Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Who Will Open Lehigh's Football Schedule in 2016?

It all started when I heard that the three-time defending FCS champions, North Dakota State, are looking for a new home opener in 2016.

"NDSU is back in the business of looking for a football game," the post says.  "That’s after the news we broke yesterday that Western Carolina had bought out of its 2016 date in Fargo, instead scheduling a game against East Carolina for September 3rd, 2016. NDSU was scheduled to host WCU on September 1st."

Any good Lehigh fan might then ask: are the Mountain Hawks available for a game in Fargo on the first weekend of September in 2016?

The official answer is we don't know, because Lehigh hasn't officially posted a 2015 football schedule yet, let alone a 2016 schedule.

But that doesn't stop us at Lehigh Football Nation from taking a peek at potential foes for a 2016 road opener - including some exciting names.

If Lehigh were to play North Dakota State in their season opener, it wouldn't a first for either school.

The Bison hosted Lafayette in their home opener back in 2011, crushing the Leopards 42-6.

And Lehigh, famously, traveled to Fargo in the third round of the FCS playoffs that same year to take on North Dakota State, where they fell 24-0.

Lehigh vs. North Dakota State, 2011 FCS Playoffs
The fact that they went to the FargoDome without their best player, WR Ryan Spadola, made some fans hope they would be able to get back to play the Bison in a more fair fight.

If the Mountain Hawks were to go to play North Dakota State in their home opener in 2016, they might finally get that opportunity.

Lehigh's unofficial 2015 schedule hasn't been formally announced yet, but it seems like the athletics department is simply waiting for the ink to dry before announcing it.

Aside from the thoroughly expected, like the 151st meeting against Lafayette in The Rivalry on November 21st, there are a few 2015 dates already circled.

Dates like September 5th (Central Connecticut State, the home opener), September 12th (James Madison, a game on the road against a likely Top 25 team), and September 19th (Penn, the Mountain Hawks' 58th meeting against the Quakers and the first meeting against them in a decade).

There are also rumors starting to emerge of some very interesting football games showing up on the schedule beyond next two years, including one or more games against FBS teams.

In 2016, the possibility still exists of scheduling an FBS game on the first weekend of the season, provided they don't have an FCS school on their schedule already.  (Only one win against an FCS school will count for them for bowl eligibility.)

Could Lehigh have one in the works on the schedule?

Boston College still has an unofficial opening on the schedule for the first weekend of September in 2016.  So does Duke, North Carolina, Vanderbilt, Old Dominion, and Buffalo, any of which might be an intriguing matchup.

Playing Duke would be exciting on a lot of levels, not least due to the echoes of the seismic Lehigh win over Duke in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.  Getting a game against Boston College, North Carolina or Vanderbilt would also a big game against a "Power 5" team.  (In case you didn't keep up with realignment, Vanderbilt competes in the SEC, while BC, Duke and North Carolina are all ACC teams.)

There's be plenty of excitement in playing against a "Group of Five" team, too, though.

If Lehigh were to travel to Buffalo, it would actually be a rematch of a game played against the Bulls back in 2002.  (Lehigh won that game.)

The Bulls compete in the MAC, and Old Dominion, a team who recently played in FCS, plays in the American Athletic Conference, the same group that has UConn and Temple.

Former Lehigh head football coach Pete Lembo
In fact, if the net extends past opening weekend, there are plenty of MAC schools, notably Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, and a home to a former Lehigh head football coach, Pete Lembo's Ball State Cardinals, who have open dates for an FCS team.   If Lehigh wants the stiffest MAC challenge possible, MAC title contenders Northern Illinois have an FCS opening available, too.

The thought of Lehigh competing against P.J. Fleck's Western Michigan Broncos is intriguing to me.  Fleck is one of the most colorful and interesting young coaches today.

But North Dakota State might offer an equal challenge to one of those MAC or AAC schools and would also be against a team Lehigh has played somewhat recently  - a team that competes for the same FCS championship, and at least shares a history of an important game they played four years ago.

At the FCS level, you have a team that has been head and shoulders the top team in the subdivision.  Unparalleled success - a four-year record of 58-3, and four national championships from head coaches Craig Bohl and Chris Klieman.  As rock stars go in the FCS, North Dakota State is the biggest of them all at the moment.

There are other FCS schools that unofficially have home openings available in 2016, according to this unofficial spreadsheet on Any Given Saturday.

"Are we man enough at Youngstown to schedule Lehigh?"
Perennially great FCS teams like Wofford, Montana, Coastal Carolina, or even Bo Pelini's newest team, Youngstown State, have openings the first weekend of the season, according to this spreadsheet.

They're all FCS rock stars, too, and the chance to visit a place like Montana, one of the most spectacular venues in all of FCS, would be awesome.

But I can't help look at North Dakota State with an opening in 2016 and secretly hoping that Lehigh could fill their spot in the schedule.

I missed the plane to Fargo back in 2011.  Personally, I'd love to rectify that in 2016.

I know the thought of putting FBS teams on Lehigh's future schedules are exciting too - I'm anticipating the prospect of playing Army, Navy or Syracuse before the decade is out - but to me, Lehigh getting a chance to compete against North Dakota State is right up there.

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