WVU football: FCS power JMU gets chance to repeat rare feat
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - What the Football Championship Subdivision has done for college football is significant and in a week like this, when one of the best Football Championship Subdivision schools plays one of the best from the Football Bowl Subdivision, it deserves some extrapolation.
We're unlikely to see one Saturday at FedEx Field, when FCS No. 5 and 2004 national champion James Madison takes on FBS No. 9 West Virginia at 4:30 p.m. (ROOT telecast), but there are the annual underdog stories and inspirational upsets against the so-called superior opponents.
Already this season, eight FCS teams have beaten a FBS team. The Dukes and Appalachian State have the only two FCS wins against a ranked FBS team.
There have been no similar shockers this season, though the No. 1 team in the FCS, North Dakota State, beat Colorado State 22-7. It's the second straight year NDSU has beaten a FBS team - and last year the Bison won inside a power conference with a stunner at the Big Ten's Minnesota.
Sacramento State beat Colorado last week a year after beating another BCS conference team, Oregon State. Those Beavers just beat then-No. 13 Wisconsin. Pitt had been 10-0 all-time against FCS teams before dropping its season-opener to Youngstown State. It happens, though it's never happened for the Mountaineers, who are 12-0 against the FCS (formerly Division I-AA) and only once had what one might call a scare when Liberty managed a 33-20 loss in 2009.
And as much as the FCS has added some enjoyment to the sport with the occasional upset and the regular rooting interests, it's also allowed you to enjoy the season a little longer. If not for the rise of FCS programs and their quality of play, the FBS may not have gone to a 12-game schedule. That all but forced FBS teams to schedule FCS teams to fill out a schedule, but also forces FCS teams to take their finances even more seriously.
You can't disregard the payoff, though, because FCS teams use those games, and typically those one-sided defeats, to fund not just the football program, but the athletic department. In back-to-back weeks, Savannah State has been the biggest underdog in college football history and outscored 139-0 by Oklahoma State and Florida State, which had to add the game after WVU begged out of what would have been a top-10 showdown last week. The Tigers banked $855,000.
The FCS also has a playoff, which FBS fans have long wanted to use to crown its national champion and will welcome beginning in 2014. That adds two rounds and three games to the season.
Not all of these FCS teams and stars are names you know for just one Saturday in the fall. There were more than a dozen FCS players drafted into the NFL in April and dozens more make up NFL rosters. They've merely left their mark on the game. The coaches are still in the process and throughout all the BCS conferences you'll find head coaches, coordinators and assistants who learned to do their things, often times on their own, at the FCS level.
Eventually, the best work with the best and they innovate and network their way to the FBS. At WVU alone, offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson spent three years running the Stephen F. Austin offense. WVU defensive line coach Erik Slaughter led the defensive line there. Quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital played quarterback - for four offensive coordinators - and punted at Missouri State.
"There are good football coaches everywhere," said Coach Dana Holgorsen, who played and coached at levels below the FCS and skipped ahead to the FBS at Texas Tech in 2000. "I don't know if schematically it's drastically different. This has been widely talked about, but what Shannon and I did was basically the same job for a couple years. Mine just happened to be at Houston and his just happened to be at Stephen F. Austin.
"Erik Slaughter is making the most of his opportunity right now and has got as much energy as anybody I've ever seen at the Division I level."
What the lower level has done, and what it ought to be commended for, is remind people that football is football. WVU may have 85 scholarships, which is 22 more than JMU, and WVU may have a greater recruiting budget and superior resources, but the game remains the game and the goals are the same.
Both teams Saturday will have talent, though WVU's first scoop will go deeper. Both teams practice, though WVU's facility is better. Both teams will run and pass the ball to get it across the goal line or kick it through the uprights and both will do all the tackling and defending needed to keep the other side from doing the same.
"Football is relative," Dawson said. "It doesn't mean if you're playing at Millsaps College or Stephen F. Austin or in high school or wherever. The team you're playing against has the same type of people, especially in your conference and the circle of people you play on your schedule. You all do the same things and the things that work at this level work based on the fact it's relative. Are we playing against better players than we were at Stephen F. Austin? Yeah, but we're also playing with better players."
Dawson said the talent gap is overrated and the starters at the more successful FCS teams could play for and start at FBS schools. The FCS schools can split up their scholarships to reap the benefits that come with recruiting secrets or recruiting oversights that happen above them. Or they can make the most of the trend where the pool of talented players expands faster than FBS scholarships can accommodate.
"I know it'll be a big game for them because most of their guys think they should be here," Slaughter said. "We had five guys off our defense go to NFL camps, so there are players at that level. They're guys that are overlooked and guys with chips on their shoulders and guys that transfer down as well.
"There were guys we had at Stephen F. Austin who could come here and play, but guys there who couldn't cut it. The difference is in the depth. We just didn't have the depth of the bigger schools. All our guys played well, but we had about half the depth we have here now."