For the first time in a dozen years, Delaware Stadium will be the scene of autumn playoff football.
How’s that for a throwback Saturday?
Despite a dreadful loss at Villanova that could have ended its season, Delaware (7-4) will host St. Francis (9-2) Saturday at 2 in the first round of the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision Tournament, a postseason reward that’s been the mission of every UD season for 50 years now.
A first-round win would send the Blue Hens into a round-of-16 matchup at No. 1-seeded South Dakota State (10-1), where the Hens lost a 2021 spring FCS semifinal.
Delaware downed St. Francis 27-10 last season in the schools’ only previous meeting.
The field for the 24-team tournament was announced early Sunday afternoon on ESPNU. Delaware was among five Colonial Athletic Association teams chosen, the second most since the 24-team field debuted in 2013, along with automatic qualifier William & Mary, co-champion New Hampshire, Richmond and Elon.
Delaware was chosen despite losing Saturday’s regular-season finale 29-26 at Villanova, where a second straight blocked punt positioned the Wildcats for the winning touchdown with 1:11 left.
Delaware has lost four of its last six and two in a row, falling last Saturday 21-13 to Richmond. The Spiders kicked the go-ahead field goal with :04 left after Delaware failed to score the decisive points on a drive stopped on downs at the UR 7 with 1:23 left.
But Delaware was still considered playoff worthy, as its other losses were to playoff-bound William & Mary, Elon and Richmond. The Hens also had a very valuable season-opening win at FBS-level Navy. The Mids (4-7) won 17-14 Saturday at 17th-ranked Central Florida, which likely buoyed Delaware’s candidacy.
Losses by other bubble teams Saturday also aided Delaware’s chances.
Only the top eight playoff teams are seeded. They have first-round byes.
The other 16 teams are bracketed with consideration given to geographic proximity when possible. The field includes 11 automatic conference champion qualifiers and 13 at-large selections.
“I think this team is good enough to go play football against a lot of people in this country,” first-year coach Ryan Carty said after the Villanova game.
“I think that’s what the CAA does for you. It gives you the opportunity week in and week out to get hardened and be in battles and be in situations that are playoff-like . . . I think those are credits to us.”
Delaware finished in a tie for sixth place with Towson and Villanova in the 13-team CAA.
The FCS title game is at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Jan. 8.
Besides William & Mary from the CAA, automatic qualifiers were Eastern Kentucky (ASUN-WAC); Sacramento State (Big Sky); Gardner-Webb (Big South); South Dakota State (Missouri Valley); Saint Francis (Northeast); Southeast Missouri (Ohio Valley); Holy Cross (Patriot); Davidson (Pioneer); Samford (Southern); and Southeastern Louisiana (Southland).
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The NCAA instituted championship playoffs for its lower division schools beginning in 1973, when Delaware was in the brand new Division II. The Blue Hens moved up to Division I-AA (now FCS) in 1980. From 1973-2010, Delaware reached the NCAA playoffs 20 times, their longest drought being three seasons from 1983 through 1985.
Delaware didn’t return until 2018, when it lost a first-round game at former CAA rival James Madison. Delaware had also lost to Villanova in the regular-season finale that season to finish 7-4, imperiling its playoff chances.
But in what certainly stirred up nostalgia for the program’s previous successes, Delaware advanced to the FCS semifinals for the 11th time in the 2021 spring season, which replaced the 2020 fall schedule erased by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Hens were unbeaten until a 33-3 loss at South Dakota State, which a week later lost to Sam Houston, where Carty was offensive coordinator under former Hens coach K.C. Keeler, in the championship.
Delaware did open the 2021 spring playoffs, which involved 16 teams, at Delaware Stadium by beating Sacred Heart 19-10. That’s the only home playoff game since Delaware downed Georgia Southern 27-10 on Dec. 18, 2010, in the semifinals.
Delaware won the FCS championship in 2003, when Carty was the back-up quarterback, and lost in title games in 1982 to Eastern Kentucky, 2007 to Appalachian State and 2010 to Eastern Washington. Before that, Delaware reached three Division II finals, beating Youngstown State in 1979 after falling to Central Michigan in 1974 and Eastern Illinois in 1978.
Four previous Delaware national football championships in what was then termed the College Division were earned via wire-service polls in 1946, 1963, 1971 and 1972.
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