Sam Houston State QB Brian Bell (11) runs for a touchdown past Eastern Washington's Paul Ena in last year's FCS national semifinal.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
FCS power programs aren't adverse to playing FBS opponents. Some play two in a season.
What you don't see are enough top teams from FCS power conferences playing each other.
Saturday's matchup of No. 2 Eastern Washington at No. 4 Sam Houston State is an exception to the rule. It's the FCS non-conference game of the season - a rematch of Sam Houston's 45-42 escape in the national semifinals last season after EWU nearly came all the way back from a 35-0 halftime deficit.
Actually, this is the best weekend of the season for non-conference matchups in the FCS Top 25. In addition to EWU-Sam Houston, No. 5 Northern Iowa hosts No. 9 McNeese State and No. 10 New Hampshire visits No. 21 Lehigh.
Those three games are one more than what occurred in the season's first four weeks combined. The Appalachian State-Montana and Eastern Illinois-Illinois State games were the only ones matching Top 25 teams from different conferences.
Ironically, when many FCS teams in the early part of the season are off playing FBS opponents, they stand a much greater chance of losing those games than if they played another top FCS team, whose scholarship level more resembles their own.
The two-year home-and-home series between Eastern Washington and Sam Houston was announced in June 2012. This was before their epic playoff match last December, and neither knew they would both be among the top four-ranked teams for this year's first-ever regular-season meeting. But they knew they would have terrific teams and that playing the game would be risky for them.
"When you get to talking (with another school), one thing I've learned when you get a team that's interested, you get a nibble and they get a nibble, you better jump on it," Sam Houston coach Willie Fritz said, "instead of sitting back worrying about trying to craft the perfect schedule."
Coaches blame scheduling for the lack of FCS powers playing each other. Their schools want to play an FBS opponent because it offers them a bigger payday, allows their student-athletes to play in front of a larger crowd and gives them a chance for increased exposure, as Eastern Washington, Northern Iowa and McNeese State gained with upset wins this season.
But many schools guard against overscheduling. Many play a sub-Division I opponent or a lower-tier FCS school at home, so coupled with an FBS game, they find it hard to add a risky game against another top FCS program. The thought is that a loss against another top FCS program does more damage to a team's playoff resume than a loss to an FBS team because the latter is expected.
Eastern Washington, though, has found a way to make it work, scheduling two FBS opponents (Oregon State and Toledo) and a Division II opponent at home (Western Oregon) as well as the trip to Sam Houston State in Huntsville, Texas.
"To be involved in this, our kids are excited, I think it's great for FCS. I hope in the future we can continue to try and play these type of home-and- homes with other FCS schools," EWU coach Beau Baldwin said.
"A D-II win, I don't know if it does anything for you if you're thinking about playoffs. So that's my first opinion on that. And I get it with playing the FBS schools, but I like challenging yourself ... we're going to have to be battle- tested to do well in our (Big Sky) conference."
With many fewer FCS schools in the western portion of the United States than in the east, the Big Sky and Southland conferences have found scheduling games to be somewhat of a necessity. CAA Football and the Missouri Valley and Southern conferences aren't involved in top non-conference matchups as frequently, while the Ohio Valley Conference perhaps does a better job in scheduling better FCS opponents.
Many non-conference games are booked several years in advance. New Hampshire hadn't played Lehigh in 24 years before they met in 2010 and likely didn't know Lehigh was about to go on a run of Top 25 seasons. McNeese State and Northern Iowa are meeting for the first time since 1999, and UNI likely didn't foresee McNeese State, which has been a little down in recent seasons, being a Top 10 team for Saturday's matchup.
UNH's Sean McDonnell says coaches can't worry about potential FCS losses when building a schedule, but have to consider the strength of conference opponents.
"For us, the eight (CAA) games, it's an awful lot of games getting beat up," McDonnell said. "To go out and play these games, it becomes very challenging. The other thing is that you schedule some of these games, you know, three or four years in advance, not knowing where everybody is going to be anyway (as a program). Rarely do you schedule for the next year."
Money and TV exposure talk, of course, and it's possible both can entice more cross-sectional matchups of top FCS teams. ESPN, CBS Sports Network and NBC Sports Network would be possibilities of creating bigger early season matchups.
"I think from a competitive standpoint, it's extremely important, no question about it. And I love doing it," McNeese State coach Matt Viator said. "I think it's great having an opportunity to go play a school like Northern Iowa. I think the challenges for all of us are scheduling.
