The FCS playoffs are drawing ever closer and things are looking par for the course at the top. The usuals are sitting in prime position and have all but locked up spots in the bracket already. This year’s edition of the postseason, though, seems like it’s destined to be without two programs that always seem to be in the mix.
Eastern Washington and Northern Iowa have been staples of FCS football for a long time and you’d be hard-pressed to find a year in which neither made it out of the regular season, in fact the last time it happened was in 2006. But the Eagles and Panthers are struggling this season and are both at serious risk of not hearing their names called on Selection Sunday next month.
Let’s start with EWU. Lately the Eagles are almost always a lock to be one of the Big Sky’s representatives in the playoffs. Since 2010 (the year Eastern Washington won its lone FCS championship) they’ve qualified for the postseason tournament eight times, twice reaching the national title game in Frisco.
This year’s Eagles, though, are having a hard time finding their footing. They’ve had to navigate one of the toughest schedules in the country so far in 2022 and their record shows it. Sitting at 1-5 EWU has been pushed to the absolute brink of missing the postseason call. Only one of the games they’ve played (their single win) was against a non-ranked FCS or non-FBS opponent.
The schedule, albeit difficult, is not the only reason EWU is not playing at their normal clip. Any time a team loses a talent like Eric Barriere it’s tough to not miss a beat moving forward. Last year’s Walter Payton Award recipient is now graduated and gone. Gunner Talkington is doing a fine job but in the end he just can’t quite make the things happen Barriere could and that makes a difference.
Losses to Oregon and Florida were to be expected but after not picking up a win against Montana State, Weber State and most recently Sacramento State, the Eagles now have five losses and its rare that a five-loss team qualifies for the playoffs. Strength of schedule is of course considered by the selection committee but if Eastern Washington suffers even one more defeat it’s all but over.
Then there’s Northern Iowa. Outside of Montana, no team has been in the playoffs more all-time than the Panthers. With 22 total appearances in the postseason UNI is one of the most consistently-competitive teams in the country. A big reason for the prolonged success is head coach Mark Farley, who’s been with the program as a player and coach intermittently since the 80s. Farley became the team’s head man in 2001 and has only had four losing seasons while calling the shots.
2022 has spelled new challenges for Farley and UNI, however. Like Eastern Washington, this team said goodbye to some major talent last year including star offensive lineman Trevor Penning. Penning has been missed greatly up front as quarterback Theo Day has been sacked 12 times this season for a total of over 90 yards lost.
Right now Northern Iowa is 3-4 including two losses in conference play. North Dakota and Illinois State both pulled off two-point victories over the Panthers and now they’re sitting in the middle of the pack. The Missouri Valley is not an easy league to play catch-up in and the idea that UNI can do enough in the coming weeks to make up for the slow start seems almost out of reach, especially with teams like South Dakota State still on the schedule.
It certainly feels as though the Panthers need to run the table if they are to make the field this season. It’s not impossible, however, that UNI gets in with five losses. They made the playoffs last year with a 6-5 record in what was seen as a controversial selection by some. If UNI has something going for it, it’s their longstanding merit. Right or wrong, the committee may be more likely to give them the nod if it’s close based off their track record.
Eastern Washington only has five games left to get it right and UNI has one fewer than that. The question now is, is it too late? If so, it would be the first time in a long time FCS fans will have to watch a playoff without either of these storied programs in them. Doors would open for two teams elsewhere to get in but no matter how you cut it, it would be odd to not see at least one of these two playing December ball.