(STATS) - Nothing takes the air out of the later stages of the FCS season quite like ... well, the start of the playoffs.
Huh? How so? OK, that's an overstatement, but the annual thrilling finish to the regular season always gets a smack the face over Thanksgiving weekend when the playoffs open to smaller crowds.
It can remain a slow climb out of the attendance hole. The action may sizzle on the field, but the host schools play catch-up with the bottom line, even as average crowd sizes increase with each round.
There's no easy fix to the annual attendance problem as the host schools try to meet their expenses, and it's especially bad for first-round games. That's when schools face less than a week of preparation following the announcement of the playoff field and play over a holiday weekend when even loyal fans can be traveling, many students are away from campus, the weather is often worsening and complimentary tickets, which drive up regular-season attendance, aren't available. It's even a rivalry weekend for big FBS games to draw away attention, even more so than usual.
The average attendance in last weekend's first round was particularly poor at 5,634, with a high of 14,575 at Montana (that's more than 11,000 below than the average regular-season game) and an embarrassing low of 997 at Dayton. Montana was up slightly from a home game in last year's first round, but Northern Iowa and Sam Houston State, which hosted games both years, were down quite a bit from last year, when the average attendance for eight first-round games was 6,548.
FCS schools eventually made it to an average of 8,295 for the 22 games played at school sites before the championship game drew 20,918 to Frisco - driven by the North Dakota State fan base.
A query of people involved in the playoffs at FCS schools expressed frustration over the annual attendance woes, including such reactions as "I can tell you all of the problems, but no good solutions," and "I think I could retire if I knew the answer."
A majority of those surveyed talked about moving playoff games from Thanksgiving weekend as the way to get the postseason off to a better start attendance-wise. It's probably not going to happen, though.
Starting the entire regular season a week earlier - as only Montana and North Dakota State did this year - would only serve to change the valuable weekend before Thanksgiving, when everybody is playing, to accommodate just eight playoff games. Not starting the playoffs until the week after Thanksgiving would push the national semifinals up against the Christmas holiday in some seasons, so that would be frowned upon. Plus, by starting the playoffs a week later, the seeded teams which have first-round byes would sit for three weeks, not two, and that's too long.
So as long as the field is 24 teams - which is well-received - a change to the start of the playoffs is unlikely.
"We talk to (schools) about being pro-active," said Randy L. Buhr, associate director of championships for the NCAA, "and reaching out to season ticket holders, their single-game purchasers, alumni, youth camp lists or any other crossover sport data bases that they might have to email and try to get information out to promote the game. Knowing social media is a cost-effective and immediate platform to leverage and try to promote the game as well ... try to keep the local media informed so that they can spread the word in the local market place and go from there."
It always comes back to money, though.
The NCAA needs to keep the host bids reasonable so schools can keep down ticket prices, which beginning with the second round can't be lower than what a school charges in the regular season.
Regionalizing postseason matchups are a big aspect of the playoffs because doing so brings familiarity between opponent fan bases and increases the likelihood of fans of the road team traveling to a game. But even that aspect is lessened today by every playoff game's availability through broadcast or streaming.
Providing guaranteed home games to the eight-best unseeded teams not only would create a fairer playoff system, but it would allow the NCAA to at least indicate to schools behind the scenes to start preparing marketing campaigns. Early knowledge of a potential playoff game coming Thanksgiving weekend might prompt schools to reopen dorm rooms earlier to increase student involvement.
Fortunately, attendance is expected to rise with the eight playoff games this week - the seeded host schools will have had a two-week buildup - but the crowd sizes sometimes don't match the enormity of the games.
The NCAA is telling schools to be more proactive in their efforts. As the governing body, it's time for the NCAA to help schools and conferences solve the problem, not just wish for a solution.
