MISSOULA — Like it or not, the Montana Grizzlies soccer team is in the FCS playoffs.
Despite not beating a team with a winning record, UM (7-4) earned one of the last spots ahead of schools like Chattanooga (7-4), Florida A&M (9-2), UC Davis (6-5) and Youngstown State (7-4), among others.
Not long after the announcement, the debate began. Why should the Griz be given the opportunity to compete for a national championship?
FCS playoff committee chair Jermaine Truax, who is also athletic director at Bucknell University, spoke to 406mtsports.com to reveal what discussions were going on specifically for the Griz.
According to the majority of the 11 voters, one from each conference, UM met the criteria they are looking for starting with the Big Sky conference.
The Big Sky had an FCS-high five-team field, tied on points with the Colonial Athletic Association. It has three teams in the top 10 in the country and three more in the top 25. Playing within this gauntlet gives Montana the upper hand compared to teams from weaker conferences.
“They’re playing at one of the best conferences in the country this year,” said Truax. “They had a strong schedule, a lot of competition at a high level.”
That begs the question: What about UC Davis? The Aggies were on the verge of the playoffs, finishing higher than the Griz in the Big Sky standings but not making it to the finals.
Ultimately, having one less overall DI win was her fatal blow.
“It was difficult in a crowded field when you only have six DI wins,” Truax said. “UC Davis made a late push to get in there… and while they presented well, they only ended up with six DI wins… every other team we spoke about had seven.”
Now back to the seven-win Griz, who has lost a few close games against top-flight teams.
This idea of a “loss of quality” is actually taken into account by the Committee. But even more important is player availability. In those close encounters on the road against Sacramento State and Weber State, Montana played without one of its best players.
“Knowing that at the heart of their schedule against some of the top teams in the league, their QB (Lucas Johnson) was injured,” Truax said. “I would have loved to see how those games would have turned out if he had been healthy.”
Truax continued to talk about UM by mentioning his non-conference schedule. It played two games against teams from the Missouri Valley Conference (South Dakota, Indiana State) and one against a Southland team.
Comparing bubble teams from different conferences, the committee liked how successful Montana was in these cross-conference competitions.
“While these teams randomly fell in the middle or bottom, the Griz still challenged themselves in these cross-conference matchups,” Truax said. “These matchups give us good data points to see how they stack up against other leagues. Even though they may not have played North Dakota State, you still get those reference points.”
Then there’s the opinion aspect of the decision-making process, which involves being honest with yourself. Voters are not robots; there human nature is involved.
The committee wants the top 24 teams in the playoffs, and that may not always be reflected in their records. If you were to pit teams against each other, who would emerge victorious?
“If you’re really going to nail it all… you just have to ask yourself, ‘If I field this team with these other teams, who do you think is the better team?'” Truax said. “And Montana was a stronger team than the rest of those bubble teams in our opinion and ultimately that won the day.”
The committee’s Big Sky Conference representative, who is also Montana’s athletic director, Kent Haslam, is contrary to belief popular and involved in none of these talks.
When the griz are presented, he is allowed to make a factual statement, which may provide background information about the program, and then he must leave the room.
According to Haslam, he sat in the office hallway for an hour while his team debated, along with the Chattanooga AD, who serves as the Southern Conference Committee representative. Stepping back into the room, both bubble teams immediately saw their fate.
“You go in and you look at your screen and you see the vote,” Haslam said. “It’s like opening a Christmas present.”
While the season hasn’t been idyllic for the Griz and their fans, they’re happy to be playing a second season. It’s a chance to right their wrongs and show the country what they’re capable of – a fresh start.
The Griz may hold themselves to a higher standard than just making a playoff appearance, but it’s always an achievement.
“Of course we want to win every game. 7-4 is not where we want to be,” Haslam said. “But you’re crazy not to be excited about a playoff bid. Which athlete doesn’t want to keep playing? … You can restart your season and play for a championship.”