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Analysis: Eastern Washington needs a win and some help to reach FCS playoffs

Coach Aaron Best and his Eastern Washington Eagles could total seven wins and miss the postseason if the breaks don’t go their way. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Coach Aaron Best and his Eastern Washington Eagles could total seven wins and miss the postseason if the breaks don’t go their way. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Will Eastern Washington make the FCS playoffs if the Eagles beat Portland State on Saturday?

It’s complicated.

The Eagles have seldom sat on the postseason bubble, but here they are: 6-4 overall after a 21-14 win last weekend at North Dakota.

That will make for an emotional week that will carry through Senior Day and into Sunday morning, when the NCAA announces the 24-team field for the FCS playoffs.

The experts already have weighed in, with most of them projecting that Eastern will miss out.

Eastern has a higher poll ranking and Sagarin rating than most of the competition, but most have more wins than the Eagles.

The culprits are many: Eastern’s difficult nonconference schedule, a slightly down year in the Big Sky and a plethora of teams around the country that are already sitting on seven or eight wins.

At CollegeSportsMadness.com, the predicted bracket includes Big Sky Conference rivals Southern Utah, Weber State and – gasp! – Montana, whom the Eagles beat in Missoula in September.

The bracket projected by HeroSports.com has the same three teams, plus Northern Arizona – again leaving out the Eagles.

However, a lot can change between now and Sunday morning. Several bubble teams face tough games this week, offering Eastern a chance to make the field.

As it stands, roughly 17 teams are guaranteed to qualify, either through automatic bids or overall record and ranking. That leaves about seven spots for the remaining dozen or so teams hoping to make the field.

For Eastern fans, the most ominous passage comes from Brian McLaughlin of Hero Sports: “I don’t think eight wins is a guarantee for anyone if you aren’t in the (Missouri Valley or Colonial Athletic conferences).”

In fact, the MVC could send as many as six teams and the CAA four, leaving fewer chances for the rest of the country.

Seen in isolation, Eastern’s resume is solid enough. The Eagles are ranked 18th in the media poll and 129th in the Sagarin ratings, and their four losses are against teams (Texas Tech, North Dakota State, Southern Utah and Weber State) with a combined record of 30-10.

In the roughly two dozen other composite rankings, Eastern averages a No. 20 ranking.

The Eagles also play in one of the better conferences in the nation.

On the debit side, Eastern lacks a marquee win and has lost two of its last three games; the NCAA likes teams that are trending up, not down.

It doesn’t help that automatic bids have been snapped up by Pioneer League champ San Diego, a non-scholarship program that always is one-and-done in the postseason; and Patriot League champ Lehigh, which is 4-6.

Again, it’s complicated, but these are the key games – in order of importance to Eastern – involving other teams competing against the Eagles for an at-large berth.

The bubble teams (in bold) are the ones Eastern fans should be rooting against on Saturday.

Montana (7-3) at Montana State (4-6): The Griz are a lock at 8-3 but should miss out with a loss because their 135 Sagarin rating is the worst of the Big Sky contenders and their nonconference schedule included FCS cupcakes Savannah State and Valparaiso.

Northern Arizona (7-3) at Southern Utah (8-2): A loss would drop NAU (103 in Sagarin) to 7-4 with a weaker schedule than Eastern’s.

Delaware (7-3) at Villanova (4-6): At 126th in Sagarin, the Blue Hens are a cut-and-dried case of win or go home.

New Hampshire (7-3) at Albany (3-7): New Hampshire (146th in Sagarin) is done with a loss, and the Great Danes are better than their record.

South Dakota (7-3) at South Dakota State: On the road against the No. 5 Jackrabbits, South Dakota (86th in Sagarin) might still make the field with a loss.

Illinois State (6-4) at North Dakota St.: A high-profile win at NDSU would put the Redbirds in the postseason.

Northern Iowa (6-4) at Indiana St (0-10): Even at 7-4 NIU is a lock because of strength of schedule.

Furman (7-3) at Samford (7-3): Samford (88th in Sagarin) is close to a lock already, but Furman probably needs to win to reach the postseason.

McNeese State (8-2) at Lamar (2-8): The Cowboys (124th in Sagarin) have a low schedule strength, so they must win.

Nicholls State (8-2) at SE Louisiana (5-5): The Colonels (128th in Sagarin) are in the same boat; a loss would drop them well below Eastern.

Elon (8-2) vs. James Madison: The Phoenix probably are in already, but blowout loss at home (albeit to the defending champs) might turn off the committee.


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