It's mid-November, which means it's time for playoff football in NCAA Division II for the football season. It's a time when the signs boasting, "All I want for Christmas is a national championship" get broken out, and when southern state football fans start donning Santa hats in 80 degree weather.
Most of all, as stated before, it's playoff football.
While the NCAA did manage to get their grubby hands on part of the Division II landscape this year, renaming the geographic regions (Northeast, Southeast, Northwest, Southwest) to Super Region 1 (formerly the Northeast), Super Region 2 (formerly the Southeast), Super Region 3 (formerly the Northwest), and Super Region 4 (formerly the Southwest). Why? Nobody knows, and nobody will ever know.
In any case, the playoff bracket was announced on Sunday afternoon, and we are here to break down each region to see who should come out of each first round game this weekend.
If you haven't attended a Division II football game and live close to one of the schools listed, please go. You won't be disappointed. Passion on a level that isn't driven by money like Division I, coaches that are doing everything in their power to WIN instead of get a huge paycheck, and best of all, fans that are close to the players on a personal level, which results in more fun as a spectator.
The top two seeds in each regions get byes in round one, as the No.1 seed will await the winner of the No.4/No. 5 game and the No. 2 seed will await the winner of the No. 3/No. 6 game. Rankings are based on a combination of record and strength of schedule.
Super Region 1 (Northeast Region)
Seed 1: (10-1) Bloomsburg
Seed 2: (10-1) California (Pa.)
Seed 3: (9-1) American International
Seed 4: (8-3) West Chester
Seed 5: (8-2) Southern Connecticut State
Seed 6: (9-2) Seton Hill
The first round of games pits Seton Hill at American International, and Southern Connecticut State at West Chester.
Seton Hill at American International
American International's only slip-up on the year was a 27-17 loss to Southern Connecticut State last week, another playoff team in this region in the second game they played against each other on the season.
Seton Hill started off strong at 7-0 before dropping a 44-21 game to Charleston, and then losing last week to West Virginia State, both 7-4 teams who were on the fringe of the playoffs.
AIC, however, allowed over 100 fewer points on the season than Seton Hill did, while matching offensive scoring outputs. I have to think American International's record speaks for itself, losing only to a fellow playoff team, and that they will advance to take on California (Pa.)
Southern Connecticut State at West Chester
Southern Connecticut State dropped games to American International 13-12 (in the third game of the season as opposed to the last game of the season where the two met up again) and Bryant, a rather average Division II squad.
West Chester suffered two of their losses to 2-seed California, once 44-32 in the season opener, and again last week 47-36 in the PSAC Championship game. They also dropped a 48-20 game to 1-AA Delaware.
Based on conference strength and two of West Chester's losses coming to one of the best teams in the country in California (Pa.), I would look for West Chester to advance out of this game.
Super Region 2 (Southeast Region)
Seed 1: (9-1) Delta State
Seed 2: (10-1) North Alabama
Seed 3: (8-2) Valdosta State
Seed 4: (8-3) Tusculum
Seed 5: (7-3) Albany State (Ga.)
Seed 6: (7-3) Carson-Newman
The first round of games pits Carson-Newman at defending national champion Valdosta State, and Albany State at Tusculum.
Carson-Newman at Valdosta State
The defending national champion Valdosta State University takes on Carson-Newman, a team that is trying to get revenge from being left out of the playoff picture last season with a 10-1 record. Valdosta State features wide receiver Cedric Jones, a possible NFL prospect.
Carson-Newman's losses this year were tough ones, as they dropped a 20-13 decision to North Alabama early in the season, and a 27-21 decision to Newberry to start their conference play, and then losing to conference champion Tusculum 45-44 this past Saturday.
Valdosta's losses were even tougher, as they dropped a 27-24 thriller to Delta State, the No. 1 seed in the region, and got a surprising beat down from North Alabama, the two-seed, 41-23 a couple weeks ago. Based on individual talent and playoff experience, you can expect Valdosta State to win what should be the second-best game of the first round.
Albany State (Ga.) at Tusculum
This should be a very close game, but it doesn't feature the star power that the previous game does.
Tusculum had a great season, losing only to Wingate 37-33, a team which began 7-0 but dropped three of their last four games to miss the playoffs, to Catawba 37-35 who is another fringe playoff team, and Division 1-AA team Gardner-Webb 31-12 early in the season.
Tusculum nearly had to forfeit their first two wins of the year due to using an ineligible player, but self-sanctions prevented such an event. The problem was, they lost a great player in the process.
Albany State also had three losses, to Benedict 13-10, Morehouse 24-19, and Tuskegee 33-20, a Division II powerhouse which refuses to compete in the playoff system.
Albany State plays in a much weaker conference, and while this may be a close game, Tusculum should be the favorite in this match-up to advance to take on Delta State.
Super Region 3 (Northwest Region)
Seed 1: (10-0) Grand Valley State
Seed 2: (11-0) Minnesota-Duluth
Seed 3: (10-1) Chadron State
Seed 4: (8-3) Ashland
Seed 5: (9-2) Minnesota State-Mankato
Seed 6: (9-2) Wayne State (Neb.)
The first round match-ups consist of Wayne State (Neb.) at Chadron State, and Minnesota State-Mankato at Ashland University.
