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All Everyone Wants In The FCS Is A Shot On A Big Stage

Like many Division I football programs, Lehigh started their preparations for the upcoming Patriot Football season last Thursday.

If you had to list the desires of the football team going into the preseason, chief among them is eradicating the memory of last season, whether it was the 3-8 record or especially the final game of last year.

But what I think really gets the Lehigh players going, and in fact what gets most players going at FCS schools, is that they get a shot at something truly special.

For Lehigh players, it means they can get a shot at taking down a nationally-ranked team, James Madison, in their own house, a shot at returning a Patriot League Championship trophy to Grace Hall, a shot at turning things around against Lafayette, and a shot at winning a national championship against the best schools of their subdivision.

It's a time of optimism for all FCS schools, but it's the shot that truly makes it special.

And if there's one thing I fear more about the future of college football than anything else, it's when schools remove opportunities to give schools a shot at something special.




I have seen Lehigh play in the FCS playoffs, and it is a glorious thing.

I was not a part of the Lehigh family when the Engineers came away with the Division II National Championship in 1977 under head coach John Whitehead, but I was very much involved as a fan when the Patriot League was granted an automatic bid to the I-AA playoffs back in 1997.

Lehigh traveled to Richmond in 1998 and was pretty much assumed by nearly everybody to get dominated by the Spiders, who won the Atlantic Ten autobid after tying with three other teams for the title.

It was the Spiders' first I-AA postseason in over a decade, and a game against "non-scholarship" Lehigh was seen as a tune-up for an expected game for Richmond against McNeese State, who were hosting UMass the same day.

Richmond had won eight straight tough Atlantic 10 games, and were expected to translate that No. 3 seed into a deep playoff run.

Don't You Dare Take These Guys Lightly
It turns out head coach Kevin Higgins, quarterback Phil Stambaugh and kicker Jaron Taaffe had a different idea about how the game was supposed to turn out.

Falling behind 14-0, and 23-21, the Mountain Hawks instead refused to die and set up a 30 yard field goal attempt with 3 seconds left in the game, which Taaffe booted through the uprights to give the Patriot League their first-ever win as a conference in the playoffs.

"The Patriot League championship itself is what you're playing for each year," Higgins told The Brown and White after the game.  "Going undefeated put us with some great teams at Lehigh.  When you win a playoff game, I think it puts you in another category with guys who not only got to that level, but found a way to win against a good opponent."

It was Lehigh's first win against an Atlantic 10 opponent in eleven years, set up by huge fourth quarter plays by CB Sam Brinley, who would block a Richmond extra point to set up the Mountain Hawk game-winner, RB Ron Jean and WR Deron Braswell, who converted a critical 4th-and-2 to keep the drive alive, setting up P Jay Heibel's hold of Taaffe's kick.

And that didn't even count the Lehigh fans' role in the upset.

"Lehigh had an allotment of 600 tickets for presale. It sold all of them," The Morning Call's Paul Reinhard wrote of the game back in 1998.   "But the turnout Saturday appeared to be bigger than that. A parking lot behind the visitors' stand was packed with Lehigh tailgaters.  A 23-person pep band -- about half the 47 members of the Marching 97 I've seen at the last three Lehigh games -- was definitely a motivating presence."

With much of Richmond's student body staying away, Lehigh's fans made themselves known.

"The Lehigh fans, recognizing that they were outnumbered, didn't let the fact that they were in enemy territory stop them," he continued. Some of them may have done more cheering Saturday than they had ever done. And it didn't go unnoticed."

It was an extraordinary moment, magic created by sports and the FCS playoff format.  The lightly-regarded Patriot League champion, travelling to the No. 3 team in the country, and shocking the world.

All Lehigh wanted was a shot on a big stage.

They got it, and made Lehigh and I-AA playoff history.

*****

People who aren't a part of the FCS wonder how fans can get excited about games in the subdivision.

"Division II," many wrongly sniff as they turn their noses up while watching Bammer eviscerate Tennessee.

But what makes FCS great are these types of stories - the unknowns that win their division, lightly regarded, and then travel to places like Richmond, or Western Illinois, or Towson, and leave the home team wondering where the knockout blow came from.

With the College Football Playoff the way it is today, the Power 5 will never allow a truly compelling David vs. Goliath story to happen.

Let's face it, there is no way that college football playoff committee is going to give a playoff slot to a Boise State over a borderline Florida State, Notre Dame or Oklahoma.  There will always be some excuse for them to deny a team like that, whether it's the lack of a conference championship game "schedule strength", or my personal favorite, the "eye test".

But in the FCS playoffs, it happens all of the time.

K.C. Rolling Through Another Playoffs
Just last year, Sam Houston State, coached by former Delaware head man K.C. Keeler, looked like a team in rebuilding mode after they lost to Colorado State-Pueblo, a Division II school, to fall to 1-3.

Instead, they rebounded from the loss, captured the autobid from the Southland Conference, and went though an impressive run through the playoffs, upsetting Southeastern Louisiana, Jacksonville State, and Villanova in consecutive weeks.

That's the type of dream that FCS can provide.

The FCS playoffs is the closest thing college football gets to the NCAA men's basketball tournament, where small schools can square up against the best and have a shot at having a Lehigh over Richmond kind of upset.

And America has spoken as to whether they would prefer a men's NCAA basketball tournament packed with the same old state flagship schools year in and year out.

You may remember a particular NCAA tournament back in 2012, where a small, brown-and-white-clad private University took down one of the golden programs of men's basketball.

Hey Look, There's the Rest of the Primetime Lineup
The ratings of that game, it's worthy of mentioning, were awesome.

At 8PM, when Lehigh was maintaining a slight lead over Duke, the ratings were a solid No. 2 just behind "Shark Tank", 5.4 million households and a 3.3 share.

