By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
BATON ROUGE, LA. — When Division I-AA football was established in 1978 — the level now known as the Football Championship Subdivision — one of the major components of the two-tier Division I system was to establish a place for cost-containment as the costs of running programs were rapidly escalating.
The NCAA was watching certain long-established programs drop like flies and it made provisions for mid-major teams to control costs and keep playing.
Some 35 years later, cost containment is even more of a concern as the price of playing even FCS football have continued to mushroom.
That brings us to the dilemma facing some of the established powers of FCS.
How do you live within a budget and still compete for a national championship as your fan base expects?
More and more teams are taking the opportunity to schedule not just one, but two Football Bowl Subdivision games, many even venturing into the realm of the Bowl Championship Series for contests against major schools.
This season, 19 schools in FCS have scheduled twin FBS opponents, though one of them (Nicholls State) is playing a transitional FBS opponent (South Alabama) to go along with a game against Oregon State.
This writer is on one such trip this weekend as Towson takes its best shot at LSU for an 8 p.m. game Saturday night at historic Tiger Stadium.
The reasons for scheduling these events can be multi-faceted, but the major one is that payouts from such games go a long way to keep an athletic program in black ink.
The problem is that schools with legitimate championship aspirations back themselves into a corner while balancing the books.
There are two routes to travel to reach the 20-team NCAA Division I football playoffs, either win one of the 10 automatic bids to the tournament by winning your conference, or hope you can win at least seven D-I games and play well enough to impress the NCAA Division I Football committee enough to gain one of those 10 coveted at-large bids.
As we've discussed before in playoff-preparation columns, the football committee is about as serious on precedent as the U.S. Supreme Court and all FCS coaches and athletic directors know the history — no one has ever won an at-large bid without seven victories.
That brings us to the case of two FCS teams who have played for national championships within the past seven years, Northern Iowa and Sam Houston State.
In a day and age where some programs still insist on scheduling cupcakes and creampuffs whenever possible in the non-conference season, other schools are to be commended for challenging themselves to the toughest degree.
There isn't much question that Northern Iowa is probably the best 1-3 team in FCS. The Panthers were competitive in a pair of BCS losses to Wisconsin (26-21) and Iowa (27-16).
With a 59-0 Division II victory against Central State in between, UNI traveled to Youngstown State last week knowing that anything less than a win would mean the Panthers would be in must-win mode the remainder of the season.
A pass in the end zone on the final play last week at YSU's Ice Castle was knocked away as the Penguins held on for a tough 42-35 victory in a classic Missouri Valley Conference encounter.
So now, the Panthers — the 2005 national runner-up and an almost yearly participant in the championship tournament — are already in postseason demeanor with seven MVFC games remaining.
Win all seven Division I games and you almost certainly in the playoff field, lose one and your playoff bubble is almost certain to burst.
UNI doesn't even want to think beyond that.
And traveling to Cedar Falls, IA. on Saturday for the first game of that challenging gauntlet is defending national champion North Dakota State.
On down the road are games against Illinois State and Indiana State, teams that have been ranked this season and another contests against South Dakota State, a squad knocking on the top-25's door.
When Central Arkansas knocked Sam Houston State, 24-20, last Saturday in the Southland Conference opener for both teams, this writer couldn't help but remember a late-night conversation from the off-season where I was breaking down schedules with a colleague.
I picked out several "trap" games on different schedules for my friend and made a bold prediction that Central Arkansas would beat Sam Houston State.
Coming off an easy Division II win, 54-7 over incoming Southland Conference member Incarnate Word, and a competitive 48-23 loss to a BCS team, Baylor, the Bearkats had the unenviable challenge of facing a talented UCA squad in the wrong place and at the wrong time.
So now SHSU has a conference loss and several tough Southland road trips to come. The Bearkats also have another unusual problem — one of the top home-field advantages from last season is negated by the fact that only two more games will be at Bowers Stadium.
Also awaiting the Bearkats is an end-of-year trip to traditional BCS powerhouse Texas A&M.
Sam Houston State avoided one roadblock on Thursday night and improved to 2-2 when it trounced Texas Southern 50-6, but there will be few easy games for the Bearkats the rest of the season.
Complicating things further is that both UNI and SHSU filled out their schedules with Division II games, wins that won't be considered when the football committee looks at potential playoff resumes in November.
On the other end of the spectrum is Eastern Washington, which won a national championship two years, then missed the playoffs last season when it finished 6-5 — a record that included an excruciating, opening-game 30-27 loss to Washington, even though the Eagles gained twice as much yardage as the Huskies.
This season, EWU challenged itself with two FBS opponents, scheduling winnable games against Idaho and Washington State to begin the campaign.
In many people's minds, Eastern Washington was a favorite in the opener at Idaho and the Eagles dominated the Vandals for a 20-3 victory.
Playing a week later against Washington State, the Eagles had a chance to pull out another win on their final drive before falling 24-20.
Now at 2-1, EWU still has a tough Big Sky Conference schedule to negotiate, but can get to seven wins by taking five of their last eight games.
Delaware was the cover boy program for the futility in 2011 that UNI and Sam Houston State could face in 2012.
The Blue Hens didn't have two FBS games last season, but only finished 7-4 against a schedule that included Division II West Chester. There was also a 40-17 loss at Navy.
Because of the CAA's strength of schedule and wins over CAA champion Towson, playoff-bound Old Dominion and then-No. 9 William & Mary, the Blue Hens were considered for the postseason.
But ultimately, the seven D-I wins precedent locked Delaware out.
Towson, which plays its second FBS contest on Saturday when it meets the LSU Tigers, doesn't share some of the scheduling woes that the Panthers and the Bearkats do.
Towson athletic director Mike Waddell and coach Rob Ambrose set up a slate that included all Division I games.
The Tigers will still have to navigate the rigors of the brutal Colonial Athletic Association, but the defending CAA champs will swim through those waters with more of a safety net.
Towson could lose a couple of games in conference play and its strength of schedule — along with at least seven Division I victories — would like secure it a playoff berth.
And should the Tigers hit the BCS jackpot on Saturday and beat No. 3-ranked LSU — joining the legion of honor which includes Appalachian State's 2007 victory over Michigan and James Madison's 2010 triumph against Virginia Tech — it could put Towson in position for a top-four seed.
FCS Schools With Two FBS Games in 2012
Big Sky Conference
Idaho State: Air Force, Nebraska
Northern Arizona: Arizona State, UNLV
Sacramento State: New Mexico State
Southern Utah: Utah State, California
Weber State: Fresno State, BYU
Big South Conference
Presbyterian: Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt
Stony Brook: Syracuse, Army
Colonial Athletic Association
Towson: Kent State, LSU
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference
Morgan State: Buffalo, Akron
Savannah State: Oklahoma State, Florida State
South Carolina State: Arizona, Texas A&M
Missouri Valley Football Conference
Missouri State: Kansas State, Louisville
Northern Iowa: Wisconsin, Iowa
Ohio Valley Conference
Tennessee-Martin: Memphis, Northern Illinois
Western Carolina: Marshall, Alabama
Lamar: Louisiana-Lafayette, Hawaii
Nicholls State: Oregon State, South Alabama (transitional to FBS)
Northwestern State: Texas Tech, Nevada
Sam Houston State: Baylor, Texas A&M