Going into 2022, the Ohio Valley wasn’t necessarily pegged to have one of the more exciting FCS conference races in the country. The Big Sky, Missouri Valley and CAA... as they always seem to... garnered most of the attention back in late summer. Fast forward a couple months, though, and the OVC is providing fans with just as thrilling of a product, even if it involves less teams than the aforementioned leagues. With just a few weeks to go, two programs stand out and are vying for the conference’s top spot as well as its auto-bid to the playoffs.
Both Southeast Missouri State and last year’s league champion UT Martin are neck and neck at the top going into Week 10. The Redhawks are currently 6-2 overall and 2-0 in conference play. The Skyhawks are 5-3 overall but, like SEMO, are unbeaten in league action at 3-0. Normally two teams in this situation would be looking forward to a big matchup against each other to decide the conference champion. There’s one catch, however: UT Martin and SEMO don’t meet this year.
Some may be wondering how that's possible in just a seven-team league. It happened this year because Lindenwood, one of the FCS’ three newcomers, was added to the fray late in the offseason. The schedules had to be shifted around to accommodate the Lions' entrance and the previously-planned non-conference games could not be terminated. That meant an OVC game had to go for everyone and it just so happened that these two gave up their game together.
So what does that mean for UT Martin and SEMO now? As far as the OVC is concerned, there can be co-champions and it’s very possible to have that this year. If both the Skyhawks and Redhawks run the table they would finish with conference records of 5-0 apiece. In fact, even if UT Martin loses this weekend to Kennesaw State but wins out after that, they would still be undefeated against the OVC.
In that instance, the two teams would each hold the title of OVC co-champion for the 2022 season. The playoffs, though, raise a very different conundrum as the league may only send one automatic qualifier. The league champion claims that designated spot in most cases. There are rare instances in which an FCS-transitioning team wins a conference title but is not playoff eligible, ergo the auto-bid goes to the runner up. This is not the case with UT Martin nor SEMO.
The OVC does have tiebreaking criteria in place for such occasions. In the event that two teams finish atop the league standings with identical conference records, the committee will then look at the head-to-head result between the two. That will not exist here, though, meaning they must move to their next tiebreaker which is record among common conference opponents. Once again, though, if the Skyhawks and Redhawks win the rest of the way, they would still be tied. Then what?
In that scenario, the committee would have to do something truly odd and yet fascinatingly simple: flip a coin. Yes, there exists a possibility where UT Martin and SEMO could be waiting on how a coin lands to determine who gets into the playoffs and who maybe doesn’t. It seems like a dire method but with no other set criteria to go off of, the committee would have little choice.
Of course there also exists the very real chance that whoever did lose that hypothetical coin flip may still receive an at-large playoff bid. Let’s pretend that both do in fact win out and this becomes a reality. UT Martin would be 8-3 with only one FCS loss and SEMO would be 9-2 with one FCS loss. Both of those resumes are good enough to get the nod as an at-large.
Let’s entertain one last possibility, however. What if UT Martin loses to Kennesaw State this weekend but wins their last two to be 7-4 overall and still needs the coin flip. Now the Skyhawks would really be sweating because if they don’t get the auto-bid then there’s no promise they get in at all. 7-4 teams missed the cut last year and some likely will again this time.
It’s important to remember though, that all of this only comes to fruition if the two teams win the rest of their conference games or finsih with an identical amount of conference losses and even then, they'd have to be losses to the same team. The Redhawks’ remaining contests are at Tennessee State, at Eastern Illinois and vs Murray State. After KSU, UT Martin sees Tennessee State on the road and Eastern Illinois at home.
It's a rather unlikely occurrence but with each passing week the odds are ever increasing.
Would it be fair that someone’s successful season could end based on how a coin falls? Maybe not. But in this very rare instance, it’s as fair as it possibly can be.