116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR FALLS — Since kickoff of its regular-season finale at South Dakota a week-and-a-half ago, it’s been a non-stop range of emotions for Mark Farley’s Northern Iowa football team and its fans.
Its 58-14 blowout of the Coyotes featured 49 first-half points and a season-high 380 yards passing and five touchdowns from quarterback Theo Day, but it wasn’t enough to impress the FCS playoff committee and earn an at-large berth to the 24-team field.
“It was a complete game, but it was the best half of UNI football that I’ve ever seen,” Farley said. “(I) really felt we made a point of why we should be one of those teams considered to get in the playoffs because we were playing our best football at the end, which you want to be, and I really believe we were a top-five team at the end of the season.”
While the Panthers being left out of the playoff field wasn’t largely considered a snub given their 6-5 record and lack of a marquee win, plenty of criticism came down when the field was unveiled from the FCS community.
Only three Missouri Valley Football Conference teams — South Dakota State, North Dakota State and North Dakota — made the playoffs, which most notably left 7-4 Youngstown State at home.
“Oh, I’ve got a lot of comments on (the playoff field),” Farley said. “There were a couple teams that got in that lost three of their last four games, or two of their last four, and they finished how we started and vice versa.
“But, I get the system, so I’m not going to complain about the system. We should have won, could have won, many of these games as we all know.”
One of the most popular critiques of this year’s playoff field was an apparent proverbial back seat strength of schedule and Sagarin Ratings took with this year’s committee.
“I really felt (strength of schedule) played a part the year before. This particular round, for whatever reason, it wasn't prioritized,” Farley said. “Let’s not even talk about UNI, let’s talk about the Missouri Valley Football Conference — I’m going, are you kidding me? We’ve got the No. 1 and the No. 3 seed and yet we’ve only got three teams in? And yet you put five (Colonial Athletic Association) teams in? It didn’t weigh out the way you would think.”
As fans of FCS lobbed their criticisms toward the playoff committee, the critique that caught fire among UNI fans on social media was questioning the Panthers’ annually tough non-conference schedules.
UNI fans online acknowledged the financial realities of having to play one game each season against an FBS opponent — that typically pays more than half a million dollars for what’s supposed to be an easy win for the FBS program — but questioned non-conference games against quality Big Sky opponents and other FCS stalwarts. Teams with seven wins and strength of schedules that didn’t come close to the Panthers got at-large playoff bids.
“I’ve been on both sides of the fence with (scheduling),” Farley said. “It depends on the committee and who’s leading the committee and who’s representing your conference.”
Farley noted how the Panthers’ tough non-conference schedules have made it difficult to build their way back into Top 25 polls as seasons progress. He also explained budget realities that impact their schedule making.
“Times have changed as far as what it costs to get these games,” Farley said. “One, they have to want to play you. Then, two, can you afford some of these games?
“Coming out of a lot of things that have happened at UNI — whether it’s in the Midwest or COVID — budgets have played a part is what I’m telling you. It’s going to take a little bit more of a grind to get there in the position that we’re in, but it can be done.”