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Should the Bison take part in 2014 ESPN football extravaganza?

by Mike McFeely

Could North Dakota State's football team get a nationally televised game on ESPN against Montana next year? And if the Bison did have that option, would they take it?

Those are a couple questions worth asking since the story of an ESPN-fueled "FCS Football Challenge" was revived over the weekend when a Bison fan asked about it on Dom Izzo's and Jeff Kolpack's NDSU football live chat.

Dom followed up with a few tweets Sunday night and posted a brief blog about it. You can read it here: ESPN Calling Again?

I followed up a little more Monday. Here's what we know:

NDSU has two non-conference games scheduled for next season: Aug. 30 at Iowa State and Sept. 6 vs. Montana at the Fargodome.

According to an article that ran on The Sports Network website in June, ESPN wants to grow its partnership with Football Championship Subdivision football and would be open to scheduling a Saturday of coverage devoted to FCS. 

According to TSN:

The kicker is that it would be the weekend before the usual start of the regular season, when FBS games start to dominate the ESPN family of networks' airwaves. To make this happen, FCS schools would have to persuade NCAA membership to change the opening date of their season. Generally, it's the Thursday before Labor Day -- this year, it's Aug. 29. It won't happen this year, of course, but it's a possibility for 2014 or beyond, especially as ESPN executives see the value in the FCS and increase their networks' coverage, mainly through ESPN3 internet broadcasts (including all national playoff games).

The big boys in Bristol, Conn., would only be interested in the games that would move the needle with ratings, so a game down the road at Sacred Heart in Fairfield isn't going to cut it. No, the sports empire would want intersectional matchups of top teams, say the ones from the previous national title game or the defending national champion -- it's been North Dakota State the last two seasons -- against another national power such as Eastern Washington or Montana. Or, say, an Eastern power like Villanova or Delaware visiting the striped turf of Central Arkansas.

This would take an awful lot of logistical work by any (perhaps six) schools involved, ESPN and the NCAA -- which would have to grant a waiver to a handful of schools to begin their season on Aug. 23.

NDSU would have to be involved as the powerhouse of FCS and the logical game would be the Bison vs. Montana game as the marquee matchup of the day. That would involve moving the already scheduled game to Aug. 23.

"There are still a lot of unanswered questions and I have not even approached Montana to see about their interest," NDSU athletic director Gene Taylor said. "I am sort of waiting to hear from the folks at the NCAA that oversee FCS to see what kind of response there has been to even the early discussions on this issue."

Maybe the more basic question is: Even if the logistics could be worked out and Montana went along with the date switch, would the Bison want to do it? There are some serious questions involved with an early starting date, strength of schedule, is all the trouble worth the exposure on ESPN, etc.?

"There is some concern of how early we would have to start with camp and how that impacts coaches' and players' time off and also how many weeks they would have to be practicing from beginning to end. This would also add a significant budget impact as housing and feeding the players for another full week of fall camp and would the NCAA or ESPN consider picking up that additional cost," Taylor said. "If you add that to the potential back end cost during playoffs for these two schools, it could get expensive.

"The exposure piece is an interesting question," continued Taylor. "Just how much exposure would it bring? I know we would be one of only a couple of games on that weekend on the main ESPN, but would the general public really tune in compared to us playing K-State on FOX Sports1 or if we could play Iowa State on ESPN2?"

Then there is the question of how head coach Craig Bohl would view moving the Montana game to Aug. 23, which would be backed up by the Iowa State game?

"I have not had a lot of conversation with Craig about this yet but some of the things (just mentioned) are some of his same concerns," Taylor said. "There is also the concern of more open dates in September that could be hard to fill."

My thoughts: I am not sure this would be worth it for NDSU. The exposure would not be as great as playing Kansas State on Fox Sports1 and changing your schedule strictly to benefit a made-for-TV ESPN event doesn't necessarily jibe with trying to win a national championship. An FCS school can't be cocky, but if there is one that can be choosy it is NDSU. I'd say the Bison would be wise to turn down this opportunity.

(Mike McFeely is a talk-show host on KFGO-AM in Fargo, N.D. He can be reached at mike.mcfeely@mwcradio.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcFeelyKFGO.)