FCS gaining ground on FBS

It was almost like no one realized what Youngstown State football coach Eric Wolford said on Tuesday.

He was responding to a question about the impact of ESPN’s “College GameDay” going to North Dakota State University this week, and he started to veer off topic. Before anyone knew what happened, he said this:

“I think it’s good for our level of football, I just don’t know if it’s going to be enough to ever give us the breakthrough that we’re all looking for as far as maybe having a big, huge playoff, or something like that, like they do in basketball.”

He didn’t have a chance to finish his thought because a reporter chose a bad time to cut him off and ask a follow-up question about an irrelevant subject, but regardless … was Wolford serious?

The press conference ended moments later as he finished answering the reporter’s follow-up question, and no one seemed to care about the fact that he just posed a preposterous idea. I caught up with Wolford a few days later, and he said he knows that the football version of March Madness is NEVER going to happen.

Sure, it would be fun to finally watch a playoff with 30 or 40 teams come to fruition, but, aside from the fact that the tournament would have to start in early October, I fear poor old Lou Holtz might kick the bucket if he had to try and balance the RPI and computer points of Notre Dame. Furthermore, most of the sports-watching world would probably want to join Holtz if they had to listen to non-stop ESPN overkill of Mark May, Kirk Herbstreit and Todd McShay babbling on about strength of schedules and why this team should have been seeded higher than that one.

Something that can and is happening is an understanding that the FCS isn’t all that far behind the FBS – in some regards. Division I-AA schools won eight games against FBS teams in Week 1 of college football, a new record. Granted, the overall numbers aren’t vastly different from years past, but there are more close calls now than before – just in the Missouri Valley Conference, Purdue beat Indiana State 20-14; Iowa defeated Missouri State 28-14; and Illinois edged Southern Illinois 42-34.

One of the main reasons is because most FBS schools do early recruiting, meaning they go after kids who played well as freshman, sophomores and juniors. The players who have breakout seasons as seniors often get overlooked by big-time colleges, and FCS schools pounce on those opportunities.

Secondly, there are more kids transferring down to FCS than ever before. Whether they’re not receiving enough playing time at a “major” college, or they got in trouble doing their best Johnny Manziel impression at a frat party, players often make the move to FCS because they don’t have to sit out a year (which is an NCAA rule if an FBS player transfers to an FBS school). Just in today’s YSU-Duquesne game, which begins at 4 p.m. today in Stambaugh Stadium, there are transfers from Ohio State, Florida, Miami (Fla.) and Bowling Green. And then there’s the junior college transfers, an area that is usually more closely watched by FCS teams than FBS schools, who have quality backups at most positions.

I’m not saying the gap isn’t between Alabama and North Dakota State University – the two best teams in their respective divisions – isn’t gargantuan, but the Crimson Tide seem to have a gap on just about everyone (go ahead and add the Browns to that list after their recent trade). The gap between NDSU and even a better-than-average team like Wisconsin or West Virginia isn’t as large as some might think.

So while we might never see a 64-team football bracket or hear Dick Vitale scream random adjectives during ESPN’s College Football Live (thank God), don’t let that fool into thinking the FCS isn’t a legit division. Don’t believe me? Ask Michigan, ranked fifth in the nation at the time, what it thought of Appalachian State in 2007. At some point, these “upsets” stop becoming flukes. The better team actually won.