By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — At the FCS level, college football fans like to picture their pristine subdivision free of the political wrangling that seems to dominate the headlines in the BCS, with its crazy computer polls and politicking for position.
They groan about the inordinate influence TV has on the outcomes of the bowls, and moan that some team in a conference deserved to be in a particular bowl, and another team was unfairly shut out.
But after seeing the shock of the final team in the FCS Playoff field this weekend, I think it’s time to revise FCS college football fans’ thinking of the selection process.
For television and politics seem to be very much present as well in FCS in terms of the selection process – as fans of 7-4 Illinois State discovered to their detriment.
It was seen by some that Illinois State, going into their game at 7-3 against Northern Iowa, had to win to make the field.
While their heartbreaking double-overtime loss to the Panthers seemed to be a blow to their playoff hopes, an amazing course of events let them to potentially see themselves as potentially playoff-bound once again, as fellow Missouri Valley conference-mates Indiana State and Youngstown State lost.
At 7-4, they thought they had a shot.
Instead, 7-4 Eastern Kentucky, unranked in any poll going into the final weekend, was included in the playoff field.
The story of the Colonels would have been remarkable in its own right. While the Colonels 7-4 record included a close 10-7 loss to one of the better Big XII teams this year in Kansas State, it still seemed strange that 7-4 Illinois State, with a similar resume but a tougher schedule, would be left out of the playoff field.
Still, you might be able to give the FCS playoff committee the benefit of the doubt. They did boast a very impressive win over then-ranked Jacksonville State, 52-48, in one of the most unbelievable comebacks of the 2011 season.
But the story gets even more curious when you consider that the Colonels are hosting a playoff game, to be televised by ESPNU.
James Madison (7-4), also one of the final teams to make the playoff field, will be travelling to Richmond, Kentucky to face off against EKU on national television on ESPNU, the Bristol, CT station’s college sports station.
If attendance were the only criteria, there is no way the Dukes should have been denied a home game against Eastern Kentucky in the FCS playoffs.
For games that do not involve seeds, schools are supposed to submit monetary bids to have the right to host games.
James Madison averaged more than 25,000 fannies in the seats per game in 2011. Not only was that number good for No. 3 overall in all of FCS, the Dukes also routinely outdraw many MAC and Sun Belt teams in the lower levels of FBS as well.
In contrast, Eastern Kentucky averaged 7,267 per home game.
No disrespect to the Colonels, but the thought that Eastern Kentucky outbid the Dukes for the home game strains belief.
It can be justified that – perhaps – Eastern Kentucky belonged in the field. But a home game against one of the highest-grossing programs in FCS?
The idea of the Colonels hosting a home game in the playoffs makes no sense at all – until you take into account ESPN’s potential interest in the game.
As a part of ESPN’s contract to televise the FCS playoffs, ESPN is required to televise one first-round game.
As it turns out, the No. 2 basketball team in the country is playing at 7 p.m. in Lexington, KY. — only a half an hour away from Richmond, Kentucky, where the Colonels will be playing their first-round game.
That game is covered by an outfit called IMG, a global media company that supplies content to ESPN (through their online streaming solution ESPN3).
In addition, the SEC Network is also broadcasting a football game in the area as well: Tennessee vs. Kentucky, in Lexington.
The SEC Network is a regional TV package owned and operated by ESPN Regional television, and is owned and operated by ESPN.
With a noon start, the crews of IMG and this local, ESPN-owned affiliate will have a very busy day, but it certainly makes ESPN’s job easier in terms of coverage, with many friendly or ESPN owned-and-operated hands already in place.
If a teams’ entrance into the FCS playoffs is to be judged by broadcast television games, Eastern Kentucky won the lottery.
Of all the first and second round playoff games, only the first-round game involving James Madison and the Colonels will be on one of ESPN’s broadcast networks.
Every other game — including games at Appalachian State, Montana, Montana State, and other FCS football hotbeds — will have their games instead covered on ESPN3, the Bristol, CT’s online streaming system, over the internet.
The circumstances around Eastern Kentucky’s selection into the field and their home game begs questions.
Did ESPN influence the selection of teams into the 20-team NCAA field – allowing a borderline, unranked team into the field, and having them host a first-round game against one of the highest-grossing teams in all of FCS?
Is there a deserving 7-4 Illinois State team, 8-3 Bethune Cookman team, or 9-2 Duquesne team that deserved to go instead of the Colonels?
And was it just convenience for ESPN – rather than merit – that made this game in Richmond, Kentucky, happen?
There deserves to be some sort of explanation – especially for the kids at those schools, who ought to be woofing at the members who put Eastern Kentucky into the field over them.
Apparently for the reason that a global sports media conglomerate can save a few bucks.