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Blanchette: Colonial never goes out of style

FRISCO, Texas – The best thing about Eastern Washington playing for a national championship is … well, Eastern playing for a national championship.

There doesn’t even have to be a second-best thing. But there is.

It kept Friday’s Football Championship Subdivision title game from being the Colonial Invitational.

And no, not the storied old golf tournament down the road.

For the seventh time in eight years, the Colonial Athletic Association – or its forebear, the Atlantic-10 – has a representative in the Cruiserweight Bowl, and could have had the whole thing to itself had the Eagles not cashed in all of Villanova’s frequent flyer miles in the semis.

Thanks, Eags. If the FCS has any notion of carving out a market for itself, it’s not going to do it as intramurals.

Not since Western Kentucky in 2002 has a team other than Southern Conference bully Appalachian State or a CAA entry won the FCS title. And in that span, five Colonial teams – Delaware, James Madison, UMass, Richmond and Villanova – have played in the final.

By comparison, Eastern is the first Big Sky Conference team other than Montana to reach the title game in 17 years.

So what gives? In the CAA, not much.

“You could be a Top 15 team and have a hard time going .500 in this league,” insisted Delaware coach K.C. Keeler. “You look at James Madison, who beat the ACC champion, Virginia Tech. They went 3-5 in our league. That’s our league. Our league is brutal.”

As a result, maybe the playoffs seem less brutal – and maybe they are, given how often the home field tends to tip the balance.

New Idaho State coach Mike Kramer has been to the playoffs with EWU and Montana State, and is frankly envious of the home-game opportunities afforded the CAA and Southern Conference.

“I admire the teams in those conferences and when you’re able to go on the road like Villanova did this year and win that many, you’re truly deserving of national recognition,” he said.

“But playing at home is such a big thing. If you can win the title the way Jim Tressel did at Youngstown in 1997, that’s one thing. Since then, no road team has been able to sustain that.”

Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Richmond went the distance in 2008 despite just one home playoff game. Same thing for James Madison in 2004.

But it’s true that Appalachian State didn’t leave the hard-to-get-to confines of Boone, N.C., until the finals during its three-year title run. And since the calendar struck 2000, Big Sky teams have had 10 fewer home games than their CAA or Southern counterparts.

“Imagine a playoff system at the FBS level if Ohio State or, God forbid, Oregon would play a three-game run at home,” Kramer said. “Check out Montana’s playoff record at home and on the road. Those are the kind of numbers Wall Street bankers don’t like to share.”

So we will: The Grizzlies are 27-6 at home as a playoff team, 3-12 away from Missoula.

And nobody at EWU would call it pure coincidence that their team is still alive after enjoying three playoff games on le tapis rouge.

But there are other dynamics to consider. The Big Sky’s upcoming expansion to 13 teams is mostly about protecting itself against raids from above, but could have an intriguing side effect.

“Playing in divisions, you can have uneven schedules and create the opportunity to have four or five real glossy records in your league,” said Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton. “And that creates opportunities to have more teams in the postseason.

“I’m not saying those (CAA) teams don’t earn everything they get. They’re located near huge population centers and they have great athletes. You go to the banquet the night before the (title) game and you kind of go, ‘Wow,’ at their size. And we still have running backs from Drummond, Mont.”

The Big Sky has yet to see any real competitive bump from its members in or near urban centers – Portland State, Sacramento State, Northern Colorado. Indeed, while the Colonial had a couple of bottom feeders drop football in recent years, the Sky has never truly recovered from the loss of Boise State, Idaho and Nevada on the top end a decade ago.

Meanwhile, the CAA is 3-4 against the ACC in the last two seasons, with other near misses – though Keeler believes scheduling FBS teams makes less sense than it used to.

“Why put yourself in a position to get another loss or injuries?” he asked. “In ’07 we had a great run going on. We beat Navy, but they just beat the daylights out of us. Next week, James Madison. Next week, five-overtime loss to Richmond. Then we lost to Villanova. We ended the season with two losses – and went on to play for the national championship.

“If you can survive the conference and get to the playoffs, as long as you are not playing someone in your league, you always feel you have a chance.”

Guess even the Colonial doesn’t want this to become the Colonial Invitational.

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