As it was becoming increasingly evident that Lehigh had a real shot at knocking off the Dukies, though, viewership exploded to 8.4 million households and a 5.2 share, beating the next-placed show by nearly 3 million viewers.

This type of story sustains Lehigh athletics not just in men's basketball, but all sports.  All they want is to earn a shot on a big stage.

It's the vision that unites not just Lehigh, but every FCS school on a multitude of levels.

In football, all many FCS schools want is to get a shot against an FBS school like Michigan.

Most of the time, they don't emerge victorious.  Sometimes they get blown out.  But at least they got a shot.

This Picture Will Never Stop Giving Me Chills
Sometimes like then-FCS Appalachian State, they pull off the unthinkable, like their 34-32 win over the Wolverines.

"Jay Sutton came to me and said Michigan had contacted him about a game," then-Mountaineer coach Jerry Moore recalled.  "My first thought was, Whatever it takes, let’s play ’em. Most people refer to games like that as “money games.” We play Auburn, it’s a money game. North Carolina State, Wake Forest, LSU, they were always referred to as money games. Every once in a while, I’ll stumble around and say something that’s got some substance to it. From that point on, I always referred to it as an 'opportunity game.'"

All they wanted was a shot - an "opportunity game".  They got it, alright.

Most teams want to have a shot at a national championship.  They want a shot at North Dakota State, who have won the last four FCS titles.  They'll play them anytime, anywhere, either in Fargo or in Frisco, Texas, the site where the FCS National Championship game is played.

But lately it seems like all the talk about college football is about denying teams shots.

Recently, the Big 10 finally made semi-official what they had been hinting at for years - they would no longer schedule FCS teams as a part of their schedules starting in 2016.

"It doesn't make any sense to be playing people from different divisions with fewer scholarships," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany reportedly said as if Appalachian State's 2007 upset had never happened.

As ridiculous as this ban is - I've argued many times that replacing Eastern Washington with Eastern Michigan will do nothing to make schedules better and may actually harm the Big Ten's so-called "schedule strength" - unfortunately for the Patriot League, where most of the teams will be bowl counters in 2016, this has a deep effect, as it eliminates some great possibilities of regional competition.

Lehigh, Lafayette and Rutgers for decades all competed against each other in the "Middle Three" conference throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, and would be a logical, local opponent for both Patriot League schools, but the Big Ten's silly ban on FCS schools now will prevent fun (and profitable) games from happening at Rutgers.

I can guarantee Lehigh playing at Rutgers would have a significant amount of fan interest from the Mountain Hawks and would be a very good gate for the Scarlet Knights.  Since they're so close, it's highly likely that Lehigh would bring the whole Marching 97, and the short day trip from Bethlehem to New Brunswick would be a no-brainer for nearly all the fans in the Lehigh Valley.

Instead, the end result is not only less opportunity for schools like Lehigh, but more boring games for Rutgers against Eastern Michigan-style no-hopers, and probably even declining ratings and fewer fans, though you'll never get anyone in the Big Ten's office to admit as such.  Do they seriously think Eastern Michigan travelling to New Brunswick will outdraw Lehigh in the same venue?

In reality, the Big Ten FCS  ban simply denies the Patriot League, and other FCS schools a shot at measuring themselves against a team competing in one of the best college football conferences in the nation.

Additionally, the FCS playoffs could be a much more inclusive, robust tournament with all the schools in the subdivision involved - if everyone could come together.

This offseason, the MEAC decided that its champion would be attending an HBCU bowl game instead of the FCS playoffs.

It's hard to blame the MEAC completely for this, as many of their cash-strapped schools reportedly would prefer a guaranteed cash flow from a guaranteed bowl game instead of breaking even on FCS playoff participation.  But it sadly makes the FCS playoffs a much more homogeneous population, with most of the same type of state schools comprising the playoff field.

The FCS playoffs needs to look more like the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament than the College Football Playoff.  It shouldn't be a tournament with all the same types of schools - it should combine HBCU's and Ivies, state schools and private schools, tiny Woffords and huge Montanas.

It's games between schools like that which will sustain the FCS football playoffs and become the next set of legendary stories, not another matchup between a Youngstown State and an Illinois State.

The Ivy League's senseless ban on postseason participation for its football teams - and only its football teams - also hurts the FCS playoffs.

Teams like Harvard and Yale like to cling to the fiction that, somehow, playoff participation will detract from their end-of-the-season rivalry game, when the most-played college football Rivalry between Lehigh and Lafayette has provided them with more than two decades' worth of proof that this isn't the case.

The Ivy League doesn't seriously want to give their team a shot at anything but an Ivy League title, which not only marginalizes their own schools' football programs but also makes the Ivy League an island unto itself, giving the rest of FCS no reason to become invested in the success of their football programs.

College football thrives on these opportunities, or "shots".  If the Ivy League would simply get their heads out of the ground, they'd realize this and allow their teams to compete in the FCS playoffs and create some must-see TV, for example, Harvard playing North Dakota State.

How great would that be?

The FCS needs to differentiate itself from the vanilla College Football Playoff in this way in order to continue to stay ahead of the curve.  The more opportunities the playoffs offer, the better the playoffs will be, and the more vanilla the College Football Playoff will seem.

All the kids want are shots on a big stage, and the FCS playoffs are already a big stage for some FCS schools.  Just not all of them.

If it can find a way to become the big stage for all of them, including the Ivies and HBCUs, its diversity would become its greatest strength, and be the source of any number of underdog stories that are the lifeblood of FCS.

FCS should really be called the subdivision of opportunity.  Now they just need to convince every conference, including the Ivy, MEAC, SWAC and Big 10, that their opportunity beats all others.

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