LAST WEEK'S RECORD: 8-3 (.727)
OVERALL RECORD: 563-146 (.794)
SATURDAY, DEC. 5
ALL TIMES ET
FCS PLAYOFF SECOND ROUND
Kickoff: Noon (ESPN3)
Quick Slants: The second round of rematches - six of the eight games - kicks off between two of the three CAA Football champions (James Madison is the other). The conference's No. 1 rusher (Richmond's Jacobi Green, 116.8 ypg) and No. 2 rusher (William & Mary's Kendell Anderson, 112.9) square off again after the host Spiders won the first meeting 20-9 on Nov. 21 behind a much stronger run game - 227 yards to 95. Both teams figure to add a new wrinkle because they know each other so well. In a close game which demands limiting turnovers, safeties DeAndre Houston-Carson of William & Mary and David Jones (eight interceptions) of Richmond are terrific at forcing opponents into mistakes.
Prediction: The fourth most-played series in the FCS turns 126 (William & Mary leads 61-59-5). Duquesne might have shown in the first round that the Tribe secondary is wearing down, and Richmond features terrific wide receivers with Brian Brown and Reggie Diggs. Richmond, 28-24.
Kickoff: 1 p.m. (ESPN3)
Quick Slants: There's no need to worry about attendance in the battle for Charleston as the demand for tickets far outweighs seating capacity at Buccaneer Field. The Citadel, which lost 33-20 to CSU at home Sept. 26, has incredible momentum from wins over South Carolina and Coastal Carolina, and the Bulldogs' triple option is running at a much higher level than when they gained only 181 rushing yards in the earlier meeting. CSU's defense boasts four first-team All-Big South picks, led by linebacker Aaron Brown and cornerback Malcolm Jackson, so it's strong enough to meet the challenge. The Bucs prefer the run, too, with their spread option.
Prediction: CSU coach Jamey Chadwell and his veteran squad have beaten The Citadel in each of the past three seasons, but the visiting Bulldogs are hot at the right time of the season. The Citadel, 28-24.
Colgate (8-4) at No. 5 seed James Madison (9-2)
Kickoff: 1 p.m. (ESPN3)
Quick Slants: Colgate pulled one of the first-round surprises by reversing an earlier loss to New Hampshire as the Raiders' dual-threat quarterback, senior Jake Melville, continued to play well in big games (he's thrown one interception in 303 attempts this season). JMU will want to get early confidence for its young quarterback Bryan Schor, who is making his fourth start and faces solid pass rushers in Pat Afriyie and Brett Field. But the Dukes should move the ball with running backs Cardon Johnson and Khalid Abdullah, who have combined to rush for 1,891 yards and 22 touchdowns, and Colgate has struggled to keep teams from converting on third down.
Prediction: James Madison still doesn't seem like it should be the No. 5 seed, but it's faced tougher competition than the Patriot League champion Raiders, who have been slipping past a lot of opponents. James Madison, 35-24.
Kickoff: 2 p.m. (ESPN3)
Quick Slants: Illinois State scored the final 20 points of a 48-28 victory over WIU on Nov. 24, winning behind its usual knockout punch of quarterback Tre Roberson (four total touchdowns) and running back Marshaun Coprich (206 rushing yards, two TDs). There's no mystery to the Redbirds' game plan; it's those two standouts operating behind the big offensive line. WIU coach Bob Nielson has taken teams to the playoffs in the FCS, Division II (Minnesota-Duluth, a two-time national champ) and Division III (Wartburg and Wisconsin-Eau Claire). His young QB, Sean McGuire, will do a lot of stepping up in the pocket to avoid pressure from the edge, but the Leathernecks need to build time-consuming drives with big RB Nikko Watson.
Prediction: The Redbirds' 18-game home winning streak since Hancock Stadium was renovated before the 2013 season is the longest in the FCS. It continues behind Coprich's rushing. Illinois State, 35-21.
Kickoff: 2 p.m. (ESPN3)
Quick Slants: This has become one of the better nonconference rivalries in the FCS, with Jacksonville State winning the Sept. 5 matchup at Chattanooga 23-20 on a late score. The Gamecocks frustrated Mocs QB Jacob Huesman and his offense, allowing 196 yards. The top-ranked Gamecocks are allowing just 277.1 yards overall and 16.3 points per game. Physical Mocs running back Derrick Craine should provide more support to Huesman this time around, but Chattanooga is going to need some passing balance because of the Gamecocks' 5-2 front. Like Huesman, Gamecocks signal caller Eli Jenkins runs his offense to perfection, benefiting from the depth at running back (Troymaine Pope has 1,092 yards and averages 7.0 a pop) and clutch wide receiver Josh Barge.
