FOOTBALL: Toppers play waiting game

Keith Farner

For the Western football team, there’s no debate. When the I-AA playoff pairings are released Sunday, it should be a foregone conclusion that the Toppers will be in.

“Deserve?” senior offensive lineman Chris Price asked. “That’s not even a word. I think we should be there without question.”

That’s what the selection committee will have to decide by Sunday. There are valid arguments on both sides as to whether Western will be battling frostbite or dumbbells next week.

The playoff pairings will be announced at noon on ESPNews.

Of the 16 teams that make the playoffs, eight receive automatic bids. The other eight make it via an at-large bid. Those teams are selected based on schedule strength, won-loss record and those who have played Division I teams.

Some say the No. 15 Toppers played one of the toughest I-AA schedules in the country. Road games at I-A No. 10 Kansas State and I-AA No. 1 McNeese State support an at-large bid, as does finishing 6-1 in the Gateway, arguably the strongest I-AA conference.

“If our conference is the conference that I believe it is,” head coach Jack Harbaugh said, “the champion should go somewhere.”

Tony Moss, executive director of I-AA football, writes a weekly column about I-AA football on

“I have them at No. 14 in the list of probable playoff teams,” Moss said. “I don’t see a lot of teams that could overtake them, though if crazy things happen in the OVC, Patriot, Big Sky, MEAC, and A-10, that could change.”

In those conferences, Moss has six teams listed ahead of Western in his latest rankings. And there is no limit on the number of teams from a given conference.

On the other side of the strength-of-schedule coin are the lesser teams Western has played. Division II Kentucky State and inaugural program Florida International balance out the schedule.

“They should get in over (Big Sky member) Idaho State at 8-3 and (Southland member) Northwestern State at 9-3,” Moss said. “The season-ending win streak is a notch in their favor, as well.”

After losing to co-conference champion Western Illinois 14-0 on Sept. 14 in Bowling Green, these playoff hopes seemed merely a dream.

But with their chance of getting back to the championship game on the line, the Toppers reeled off six straight wins. Two of those wins came against top-11 teams. At the time, the 31-12 win over then-No. 6 Northern Iowa on the road, looked huge. But since that game, the Panthers have dropped four of six and as a result dropped out of the Top 25.

Price said Western has the kind of players that deserve a national stage, players like linebacker Sherrod Coates and fullback Jeremi Johnson, who have been scouted by teams from the National Football League.

“We got great players on our team,” Price said. “We got people who deserve to be looked at. And for us to be looked at, we’ve got to get to the next level.”

If they do make it in, Western will probably play at No. 2 Eastern Illinois or at No. 3 Georgia Southern because of regional matchups.

When Western played Furman last year, it was the last team selected.

“That really scared us,” Price said. “But we feel real confident that with (the Southern Illinois win), that this fills the gap that people had.”

That means that even after the Toppers have done everything they could to make a case for themselves, there will still be some 11th-hour sweating.

So for the next two and half days, Western will have to wait, hoping it made that case.

Reach Keith Farner at [email protected]