"I think you can (gain from a loss against a strong FCS opponent) depending on if you come out healthy and you come out with things that are correctable and you can build some confidence off it, sure. I think they certainly can be situations like that, no question. But I think this is great for us. This is obviously a really good football team and any time you have an opportunity to go play at a place that they sell out, it's a great atmosphere and all that, that's great for your kids."
THE LAST TIME WE MET
Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams came off the bench to throw six second-half touchdowns when the Eagles staged their memorable rally against Sam Houston in last year's national semifinals.
For a Q&A with Adams before the FCS non-conference matchup of the season, go here.
AROUND THE NATION
Big Sky: Northern Arizona senior Zach Bauman is 46 rushing yards shy of 4,000 in his career. He's rushed for 127, 148 and a career-best 253 yards in three games against Montana, which he faces Saturday. The visiting Grizzlies (3-0) lead the Big Sky in scoring defense (12.3 ppg) and total defense (286 ypg), and have yet to allow a fourth-quarter point. However, they will play without junior free safety Matt Hermanson, who was suspended for the game due to a violation of the university's student-athlete code of conduct.
Big South: The Big South has two 4-0 teams for the first time in conference history. Both put their unbeaten status on the line at Southern Conference opponents Saturday, No. 11 Coastal Carolina at Elon and Charleston Southern at Appalachian State. Big South teams have beaten four SoCon opponents for the first time and are 12-3 against FCS opponents, one win shy of the conference- record 13 wins in 2006.
CAA Football: Delaware quarterback Trent Hurley has completed nearly three- quarters of his pass attempts (70-of-97, 72.2 percent) in the Blue Hens' 3-1 start, with 10 touchdowns and 944 yards and only three interceptions. The Blue Hens face a pivotal home game Saturday against No. 14 James Madison, which leads the CAA in pass defense. The winning team will set itself up nicely for a playoff push. ... The CAA has five teams in the Top 25 - low for the conference's usual standard - but Stony Brook, Maine, William & Mary and Delaware are four of the first seven teams receiving votes just outside the rankings.
Ivy: The potential All-Ivy defensive line can stack up with many all- conference fronts across the FCS. Princeton defensive tackle Caraun Reid could blossom into the top FCS draft prospect, while defensive ends Zach Hodges (two fumble recoveries) of Harvard and Michael Yules (two sacks) of Brown are off to big starts with getting into opposing backfields. Harvard defensive tackle Nnamdi Obukwelu also clogs the middle against the run. ... Penn's visit to No. 19 Villanova is the fourth-ever FCS matchup of coaches with 220-plus career wins - Penn's Al Bagnoli with 229 and Villanova's Andy Talley with 227.
Independents: Incarnate Word (2-2) has been using a rotation of three running backs, with Junior Sessions starting, followed by Broderick Reeves and then John Oglesby getting much of his action in the second half of games. Each has between 27 and 37 carries and 132 and 157 rushing yards. ... Abilene Christian quarterback John David Baker has thrown 112 attempts for 16 touchdowns and no interceptions.
MEAC: Some big foots have entered the conference. A pair of freshmen, Morgan State's Lawrence Forbes and North Carolina A&T's Dominic Frescura, rank fourth and sixth nationally with punting averages of 46.4 and 45.1 yards, respectively. The MEAC's fourth-ranked punter, Florida A&M's Colby Blanton (42.3), also is a freshman.
Missouri Valley: In South Dakota State's 13 games last season, national rushing champion Zach Zenner's two lowest totals were at North Dakota State - 43 yards in the regular season and 46 yards in the playoffs, with zero touchdowns. The No. 6 Jackrabbits get a conference-opening shot at No. 1 NDSU on Saturday in Brookings, S.D. ... Youngstown State QB Kurt Hess heads to Southern Illinois just 264 yards shy of surpassing Tom Zetts as the school's career record holder for passing yards. Hess has 7,465 yards as a four-year starter.
Northeast: Bryant's visit to defending NEC champion Wagner jump-starts the conference schedule. Wagner (1-3) has struggled to stop the pass (289.8 ypg, 106th in the FCS), which plays into the hands of Bryant wide receiver Jordan Harris, who is the active leading receiver in the FCS with 3,082 career yards. ... Robert Morris' game at VMI will be Joe Walton's 200th as the only head coach in Colonials history.
Ohio Valley: Eastern Illinois QB Jimmy Garoppolo not only leads the FCS in passing (432.8 ypg, 20 touchdowns), but he's about to face an Eastern Kentucky defense that is allowing 294.5 passing yards per game, which ranks 109th in the FCS. The Colonels (2-2) hope their secondary will stabilize with the return of safety Brandon Stanley, who was injured and missed their first three games.
