Early FCS Kickoff Game Brings Drama Again

On a hazy August day in Missoula, MT, 26,472 people in Washington-Grizzly Stadium and almost one million more at home held their breath with two seconds left on the clock. Fourth and goal with the game on the line, the North Dakota State end zone just one yard away.

Four-time national champions need one stop against the vaunted Bob Stitt air-raid offense, but University of Montana running back Joey Counts takes the ball and smashes through the point of attack through to pay dirt.

On a stormy, then sunny August day in Fargo, ND, indoors in the revamped Fargodome, kicker Jacob Smoak lines up for a 51-yard field goal to send his Buccaneers home to Charleston Southern, victors of the latest edition of the FCS Kickoff.

Bison head coach Chris Klieman calls a timeout to ice him, while 18,881 anxiously wait and then riotously yell to keep the game alive for overtime. Snap, spot and hold are good and the kick has the distance. Hooking and hooking and just wide left. Free football for everyone until running back King Frazier’s first play touchdown scamper and a four-and-out stand by the Bison defense to shut down the game in just five plays.

People say ESPN’s SEC-biased with coverage on college football’s superior conference, but NDSU has become ESPN’s newest suitor and for good reason. What program can boast five-straight national championships and a top two pick in the NFL Draft? Not even ‘ol ‘Bama.

The Bison have done their fair share in the deal too giving ESPN two down-to-the-wire games to open up the college football season a week earlier than everyone else.

“It’s great for FCS football. The matchups have been dynamite,” Klieman said of the FCS Kickoff games, which began in 2014 with Sam Houston State traveling to the NDSU’s next opponent Eastern Washington.

With all of the drama jam-packed into the first football game of the year, the FCS Kickoff doesn’t carry the weight a game in the Football Bowl Subdivision does where only four teams make it to the College Football Playoff.

The FCS invites 24 teams to the postseason, so one loss in August makes little difference in the long run, especially against a formidable playoff-caliber foe. In 2014, Eastern Washington took down the Bearkats, but Sam Houston State had the last laugh in the playoffs that year making it one round further before losing to NDSU in the semifinals.

Last year posed a rematch of the season’s first game, which happened to be in the second round of the playoffs with a different outcome than the first meeting.

Not only is the FCS Kickoff too early in the season to accurately predict what will transpire in December, the season’s too green to even draw overarching conclusions for what might happen in a couple weeks at the University of Iowa.

Mistakes were made by players and referees alike in that game, but that’s to be expected for teams coming off a shorter offseason and shorter preseason. The offseason’s even shorter when considering NDSU was one of two teams to go three weeks longer than every other FCS team.

That’s been the case for the last five years. Those practice and game reps are invaluable for the Bison, especially the younger crop. The exposure on ESPN might be even more treasured. But on the other side of the coin, a regular start to the season would make a difference too.

“Love the FCS Kickoff, but glad we’re not playing in it next year. Tough to start camp in July for how long our seasons have gone,” Klieman said.

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