By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
CHARLESTON, IL. — There is a seismic shift occurring at the top of the Football Championship Subdivision as the NCAA Division I Football Championships enter the quarterfinal round this weekend.
The sun has set on former champions, six-time winner Georgia Southern and three-time winner Appalachian State, who have chased the non-so-greener pastures of the Football Bowl Subdivision and the Sun Belt Conference.
Even if the mighty Eagles and Mountaineers had been eligible in the their final FCS campaign, records of 7-4 and 4-8 and sub-par performances in a remarkably mediocre Southern Conference this season wouldn’t have qualified those playoff stalwarts for the postseason in 2013.
Georgia Southern capped off its FCS history with a shocking 26-20 win at Florida last month, but that result was quickly forgotten about outside of Statesboro, GA. the next day when the 24-team playoff field was announced.
An up and coming FCS program like Old Dominion, with back-to-back runs to the second round and quarterfinals of FCS, has decided to move on to Conference USA without any championship hardware, lured it pursuit of what it thinks is big-time football.
Playing a combination of FCS and FBS teams, the Monarchs had another successful season, but ineligible for the playoffs and caught in the limbo of transition, few noticed. Last year’s Walter Payton Award winner, junior quarterback Taylor Heinecke, wasn’t on anyone’s watch list this season, despite another sterling year.
Such is the wasteland of most schools outside of the Bowl Championship Series.
Even two-time defending national champion North Dakota State discovered how fragile future success might be when Wyoming whisked away Eddie Robinson Award-winning coach Craig Bohl last weekend, the news breaking before the Bison had even taken the field last Saturday in their workmanlike 38-7 second-round win over Furman.
But while a void was created in FCS, something interesting is happening in our beloved ranks — new teams are rushing in, hoping to make their mark and become the next Eastern Kentucky, Youngstown State, or Marshall in the dynastical lineage of the subdivision.
Just like the Southeastern Conference, the Big 12, the Pacific 12 and the Big Ten have dominated the major college football world, FCS has always had its uber-conferences.
No one has been as dominant in winning national titles as the Southern Conference (though that league is currently in the midst of a six-year title drought), while the Big Sky Conference, the Colonial Athletic Association, the Missouri Valley Football Conference and the Southland Conference have taken advantage of other leagues during postseason play through the 36-year history of what began as Division I-AA.
Those five power conferences had won 149 of 163 games in the playoffs — a 91.4% success rate — over the past 10 seasons. But there has been a perceptible change in 2013.
Nearly half of the 16 playoff games decided in the first two weeks of the current postseason — seven to be precise — have been captured by other leagues.
The Ohio Valley Conference had dropped 16 playoff games in a row and hadn’t earned a postseason decision in this millennium before Jacksonville State, Tennessee State and Eastern Illinois combined for three victories in the first two rounds.
Eastern Illinois hadn’t picked up a postseason win since 1989.
Jacksonville State and Eastern Illinois will try to add to that total in games against Eastern Washington and Towson this weekend.
Coastal Carolina became the first Big South Conference team to advance to the quarterfinals with back-to-back wins over the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference co-champ South Carolina State and Big Sky powerhouse Montana. Surprisingly, though a relative newcomer to the playoffs, the Big South is now 5-5 all-time in postseason play, with the Chanticleers contributing three of those wins.
Saturday’s contest against No. 1 seed North Dakota State ranks as the biggest game in Big South, not to mention CCU, football history.
The Patriot League, which has had occasional distinction through the years in the postseason, picked up that seventh victory for the upstarts when Fordham knocked off Sacred Heart of the Northeast Conference.
All of that brings us to the Friday night quarterfinal contest that will be featured on ESPN2 at 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.
No. 2 seed Eastern Illinois will meet No. 7 Towson in a game that matches heavyweight FCS contenders and two programs that have every intention of filling some of the void left by those schools departing for FBS.
Eastern Illinois has rolled to an 11-1 record behind a fast-paced offense led by All-Americans Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback and Erik Lora at wide receiver. Shepard Little (1,493 yards) has provided balance with his running ability for an offense that averages 596 yards, 48.9 points (first nationally in each category) and 89 plays per game.
Garoppolo is tops in passing yardage (4,729 yards) and touchdown passes (51) after throwing for 240 yards and three scores in about three quarters of action last week as the Panthers raced to a 37-0 halftime advantage.
Lora had a quiet day for him with three receptions and one TD to move the senior to within three catches of second place on the all-time FCS record with 314 career grabs. He is 26 yards away from becoming the OVC’s all-time leader in reception yardage.
Frequently overshadowed by the Panther’s high-octane attack, the EIU defense continued to take advantage of opponent miscues, forcing three more turnovers. Eastern Illinois ranks third nationally in takeaways (35), first in fumble recovered (21) and fifth in turnover margin (plus 1.1 per game).
In the minds of many, Towson was the team that had the best chance of knocking off North Dakota State last year.
But the NCAA Division I Football Committee blew it about as severely as it ever has when it left the 7-4 Tigers out of the playoff field and handed a first-round bye to New Hampshire’s squad that TU had destroyed on the final weekend of the regular season.
It didn’t matter that Towson — co-champions of the CAA — had the toughest schedule in FCS, lost to two FBS opponents and had played competitively in Death Valley against the LSU Tigers.
Politics outweighed logic in that NCAA committee room in Indianapolis.
That has led to a rather obvious motto for the 2013 Towson team.
“Leave no doubt.”
The Tigers began the season by dominating a BCS squad from Connecticut and outside of largely self-inflicted losses to Villanova and Delaware in CAA play have been as reliable as Eastern Illinois.
Towson may not have as many big-play talents as 2013, with quarterback Grant Enders graduating and injuries depleting the Tiger receiving corps, but there are a few things still around that few FCS clubs can match.
Things start with the best running back in the subdivision, junior Terrance West, who runs behind one of the most talented offensive lines, led by veterans Eric Pike, Randall Harris and Doug Shaw, among playoff-eligible programs.
West (1,951 yards rushing) has averaged an NCAA-leading 149.3 yards per game and can claim the total yardage crown as well with 65 yards on Friday night. West is also closing in on Omar Cuff official NCAA touchdown record of 39 after scoring three times last week to get to 34 (33 on the ground) for the season.
West and Garoppolo are two of the three finalists for the Walter Payton Award, which will be handed out on Monday night. Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams, who leads his team at home against Jacksonville State on Saturday, is the third of the finalists.
Defensively, Towson has gone from a unit that just held opponents close to one that can shut teams down. The Tigers have a pair of defensive backs, Jordan Love and Tye Smith, who are future NFL hopefuls.
Telvion Clark has shored up Towson’s linebacking unit in the past couple of years, while defensive end Ryan Delaire has helped improve the Tiger pass rush.
With as much as eight inches of snow expected on Friday it should be an interesting night of football.