It was a beautiful sun-splashed Saturday in Albany, NY, and I must admit, I am lucky in the sense that I live in a townhouse and therefore, have no lawn to cut and all the other household chores that many of you do on the weekends. As a result, except for a quick trip to Wal Mart, I lounged on my 17 year old sofa and watched college football from noon until the conclusion of the Washington-Hawaii game, won by the Huskies in ugly fashion 17-16 to officially open the Chris Peterson era.
The first week of the season is generally overanalyzed and for the most part, play is sloppy and that was again the case in the 2014 openers. But, college football is different than the NFL. For starters, there 262 teams at the FBS and FCS levels and that means there is less time to talk and more time to watch the games. When you think about it, Sundays, at least to me, are boring with at the most 16 games to watch. The witching hour on Saturday is about 3:15 when the noon games are reaching their conclusions, and one can only hope that there is drama to be had. For some reason, I have trouble watching Colts-Titans, but have no troubles watching Georgia Southern-North Carolina State.
We'll start there, in Raleigh. Georgia Southern was making its FBS debut. In their last game in the FCS they beat Florida at The Swamp to finish 7-4. They also lost their coach, Jeff Monken to Army and brought in Willie Fritz, who had roaring success at FCS Sam Houston State. In their win against the Gators, the Eagles didn't complete a single pass as they ran their patented triple option to success. While Monken took the option north to West Point, Fritz installed the pistol/spread offense and in their FBS debut, they acquitted themselves well. The new offense was working and working well. The Eagles threw for 192 yards and rushed for 246 and had a 20-10 lead early in the fourth quarter. They had the ball on the Wolfpack one and were ready to seal the game, but a fumble followed by a 99 yard touchdown drive by NC State made the score 20-17.
Undeterred, the Eagles drove deep into Wolfpack territory again, but lost starting QB Kevin Ellision when he landed hard on his shoulder. On third and eight, backup Favian Upshaw almost broke free and got the first down, but was stopped one yard short. This was the moment of truth for the new member of FBS. Personally, I was yelling for Fritz to go for it, but they elected to kick a 31 yard field goal to take a 23-17 lead. Naturally, the Pack scored a touchdown to win the game 24-23, making the Eagles 0-1 in FBS.
Keep your eye on the Georgia Southern Eagles. They won six FCS/1-AA titles and there is tradition of winning in Statesboro. They're in the south and we all know how fertile the recruiting grounds are down there. Now that they're in FBS, that kid who may have overlooked Georgia Southern for a Louisiana, Arkansas State, Troy, UAB or even a Florida will now look Georgia Southern rather than poo-poo it. And, don't sleep on the Sun Belt. This is a solid Little Five conference, with nine of the 11 teams located in the southeast. North Carolina State, coming off a 3-9 season is no juggernaut, but Georgia Southern proved that they may cause people fits at the FBS level.
North Dakota State has won three consecutive FCS titles and the Bison make for an interesting debate. There are some FCS teams that decide that it is imperative to move to the FBS level. The University at Buffalo is a prime example. Based on the recruiting ground, the ability to get players, one could make the argument that the Bulls best chance for success would be FCS football. And, for a time, they played at that level, and went 8-3 one year under Craig Cirbus. The question is simple and complicated at the same time. Do you want to dominate, win national championships at the lower level, or move up to FBS and hope you'll draw more fans, make more money and perhaps play your way into a smaller level bowl game. For Buffalo, it was an easy decision. Buffalo sports fans have two professional sports teams, and FCS football against Delaware, Maine and New Hampshire just wasn't going to sell to the big audience in WNY. Heck, UB is having enough problems selling MAC football to the region and one wonders if the Bulls ever landed in say, the Big Ten, would that wake up the fans and lead to packed crowds at UB or Ralph Wilson Stadium?
Massachusetts was an FCS power. They won national titles and because Massachusetts is similar to New York for high school recruiting, the Minutemen did well at that level. They decided to move up to FBS and they have struggled mightily. In fact, after 2015, they will be looking for a new conference to play in as they will be leaving the MAC. Other schools, like the aforementioned Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, and Marshall decided that the reward was worth the risk and they moved up to FBS, while other schools like Delaware, Eastern Kentucky, Youngstown State and Villanova have decided to remain at the FCS level. Boise State, who moved from FCS to FBS in 1996 is still the only former FCS school to play in a major bowl game, so FBS success can be spotty.
Back to the curious case of North Dakota State. They are the dominant FCS power, the gold standard of the subdivision. For the fifth straight year, the Bison opened the season by beating an FBS school, this time, a 34-14 rout of Iowa State of the Big 12. The other victims: Kansas (2010), Minnesota (2011), Colorado State (2012) and Kansas State (2013). Of that group, only Colorado State was not a Power 5 member. For the record, officials at the Fargo school say that they're content at the FCS level. They play in a 17,000 seat domed stadium to packed crowds that have been accustomed to domination. If the Bison did move up to FBS, where would they play? Conference USA? Mountain West? Independent, ala BYU and Notre Dame? They certainly would not be invited to the Big 12 or Big Ten, so where does that leave them? And, unlike Georgia Southern and Arkansas State, how many blue chip recruits are in the Dakotas and Minnesota?
The Bison lost their head coach (Wyoming) and 12 starters from last year's team and after falling behind 14-0 at Iowa State, simply reeled off 34 straight points to win 34-14. If you're a fan of FCS (and you can probably tell that I am) you need North Dakota State to stay at the FCS level, but you'll always worry that they and an Eastern Kentucky or others will look at the potential dollars and try to make the jump. In reality, the jump ends up costing more money but it does increase a university's profile. Georgia Southern, like Buffalo and a Boise State, will see an increase in applications and endowments simply because the score of their games will be seen by more people.
There's nothing wrong with being an FCS power, but Villanova could finish 11-1, but they'll never get more attention than they did for their 27-26 loss at Syracuse. Most schools at the FCS level can't afford to jump. They would have to build bigger stadiums, offer 22 more scholarships, all of which cost millions. Fortunately, for every Georgia Southern that moves up, there is an Abilene Christian that moves from Division II to FCS. And, with more cable sports networks needing inventory, there is certainly more exposure for FCS schools. Today, it's the annual MEAC-SWAC challenge on ESPN as North Carolina A&T battles Alabama A&M, so unlike before, FCS games are finding their way onto television.
It's always fun to see FCS schools take on FBS ones. Sure, there are plenty of blowouts and seeing Alabama host Chattanooga or Western Carolina is a bit comical but for FCS schools, it's a money maker. Some FCS schools get $500,000 for taking on an FBS foe and that does two things: it excites the players and helps pay the bills for the athletic department. Sure, for every FCS win, there is the 62-0 drubbing that Pittsburgh gave to Delaware, but I'm still in favor of it. I see nothing wrong with an FBS team playing one FCS school per year and seeing underdog Duquesne giving Buffalo fits was cool to see. The Big Ten now forbids members to schedule FCS schools and the concern is that the other conferences will follow suit. The College Football Playoff is limited to four teams, so is Alabama's 57-7 win over Eastern Kentucky better than Michigan State losing 21-20 at Oregon? That remains to be seen, but for now, realize that FCS football is pretty darn good. Georgia Southern and North Dakota State proved that yesterday.