25 Small Schools That Deserve Some Love from 'ESPN College GameDay' in 2012

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistMay 9, 2012

25 Small Schools That Deserve Some Love from 'ESPN College GameDay' in 2012

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    It's fun—or at least in vogue—to talk about Alabama, USC, Michigan, LSU, Florida State, Oklahoma  and all the rest of the college football big boys.

    And our friends at ESPN certainly have put together a fantastic Saturday morning tradition with their traveling College GameDay broadcasts.

    But, somewhat predictably, EPSN finds itself at the big programs pretty much every week. What about the rest of the nation? When will the little guys get some love?

    We've put together a list of 25 small programs that deserve a little recognition from ESPN.

    Here are some suggestions for College GameDay sites in 2012.

Mount Union (Division III)

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    We're going to get the really small programs out of the way early on our countdown.

    We start with the Mount Union Purple Raiders in Division III.

    Before you begin thinking that Mount Union isn't worth any attention, consider this: The Purple Raiders have won 10 NCAA Division III national championships in football—all since 1993, and six between 2000 and 2008.

    This small school in Alliance, Ohio, not only holds the NCAA all-division record for longest regular-season winning streak (110 games from 1994 to 2005), but also holds the all-division streak of 54 games—which is all the more impressive considering it includes playoff games.

    In addition, the Raiders have appeared in 15 of the last 19 national championship games.

    That's a streak even SEC fans have to respect.

Wisconsin-Whitewater (Division III)

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    The nemesis of Mount Union for much of the past decade has been the Wisconsin-Whitewater Warhawks.

    Wisconsin-Whitewater has won the last three Division III national titles, and currently owns the nation's longest NCAA win streak at 45 games.

    In just five seasons, Wisconsin-Whitewater coach Lance Leipold has put together an eye-popping record of 72-3, with four national championships.

    If you really want to catch a Division III team at the height of its success, look no further than Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Wake Forest

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    The Demon Deacons haven't traditionally had the strongest of football programs, and this small, private school in Winston-Salem, N.C., typically plays the role of spoiler in the ACC.

    But there are few stadium crowds in the conference that can match the intensity of the Deacons faithful. Wake Forest would certainly benefit from the added attention, as well, as it seems the Deacons are always just one or two top recruits away from putting together a true contender in the ACC.

Northwest Missouri State (Division II)

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    Lost in the run of four consecutive losses in the NCAA Division II national championship game from 2005 to 2008 is the fact that Northwest Missouri State is easily one of the best programs in the nation, year in and year out.

    NWMSU finally broke through in its fifth consecutive trip to the title game in 2009, beating playoff nemesis Grand Valley State to capture the program's third national title and first since 1999.

    There are few Division II schools more crazed about football than Northwest Missouri State. The Bearcats always put on a good show for anyone who shows up to Bearcat Stadium—easily one of the nicest stadiums in Division II.

Grand Valley State (Division II)

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    Our final Division II stop is at Grand Valley State.

    GVSU has earned a little publicity over the past few seasons with former head coach Brian Kelly moving into the top job at Notre Dame.

    While at GVSU from 1991 through 2003, Kelly built the Lakers program from a little-known team to a national power, eventually winning two NCAA Division II national championships.

    Kelly posted a 118-35-2 record at Grand Valley State before moving on to Central Michigan for the 2004 season. Kelly's replacement, Chuck Martin (now Notre Dame offensive coordinator), guided the Lakers to three more appearances in the national championship game, two of which GVSU won (and all three played against Northwest Missouri State).

    Martin also led the Lakers to a Division II-record 40-game win streak from 2005 to 2007.

    Between Grand Valley State and Northwest Missouri State, there have been 11 title-game appearances and five national championships since 2001. They are clearly the center of the football world in Division II.

Southern Mississippi

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    Hattiesburg, Miss., may not be the center of the Southern football world, but it's home to one of the most consistently decent teams, and at times, a very good non-automatic qualifier program.