Prediction: Having lost as the No. 3 seed in their first playoff game last year, the Gamecocks don't want to fall behind and have doubt creeping in. Chattanooga is strong enough to force that scenario. Jacksonville State, 34-28.
Montana (8-4) at No. 3 seed North Dakota State (9-2)
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. (ESPN3)
Quick Slants: Montana is playing in the most-anticipated playoff game for the second straight week and it opened the FCS season with a 38-35 last-second win over NDSU, evening the series at 4-4. The Bison, four-time reigning FCS national champions, are better prepared for the passing assault of QB Brady Gustafson (443 yards in the win) and his many receiving options, led by Jamaal Jones. Injuries have changed both teams since the Aug. 29 meeting, but NDSU redshirt freshman Easton Stick is seasoned after replacing NFL prospect Carson Wentz, while Montana might be without injured tackle leader Kendrick Van Ackeren. The battle between Joe Haeg and the NDSU offensive line and Montana and its Tyrone Holmes-led defensive line is most fascinating.
Prediction: Montana can pull the upset again because its offense can outscore the Wentz-less Bison. But the Bison defense seems to play at a higher level inside the raucous Fargodome. North Dakota State, 27-23.
Sam Houston State (9-3) at No. 4 seed McNeese State (10-0)
Kickoff: 7 p.m. (ESPN3)
Quick Slants: McNeese State, the only unbeaten team in the FCS, kept Sam Houston scoreless over the final three quarters of its 27-10 win Nov. 7, clinching the Southland Conference's automatic playoff bid. The Cowboys want to saddle it up again with QB Daniel Sams, RB Ryan Ross and an athletic defense, while Sam Houston seeks a more wide-open style. Some strong bench play rescued the Bearkats in the first round, so coach K.C. Keeler won't be afraid to go with different QB styles with Jared Johnson and Jeremiah Briscoe. Defensive end P.J. Hall was lights-out in the playoff win.
Prediction: If Sam Houston is going to lose to a familiar opponent in the playoffs, at least it won't be to North Dakota State. McNeese State, 35-28.
Northern Iowa (8-4) at No. 6 seed Portland State (9-2)
Kickoff: 10 p.m. (ESPN3)
Quick Slants: It's "Barnum & Bailey" as Portland State coach Bruce Barnum phrased it with red-hot UNI quarterback Aaron Bailey bringing the circus, er Panthers, to town for this first-ever meeting. What's developed during the visiting Panthers' six-game winning streak is the rise of running back Tyvis Smith, who at 6-foot-3, 224 pounds is even bigger than former All-American David Johnson. Portland State went looking for a JUCO tight end last year and instead got its offensive leader in QB Alex Kuresa, who has helped the Vikings mow through a tough schedule. Their star free safety Patrick Onwuasor's nine interceptions are tied for the FCS high.
Prediction: It won't help the Panthers to be stepping outside their dome and into a potential rainy night in Portland. But it's a team hardened on Missouri Valley competition. Northern Iowa, 23-21.
SWAC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Kickoff: 4 p.m. (ESPNU)
Quick Slants: The winner is not done, instead moving on to the inaugural Celebration Bowl on Dec. 19 against MEAC representative North Carolina A&T. Defending SWAC champion Alcorn State has relished this second chance against Grambling after losing 35-34 on Oct. 17 when an extra point was blocked to end overtime. It hasn't been the same Braves team since QB John Gibbs Jr. was injured, although sophomore Lenorris Footman has held his own. Grambling's QB is SWAC offensive player of the year Jonathan Williams, whose 38 touchdown passes are the most in the FCS. He will be tested by the best defense in the SWAC.
Prediction: Grambling already has the most appearances (seven) and titles (six) in the SWAC championship game. The Tigers add to both totals, but barely. Grambling, 31-28.