Wayne State (Neb.) at Chadron State
Chadron has been very impressive this year, as they were expected to be down after the loss of Danny Woodhead, the NCAA's all-time leading rusher. Their only loss was a 38-31 setback to Pittsburg State, a playoff team in Super Region 4, early in the season. Wayne State's losses were back-to-back in weeks three and four, dropping games to Saint Cloud State (31-17) and Minnesota State-Mankato (26-21).
Chadron has actually gone away from their extreme rushing attack they had with Woodhead, and have been very efficient throwing the ball, passing for 27 touchdowns to only five interceptions.
Their rush defense is stout, allowing around 60 yards per game, which could be trouble for Wayne State who averages 174 yards per game on the ground. Chadron seems to have everything in place to control this game, and they should do just that.
Minnesota State-Mankato at Ashland
This has the potential to be a good game as long as Mankato can figure out how to slow down Billy Cundiff and his corps of great receivers that lead the fifth ranked offensive attack in the country.
Mankato counters, however, with the 12th ranked pass efficiency defense and the 13th ranked scoring defense.
Ashland fell on some hard times to begin their season, dropping a heartbreaking 49-42 game to No. 1 SR1 seed Bloomsburg in the season opener, falling 25-24 to Ferris State in their second game, and then ripping off six victories in a row before suffering another heartbreaking loss, this time to the No. 1 team in the country, Grand Valley State, 48-42 as the Lakers came back from a 36-21 deficit mid-way through the third quarter.
Meanwhile, Mankato lost 29-9 to Central Missouri State in their own season opener, and to Augustana, 41-38, in the middle of the season.
If Ashland can perform per their usual on offense, they should be able to outscore Mankato in what could be a very high-scoring game.
Super Region 4 (Southwest Region)
Seed 1: (10-0) Abilene Christian
Seed 2: (10-1) Northwest Missouri State
Seed 3: (10-1) Pittsburg State
Seed 4: (10-1) West Texas A&M
Seed 5: (10-1) Central Washington
Seed 6: (7-3) Nebraska-Omaha
The first round match-ups in this super region are Nebraska-Omaha at Pittsburg State and Central Washington at West Texas A&M.
Nebraska-Omaha at Pittsburg State
Pittsburg State is a video game player's dream team. They put together 225 yards rushing per game and 203 yards passing per game, and have ran for 32 touchdowns, passed for 20 touchdowns, and thrown only six interceptions.
The regular-season match-up between these schools looked exactly like a typical Pittsburg State game, as the Gorillas ran for 266 yards and passed for 201 en route to a 35-28 victory over UNO.
Nebraska-Omaha isn't nearly as balanced, but they take their potent rushing attack into this game, an aspect that has gotten them over 280 yards per game this season.
Their do-it-all quarterback Zach Miller is again having a stellar season, as he has racked up over 1,000 yards rushing this year and 18 touchdowns while passing for over 1,400 yards and nine touchdowns.
Pitt State's only setback this season was a rather surprising 35-10 loss to Northwest Missouri State, while Nebraska-Omaha under-performed this year in their new conference, three of four games in the middle of the season, as they lost to Northwest Missouri State 42-0, Truman State 26-20, and Pittsburg State 35-28.
Pittsburg State looks like they will have too much firepower though in the form of Caleb Farabi and Mark Smith.
Central Washington at West Texas A & M
This is my favorite game of the first round, as Central Washington faced some scrutiny this season for their schedule, which consisted of facing four different schools twice.
Their only setback was a very impressive one, as they went into the barn of Montana, a 1-AA powerhouse playoff team at 9-1, and dropped a 38-35 decision in week five on a late field goal by the Grizzlies.
Mike Reilly (pictured above) and Johnny Spevak have led a very potent air-attack that is averaging 305 yards per game. Reilly is an NFL prospect who has thrown for 3,286 yards and 32 touchdowns compared to only five interceptions.
Spevak has been his go-to guy, as he has compiled 1,313 receiving yards (119.4 per game) and 16 touchdowns, some of the best numbers in the country for a wide receiver.
The problem with the Central Washington squad is a defense that leaves much to be desired, as the Wildcats are allowing an average of 343 yards per game.
Meanwhile, West Texas A & M has had a very potent offense (46.3 points and 523 yards per game) to go with a fairly decent defense that allows 19 points and 300 yards per game.
The Buffs also have a potent air attack, led by another NFL prospect in Keith Null, who throws for an average of 367 yards per game and has connected on 38 touchdown passes compared to 14 interceptions.
His main target is Charly Martin, also an NFL prospect, who has caught 73 passes for 1,372 yards and 16 touchdowns. West Texas A & M's only loss of the season was a 52-35 shootout to Abilene Christian, the No. 1 seed in the region.
Neither team has much of a rushing attack to speak of, but this game might be one of those "first to 50" type match-ups.
My personal opinion is that the poise of Reilly will lead the Wildcats late in the game as he and Spevak can take over at any point. All Central Washington has to do is hold on, possibly literally, to Charly Martin and not give up too many big plays.
In reality, this game will be all about the big play, and a shootout seems inevitable. My pick, however, will be Central Washington, as this game could be a coin flip.
Some of the first round games can be seen for free on the NCAA's All-Access video player at http://all-access.cbssports.com/player.html?code=ncaa and I strongly urge you to catch some of the action.
A lot of people think that Division II is inferior football, but numerous Division I transfers who are now in Division II football have said that the only difference between the high-level programs and the Division II programs are the size of the linemen and nothing more.
So grab some popcorn and watch some free football this Saturday as some of the most passionate players in the country lay it all out on the field...and not all out on a keyboard or computer screen.
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