    Southern Mississippi finally broke through in 2011, putting up a record of 12-2 which included a Conference USA championship game victory over then-No. 6 Houston.

    Since 2002, the Golden Eagles have found their way to a bowl game, and their distinct upward trend should be enough to draw the attention of ESPN.

Montana (FCS)

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    Out under the big sky of Montana, the Grizzlies play football in the Big Sky Conference, and play it very, very well.

    Since 1995, the Griz have appeared in seven FCS national championship games, winning two (1995, 2001). Montana has also won at least a share of 11 Big Sky titles since 2000, only missing out on the 2010 title.

    But the biggest reason EPSN should venture out to Missoula is to take in the amazing scenery, witness the endless energy of the Montana crowd and see one of the nicest stadiums in the country.

Georgia State (FCS)

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    If ESPN were to put GameDay at a non-FBS location (which has happened before), why would Georgia State be a good selection?

    After all, the Panthers have just two seasons of football history and are just 9-13 in that span.

    But if you look beyond the raw numbers, you'll notice that Georgia State has jumped into the deep end of the pool, head-first. The Panthers take on some of the best competition the FCS has to offer, regardless of the fact they're such a young program.

    Additionally, GSU hasn't been afraid to play anyone—with teams such as Houston and Alabama making appearances on the GSU schedule.

    There is one additional bonus to selecting Georgia State: it's location.

    Located in Atlanta, ESPN could really make a day of it, perhaps splitting time between Georgia Tech and Georgia State.

Massachusetts

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    Massachusetts is making the move to the FBS this season and will be a member of the MAC East in football.

    And while UMass is new on the FBS scene, it's entirely possible that the Minutemen could emerge as a budding power over the next decade.

    Just imagine: ESPN could say it was there when it all began.

Southern Methodist

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    It's been a long, hard road for the Mustangs these past two decades.

    Ever since the “death penalty” was doled out to the cancerous program in the late 1980s, SMU has struggled to find its footing on the football field.

    After decades of failure, not to mention back-to-back 1-11 seasons in 2007 and 2008, the Mustangs finally broke through in 2009 with a 8-5 record, earning the program's first bowl trip since the 1984 Aloha Bowl.

    It's far too early to say that SMU is on a path back to national prominence. But the successes the Mustangs have had these past three seasons deserve praise. And what better way to reward the program than with a visit from the GameDay crew?

Army

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    With the current wave of love for the armed forces sweeping the nation, it can't possibly be a bad time to jump on the bandwagon.

    Even though Army has struggled mightily over the years and hasn't beaten Navy in a decade, it doesn't mean the Black Knights are any less deserving of attention.

    Michie Stadium at West Point is also one of the most picturesque locations for a football stadium in the country. If ESPN times it right, an autumn day in New York can be quite pleasant for everyone involved.

    For the record, GameDay was held at West Point on September 27, 2003, for a game against South Florida—a season in which, coincidentally, Army posted a record of 0-13.

Navy

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    Yes, Navy has beaten Army every year now since 2002. That's 10 straight wins in one of the game's grandest rivalries.

    So why is it that Army has been featured on GameDay three times (twice while visiting Air Force) and Navy has yet to be so honored?

    You'll have to ask the programming geniuses at ESPN.

    In addition to beating up on Army for the past decade, Navy has also put up consistently better records than the West Point cadets.

    Again, we have to ask why Navy hasn't been featured, even as a visiting team, on GameDay.

    Navy has 75 wins since 2003. Thrice-featured Army has just 31 over the same span.

    Hmmm.

Western Michigan

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    Okay. We all know the MAC isn't the greatest conference in the world. Even In the MAC's geographical region, finding MAC games on television is next to impossible.

    On top of that, MAC games are so sparsely attended, some of the FCS and even Division II programs on the outdraw MAC schools on a game-by-game basis.

    But that doesn't mean there aren't any interesting stories in the MAC.

