Final projected playoff bracket: Who makes the cut?

Case Western Reserve with its rivalry trophy
Case didn't win the conference's automatic bid on Saturday, but it did pick up a rivalry trophy, and, we believe, a playoff bid.
Case Western Reserve athletics photo

By Pat Coleman

On Sunday we learn what the NCAA selection committee has decided in terms of who will play where in the Field of 32 on the road to Stagg Bowl XLIV. Their job tonight, like ours, is made easier by the minimal number of upsets on Saturday.

  • The selection show streams online (we will have a link on D3football.com) at 5:30 p.m. ET Sunday.

All of the favorites whom we identified in our first playoff projection on Thursday went on to win their conference's automatic bid. Only one of the leading at-large contenders lost, although we nearly had a second until Case went on to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the closing seconds at Carnegie Mellon. 

Our projection attempts to emulate the process the NCAA selection committee will use to select the teams. Pairing the teams is always a tough call because we never know how much money the NCAA will allow the selection committee to spend to fly teams. Last year, the NCAA allowed for one more flight in the first round, and that made a significant difference. We'll be working with that as the baseline this year.

As a reminder, there are 25 conferences with automatic bids, and two conferences and a small number of independents without one. The 25 automatic bids are referred to by the NCAA as Pool A and the rest are Pool B. The Pool B group (American Southwest Conference, New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference) have two bids set aside for them, and in fact, three teams from these two conferences will probably go to the playoffs, as we expect one to be selected as an at-large. 

The remaining five bids, known as Pool C, are true at-larges that any team in either pool can receive. The committee traditionally will sit down with a board that includes the top at-large team from each regional ranking, comparing the four teams head-to-head, then select one to put in the field. The committee considers the usual criteria: results vs. Division III teams, strength of schedule, results vs. regionally ranked teams, head-to-head results and results vs. common opponents. As we get closer to the end of the process, though, the committee can consider non-Division III games as well. And with just five spots and more than twice as many candidates, expect every piece of data possible to be used.

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We're going to fast-forward through most of the Pool C process.

Pool B teams are selected first, and with Springfield unbeaten and Hardin-Simmons with one loss, we'll have three teams for the two slots. A couple years back, the committee played some games with Pool B and left unbeaten Centre out to be selected as an at-large. That could happen here with Springfield, but it's probably academic: Mary Hardin-Baylor and Springfield in for Pool B.

Pool C gives us the top at-large team from each region on the board at the same time, and that would be Hardin-Simmons, St. John's, Frostburg State and Illinois Wesleyan. The Johnnies' strength of schedule went up with the win Saturday against Concordia-Moorhead and that gives them a win against a regionally ranked opponent, so we select St. John's first.

SJU is replaced by Concordia-Moorhead as the West candidate (although they have two losses, they should be ahead of UW-La Crosse based on their common opponent -- Concordia beat UWW and La Crosse lost to UWW). Hardin-Simmons is taken second as an at-large.

Now it gets ... interesting, as Case Western Reserve comes onto the board as an unbeaten with an abysmal strength of schedule. Out of Case, Frostburg, Concordia-Moorhead and Illinois Wesleyan, IWU has a .522 strength of schedule and one loss, 74 points better than Case's unbeaten SOS. Illinois Wesleyan is taken next.

That leaves us with Concordia-Moorhead (two losses with strength of schedule of .503), Case (unbeaten with the lowest SOS of any at-large candidate at .448), Frostburg State (one loss with SOS at .499) and Wheaton (two losses, average SOS of .507 and a win against the North No. 4 team). We basically have to take Case Western Reserve at this point. They won't be left out. 

Case is replaced by Centre at this point. Centre is 9-1 with a .480 SOS. If Hendrix remains ranked, that gives Centre a win vs. the South No. 10 and a loss to the South No. 3. It doesn't seem like that's enough to get them ahead of Frostburg State, which has been here for a while, and we think Frostburg State goes into the field. 


If you re-run the simulation with UW-La Crosse (8-2, .539 SOS), I'm not sure it's different. And UW-Whitewater (7-3, .608 SOS) might well be ranked, but of course, would not get into the discussion. We could have a West ranking that is Oshkosh, Wartburg, Linfield, St. Thomas, St. John's, Monmouth, Concordia-Moorhead, UW-Whitewater, UW-La Crosse, Whitworth.

There are travel restrictions to consider when it comes to creating the bracket. The NCAA pays for all team travel in the playoffs, but with the caveat that as many first-round games as possible must involve travel of less than 500 miles. Last year, the committee put together a bracket with two first-round flights,  and that's what we're doing here. 

The committee wants to pick the top four teams and put them as No. 1 teams in their own separate brackets whenever possible. Typically of late, that has meant two South teams, or two West teams, getting No. 1 seeds while the East gets none. But this year, there aren't three unbeaten teams in the West to consider, nor is there an unbeaten CCIW team to provide a second North top seed, while Delaware Valley has a win against a regionally ranked opponent. And last year, with the committee spending money on a second first-round flight, we're going to take them up on it again. Last year, the committee never got to see its money savings with HSU and UMHB meeting in the second round, and since that wasn't a bank-breaker, we're moving that matchup out into another part of the bracket.

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Here's what that bracket looks like. Scroll down for a discussion of some what-if scenarios.

Final projected bracket

If you're on mobile, here's a link to download it.

We try to move teams around as much as the map will allow. Husson's remoteness doesn't hurt us as much as usual, since they are within 500 miles of Springfield and that's a matchup that makes sense with the seedings. Knowing there is typically some flexibility in moving teams around for the quarterfinals, we've broken up a bloc of East teams, which could have been as many as seven in the lower left-hand quadrant, and swapped a whole pod of four teams into the bottom-right bracket. Ideally, if we could take just one pairing of East teams and move it, we'd try to balance out that top left bracket, but that isn't something there would ever really be money for. 

We moved some things around from our first projection, including a couple of items that were just plain misses on our part. Eureka should be playing Wartburg, the West No. 2 team, rather than St. Thomas, who we really think is the West 4 this week, despite being 3 last week. There's a version of this bracket where instead Johns Hopkins is at W&J, Case Western Reserve is at North Central and Frostburg is at Trine. Also, ideally we'd put the RPI-Wesley pod next to Franklin-Witt and swap the PAC title game pod to the Mount Union side, but Wesley is too far from Wittenberg to bus. Trine cannot bus to St. Thomas, which means we can't put the Trine-North Central game opposite St. Thomas-Illinois Wesleyan (even though our poll favors North Central, it's the NCAA's regional ranking which matters here for home field).

Lastly, putting Case at W&J against each other in the first round is something to shoot for. However, there is definitely some thoughts to be had about who would host that game. W&J won the PAC's tiebreaker, but the NCAA uses NCAA numbers, and Case's strength of schedule rose enough to make it higher than W&J's. That's the reason we made that call in that direction.


Dec. 14: All times Eastern
at Mary Hardin-Baylor 24, Mount Union 16
@ Woodforest Bank Stadium; Shenandoah, Texas
Box Score Recap Photos
Dec. 8: All times Eastern
at Mary Hardin-Baylor 31, UW-Whitewater 14
Box Score Recap Photos
at Mount Union 28, Johns Hopkins 20
Video Box Score Recap Photos
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