Arrow-right Camera

FCS timing slips a tick or two for Eags

The most-watched game in Football Championship Subdivision history – nearly 2 million households – was last year’s playoff semifinal between Montana and Appalachian State. The momentum from that produced a television rating of 1.52 a week later when Villanova beat the Grizzlies on ESPN for the national title – the biggest Nielsen number since the game moved from CBS to cable in 1994.

In a week, Eastern Washington and Delaware meet in Frisco, Texas – and on ESPN2 – to crown a new champion. And an hour later – just 44 miles down the road in Arlington – Texas A&M and LSU kick it off in the Cotton Bowl on Fox.

So if you’re betting on the Nielsens this year, take the under.

There’s a new look to college football’s cruiserweight division this year – an extra playoff round, four more teams and a quasi-bowl feel with three weeks separating the semis and the championship game.

For Eastern, it’s been a win all the way around even before the scoreboard in Frisco gets booted up. The Eagles earned themselves three home games, they’re still standing for the final, the players enjoyed a bowl-like “glow” period and their supporters have gobbled up 1,300 tickets – and didn’t have to take out a second mortgage for short-notice airfares to get there. Three weeks is great; four might be better, if it meant getting standout running back Taiwan Jones healthy enough to play.

For the community of FCS football, however, the jury’s still out.

Under the old schedule, the championship was in the books before a single bowl game had been played. By the time EWU and Delaware kick it off, America will have endured 31 of this year’s elephantine schedule of 35.

“Bowl fatigue” doesn’t quite cover it. More like bowl flatulence.

And some wonder whether the FCS might be forfeiting some of its hard-won and growing audience by simply getting lost in the avalanche of meaningless bowls.

“FCS has gotten some traction over the years,” Big Sky Conference commissioner Doug Fullerton said. “One of the success stories we had was where the championship game was. We were starting to draw ratings and when you do that – even for a semifinal game – this is a real brand. I hope we’re not giving that up.”

The expansion of the playoffs was something of a rock/hard place proposition. Two automatic berths were granted to conferences previously without such entrée because they participate as limited scholarship programs, a quirk peculiar to FCS football. Fullerton called it “the right thing to do” – and also the prudent thing. If those conferences continued to have no playoff opportunity, they would certainly clamor for one – and possibly be in competition for NCAA money allocated to post-season football.

And with the bottom feeders of the bowl subdivision trying to pick off the better FCS teams to survive, the last thing this level needs is fewer members.

But more playoff teams necessitated another round, leaving the FCS with the options of starting the season a week earlier, playing the title game on or near Christmas or moving it into January.

Only the Big Sky and the Southern conferences voted against the move.

“Charlie Cobb of Appalachian State and myself were probably the two most against it,” said Montana athletic director Jim O’Day, who chairs the FCS championship committee. “We’d had some experience with these championship runs and looking at the cost factors was sobering. At Montana – with the dorms and campus dining facilities closed, and looking at the likelihood of bringing kids back and having to house some of them in hotels – we estimated it would be a $100,000 bill, with no way to pay for it.”

EWU athletic director Bill Chaves acknowledged there will be unbudgeted expenses in bringing the players back off break.

“But, amazingly, about 95 percent of our guys live off campus,” he said. “That’s almost a non-issue for us.”

Especially being first-timers. That’s part of the glow.

What’s particularly unfortunate about the circumstances of this year’s change is the Cotton Bowl snafu. After 13 years in Chattanooga, the FCS accepted Frisco’s bid to take over the game, committing to three years. Game day was set on the assumption the Cotton Bowl would remain on New Year’s Day.

Strike one. Then ESPN dictated the game time. Strike two.

The three-week gap after the semis is an undeniable benefit to the one faction that matters the most: the players. So it would be an unfortunate side-effect if it diminishes their national audience – the size of their stage.

“I think people who are interested in FCS football are still going to watch whether it’s Jan.7 or Dec. 19,” Chaves said. “I’m convinced of that.”

He may want to leave the TV on at his house when he heads to Frisco, just to help the cause.

Subscribe to the sports newsletter

Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.