The most overlooked part of that equation is the fact you must be rated 20th or higher in the final poll. Right now there are two conferences struggling to keep their automatic bid: The Mid South West and the Dakota Athletic conference. Because of early losses in the season to other conferences and a few upsets within their own leagues, these two conferences are on the verge of not making the NAIA Playoffs.
Here is the current break down in the NAIA by conference:
Mid South Conference West Division: Georgetown and the University of the Cumberlands look like they have done all they need to get into the playoffs before their matchup on November 12. Barring no upsets on the 5th, these two teams are in. (UC plays Union, Georgetown plays Shorter). Pikeville will have to finish the season strong to gain an at-large berth. IN: GT and UC DARKHORSE: Pikeville
Mid South Conference East Division: The only team with a hope and a prayer is Bethel TN. The Wildcats are now 5-4 and lead the West Division. They end with Cumberland TN and Campbellsville which could put them at 7-4 to finish the season. Close losses to the University of the Cumberlands (KY), Geneva, and Georgetown might be enough to sway voters to get this team in th Top 20. DARKHORSE: Bethel TN
Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference: Tabor is in. They have been the best team in the KCAC for two seasons and it does not look like they are letting up. Kansas Wesleyan has an outside shot. If they take care of business they might have a chance of moving up high enough to take an at large bid. However it would appear they need help from teams above them to lose if they are to gain enough ground. IN: Tabor DARKHORSE: Kansas Wesleyan
Mid States Football Association Mideast: St. Francis is rolling and I do not see anyone beating them. With that said, it all will come down to Walsh and if they can win this weekend over Urbana. The Blue Knights loss to Quincy has all but finished their playoff chances, and now Walsh must prove they are worthy of moving up in the ratings. However, you have to beleive they will probably lose the final week of the season to USF, dropping them out of the possibility of an at-large because the Cougars will win the Mideast. IN: St. Francis Ind DARKHORSE: Walsh
Mid States Football Association Midwest: This is probably the most exciting race in the country for their conference championship. Saint Xavier, Saint Ambrose, and McKendree all stand at the top of the MSFA and the NAIA ratings. However, Ambrose plays McKendree on the 5th in a game which might hurt the Bearcats chances at the postseason. A win and McKendree is in and the loss would probably keep Amborse high enough to get to the post season, as long as they do not faulter against Olivet Nazarene in the final week. SXU has the clearest road ahead with Iowa Wesleyan and St. Francis IL ahead of them. Worst case for the conference, 2/3 make it to the post season. Best case, 3/3. IN: Saint Xavier PROBABLE: McKendree, Saint Ambrose DARKHORSE: None
Central States Football League: Sorry Ranger fans, your run is over. A loss at Upper Iowa has ended your already slim shot at the post season. The remaining hope of post season goes to an improving Southern Nazarene team, who knocked off a very good Langston team on 10/29. Currently 5-3 (3-1 CSFL) the Crimson Storm have a chance to win out and finish 7-3. However, they need some love from the raters to get them into the Top 20. The conference is not the culprit of the SNU season right now, instead it is an early season loss to Graceland who is currently 7-2 with two very tough games left. Southern Naz needs the Yellow Jackets to at least split their remaining games in order for people NOT to keep them down because of the Wheat Bowl loss. DARKHORSE: Southern Nazarene
Heart of America Athletic Conference: MidAmerica Nazarene was in the drivers seat until they lost this weekend to Lindenwood. Now the Pioneers and Graceland could possibly beat one another out of the post season. Graceland and MidAmerica Nazarene meet the final week of the season in a game that could bounce one of the two schools from the post season. Evangel is looking pretty stable with two weeks remaining and only one game against Central Methodist. POSSIBLE: Evangel DARKHORSE: Graceland, MidAmerica Nazarene
Dakota Athletic Conference: Valley City State, Dickinson State, and Black Hills State are really making things interesting. Valley has the toughest road in front of them with Dakota State and Azusa Pacific. DSU is probably a win, but Azusa Pacific is the kicker. A loss by VCSU could knock them out of the final Top 20 and not give them the “automatic berth”. Dickinson State will more than likely win their final game over Mayville State while Black Hills State finishes against a tough Minot State team. Valley could finish with 8 wins while the others will finish with 7. In the end, Black Hills State has too much ground to make up with only one game on the schedule. At this point I would say they are out, but stranger things have happened. Dickinson State should be IN with a VCSU loss to APU. If VCSU wins out they will be the lone DAC representitive in the NAIA Championship Series.
Frontier Conference: Carroll is in. Montana Tech must win against Northern on the 12th. A win over Carroll on the 5th would help a lot, but it is not going to happen. IN Carroll DARKHORSE: Montana Tech
Great Plains Athletic Conference: Morningside and Sioux Falls are in. They do have to win their final games, but even with a minot set back, they will not fall far enough to be left out of the mix. Northwestern has REALLY come on strong, but it might be too little too late as the Red Raiders early loss to Doane has really hurt their chances as well as a 52-6 loss to Morningside. I will not rule them out yet, but the fat lady is warming up. IN Sioux Falls, Morningside DARKHORSE: Northwestern
Independent: Webber International is out of the picture due to their loss to Walsh. Eastern Oregon had a shot, but a 40-0 loss to Azusa Pacific has all but done in the season for the Mountaineers. So that leaves: Azusa Pacific. APU has one game remaining on the road in North Dakota against Valley City State. APU will be the highest rated Independent and will only need to stay rated in the Top 20 to gain access to the post season. A loss on the road in North Dakota could put that in question, but it would appear the Cougars should be able to stay high enough in the ratings even with the loss. PROBABLE: Azusa Pacific
So for the record, Georgetown, U-Cumberlands, Carroll, St. Francis, Sioux Falls, Morningside, Saint Xavier, Tabor should all be in the championship series. That presents eight spots in the championship series still open. Our probable list includes Azusa Pacific, Saint Ambrose, McKendree, and Evangel. Which brings our current list to 12 teams we feel have a VERY strong chance at making the playoffs and there are plenty of darkhorses to fill the final four spots.
We will know a lot more after this weekends game, but needless to say the end of the NAIA Football season will not disappoint any fans of small college football.