The San Diego Toreros will kick off their historic postseason run in the 2014 FCS Football Playoffs tomorrow in a first round road game versus the Montana Grizzlies at 1pm Pacific. The Toreros are making their first ever appearance in the FCS Playoffs after claiming an automatic bid for winning the Pioneer Football League. A last-second Hail Mary touchdown two weeks ago in their final conference game sealed the title and the FCS Playoffs berth.
The Toreros have long been a successful program at the FCS level, dating back to their time under current San Francisco 49ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh in the mid-2000’s. The Toreros won two FCS Mid-Major National Championships under Harbaugh, an award determined by voting on the best team at the end of the season. While the Toreros have been eligible for the FCS Playoffs including those two seasons, they were never selected as at-large bids for the tournament.
San Diego plays in the Pioneer Football League, a mid-major FCS conference that has no scholarship players. Because of this, they are considered a run below most top FCS conferences. This is why a PFL never qualified for the FCS Playoffs despite strong showings like the Toreros under Harbaugh. That changed last year when the PFL was awarded an automatic bid to the FCS Playoffs for the first time.
Last season the Toreros were in position to claim the championship and automatic berth, but a financial aid issue rocked the program late in the season. With the FCS Playoffs and PFL Championship in sight, the school was forced to vacate all PFL wins and remove the team from postseason consideration. It was found that some players may have had some of their non-athletic financial aid determined in part by their athletic achievements, a violation under the non-scholarship rules of the PFL. It was a rough period as the Toreros did end up finishing in first and would have claimed their third straight PFL Championship and the FCS Playoffs berth had the violation not occurred.
This year, it appeared the Toreros would fall just short of redemption in their second chance at the automatic berth. The Toreros were having a strong season, but Jacksonville was dominating and holding a slim lead thanks to a head-to-head victory. Then suddenly just days before their final PFL game, the Toreros learned that Jacksonville had committed the same non-scholarship violations they had committed last season. The Dolphins pulled themselves out of contention the same way the Toreros had done, and now the same violation that cost them last season had opened the door this season.
Suddenly, the Toreros were a win over Valparaiso from clinching their first postseason berth. They got it, but it took drama as they trailed with seconds left before scoring on a Hail Mary pass on the final play of regulation for a 32-27 victory. It clinched the fourth PFL Championship in the past five years for the Toreros, although technically they finished first last season as well had they not vacated their conference wins. The Toreros then learned they will visit #11 ranked Montana in their first ever FCS Playoffs game.
The Grizzlies represent an extremely tough test in every way for the Toreros. Montana is nationally ranked at the FCS level and appearing in their 23rd FCS Playoffs after finishing third in the Big Sky Conference that boasts a number of FCS powers including Eastern Washington. The Toreros meanwhile are making their first FCS Playoffs appearance, and they play less than a handful of games against top FCS and FBS opponents each season.
The only common opponent for the two teams this season was Cal Poly. The Mustangs blew out the Toreros 34-3 in their regular season finale, but they also defeated Montana handily 41-21 in a Big Sky Conference game. The Mustangs finished 5th in the Big Sky Conference, and it was a minor upset for them to beat Montana. The Grizzlies would likely be ranked in the top ten still if it weren’t for that loss, and it’s an encouraging sign for the Toreros that is not an impossible game to win.
In fact the Toreros have long had a solid history of beating higher-profile opponents. This year they Princeton of the FCS Ivy League earlier this season, and the team has never seemed consistently over-matched even against full scholarship teams. This is a testament to the way the program has been built up dating back to even before Harbaugh, although it was Harbaugh who took it to another level.
This will be far from an easy test as Montana is one of the best teams the Toreros have faced in recent years. And with San Diego not being as dominant as they have in past years, chances of a victory does seem slim. But it’s a milestone for the program after all their success to finally be in the FCS Playoffs. Harbaugh even started a recent 49ers press conference by congratulating the Toreros on the accomplishment and talking about how that was always a major goal even when he was there.
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Harbaugh might not be the current coach who will take the Toreros into this game, but he and all the recent coaches are to be thanked for this achievement. The success of the Toreros in recent years under Harbaugh, current San Jose State Head Coach Ron Caragher, and current Toreros Head Coach Dale Lindsey is a big reason why the PFL was able to raise their profile high enough to earn an automatic bid to the FCS Playoffs.
Now every year, a very good PFL team will get a well-deserved chance to prove they and the conference can hang with the top teams in the FCS. San Diego gets a chance to be the first PFL team to really make noise in the tournament, and it will be fun to watch them make history against Montana regardless of the outcome.