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FCS playoffs set to expand in 2010
The next time Montana plays Albany, it could be in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, and it could come the week before Thanksgiving.
That news doesn’t make UM athletic director Jim O’Day happy, but the die has been cast: Last week the NCAA Board of Directors expanded the Football Championship Subdivision playoff field to 20 teams for 2010.
It hands an automatic playoff berth to the Northeast Conference - which Albany, after losing 35-14 to the Griz last September, won in 2007 - and the Big South Conference.
The concurrent increase in at-large and automatic berths (to 10 apiece) keeps the FCS on an even keel, and leaves the door open for more expansion in the future. So says Doug Fullerton, the Big Sky Conference commissioner.
“There’s a guideline,” Fullerton said Friday from the Big Sky offices in Ogden, Utah. “It’s kind of like ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’: It’s more a guideline than a rule.
“But we were afraid that a board of directors was going to say, ‘We’re going to leave your playoffs at 16 teams, but you’re going to have 12 automatic berths.’ This is a commitment not just to expanding the championship now, it’s a commitment to expanding whenever else it is necessary.”
It means another tier of playoff games, budgeted for by the NCAA to the tune of $500,000 per year. O’Day said that added week isn’t necessarily a good thing.
“I don’t know at this point that I’m real in support of this,” O’Day said Friday. “One of the major concerns for us is how are we going to fit this into our schedule. And for us, selfishly, it could mean changes to the Montana-Montana State game being at the end of the year.
“There are teams that are well into scheduling for 2010, so you might have to make buyouts. It also could mean more class time away, which I’m not in favor of.”
The expansion also means the FCS season will remain at 11 games over 12 weeks, allowing for a bye week. The Big Sky, which increased from eight to nine teams in 2006, has been able to keep a bye at the end of the season, and that has allowed the Griz-Cat game to be played as a regular-season finale.
Then the Griz, for the last 15 seasons anyway, have gone into the FCS playoffs on Thanksgiving weekend.
With the FCS not wanting to move its title game any later - it was Dec. 14 last season - and not wanting to start its season in August, something has to give.
In the end the pros outweigh the cons, said Fullerton. The Division I FCS increased its playoff field from 12 to 16 teams in 1987. Since then the FCS, formerly Division I-AA, has added 28 teams and now numbers 122.
That playoff ratio is the lowest in the NCAA, according to Fullerton. The subdivision has gotten around it by not including nonscholarship leagues like the Pioneer and Ivy in the playoff picture. But the Ivy League has an automatic berth into the NCAA basketball tournament, so that argument may not hold up down the road.
Division II uses a 24-team bracket, and the FCS may not be far behind. The Great West is about to add two more teams in North Dakota and South Dakota. It’s possible the Ivy League may want to send a team to the FCS playoffs, and Pioneer power San Diego certainly wanted to go in 2006.
Fullerton helped write a proposal to allow the expansion of the playoff bracket each time an FCS league becomes eligible: In essence, if a conference has six schools that are Division I in all sports, it can lobby for an automatic playoff berth.
In a related move that brings back memories of Idaho joining the Football Bowl Subdivision’s Sun Belt Conference, the Big South in March snapped up former NEC member Stony Brook (N.Y.) to give it six teams.
In 2006 the Big South had its first FCS playoff team, when Coastal Carolina made an at-large appearance. The Northeast Conference, which recently OK’d 30 athletic scholarships for its football programs, is still looking for its first FCS playoff berth.
“This is great for the NEC and its student-athletes,” commissioner Brenda Wears told The Sports Network. “It provides great opportunity for our league on numerous levels.”
“The counter to expanding is it’s a pain in the neck to schedule,” Fullerton allowed. “We love being able to finish the FCS championship before the bowl season begins. The only option really is to start the playoffs a week earlier and lose a bye week.”
Fullerton feels the ends will justify the means, seeing further expansion as being not just likely but inevitable.
North Dakota State, unbeaten until its season finale in 2007, is going to want a piece of the FCS playoff pie now that the Bison are eligible. The Bison have company, with more on the way.
“I actually think longterm, the growth in Division I football is going to be at our level,” Fullerton said. “I think our level is much more efficient.”
By FRITZ NEIGHBOR