Patriot: While Lehigh wide receiver Lee Kurfis is grabbing so much attention with his record-breaking start to the season, the Patriot League already has eight players with at least 20 receptions. Three are from Fordham, Sam Ajala, Tebucky Jones and Brian Wetzel. ... Holy Cross heads to Dartmouth with the series deadlocked, 36-36-4.
Pioneer: The three most southern PFL members host the three defending champions, with the big matchup being Butler at Jacksonville. New programs Mercer and Stetson host Drake and San Diego, respectively. ... Stetson freshman defensive end Donald Payne has won at least a share of PFL defensive player of the week honors in each of his first three career games.
Southern: Chattanooga (2-1) hopes to put a bye week to good use when it comes back to action Saturday at No. 15 Georgia Southern. The Mocs have raised their offensive efficiency to support their talented defense. Last year's matchup went to triple overtime before GSU prevailed, 39-31. ... Furman and The Citadel will renew the SoCon's oldest rivalry with their 93rd meeting. Furman owns a commanding 57-32-3 lead in the series that began in 1913.
Southland: No. 4 Sam Houston State's 17-game home winning streak, about to be put to a stern test against No. 2 Eastern Washington, is the longest in the FCS. ... Central Arkansas defensive end Markeith Gaines has made the most of his 12 tackles: 6.5 for loss and 3.5 for sacks with two forced fumbles.
SWAC: There are five teams with two conference wins, and four are matched up on Saturday. East Division co-leader Alcorn State (3-1, 2-0) will visit Alabama State (2-2, 2-1), while the other East co-leader, Jackson State (2-2, 2-0), goes to West Division leader Southern (2-2, 2-0). Prairie View A&M (2-2, 2-1) has a non-conference game at Stephen F. Austin.
Extra Point: The sixth annual Coach to Cure MD will take place at college football games this week. More than 11,000 football coaches at all levels nationwide will attempt to raise awareness of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, the most common fatal genetic disorder diagnosed during childhood, by wearing a Coach To Cure MD logo patch on the sidelines. Fans can make donations at games, online at www.CoachtoCureMD.org or by texting the word CURE to 90999 (a $5 donation will automatically be added to your next phone bill).
Also, once again this season, In the FCS Huddle is projecting the potential FCS playoff field. The projections, updated most Sundays, are a long-range look at the season - not based off current records or rankings - and can be found here.
FCS AWARDS WATCH
Ratings for the Jimmy and Erik Show are going through the roof again. Through four games this season, Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo leads the FCS in passing yards (1,731), passing yards per game (432.8), touchdown passes (20), points responsible for (120) and total offense (430 ypg), while his favorite receiver, Erik Lora, leads the FCS in receptions (45), receptions per game (11.3), receiving yards (607) and touchdown receptions (nine).
Western Carolina (1-3, 0-1 SoCon) at X-Samford (2-2, 0-0), 3 p.m.
Central State (0-3) at X-Tennessee State (3-1), 3 p.m.
Co-Game of the Week: X-No. 1 North Dakota State (3-0, 0-0 Missouri Valley) at No. 6 South Dakota State (3-1, 0-0), 3 p.m. The two-time defending national champion Bison are 31-2 since the start of the 2011 season, but they're unbeaten on the road during that time.
Co-Game of the Week: X-No. 2 Eastern Washington (2-1) at No. 4 Sam Houston State (3-1), 3 p.m. Looking back to last year's national semifinal, here's hoping the Sam Houston squad of the first half and the Eastern Washington squad of the second half show up for the entire game.
X-No. 11 Montana State (2-2, 0-0 Big Sky) at North Dakota (1-2, 0-0), 3:30 p.m.
Charleston Southern (4-0) at X-Appalachian State (1-2), 3:30 p.m.
X-Southern Utah (3-1, 0-0 Big Sky) at Northern Colorado (1-3, 0-0), 3:35 p.m.
South Dakota (1-2, 0-0 Missouri Valley) at X-Western Illinois (2-2, 0-0), 4 p.m.
Maine (3-1, 0-0 CAA) at X-No. 22 Richmond (2-2, 0-0), 4 p.m.
Murray State (2-2, 0-0 OVC) at X-Jacksonville State (4-0, 0-0), 4 p.m.
Penn (1-0) at X-No. 19 Villanova (1-2), 5 p.m.
X-Abilene Christian (3-1) at Tarleton State (2-0), 5 p.m.
X-No. 9 McNeese State (4-0) at No. 5 Northern Iowa (3-0), 5 p.m.