    One such story is the rivalry between Central Michigan and Western Michigan. Dubbed “Western-Central Weekend,” the Saturday football game usually concludes a week of various spirit events that take place in both Mt. Pleasant and Kalamazoo.

    Last season, WMU earned its first win over CMU since 2005 with a lopsided 44-14 blowout at Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo.

    Western Michigan subsequently earned a berth in the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl at season's end, falling to Purdue, 37-32, in a thrilling shootout.

Troy

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    The unimaginatively-named Trojans had a tough 2011. After five years of winning no fewer than eight games per season, Troy fell flat, winning just three.

    We could point to all sorts of legitimate reasons for the Trojans' epic collapse, but maybe the Trojans just weren't feeling the love any more.

    Troy became an FBS program in 2001, so it's not surprising ESPN hasn't chosen to visit Troy, Ala.

    Maybe that should change.

Toledo

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    There are plenty of places in the state of Ohio to catch a college football game.

    When selecting the best programs, Toledo probably doesn't come to mind, even for people who live in Toledo.

    But that doesn't mean Rockets games aren't fabulously entertaining.

    Last season, the Rockets came withing a hair of becoming the first Ohio team since the Roman Empire to defeat Ohio State, losing in Columbus, 27-22.

    The Rockets then proceeded to hang with Boise State in the following week's game for a couple of quarters before Kellen Moore and company turned on the after-burners.

    Toledo's impressive 9-4 record and crazily entertaining bowl victory over Air Force was punctuated with massive bursts of offensive brilliance.

    If you like points, you need to start watching Toledo. In 2011, the Rockets scored 42 or more points eight times. They also topped the 50-point mark four times and the 60-point threshold twice.

    Crazily enough, Toledo scored 60 points in a losing effort against Northern Illinois. How do you score 60 points and lose?

    We're not entirely sure, but it had to be entertaining, right?

Louisiana Tech

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    We're not really sure how kosher it is to reward failure, but when it comes to failing, no one has done it by closer margins than 2011 WAC champion Louisiana Tech.

    Last season, the Bulldogs could have saved everyone a whole lot of trouble if they had just been able to find an extra point or two against Houston in Week 3. The Bulldogs fell just short against Case Keenum's squad, 35-34.

    Louisiana Tech followed that performance by taking Mississippi State to the wire, losing in overtime, 26-20.

    Finally, the Bulldogs faced off against dangerous TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl and carried the lead through most of the game before the Horned Frogs' late surge gave them a 31-24 victory.

    It's possible that 2011 showed us that Louisiana Tech could be on the cusp of becoming the best thing to come out of the WAC since Boise State.

    Tech has also never played at a GameDay location, and it's always nice to the see the shrub in a forest of SEC giants get a little daylight.

Louisiana-Lafayette

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    Louisiana-Lafayette is known for many things.

    Football isn't one of them.

    But that may soon start to change if the Ragin' Cajuns continue their upward climb through the Sun Belt Conference.

    After posting a rather typical 3-9 record in 2010, the Cajuns exploded for nine wins in 2011, finishing in third place in the conference. It was not only the Cajuns' highest finish, but also high enough to earn the program's first FBS bowl appearance (the Cajuns did play in the 1970 Grantland Rice Bowl, losing to Tennessee State, 26-25).

    Louisiana-Lafayette also managed to beat a better-than-decent San Diego State team in the New Orleans Bowl, setting the program up for greater success in the Sun Belt-apathetic state of Louisiana.

    In a state where the SEC is king, a little added attention to the “little guys” could go a long, long way toward FBS parity.

Western Kentucky

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    Since joining the FBS in 2008, it's been a long, long road for Western Kentucky.

    After suffering through three seasons with just four combined wins (only two of which—both in 2010—were against FBS programs), the Hilltoppers belatedly arrived on the radar screen of FBS relevance.

    Still, the Hilltoppers' 7-5 record in 2011 wasn't enough to garner even a single bowl invitation, and WKU was forced to sit at home watching the bowl games on television.

