One Last Hurrah For The FCS

Hey college football fans!!  Didja know that the quarterfinals of the championship playoffs will be contested this weekend, available for your enjoyment on the ESPN family of networks?!?!

Nope, we didn’t time warp into 2024.  Indeed, for the 46th consecutive year, a whole bunch of schools you may not necessarily have in your weekly survivor pools or actively wagering on will do battle for a real live NCAA-endorsed championship, just like they do in every other sport except among the 133 committed institutions that have bought their way in the upper echelon of college football, otherwise known as the Football Bowl Series (FBS).

And yes, that’s an apropos acronym for the reality of the sich, which essentially has bifurcated that echelon into the haves (aka the Power 5/4 conference) and the have-nots (the “Group of 5”), the ones that will largely play across those same ESPN networks (and, on occasion, others like CBS and the CW) over the last days of 2023, largely for entertainment value but for true football fans, perhaps a preview of young men who may indeed turn up on Draft Day and beyond.

But as we know, a whole bunch of very talented athletes compete in schools beyond those 133, and the Elite Eight that remain in the FCS (Football Championship Series) tournament will be providing the majority of the “Week 15” splendor, beginning tonight in frigid Bozeman, Montana, where the Grizzlies will do battle with the Paladins of Furman on ESPN2.  Tomorrow, the remaining three quarterfinals will be contested, starting with a Big Noon window for Villanova visiting defending champ and current FCS top dog South Dakota State, with the state’s other “major” team playing host to neighbor and rival North Dakota State.  And in Sioux Falls, and to the ARGUS LEADER’s Jonathan Fernandez, them there’s front page news:

South Dakota’s first conference win this season was in Fargo against then-No. 2 North Dakota State, which launched the Coyotes on a historic trajectory. At that point, USD was ranked 15 in the FCS Stats Perform Top 25.

Now, the Coyotes are preparing to take on the Bison again, this time on friendlier turf, and with a whole lot more on the line. South Dakota will play North Dakota State on Saturday in Vermillion in the FCS quarterfinals, which marks the first time in program history the team has made it this far into the playoffs. This will be only the fifth true road game for the Bison in 51 FCS playoff contests.

And if you don’t happen to be a military person or enthralled by the prospect of the Army-Navy game, you can watch that Battle of the Dakotas live on ABC in the same late afternoon window.

And finally, at just after 10 pm local time, the city of Albany, which Lord knows needs some sort of positive distraction of late, will be able to cheer on their SUNY-based Great Danes as they try to achieve the program’s first win ever outside of the Eastern time zone in a test in the Kibbie Dome against the homestanding Idaho Vandals.  They actually play in a domed stadium there, and have since the 70s.  So those pups won’t immediately freeze to death.  That game, sadly, will only be available to those with ESPN+–which is likely where all future FCS playoff games at this level will be seen starting next year.

Because this weekend next year will feature the first round of the expanded 12-team FBS playoff, and all indications are given the unique nature of the timing of this announcement and future rights ESPN will more than likely have the lion’s share of those games–meaning these schools, who are familiar to fans of other sports where they regularly compete for championships on linear channels, will be reduced to the same uber-niche of obscurity that lesser rounds and sports now exist in,

And, to me, that’s a dern shame.  Stories of small town aspirations for big league recognition is as ingrained in American storytelling as any art.  For cities like Moscow, Idaho and Vermillion, South Dakota to get their moment in the sun is a big deal.  For their fans and alumni and possible donors.

But we know all too well where the sport and the mindset of the networks that carry it are turning.  The Hail Mary being thrown by the current NCAA head that was unveiled earlier this week speaks volumes to the futility of the effort to maintain such storytelling as part of the narrative, as ESPN’s Dan Murphy reported:

NCAA president Charlie Baker says he’s ready to address the “elephant in the room” in college sports.

Less than a year into his tenure as president, Baker is pushing schools to take steps that would lead to a radical change in how they compensate and compete for athletes. He announced proposed rule changes this week that would allow schools to funnel more money to their players and create a new subdivision in which the wealthiest tier of college athletic departments could make rules that better fit their financial reality.

“This is a conversation we need to have,” Baker said Wednesday during an interview at the Sports Business Journal Intercollegiate Athletics Forum in Las Vegas. “… We need to have it, and get somewhere with it.”

Give Baker credit, he’s at least trying to keep the less than uber-elite relevant.  But as the balance of Murphy’s article detailed, this elephant’s way out of the cage already.

So try to enjoy the storylines, and the pomp and circumstance of smaller towns.  Let the fans of the Main Line and the Capital Region see exactly how priveliged they are.

Because all indications this may be the last time anyone besides me and their fans will give a crap about this schools or the results of their efforts.  Certainly, it’ll be the one of the last times we’ll see any of these teams on ABC.

Oh, I forgot to mention.  The FCS championship game will be on ABC as well–on a Sunday afternoon, no less, the day before this year’s BCS title game.   Head-to-head with the NFL, to be sure.

But you probably multitask anyway any, hey, who knows how many Week 18 games will truly be meaningful at that point?

Or at least as meaningful as this one will be to their fans.

Enjoy it while you still can.



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