Changes recommended for FCS playoffs

Jan 25, 2016 - 9:33 PM (STATS) - If the FCS playoffs undergo change for next season, the process will start to move that way this week.

Conference commissioners are scheduled to meet Tuesday through Thursday in Naples, Florida, for various reasons, and their discussions will include whether they seek detours so the playoffs can avoid bumps in the road.

There was more outcry than usual after the selection of the 24-team playoff field Nov. 22. Complaints are often reserved publicly for the schools left just shy of an at-large bid as well as the media analyzing a perceived snub, but this past season they extended as high as the conference commissioners.

Patty Viverito from the Missouri Valley Football Conference voiced concern that all five qualifiers from her league were placed on one side (12 teams) of the bracket. That didn't happen to the conferences with the next-most qualifiers, CAA Football with four and the Big Sky Conference with three.

Doug Fullerton from the Big Sky was not pleased after his conference's champion, Southern Utah, did not receive a home game for the first round and then lost on the road to a Sam Houston State program that placed a higher bid for hosting the game. That had never happened before to a Big Sky champion.

The playoffs opened to poor crowds on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, but gained momentum, especially with the two finalists, national champion North Dakota State and Jacksonville State, drawing strong crowds to their three home games. The playoffs set a record with 258,066 fans in 23 games, although it was only the third season under the 24-team format (they went from 16 to 20 teams in 2010 and then 20 to 24 teams in 2013).

Despite the strong finish, which included 21,836 attending North Dakota State's 37-10 win over Jacksonville State in the championship game - the high for the six seasons that Frisco, Texas, has been the host - there is interest over potential change regarding the playoffs.

Among those to suggest changes has been Bill Chaves, athletic director at Eastern Washington, which won the 2010 title in Frisco before North Dakota State's current five-year reign. He emailed recommendations for change to Mark Wilson, the Tennessee Tech athletic director who served as the chair of the playoff selection committee this past season, and Mark Lewis, the NCAA's executive vice president for championships and alliances.

Chaves said his recommendations were made "to better an already tremendous event" and centered on two chief concerns - expanding the seeding process and changing the dates of the playoffs.

The seedings offer the potentially easier change:

- Chaves suggested expanding the seeds from eight to 16. Under the current selection format, a team that is ninth-strongest in the field is treated the same as the 24th team. Chaves cited Southern Utah and South Dakota State from the Missouri Valley as teams that had excellent regular seasons and were deserving of a home game in the first round. Both lost on the road in the first round.

Doubling the number of seeds would likely decrease how the playoff field has become increasingly regionalized in its matchups. Six of the eight second-round games this season had been played in the regular season, including three that matched teams from the same conferences.

To counter the potentially higher travel costs, Chaves suggested a slight raise in the minimum bid to host a playoff game.

The recommendation for changing playoff dates would probably draw less support:

- Chaves wants first-round games moved from Thanksgiving weekend. His reasoning was that student-athletes involved would have the chance to enjoy the holiday and extra time for studies and the first-round hosts would have a better opportunity to sell tickets, with the traveling teams gaining additional time for their preparations.

Such a change, Chaves said, "could potentially avoid dismal crowds that have plagued our tournament during this weekend." He added that an extra week of preparation will reduce charter and travel costs for the NCAA.

"If you have Thanksgiving weekend off, it gives everybody a chance to decompress a little bit and the student-athletes extra time to kind of get their academics in order," Chaves told STATS.

The downside to Chaves' idea is that it could mean the two semifinals - played the weekend before Christmas - would fall between Christmas and New Year's, which would have them competing for exposure among the many FBS bowl games. Also, the Thanksgiving bye week would mean the top eight teams would have a three-week gap from the final weekend of the regular season to the second round of the playoffs, when they would play their first game. That break is currently two weeks.

Brent Colbourne, the director of programming and acquisitions at ESPN, which broadcasts all FCS playoff games, is scheduled to be involved in the commissioners meetings. Changes in playoff dates would impact the network's schedule of postseason games.

Interest in the playoffs has risen as they have expanded in scope both on and off the field. But the desire for different tweaks also has risen.

The ball is back in the conference commissioners' hands.

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