We all remember how things went down in November 2015.
In year two of the Bubba Schweigert era, the University of North Dakota football team finished the season with three straight wins to run their record to 7-4, seemingly a strong enough mark to clinch a spot in the FCS playoff field for the first time as a DI program.
Unfortunately, the selection committee decided otherwise, opting instead for a handful of other 7-4 teams and – to the disbelief of Fighting Hawks’ supporters – a 6-5 Western Illinois squad over the team from Grand Forks.
Even though North Dakota earned a playoff spot the following year after an undefeated Big Sky season, the sting of that 2015 omission is still felt in and around the corridors of Memorial Stadium by those who experienced it firsthand.
So yes, the coaching staff and the current UND senior class know all too well that a 7-4 record might not be good enough to extend a season.
They also know that it’s the best they can do this year.
Back-to-back losses by a combined nine points have pushed North Dakota to the brink, as they currently sit at 5-4 with just two games remaining. To state the obvious, winning out is imperative, as it would get UND to the seven-win mark and give the committee something to think about.
The 7-4 Coin-Flip
If you look back at recent history, 7-4 teams are almost always on the bubble.
In 2017, five with that mark got in the postseason field of 24, while 9-2 McNeese State, 8-3 Austin Peay, and five other 7-4 teams were left out, including three from the Big Sky. (Note that I’m not counting the two omitted 7-4 teams from the non-scholarship Pioneer Conference in these numbers, as that’s traditionally a one-bid league.)
It was a somewhat similar story in 2016 with five 7-4 teams (and 6-5 Illinois State) got in and three 7-4 teams left out. The aforementioned 2015 postseason welcomed five 7-4 teams (and 6-5 Western Illinois) and had a whopping six 7-4 teams miss out.
In total, fifteen 7-4 teams reached the FCS Playoffs in the last three years compared to sixteen at 7-4 or better that were excluded. In other words, the playoffs are basically a 50-50 proposition if you’re three games over .500 at season’s end.
No, that’s not firm ground to stand on, but UND – and every other program that’s currently 5-4 – would prefer 7-4 to the end-of-season reality one more loss would bring.
Making the Case for This Season
Résumé is everything this time of year. Your record matters, but so do the details of your record, namely: who did you beat – and who did you lose to?
In UND’s case, some of their wins haven’t stood up quite as well as the Fighting Hawks would’ve liked.
A road victory over then-#5 Sam Houston State looked like a major résumé booster in September, but the Bearkats have uncharacteristically stumbled to three more losses since and are out of the playoff picture.
Same goes for the 41-14 hammering of then-#22 Montana, as the Griz are now 5-4 and in the same precarious position as North Dakota.
UND’s other three wins in 2018 came against teams that haven’t found much success this year – Mississippi Valley State is 1-7, Northern Colorado is 2-8 and Sacramento State is 2-7 – and while the Fighting Hawks took care of business in those three games by an average victory margin of 26 points, those results fall into the “expected wins” category and don’t do much to boost the playoff cause.
On the positive, three of UND’s four losses on their schedule came to ranked teams, as Washington (7-3, #20 in the FBS), Idaho State (6-3, #24 in the FCS) and Weber State (7-2, #3 in the FCS) have all proven to be the real deal. Even last week’s four-point defeat at 4-5 Idaho doesn’t look as bad when you consider the Vandals are an FBS drop-down and are unbeaten at home this year.
Looking ahead, the final two games of the season won’t be easy and don’t offer much in terms of résumé building. Unheralded Portland State is 4-5 and Northern Arizona is an injury-plagued 3-6, but if the Fighting Hawks can shake off their recent slump and finish strong, they’ll fulfill the first résumé requirement of the committee: a seven-win season.
Will that be enough this time around? That’s up to the FCS selection committee to decide, but UND would love nothing more than to earn their consideration on Selection Sunday – even if the final verdict looks a lot like 2015.
And if 7-4 isn’t enough, the motivation of a playoff snub isn’t the worst thing to carry into an offseason. After all, we all remember how things went down in 2016.