Projected playoff bracket: Who's in, who goes where?

Jason Farlow and Linfield
Will the commitee give Linfield or Hardin-Simmons a home game if they meet up? Hardin-Simmons is ranked higher in the South than Linfield is in the West, but Linfield has the better ranking criteria overall.
Linfield athletics photo

By Pat Coleman

As we enter Week 11, the final weekend of the 2017 Division III football regular season, we sit in a situation remarkably similar to last year. There are a couple of at-large playoff spots up in the air. We only get five true at-large teams, and the way things sit today, four of them are pretty clear. However, there's some football left to be played before we learn who plays where in the Field of 32 on the road to Stagg Bowl XLIV. The selection show streams online (you can find a link on D3football.com) at 5:30 p.m. ET Sunday.

Here's how we went about creating this projection. Obviously, there are still some games left to be played. This bracket makes some base assumptions. For example, higher-ranked teams in the NCAA's regional rankings win out, such as: 

  • Delaware Valley defeats Widener to win automatic bid, go 10-0
  • St. John's (West 5) defeats Concordia-Moorhead (West 8)
  • None of the at-large leaders lose on Saturday (aside from the head-to-head game between St. John's and Concordia-Moorhead)

We also presume that teams who need to win to wrap up automatic bids do so this weekend, including:

  • Johns Hopkins defeating McDaniel
  • Washington & Lee defeating Shenandoah
  • RPI defeating Union
  • North Central defeating Elmhurst

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 in Pool C. 

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 selecting 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.

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

Pool B teams are selected first, and as long as Springfield remains unbeaten and Hardin-Simmons remains 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 DePauw. The North Region committee must think DePauw's minimal strength of schedule advantage will make them a more attractive candidate, but we think that with a win against a regionally ranked opponent, and no 46-point losses, that IWU would fare better. Hardin-Simmons is the best candidate today, but St. John's strength of schedule will go up and a win Saturday 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 (SOS will improve, and 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 DePauw, we've found the scenario that makes DePauw look good. And with Illinois Wesleyan coming onto the board, they look even better and are taken next.

That leaves us with the final spot coming down to Concordia-Moorhead (two losses with strength of schedule near, but below .500), Case (unbeaten with the lowest SOS of any at-large candidate), Frostburg State (one loss with SOS slightly below .500) and Wheaton (two losses, but good SOS and a win against the North No. 4 team). This scenario comes very close to selecting Wheaton but we basically have to take Case Western Reserve. Frostburg fans want to root for a win vs. Salisbury on Saturday and then for Wabash to defeat DePauw or Carnegie Mellon to beat Case. 

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 must involve travel of less than 500 miles as possible. 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 does not. 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. But 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.

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

Playoff projection, download link below

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. 

What if?

There are some scenarios that would significantly change this bracket:

Concordia-Moorhead could beat St. John's on Saturday. If so, it sounds like a relatively simple swap to get one MIAC team in place of the other, but Moorhead is pretty isolated from the rest of Division III. Suddenly, that's a team that could have to fly somewhere instead. Sending the Cobbers to Wartburg in the first round isn't a great matchup for what should be a No. 2 seed in the Knights.

DePauw losing to Wabash would trigger a lot of changes and if Frostburg State enters the field, that is a significant difference in geography that would require shuffling.

Widener beating Delaware Valley would almost certainly put Delaware Valley in as an at-large, but then cost someone else a bid somewhere.

We'll do another mock selection on Saturday night, once all the results are in.

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
Dec. 14: All times Eastern
at Mary Hardin-Baylor 24, Mount Union 16
@ Woodforest Bank Stadium; Shenandoah, Texas
Recap Photos Box Score