The Gridiron Geek, College Version Vol. 1: Celebrate the FCS!
Sometimes I am struck by the disparity in television coverage between the NFL and college football. I don't mean to imply that there is more NFL than collegiate football shown on national TV; certainly, the reverse is true. I don't even mean there is less college football commentary available—shows like ESPN's "The Experts" show how low the barrel is being scraped for more college content.
No, what is really at issue is that the NFL is treated as a growth market. Tim Tebow had been promoted by the mainstream media as a cross-demographic superstar even before the Broncos' 2011 record reached .500. Tyrann Mathieu, as famous a college football figure as there is (even before his recent scandal and dismissal from LSU football), will never grace a downtown billboard in a major city unless he happens to play quarterback for the New England Patriots.
College football is treated by the mainstream media as a profitable but stale institution. ESPN and CBS know that a few million aging, out-of-shape rich people care passionately what happens to the teams from the SEC, and a few select other conferences. If you're not in one of them, good luck getting national press coverage that goes beyond the obligatory.
Worse yet to be a member of Division 1-AA, or as it is so oddly named in the BCS era, the "Football Championship Subdivision." Apart from a seemingly random lineup of weeknight games on national outlets here and there, there is not much FCS exposure to go around.
Which is too bad. The FCS is an underrated, fun and historic brand of football that, for the discerning handegg fan, helps us keep in touch with our roots. While we watch quasi-pro mercenaries from LSU and Auburn play their NFL-lite brand of sport on a prime-time broadcast, the "wheel" at bottom reminds us about the still-breathing heritage of the game. Fordham 27, Colgate 20, the scoreboard faithfully tells us, and those of us who know of the Seven Blocks of Granite as something other than a new decorative tip from the DIY channel may share a little moment.
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Here are five things to know, and celebrate, about the FCS.
The kids from the subdivision can play.
Appalachian State's 2008 season-opening upset of the Michigan Wolverines has been portrayed as one of football's all-time Cinderella shockers, or an embarrassing choke job by a BCS powerhouse that has no business losing to a school named after a mountain range. Neither is close to the truth. Appalachian State was a talented, well-coached, fundamentally sound group of ballers who beat an overconfident and stale favorite. That has happened in football before, and will happen again.
In fact, every year it seems an FCS team or two surprises a highly-touted school from a BCS conference, usually early in the year when BCS conference teams attempt to load their schedules with easy wins. Last weekend, Northern Iowa came within a tipped-ball of upsetting Bret Bielema's ego-driven program at Wisconsin. In the years to come, Wisconsin will probably choose to play the dregs of the lower division as warmup games, rather than have a Rose Bowl run potentially derailed by another worthy FCS contender.
Due to the Southern-school dominated, controlled environment of late season college ball, fans are rarely treated to meaningful BCS caliber games in the true elements that make football great: snow, ice and freezing rain. The FCS, meanwhile, offers playoff venues such as New Hampshire, Villanova or the foreboding, mysterious locale of North Dakota. Winter wonderland.
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The Geek's favorite FCS moment of 2011 for combined history, venue and weather was ironically played in a D1 stadium in mid-season, but you'd never have known it by the conditions. The October 29th tilt between FCS-member Fordham (of Vince Lombardi and Sleepy Jim Crowley fame) and Army (where Lombardi also coached) was contested at West Point in a blizzard of lake-effect proportions. Too bad the game itself turned out to be a dud (Black Knights 55, Rams 0), the coaches at Fordham forgetting that running a base spread-option on the North Pole is a bad business move.
The Ivy League
Harvard was once a great football power. When the Crimson lost to the Praying Colonels of Centre (Kent.) College in 1921, it had the same shocking and transformative effect on the pigskin landscape as the Jets beating the Colts in Super Bowl III decades later. These days Harvard, Yale and their Ivy brethren press on as a subdivision within a subdivision, stubbornly refusing to take part in anything so anti-honor code as the FCS playoffs. Still, if you like watching unathletic rich kids run into each other for four quarters like the U.S. Presidency depends on it, those ESPNU telecasts of the Ivy are just your thing.
Because there is such a demand for NFL-hopeful prospects in BCS conferences, coaches at premier SEC or Big-12 schools tend to toe the line pretty firmly when it comes to running an NFL-style system for draft hopefuls to showcase their talents in. However, the FCS division offers a chance for innovative coaches to strut their stuff on a level playing field.
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For instance, the Flexbone, a devilish modern version of the "triple option" of yesteryear, has helped Georgia Southern live large in the SOCON, possibly the toughest conference in the FCS. The Wofford Terriers, a conference rival of GSU, run an even more physical version of the Flex, with Veer option and spin-trap variations. The two schools are a combined 39-15 in the past two seasons.
This obligatory exaltation of the 1-AA playoffs comes with a caveat. Whether we want to admit it or not, there is a lot to like about the traditional bowl system in major college ball. In fact, given the paradigm of college athletics as a relatively pure, upstanding version of our favorite sports, there is an argument (albeit futile in today's landscape) that crowning a "national champion" is in itself a fallacy. There are several hundred colleges playing football and among them, many great teams. For some forgotten purists, seeing them compete—and occasionally clash in memorable struggles—is enough.
But the FCS playoffs serve an honorable purpose, allowing great 1-AA teams to strut their stuff on national television and Sportscenter reels. Try to find regular season highlights of FCS teams on YouTube, and often the only results are pointless field-level shots of players running, produced by home-team interns. Want to see TV highlights of Grambling beating Southern 67-66 in five overtimes? Sorry, that story is trumped by footage of Florida beating Vanderbilt 42-7 for the five-hundredth season in a row. But come playoff time, the big shots at Fox and ESPN are forced, kicking and screaming, to give airtime to the FCS.
So this season, if watching Ole Miss and Tennessee run one read-option play after another is giving you the good-old-boy blues, get yourself some ESPN360 or a good pay-per-view package and take in a few FCS games. The Geek (and Holy Cross) will bless thee.
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