FCS could use more challenge series
By CRAIG HALEY
(STATS) - The concept of the challenge series between the Big Sky and Missouri Valley conferences is strong enough that it would seem other FCS conferences would want to get in on the fun.
Two conferences matched head-to-head to see whose teams are stronger that season, just like the popular ACC-Big Ten Challenge, SEC-Big 12 Challenge and other series in college basketball.
This year's Big Sky-MVFC Challenge is in its third season and there will be 10 meetings between the two power conferences during the first month of the season. The MVFC captured the first two installments, five wins to three.
Its stature begs the question, how feasible is it for other challenge series to develop across the FCS, where there are legitimate financial concerns, especially with travel?
"Commissioners always talk about challenge opportunities between our leagues," Southland Conference commissioner Tom Burnett said, "but when the rubber meets the road, we have normally left nonconference scheduling to our athletic directors and football coaches."
Big television dollars don't back the FCS games, so a challenge series would only come to fruition between two conferences within a reasonable footprint of each other.
Teams from the Ivy and Patriot leagues are the perfect example, and have long faced each other, so they basically have an annual challenge series, but there hasn't been a formal designation. This year, their 11 matchups are tied for the most between two conferences.
The Patriot League also has 11 games against CAA Football teams, but that's where another issue comes into play. While the two conferences share Atlantic region schools, the CAA - one of the leading conferences in the FCS - have stronger teams than the Patriot League and would win a challenge series basically every time.
It's the same with the CAA and the Northeast Conference, which have eight matchups this season.
On the other hand, put the NEC and the Patriot League together - they play seven times this season - and a series would be more evenly matched.
One conference commissioner said there hasn't been a demand for a challenge series from the schools within the league.
Another commissioner, Kyle Kallander of the Big South Conference, said, "It would have to start with geography. Not only would that assist with travel costs, but it would help develop rivalries as well, which is great for FCS. Obviously, you need two willing partners, which can be more challenging than you might expect given scheduling philosophies, changes in personnel, conference schedules and existing commitments."
The Ivy and Patriot leagues should go ahead and make their unofficial series official, like the Big Sky-MVFC Challenge. The Mid-Eastern Athletic and Southwestern Athletic conferences have a one-game challenge over Labor Day Weekend and their champions meet in the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl, but some more in-season meetings would draw attention and crowds.
The Southern Conference has possible partners against the CAA, the Big South and the Ohio Valley Conference.
The Southland needs a partner as well - maybe the OVC? It's probably too strong for the SWAC, but they have proximity to each other, and this year's six matchups includes some of the stronger SWAC programs.
Given the success of the Big Sky-MVFC Challenge, conferences should get serious about more series. It's a chance to get creative with matchups and to promote the schools and conferences with early season excitement. Later in the season, the strong pairing of teams in nonconference games also may go a long way when FCS playoff bids and seeds are decided.
Updated June 5, 2019