Eastern Washington University’s unprecedented rise to the No. 1 spot in the most prestigious Football Championship Subdivision top-25 rankings didn’t seem to matter much to the FCS playoffs selection committee as far as seeding is concerned.
The Eagles, who vaulted to the top of The Sports Network/Fathead.com poll following Saturday’s 34-7 home win over Idaho State, were given an at-large berth but only a No. 5 seed in the newly expanded 20-team FCS playoff field that was announced early Sunday morning on ESPNU.
Still, third-year head coach Beau Baldwin was in no mood to second guess anything about the selection process after learning his team received a first-round bye and a Dec. 4 second-round home game against Southeast Missouri State for its impressive regular-season body of work, which included a share of the Big Sky Conference championship.
“First off, we’re extremely excited to be playing a home playoff game,” said Baldwin, who watched the selection show with about 30 of his players at the Tawanka Dining Hall on the EWU campus. “It’s nice, too, that we have a bye week and some extra time to prepare, because we know who we’re going to play.
“It’s exciting, really, all the way around. We put ourselves in a good situation, and now we have to start getting ready for the next test.”
Montana State (9-2), which beat Montana in Missoula on Saturday to tie Eastern for the Big Sky title and earn the league’s automatic playoff berth, was seeded No. 4 and given a second-round home game against the winner of Saturday’s first-round matchup between North Dakota State and Robert Morris.
The winner of that second-round game in Bozeman will advance to face the EWU-Southeast winner in a third-round game on Dec. 10 or 11 at a site still to be determined.
Montana (7-4) failed to make the playoffs for the first time in 18 years.
“If you were to ask me, I’d probably have to say, yes, they should be in,” Baldwin said of the Grizzlies, who lost to Villanova in last year’s FCS title game. “But there were some tough decisions to be made, and those guys on the committee know a lot more than me about strength of schedule and all that other stuff.”
About Eastern’s first No. 1 ranking, Baldwin added: “It’s an honor, and I feel blessed. Our kids have earned it. It’s exciting to be ranked No. 1, but really, teams 1 to 20, at this point in the season, all have the same shot.”
Southeast (9-2), which is located in Cape Girardeau, Mo., earned an automatic playoff berth after winning its first Ohio Valley Conference championship. The Redhawks (9-2), who are ranked No. 9, had a bye Saturday and clinched the OVC title outright when Jacksonville State was upset by Tennessee Tech.
Jacksonville State handed Southeast, which was idle Saturday, its only conference loss, 29-27, in Jacksonville, Ala., on Nov. 13 and could have earned a share of the OVC title with a win over Tech.
And now the Redhawks must travel to Cheney and take on an Eastern team that has won seven straight overall and is 5-0 on the red turf at Roos Field. Kickoff for their Dec. 4 showdown has been tentatively set for 1 p.m., and Southeast coach Tony Samuel is looking forward to making the trip.
“It’s a great situation for us,” said Samuel, who is in his fourth season as the Redhawks’ head coach. “It’s a great opportunity for us to take our program to another level.
“We just have to take care of business.”
The Redhawks boast one of the nation’s top running backs in Henry Harris, a 5-8, 185-pound fifth-year senior, who rushed for 1,627 yards – an average of 147.9 per game – and 17 touchdowns during the regular season.
Samuel also has a versatile performer at quarterback in Matt Scheible, who has completed 61 percent (103 of 167) of his passes for 1,177 yards and eight touchdowns. The 6-1, 200-pound junior, who has thrown only one interception, is also the Redhawks’ second-leading rusher with 833 yards and seven touchdowns on 155 carries.
Baldwin and his staff have already been in touch with Southeast coaches to arrange an exchange of game video over the Internet.
“So in a couple of days, we’ll know a lot more about them,” he said of the Redhawks.