    Part of the problem could be the lack of fan support for the program, or perhaps an apathetic television audience scared bowl selection committees away.

    Whatever the reason, a little national exposure could be just the shot in the arm needed in Bowling Green, Ky.

Nevada

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    There are plenty of reasons to visit Reno, Nevada, “The Biggest Little City in the World.”

    Not only are there great attractions, casinos, theaters and the like, there's also the football team at the University of Nevada.

    The magnificent mountain backdrop would provide a scenic environment for a GameDay broadcast, and the improving Wolf Pack football team is more than capable of providing some evening fireworks for a national television audience.

    Nevada has already provided some fireworks, famously knocking off Boise State in Reno in overtime in 2010, 34-31.

Tulsa

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    If you're looking for a consistent, non-automatic qualifier winner that absolutely no one seems to be talking about, you should take a look at Tulsa.

    With the exception of 2004 and 2009, Tulsa has won eight or more games every year since 2003. That includes three seasons of 10 or more wins, plus seven bowl games, three Conference USA West Division titles and one Conference USA championship.

    Tulsa has also done a pretty decent job of hanging with their tough opponents in games many expect to be blowout losses. The Golden Hurricane may not be the most impressive team in the state of Oklahoma, but with 18 wins over the last two seasons, they're certainly worthy of a little coverage beyond the borders of the state.

Washington State

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    With new head coach Mike Leach taking over for 2012, things are sure to get interesting in Pullman.

    GameDay has never been to Pullman, but that could (and should) change if there is any sign of success coming from Leach's Cougars.

    Washington State has the makings of a program on the rise, doubling its win total from 2010 last season.

    Of course, that only means the Cougars won four games in 2011. But 4-8 is a heckuva lot better than 2-10, are we right, WSU fans?

    It's not crazy-go-nuts to think a bowl might not be too far off for Washington State. And as the Cougars close in on that magical sixth win, a little kudos from ESPN wouldn't be completely out of line.

Vanderbilt

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    Can you really call any program in the SEC a “small program?”

    When you're talking about Vanderbilt, sure.

    The Commodores carry on the grand tradition of conference doormats, and along with their contemporaries like Indiana, Washington State, Duke, and Kansas, it's nice to be recognized at least once in a while, right?

    If showing up is really half the battle, then Vandy is already halfway there. If we could just get ESPN to come the rest of the way.

Wyoming

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    There was a pretty long span when the Wyoming Cowboys were the butt of many a joke.

    It's easy to understand, considering the program struggled to hit .500 for much of the last decade.

    Maybe that high mountain air is finally starting to affect Wyoming's opponents (Wyoming plays at War Memorial Stadium—the highest FBS stadium in the country at 7,200 feet above sea level).

    In 2011, the Cowboys finished third in the Mountain West. The two teams to finish with better records? TCU and Boise State.

    Pretty good company if you ask us.

Brigham Young

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    Brigham Young may not be a “small program” by many people's standards, but when you compare the Cougars' national exposure to the top teams around the country, it's clear BYU is lagging far behind.

    Now that BYU has left the Mountain West and instead opted to play as an independent, it's even more imperative that the Cougars get all the exposure they can. Bowl bids will need to come directly from bowls to BYU, rather than relying on conference contracts.

    Coming off a 10-3 season, the Cougars are looking to make the jump from “also-ran” to BCS contender, even without any conference affiliation. If BYU keeps winning, that result may become more and more likely, and so will a visit from ESPN GameDay.

Boise State

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    It's pretty amazing that Boise has only seen the GameDay crew once.

    And funny enough, it probably wasn't the biggest game ever to be played in Boise. On September 25, 2010, ESPN rolled into town for GameDay preceding the meeting between then-No. 24 Oregon State and then-No. 3 Boise State.

    The Broncs won, 37-24 en route to a 12-1 finish and BCS snub (despite ending the year as the No. 10 team in the nation).

    While Boise State is still a member of the Mountain West Conference, we think they've earned a little extra recognition from the folks at ESPN, don't you?