Expanded bracket brings changes to FCS playoffs

Updated: December 1, 2010, 5:52 PM ET
Associated Press

DALLAS -- Delaware coach K.C. Keeler interrupted preparations for a Football Championship Subdivision playoff game by letting his players go home for Thanksgiving. He'll probably do the same for Christmas if the Blue Hens are still playing.

The Division I football wing that uses a playoff system had to scrap the traditional four-week sprint to crown its champion when the bracket expanded this year from 16 teams to 20. Now the postseason is something of a slow-starting marathon with first-round byes for 12 teams and 42 days from start to finish.

The most significant difference in the tier formerly known as Division I-AA is a bowl-like break of three weeks between the semifinals and championship game, which is moving to the Dallas area from Chattanooga, Tenn. By the time Jan. 7 rolls around, the FCS playoffs will be just 20 days shy of the famously long NBA playoffs.

Keeler doesn't mind the starts and stops, though. He was happy to have a week to recover from a rough-and-tumble regular season in the Colonial Athletic Association. He and his players don't care how long they have to wait if they advance to the championship game. They face Lehigh, an opening-round winner, in the second round Saturday.

"It's been a long, intense season living in this conference," said Keeler, who won an FCS championship in 2003 and played for the title again four years later. "It was really nice to have (the break), 'OK, we're kind of going into our second season. And now let's get away from it a little while and then we come back and get after it full force.'"

Keeler prefers a little waiting around to what happened in 2007, when the Blue Hens were snowed in for two days after a playoff game, had to go on the road again the next week and had only two days at home before traveling to Chattanooga for the title game. They were blown out by Appalachian State.

"We figured out we slept in our beds like six of the last 16 nights of the season," Keeler said. "It was brutal, and we were banged up. So I think some down time would have been an opportunity to get some kids healthy and give us a chance to play Appalachian State a little better than we played them."

The FCS long sought NCAA approval on playoff expansion because the 16-team format fell far short of the generally accepted ratio of 25 percent of teams advancing to the postseason in each sport. The modest increase still leaves FCS below 20 percent of teams reaching the playoffs, but the growth was cautious because of concerns over costs. Future expansion will be considered, Southland Conference Commissioner Tom Burnett said.

"There are, I think, 117 teams that play at this level (and) if only 16 teams were allowed to get in, I think it's great that more teams can experience this," Lehigh coach Andy Coen said. "Like our kids? This is a memory these guys will have the rest of their lives."

All playoff games before the championship are held at one of the participating schools, with sites determined by a financial guarantee and other factors. The highest-seeded playoff teams get to host games as long as they meet the minimum bids, which start around $30,000 and go up in subsequent rounds. Schools with larger fan bases and bigger stadiums generally turn in larger bids.

The Dallas suburb of Frisco went after the title game because it's trying to carve out a sports niche in one of the busiest -- and strongest -- markets in the country.

The fast-growing city is home to the Double-A affiliate of the American League champion Texas Rangers and Major League Soccer's FC Dallas, which just reached the franchise's first championship game and plays in the stadium that will host the FCS title game. The Dallas Mavericks' minor league team recently made its debut in a basketball arena that doubles as an ice rink at the headquarters for the NHL's Dallas Stars.

"It's a community that's built in sports as part of enhancing the quality of life," Burnett said. "I think at every turn this community really turns out for sports events, and we think that will be the case again."

Burnett acknowledges risks, and they are significant. The Dallas-Fort Worth market is owned by the Big 12, and sports consumers have plenty of choices. The SEC is big in the Chattanooga market, but the other options aren't as plentiful, giving the FCS game a stronger footprint.

This season's championship game also will go head-to-head with the Cotton Bowl, which has its latest date ever and falls between the BCS bowls and the Jan. 10 BCS championship game. It's far and away the latest the FCS has played its title game, which is normally held before bowl season gets busy.

"It's probably part of all the unknown in all of this," Burnett said. "There's some thought of, 'Well, if our game is later and played among all those other ones, does the stature, does the interest, grow in our game. It is a national championship game and a lot of these bowl games are not, for whatever that's worth. We have to wait and see."

If there is a great debate over the two teams that end up playing for the BCS title, there's always the chance that sports talk radio in the chatty North Texas market will remind listeners that a "real" championship game will be played three days before the BCS game, and just up the road.

Such talk isn't lost on Montana athletic director Jim O'Day, chairman of the Division I Football Committee.

"That's big at our subdivision level and a real marketing tool for us, is that we determine our champions on the field," he said.

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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