FCS playoffs: Sacramento State earns bid for fourth year in a row; heartbreak for UC Davis

The Sacramento State Hornets live to see another day this up-and-down football season while the UC Davis Aggies are finished, frustrated that their 31-21 triumph over their rivals in Saturday’s Causeway Classic wasn’t enough to extend their resurgent season.

The NCAA Division I FCS playoff field was announced Sunday morning, and the 24-team field includes Sacramento State for the fourth consecutive season.

The Hornets (7-4) visit North Dakota in Grand Forks on Saturday afternoon, where the weather forecast calls for temperatures in the mid 20s, a factoid for those waiting in line to get inside the 12,283-seat Alerus Center. No degree of chill will dim the glow of a Hornets team that was one of the last four teams entered into the bracket by the committee. They’re glad to get in.

UCD also finished 7-4 and a spot ahead of Sacramento State in the Big Sky Conference standings. So why wasn’t it enough for the Aggies to secure their third FCS berth since 2018?

Kent Haslam, the 2023 FCS committee chair, told ESPN at the end of the bracket-release show that picking Sacramento State over UCD “was one of the more difficult decisions we had. When you look at Sacramento State, they had a much more difficult task to win seven games. They had an FBS win at Stanford, a real quality win.”

Big Sky losses to Eastern Washington and Northern Arizona did not help the Aggies’ strength of schedule, and wins over Southern Utah (6-5) and Weber State (6-5) were not enough for the committee as neither of those programs stood much of a chance of making the playoffs.

The power-packed Big Sky was again viewed as one of the deepest conference in the FCS. The Missouri Valley Football Conference that includes Sacramento’s opponent on Saturday had six teams make the playoffs. Two of the overall top four seeds in the bracket are Big Sky members — No. 2 Montana (10-1) and No. 4 Idaho (8-3). In addition, No. 6-seed Montana State is from the Big Sky.

Sacramento State’s strength of schedule was deemed good enough to warrant an FCS spot, including the 30-23 victory at Stanford of the Pac-12. The Hornets lost a tight game at Idaho, lost at eventual Big Sky champion Montana and at home to Montana State, each of those contests an FCS top-10 showdown. Each of those losses were considered quality setbacks.

Sacramento State opened the season with a victory at Nicholls State in Louisiana, a team that went 7-0 in the Southland Conference, thus earning an automatic FCS bid. The FCS playoffs include 10 automatic bids (conference champions) and 14 at-large bids.

“We’re excited to keep the season going,” Thompson told The Bee. “This team has overcome adversity and has been able to stay together. We look forward to the challenge of taking on a tough opponent and having the opportunity to play some more football.”

A year ago, UCD coaches and players figured they were going to be in the FCS field at 6-5 overall and 5-3 in the Big Sky, but they were collectively disappointed not to get the bid, spoiling their on-campus watch party.

Aggies coach Dan Hawkins said after the Causeway win there would be no such viewing party this time, anything to change up the vibe.

The entire FCS playoff bracket is available at the NCAA website.