Lions down, but not out yet–TCNJ’s 2009 playoff picture
Upon the finale of the New Jersey Athletic Conference’s 2009 regular season, therein lies a pretty uncomplicated selection system for dubbing the victor of the conference crown. Should two teams, or four, boast the same record once all the conference’s disputes have been settled, they’ll all be named No. 1–as sacrelige as that might sound.
But any program’s exclusive privilege to post “2009 NJAC Champion” on its school’s web site doesn’t necessarily include playoff implications. If that’s the case, and multiple teams share a piece of fresh-baked glory, someone (or someones) is going to be surfing the web to about the 2009 Stagg Bowl post-season, rather than preparing for it.
TCNJ (4-2, 3-2 NJAC), as ridiculous as it might sound, still has a perfectly feasible opportunity to capture the conference trophy at season’s end. The program has fully exercised all its do-over options, dropping two games so far to in-conference foes, and it’s going to need an organized philanthropic effort of Salvation Army stature from the rest of the league. But it’s not out yet. Like the taught restraints tying its hands in its scramble for NJAC supremacy, the Lions’ ability to impact its shot isn’t entirely within its control.
The NJAC, similar to major conferences in Division I college basketball, is one of few entitled to an automatic bid among the Division III football post-season’s 32-team pool. Most years, like in 2008 when Cortland State University finished with a pristine 9-0 NJAC record, there’s not a distinction between winner and representative in the Stagg Bowl senate. But others require a methodical progression of tie-breakers to settle any disputes.
For the remainder of the article, I’m going to refer to the hypothetical situation presented yesterday, in my tardy posting of 4M. If this doesn’t exactly make sense, skim through that scenario and you’ll be pretty abruptly caught up to speed. Either way, fasten your seat belts, Lions fans.
Here we go.
The first determinant, the most regular and sensible, is head-to-head record. Now, Montclair State would have the edge against both TCNJ and Kean, while the Cougars’ Week 5 win over TCNJ would swing the tiebreaker in their favor. Rowan would also boast wins against Montclair and Kean, though both it and the Red Hawks would have fallen to the Lions.
Sound messy? That’s because it is, and it also wouldn’t suffice as a criterion to determine the NJAC bid-getter.
The next measuring rod to sift out three of these contenders is each program’s win-loss record against whoever finished just outside the first-place party. In this case, it would likely be Cortland State Univeristy. (Again, assuming that the Red Dragons’ loss to TCNJ accounts for its third conference loss, driving the final nail toward prepping their post-season burial.) In this scenario, all of the teams but Rowan would have gotten the best of the defending NJAC champs, eliminating the Profs from this playoff carousel.
The three remaining programs (TCNJ, Kean, Montclair State) would arrive at the conference’s third measuring rod, each opponents’ opponents’ win percentage in Division III. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Also sounds a whole lot like opponent strength of schedule, but NJAC Commissioner Terry Small assured me that it’s a different calculation, executed by the NCAA. Considering its close proximity to SOS, we’ll use that to give a better idea of the playoff scenario.
For these intents and purposes, there’s only one team per program that’s relevant to this particular portion of the discussion. Because the NJAC schedules all but one game between in-conference competitors, all of those opponents’ opponents’ win-loss tallies have already proven insufficient to sorting this mess out in the first place. So they hold no merit here.
We’ll start with TCNJ.
The Lions’ non-conference opponent, Fairleigh Dickinson University-Florham, hasn’t had itself the great season of every collegiate athlete’s dreams. The Devils’ record (1-5), however, isn’t the determinant used in this assessment–it’s their opponents’ records. Fortunately for the Lions, their schedule graced them with a date against a team with that kind of success.
Using data from the NCAA Division III football statistics web site, FDU-Florham’s cumulative strength of schedule ranks high among the nation’s most difficult coalitions of opposition (cum. opp. is win % 0.638) That’s good for 10th in the country, 24 spots higher than Wilkes (cum. opp. win % is 0.576)–Montclair State University’s non-conference opponent. The Devils, unfortunately, didn’t play a tougher schedule than Delaware Valley (2nd in NCAA) who’ve faced opponents with a winning percentage of 0.666% in 2009.
All is not lost for the Lions, considering there’s still four weeks of the schedule remaining. It just increases the amount of digits needed to be crossed as the season progresses–maybe adding a few toes to already intertwined fingers. There’s still plenty of time for changes in the rankings, should Del Val’s opposition hit a collective wall. And who knows? The teams on FDU’s schedule could all of a sudden be empowered by some freak, late-season surge.
In the unlikelihood that there’s still a tie, the selection committee would focus its assessment toward each team’s opponents’ opponents’ record in the East Region alone–again, in desperate circumstances. Following that would be the Rose Bowl Rule, stipulating that the team with the most recent post-season berth would be excluded from this year’s festivities–in this case both Rowan and TCNJ would let Kean take the NJAC’s keys to its hotrod, zooming down the D3 Autobahn that’s its Stagg Bowl tournament. Had this scenario boiled down to the conference’s second-to-last selection criterion last year, instead including TCNJ and Cortland State, both of which tied for the conference championship the previous year and each had received a playoff berth, the winner of a coin flip would send either onward.
So you see, there’s no ruling out a post-season berth for the Lions just yet. Sure it requires the fulfillment of a series of improbables and unlikelihoods–impossible without a second half chock full of luck–but hope isn’t a fruitless effort, a fool’s errand. Let the haters keep on hating, but TCNJ is far from done. Under these circumstances, when all isn’t necessarily lost but hangs from the most delicate of threads, I offer the adage of a good friend of mine, a poker player whose successes and failures hinge solely upon unbiased swings of fate.
If there’s a chip in the chair, you’ve got a prayer.
Indeed, Joe Cruz.