It's college football’s last season before a new playoff system kicks in, but smaller schools such as Furman University are already experiencing the coming system for picking a champ.
The Greenville, S.C. Division I-AA Paladins are just two victories away from playing for the 2013 Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) national championship. To get there, they’ll have to survive a 24-team playoff system where a single loss marks the end of the line.
It’s a more decisive way of crowning a champion than the old system, the one still used by the big boys. The argument-generating Bowl Championship Series (BCS) features 125 football schools fighting to compete in in unrelated bowl games.
Furman made it to the FCS field on the strength of a record-breaking 13th Southern Conference championship. In the first round, the team defeated South Carolina State, 30-20.
On Saturday, Furman will face its biggest challenge of the year: going up against top-seeded, undefeated and two-time defending national champion, North Dakota State. Though Furman has won five games in a row, it is a decided underdog.
"No one but our program believes we can win this weekend," mused Furman defensive end Ira McCune.
The game, which airs at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN3, will determine who goes on to play the winner of the Montana-Coastal Carolina contest next week at a site to be determined.
Furman players face the game of their lives even as they prepare for the semester’s final exams, which begin next week. Studying must be done around the five-hour afternoon sessions of working out, practicing and reviewing game film.
"During the week, it's class, football, library,” McCune said. “There's no time for anything else."
The players are constantly reminded that they are expected to maintain excellence in the classroom as well as on the football field.
"Our academic advisor Rob Carson does a really good job of keeping us on track and making sure that we see the whole picture," said strong safety Gregory Worthy.
This disciplined schedule has become routine for most of the Furman players.
"I have no free time. It's been playoff mode for a while now. We had to win the last three games of the regular season to make the playoffs so for the past month all our games have been important," said linebacker Marcus McMorris.
But players can’t deny the game has their main focus. Some of McMorris' teammates explained their frustration with the combined academic and athletic pressure.
"I've been putting off all my schoolwork until the last minute. I guess you could say I've been putting football first," said defensive end John Mackey.
Kicker Ray Early echoed a similar sentiment. "It's been really hard to focus on schoolwork with everything going on in football."
The old system of determining the title through single bowl games played a month may have been less taxing for academic-minded players. But the BCS has already committed to a four-team playoff system for major college programs beginning in 2014.
Players prefer to settle the dispute of who is best on the field, and Furman players insist it can be balanced with schoolwork. Given that it is the only playoff team still alive with a graduation rate among the nation’s top 10, it is also proving dual success is no easy task.