Opinion | Bethel FCS snub means it's time for NAIA, KCAC to look itself in the mirror
Sunday's announcement by the NAIA leaves more questions than answers.
On Sunday evening, the National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) released its annual Football Championship Series (FCS) selection show.
And for the second straight season, the committee that determines the fate of the top NAIA teams across the nation invited two squads from the KCAC: 15th-ranked (based on the Nov. 7 poll) Avila and 10th-ranked Southwestern.
The other KCAC team in contention? 13th-ranked Bethel.
The Threshers weren’t invited.
And while this one decision raises plenty of questions by itself, it raises plenty of broader structural concerns regarding both the KCAC’s and NAIA’s process of determining champions and playoff invitees.
KCAC: It’s time to pick a champion
Last weekend, Bethel held a large blue and red banner that read “CHAMPIONS” to celebrate its third consecutive conference title after capping a 9-1 season. The following weekend, two other teams, Avila and Southwestern, held up the same banner and celebrated the exact same achievement.
This means three teams in an 11-team conference will order championship rings this spring and boast themselves across social media as the champions of the KCAC, despite there being a clear sequence of tiebreakers implemented by the conference to determine the recipient of the automatic playoff bid — which is recognized by the NAIA as the conference champion.
Simply put, it’s a poor look for the league, even if it’s not the only one in the NAIA with this track record. And funnily enough, three different teams over the last three seasons were forced to share their conference title because of this reality:
In 2020, Bethel tied with Avila atop the standings at 6-1. Bethel defeated Avila head-to-head, yet the two were named co-champions.
In 2021, Southwestern finished in a three-way tie with Bethel and Kansas Wesleyan at 9-1. Based on the second tiebreaker (points between the three conference opponents), Southwestern received the automatic playoff bid. The three were still named co-champions.
In 2022, Avila finished in a three-way tie with Bethel and Southwestern at 9-1. Based on the second tiebreaker, Avila received the automatic playoff bid. The three were still named co-champions.
But with 2023 on the horizon, the KCAC has a prime opportunity to change course. With the addition of Evangel to the conference, KCAC leadership can make the shift to two six-team divisions with a championship game to determine one true winner.
Or, they can continue down this path of muddied waters at the top of the standings, following the misconception that slapping the ‘co-champions’ label on one or two other teams increases their FCS invitation chances.
No matter what plan the conference ultimately implements, the message from all players, coaches, and fans throughout the KCAC is clear: use your tiebreakers and let the players settle it on the field.
NAIA: It’s time to pick a system
One of the cornerstones of NAIA football that has received widespread applause is its automatic qualification of conference champions into its playoffs. This praise is rightfully given, but there’s a major flaw that’s holding my applause: the coaches poll.
Take the three aforementioned 9-1 KCAC teams, for example. From the Monday after Avila’s defeat of Bethel (Oct. 17) to Nov. 7, Avila was ranked below both Bethel and Southwestern every week but was atop of the conference based on the point differential tiebreaker en route to the automatic playoff bid.
It was only in the final coaches poll on Nov. 13 — the same day of the selection show — that Avila (13) surpassed Bethel (14).
Why does this matter? Because it reveals to us the ugly truth of the coaches poll: it means nothing. Unlike the College Football Playoff rankings that serve the NCAA Division 1 level, the coaches poll isn’t a real-time reflection on a team’s chances to make the FCS, which leaves coaches guessing as to what their team needs to do to give themselves a shot.
To solve this problem, there are at least two simple solutions available:
Create a committee-based at-large poll. At the conclusion of each week, the committee that decides the four at-large teams should release a ranking of the top 12 teams vying for those spots — with the top four being the admitted teams if the playoffs started the following week.
Disband the automatic qualifier. For the coaches poll to stay, the NAIA should make it the sole determiner of FCS qualifiers and matchups. Take the top 16 teams from the end-of-season coaches poll and use them as the FCS seeds.
Resolving this issue will take care of the hard feelings many fans of a handful of programs are feeling across the country following Sunday afternoon’s announcement. With clarity comes understanding — and the NAIA is missing a lot of clarity under its current half-system.