FCS Kickoff Is College Football’s Best, New Tradition

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Year 3 of the FCS Kickoff met the lofty standard set Year 2. A season ago, the North Dakota State dynasty suffered a rare setback, giving up a late touchdown in a loss at Montana.

Jacob Smoak’s 51-yard field-goal attempt at the end of regulation nearly made back-to-back FCS Kickoff losses for the Bison. The near-miss opened the door for King Frazier to go 25 yards to the house and the five-time defending champions to successfully defend the Fargodome.

College football could not have asked for a better introduction to the season. Sorry, Cal and Hawaii, North Dakota State and Charleston Southern get that honor for playing in this hemisphere.

In an era when college football’s decision-makers are insistent on inventing traditions, the FCS Kickoff is quickly and organically becoming the genuine article.

When ESPN first announced the FCS Kickoff before the 2014 season, I was cautiously optimistic: optimistic, because the best of FCS deserve such a prominent stage; cautious, because the sport’s power brokers seem to inevitably horn in on everything.

My skepticism wasn’t unfounded; the inaugural edition of the FCS Kickoff became an infomercial for the College Football Playoff. Colin Cowherd became the voice of reason on the Eastern Washington-Sam Houston State broadcast, which Alanis Morissette might consider referencing if she ever records a follow-up to “Ironic.”

However, the actual product has exceeded even my most optimistic expectations.

Some background: My first experience covering college football came at my Pac-12 university, but my first professional position reporting on college football was in the FCS ranks. That 2009 season was one of the happiest times in my life, and jetting to Chattanooga to cover the national championship game remains one of the highlights of my career.

FCS found a place in my heart — not just for professional reasons that would appeal only to me, either. Hardly. I love it because there’s some damn good football played in the subdivision.

That 2009 campaign featured Villanova outlasting William & Mary in a defensive slug-fest, Montana holding off Appalachian State in a literal blizzard — which ranks as one of my favorite games all-time, regardless season or division — and that same ‘Nova bunch defeating the Griz in a wildly entertaining national championship.

That all happened in the course of one week.

It feels condescending to write the FCS plays good football in such plain terms now. However, like many football spectators and media, my exposure was very limited previously.

That’s what I love about the FCS Kickoff, and I venture to guess a primary reason it’s catching on so quickly with football fans. The showcase exposes new programs, coaches and players to an audience that’s never been more football-hungry than it is today.

ESPN has an opportunity to do more with the FCS Kickoff. I brainstormed what an expanded event might look like.

This season’s nonconference schedules would have worked nicely for a three-game slate, kicking off at noon ET with defending Colonial Athletic Association champion Richmond against defending Patriot League champ Colgate; handing off to the West Coast for perennial powers Eastern Washington and Northern Iowa; then finishing with the centerpiece in Fargo.

The risk run here is diluting what’s proven to be a great product, however. Overextend the reach of Week 0, and it’s no longer special — and only a matter of time before TV executives decide to shove the programs already monopolizing national broadcasts throughout the autumn onto this summer Saturday.

FCS Kickoff is distinguished as truly special, a burgeoning tradition that doesn’t need meddling.