Of the several dominoes that will likely need to fall for Eastern Washington to crack the Football Championship Subdivision playoff field, the biggest is respect from the playoff committee.
But the first piece – a win over swooning Portland State on Saturday at Roos Field – has to drop.
After winning three straight and four of its last five to thrust itself back in the postseason conversation, unranked EWU (6-5, 5-2 Big Sky) said it’s focused on its regular-season finale against a Vikings program (5-6, 3-4) that’s dropped three straight.
What-if scenarios are also circling through the heads of a senior class which may be playing its final college snaps this weekend.
Eagles defensive lineman Dylan Ledbetter was forthright about those postseason thoughts as the 24-team playoff field will be announced Sunday at 9:30 a.m. on ESPNU.
“It does (get mentioned in the locker room),” Ledbetter said. “After we win a game, we’ll see who won or lost. We can’t be blind to the fact we need teams to lose to help our case.”
Four Big Sky Conference members – No. 3 Montana (9-2, 6-1), fourth-ranked Sacramento State (8-3, 6-1), fifth-ranked Weber State (8-3, 6-1) and No. 8 Montana State (8-3, 5-2) – are postseason locks.
There’s still a possibility that EWU shares a five-way Big Sky crown with the Grizzlies, Hornets, Wildcats and Bobcats on Saturday night.
An EWU win and three upsets would create the logjam and surely help the Eagles’ cause.
The Eagles must beat Portland State; Idaho State (3-8, 3-5), which has lost four straight, would need to upset Weber State in Ogden, Utah; Montana State would have to upset rival Montana in Bozeman; and UC Davis (5-6, 3-4) upset rival Sacramento State in Sacramento, California.
In that upset-heavy scenario, Sacramento State would be the automatic qualifier and EWU would still be at the mercy of the FCS playoff committee.
The Eagles, ranked as high as No. 4 in the STATS FCS poll in Week 1, started the season with a surprising 1-3 mark and dropped out of the rankings in October.
EWU was handled 47-14 by defending Pac-12 champion Washington in the season opener before cruising past NCAA Division II Lindenwood 59-31 the following week. Those non-FCS games aren’t factored into the Eagles’ postseason resume.
The Eagles fell at 49-45 Jacksonville State (6-5) – now unranked after having a No. 17 ranking against EWU – and 35-27 Idaho (4-7, 2-7) to start the season, adding two more road losses against tough Sacramento State (48-27) and Montana (34-17) squads.
If EWU beats Portland State, it will have six FCS wins – most of which were blowouts – against five teams with losing records, including Northern Colorado (2-9, 2-5), Northern Arizona (4-7, 2-5), Idaho State, Cal Poly (2-8, 1-6) and Portland State.
EWU’s best win is a 35-20 home decision against North Dakota (6-4), a team also hoping to crack the playoff field. The Eagles didn’t face Weber State or Montana State due to the 13-team league’s unbalanced schedule.
STATS FCS senior editor Craig Haley, a guest on the Big Sky Conference’s weekly podcast Monday, said a blowout of Portland State would help get the playoff committee’s attention.
“I believe the committee prefers a team to have seven Division I wins, and Eastern can only get to six, and that hurts them, especially when there’s going to be at-large teams (around the country) with seven Division I wins,” Haley said. “Last year there were at-large bids for teams with six wins, but I’m not sure the committee wants to do that again, but EWU is a terrific program and I think that factors in.”
The Eagles rank 35th in the FCS media poll’s Top 25 voting and 32nd in the FCS coaches poll’s voting. Two teams ranked ahead of EWU – Dartmouth and Princeton – don’t participate in the playoffs, per Ivy League rues.
The popular Massey Ratings, which uses an algorithm to measure past performance, ranks EWU at No. 14 in the FCS.
Big Sky commissioner Tom Wistrcill said EWU – a team with the country’s top-ranked offense (521 yards per game ) – deserves a shot because it’s peaking at the right time.
“Eastern Washington needs to be in the discussion because of they way they’re playing right now,” Wistrcill said. “When you’re the No. 1-ranked conference in the country, you’re going to play the No. 1-ranked schedule.”
EWU secured seven FCS wins in 2017 and was ranked at the end of the regular season but still wasn’t chosen for the playoffs.
Third-year EWU head coach Aaron Best revisited the postseason snub on Tuesday.
“We’re playing some pretty good football. I know a lot teams wouldn’t want to face us if and when we get that seventh victory on Saturday,” Best said.
“But I also thought that in 2017,” Best added. “It’s not in our hands at this point, so we have to do what we can this week to at least make people think.”
If EWU did earn an at-large bid, it would likely travel for a playoff game for the first time since 2009.
Ledbetter thinks EWU is a playoff-caliber club capable of doing damage.
“If we take care of business on Saturday, we put our best résumé forward and hope for the best,” Ledbetter said. “We’ve got to be one of the hottest teams in the FCS right now. I hope they give us a chance because I don’t think anyone wants to play us in the first round.”
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