Playoff Path Narrows as Vandals Prep for Idaho State

It was an upset that not only sent shockwaves throughout the Big Sky Conference, but also reverberated around the entire FCS.

When the Vandals hit the turf last weekend for their final home game of the year, many were expecting to witness the culmination of an undefeated Kibbie Dome campaign. Instead, visiting UC Davis rocked the home squad with one gut punch after another en route to a commanding 44-26 victory in front of a shellshocked crowd of 7,681 in Moscow.

In doing so, the Aggies shifted the playoff picture not only for their Big Sky counterparts, but also for a number of other bubble teams with similar aspirations heading into the final week of the regular season.

The Vandals, who many considered to be a playoff lock only a week ago, now find themselves facing a must-win scenario tomorrow afternoon in the annual “Battle of the Domes” in Pocatello. Even though Idaho State enters the matchup on a notable downslide, the squad hopes to salvage a silver lining by playing the role of spoiler.

“There would be nothing better for us at Idaho State [than] to knock them out [of the playoffs],” Bengals coach Charlie Ragle said in an interview with KTIK host John Mallory earlier this week.

To be fair, it appears the Vandals (6-4 overall, 5-2 Big Sky) still control their destiny as far as the playoff race. A strong performance tomorrow would help the squad reach the requisite seventh win necessary for playoff consideration, plus the team already has a marquee road win against previously third-ranked Montana.

But there’s no doubt that there’s little margin for error. The Vandals were conspicuously absent from the weekly FCS coaches’ poll and several pundits—including the NCAA’s own Stan Becton—have them on the cusp of the bubble.

Part of the issue appears to concern the sheer depth of the Big Sky Conference. There are currently six legitimate playoff contenders heading into the final week and other conferences are already grumbling about a potential Big Sky bias when the playoff seeding is announced.

So what does this all mean for the Vandals? First things first—the squad desperately needs a win tomorrow, as there is no playoff berth without that crucial seventh win.

As for the rest of the FCS, here are a few of the matchups Idaho fans should keep an eye on during Saturday’s slate.

No. 12 Montana (7-3) at No. 3 Montana State (9-1)

This is not only the game of the week for the Big Sky Conference, but also the entire FCS. After years of lobbying, the ESPN crew finally made their way over to Bozeman to host College GameDay ahead of the annual rivalry game. The once-mighty Griz have been provided a lot of leeway in the standings, but they are facing what could be considered a de facto playoff game in snowy conditions and a hostile road environment. A loss to the Bobcats could burst their bubble and leave them on the outside looking in based on their prior loss to Idaho.

UC Davis (6-4) at No. 2 Sacramento State (10-0)

Despite an impressive run over the last few weeks, the Aggies appear to be the odd man out among the Big Sky contenders. The squad will certainly have a rooting interest in a Montana State victory, as it could allow them to slide into an at-large berth—especially if the Vandals were to also drop their contest. However, this would involve pulling off the upset of the year against an undefeated Hornets squad that many consider to be a dark horse title candidate.

No. 23 North Dakota (7-3) at No. 4 North Dakota State (8-2)

The Vandals could get a bit of a boost if the Fighting Hawks were to drop their in-state matchup to the Bison and fall to third in the MVFC standings. Although the team would still have the requisite seven wins for consideration, their conference could have as many as five programs with a losing record when the dust finally settles. In addition, there is a possibility that North Dakota could have zero wins over playoff or ranked teams, dependent upon Abilene Christian’s matchup.

No. 19 Delaware (7-3) at Villanova (5-5)

The Blue Hens could punch their ticket with a victory on Saturday, but even in the best-case scenario it appears they would only finish fourth in the CAA standings. All three of Delaware’s losses have come to playoff teams, so it would be tough to exclude them from a playoff bid. Idaho fans should still be pulling for a Wildcat upset.

Albany (3-7) at Rhode Island (6-4)

The Rams have a ranked win over Elon and all four of its losses have come to ranked opponents—including two games that came down to one possession. Although an upset may be too much to ask for, Rhode Island lacks a dazzling resume and needed seven overtimes to slide by a Monmouth team with a losing record. There is a possibility they are left out of the postseason.

No. 16 Mercer (7-3) at No. 9 Samford (9-1)

If the Bears drop Saturday’s matchup, they will have lost three of their final four games to close out the year. The squad would also have head-to-head losses against every other SoCon bubble team, which does not bode well for their playoff chances.

Kennesaw State (5-5) at Eastern Kentucky (6-4)

Even with a victory, the Colonels could easily miss the playoffs based on their head-to-head loss with at-large contender Austin Peay. It goes without saying that the Vandals would prefer a Kennesaw State victory.

Eastern Illinois (2-8) at UT-Martin (6-4)

With a win, the Skyhawks would finish the year with an undefeated conference record and only two FCS losses—but these were to subpar opponents Missouri State and Kennesaw State.

Austin Peay (7-3) at Alabama (8-2)

Let’s be real, the Governors are not winning this one. The team’s best victory is Eastern Kentucky and its non-conference schedule was relatively lackluster, but the program could still slide into an at-large berth with only one “true” FCS loss.

Stephen F. Austin (5-5) at Abilene Christian (7-3)

The Wildcats would claim the WAC title with a win, but a defeat would leave the squad with only six Division I wins. When factoring in a head-to-head loss to North Dakota, it appears Abilene Christian could be in significant danger of missing the playoffs.

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