Could conference title games precede FCS playoffs?

BY AP • September 7, 2017

(STATS) - Imagine the FCS still having its popular playoff system ... and conference championship games leading into it.

It's unlikely, of course.

At least for now.

Conference championship games are lucrative on the FBS level, but the playoffs having grown to 24 teams in the FCS basically renders them impossible in the subdivision.

If the schedule in college football ever changed enough, however, a championship game might pique the interest of FCS conferences.

"I would say this, I would never rule anything out," CAA Football commissioner Joe D'Antonio said. "I think that I would really need to study and understand the particulars associated with it because, obviously, the eye on the prize that we're looking at right now is, No. 1, making the playoffs, which we've been very successful with, and then No. 2, winning games in the playoffs, which you know we've also been very successful with. Anything that could potentially hurt our chances in any one of those two categories I just mentioned would really cause us to pause. But I would never rule out the possibility of what a championship game could potentially do for the league."

There's already a push to start the college football season earlier, but it also would have to change on the back end for people in the subdivision to consider seeking the best of both worlds - a conference championship game and continued participation in the playoffs.

There is no NCAA rule that prohibits an FCS conference that sends its champion to the playoffs from hosting a championship game. Still, under the current schedule, it won't happen because the timing is too tight.

"Based on the existing windows to play football games, having enough weeks to add a conference championship game is a challenge," Big Sky Conference commissioner Andrea Williams said. "Even if the season were extended by a week, conferences would have to evaluate the need for an additional regular-season matchup or possibly look to create a conference postseason championship. In terms of the Big Sky, our focus has been on the regular season and our scheduling format. The conference has not been assessing a potential conference championship game, but I have to imagine the thought would be enticing to some, especially our fans. But we would certainly have to engage our coaches to measure their interest in the concept before heading down that road."

A conference championship game would likely come into play only for those with 10 or more members. That's over half the 13 FCS conferences as the larger ones in which there is unbalanced scheduling - where each team doesn't play all the others - are the Big Sky (13 teams), CAA Football (12), Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (11, but 10 when Savannah State drops back to Division II in 2019), Missouri Valley Football Conference (10, but 11 when North Dakota joins in 2020), Pioneer Football League (11, but 10 when Campbell leaves next year), Southland Conference (11) and Southwestern Athletic Conference (10).

The SWAC is the only FCS conference to hold a championship game, but it announced in July it will go in the opposite direction, discontinuing it after 19 years following this year's game in December. It was surprising considering attendance has been solid in most years and the game enjoys national TV coverage.

The SWAC winner goes on to play in the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl against the MEAC regular-season champion. Both conferences previously relinquished their automatic bid to the playoffs. The MEAC doesn't have a conference championship game, and, unlike the SWAC, its teams (basically the runner-up) have a better chance for an at-large playoff bid. North Carolina A&T earned one last season.

An NCAA committee is beginning to examine whether all FBS schools should be allowed to start their season the weekend prior to the traditional opening night on the Thursday prior to Labor Day. Only a small handful of teams played in this year's "Week Zero" of the schedule after they met certain parameters to have the early opener. The suggested change in NCAA by-laws would move the FBS to a permanent 14-week regular season, which would provide a second bye for teams.

This past offseason, the Southland and nine-member Ohio Valley Conference led a proposal to increase the FCS regular season from a permanent 11 games to 12 (over 13 weeks), but it was shot down by an 8-5 vote of member conferences. However, if the FBS level moves to an earlier start to the season, some FCS conferences believe there would be enough support to do the same in the subdivision.

The trickier part of the scenario is the back end of the FCS schedule. The regular season ends the weekend before Thanksgiving, except with the MEAC and SWAC. It allows the FCS playoffs to begin on the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, when the holiday cuts into attendance at the eight first-round games.

Starting over Thanksgiving keeps the national semifinals from being played the week of Christmas. Yet in avoiding that, the break before the national championship in early January has come to be three weeks long - something the teams in the final aren't used to.

Ironically, shortening the championship-game buildup might benefit the FCS. The college football schedule isn't saturated in the days just before Christmas, so playing the semifinals at that time actually may improve attention and television ratings.

Still, there are even trickier issues. If Thanksgiving week suddenly opened for conferences to hold a championship game, would any of them make the leap of faith that they could attract enough fan interest during the holiday? The teams playing in a championship game may not be decided until the week before, and that would mean fan bases would have to make late plans to attend the game. The potential low attendance and the need for TV coverage might be deal-breakers.

"Theoretically," Southland Conference commissioner Tom Burnett said, "I could only see an FCS conference championship game being beneficial if there were a significant financial return from it and a national television opportunity on a linear network. Currently, I don't see that happening. We see the NCAA championship, and the chance to compete for a national title, as our sole postseason focus."

As it should be in the FCS, which will celebrate its 40th season of the playoff system this season.

But if changes occur in the college football schedule, the concept of FCS conference championship games will get a little more interesting.

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