this season. All four could be postseason-bound.
Both conferences are steeped in tradition, but, incredibly, a MEAC team has not won an FCS playoff game since 1999 and the OVC has been shut out since 2000.
UT Martin coach Jason Simpson said at OVC media day that the lack of playoff success is the “thorn in our (the conference’s) side right now.” South Carolina State coach Buddy Pough says success in the playoffs “is at a real, real high level. Until as a (MEAC) league we all get there, I don’t know if any individual can rise above it enough to hang in the league with the CAA and with the Southern Conference and those kinds of leagues.”
Coaches in both conferences point to difficult first-round matchups as the main reason for the playoff failure. When the playoffs were 16 teams deep, the MEAC sometimes ran into a regional road block against the CAA or SoCon, and the OVC champ sometimes ran into a Missouri Valley Football Conference team, and, in three different years from 2001-10, the eventual national champion, in an early round game.
This year’s results can’t be denied, however. The playoffs will expand from 20 to 24 teams, and both conferences could have two playoff qualifiers each.
In the OVC, No. 5-ranked Eastern Illinois (5-1) has basically had the best results of any team in the FCS, starting with a three-touchdown win at San Diego State and victories over Southern Illinois, Illinois State and Eastern Kentucky, losing only to Northern Illinois. The Jimmy Garoppolo express is on another level this season and the Panthers could be headed toward being a seeded team.
Tennessee State (6-1) might have the type of stingy defense to stop EIU, and the road-tested the Tigers hope to win the OVC’s automatic bid. The Tigers have only lost by a field goal to Bethune-Cookman
Speaking of whom, Bethune-Cookman (5-1) could enter the picture as the MEAC’s best hope to the playoff drought. Like Eastern Illinois, the Wildcats have a win over an FBS team (FIU) and their only loss was to another FBS opponent (Florida State).
They hosted playoff games in 2010 and last year, and have no intention of coughing up another home game if they have one this season.
But Bethune-Cookman may not even be the MEAC’s top club. South Carolina State (5-2) has reeled off five straight wins, including a sweep of North Carolina A&T and North Carolina Central in a five-day span, to make a statement after having a rare subpar season under coach Buddy Pough. Their losses are only to Clemson and unbeaten Coastal Carolina.
South Carolina State hosts Bethune-Cookman on Oct. 26, which is also the date of the Eastern Illinois at Tennessee State showdown.
Veterans at quarterback and playmakers on defenses link the four teams. Victories in the playoffs may link them by season’s end.