(STATS) - There's always talk about who's in and who's out with the final at-large selections of the FCS playoff field each season.
The NCAA committee delivered a message last November that it's willing to reward playoff-level teams that face playoff-worthy schedules. After facing what was deemed the toughest schedule in the FCS, Western Illinois became the first six-win team (at 6-5) to receive an at-large selection to the 24-team field.
Teams hiding behind soft schedules may want to think twice about what some of the Big Sky and Missouri Valley programs are doing this week. The two power conferences have three big matchups between nationally ranked teams - No. 8 Eastern Washington at No. 1 North Dakota State, No. 14 Montana at No. 3 Northern Iowa, and No. 19 Northern Arizona at No. 18 Western Illinois.
The Southern and Southland conferences also check in with a key intersectional game: Samford at Central Arkansas. The winner will get a long look from Top 25 voters.
"No team should be penalized for playing good people, winning or lose. To me, that's what it's all about, I think it's great," said Western Illinois first-year coach Charlie Fisher, the offensive coordinator on last year's national semifinal Richmond team.
"You see the FBS teams going to this, where more teams are having to play higher-level teams. It makes it great for our fans, for opposing fans, and quite honestly, that's the way it ought to be. That's what great leagues do, they play other great leagues and good teams. It creates a lot of excitement and you find out a lot about your team early on. It's no different in basketball - teams that schedule hard get better and they have an opportunity to get in the tournament at the end."
North Dakota State, which has won an NCAA-record five straight national titles, is helping to set the standard for non-conference schedules this season. The Bison have beaten No. 7 Charleston Southern, face another Top 10 team in Eastern Washington and visit Big Ten power Iowa in another week. All this on top of playing in a Missouri Valley Conference that is considered the best in the FCS.
But Eastern Washington, Northern Iowa and Western Illinois - all part of the fun on Saturday - also are right there with tough schedules as is 2015 national runner-up Jacksonville State from the Ohio Valley Conference.
National programs that have been slow to take on demanding non-conference schedules in recent years, such as James Madison from CAA Football and Youngstown State from the Missouri Valley, are probably going to have to change their way of thinking. Second-year YSU coach Bo Pelini said he is looking for tougher games on future schedules, and JMU has a new coach in Mike Houston.
An expansion of the regular season could impact scheduling. The NCAA proposal to allow FCS teams to play a permanent 12th game in the regular season, submitted by the Ohio Valley and Southland conferences, would likely cause top teams to try to schedule another tough game.
The proposal has been submitted into the normal legislative cycle for the 2017 NCAA Convention in January, but it has drawn only lukewarm support across FCS conferences.
"If you're in an 11-game schedule, I think you're limited in what you can do with your non-conference schedule," Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley said. "But with a 12-game, I think we all have our options (with) what fits our school best, whether we play a Division I (FBS), whether we get another home game. I think it's based on financial choices as much as football choices. So that's what that 12th game allows us do."
"Our deal has always been we want to get into the NCAA playoffs. That's (as) many Division I wins as you get, you want Division I wins," said Central Arkansas coach Steve Campbell, who felt his team was playoff-worthy last year, although its strength of schedule was not high enough.
"For the foreseeable future as far as our program is concerned, we have a lot of our FBS opponents and FCS opponents already mapped out for the next six to seven years. As it develops over the years, I'm sure (a 12th game) will have some influence."
With far fewer FCS schools in the western United States, Big Sky programs tend to take on riskier non-conference games than programs in many other conferences. The Missouri Valley isn't far behind in that regard. Hence, the trio of big matchups Saturday with another one - Weber State at South Dakota - kicking off first as kind of the undercard.
A tough non-conference schedule, Fisher said, "does allow your team to grow up in a hurry. ... It's a good challenge for us, a good early season challenge."