By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The Football Championship Subdivision doesn't get much better than what happened on Oct. 29.
The national schedule was headlined by No. 1-ranked Georgia Southern visiting No. 5 Appalachian State and No. 2 Northern Iowa going to No. 3 North Dakota State, showdowns won by the home teams.
In addition, there were numerous games involving the top two or three teams in various conferences and the Alabama A&M-Alabama State match-up at Legion Field in Birmingham drew a FCS season-high 66,473.
Of course, what makes the FCS especially great is the playoff system that determines the national champion, unlike the Bowl Subdivision.
Whether it's a race to get into the playoffs or the playoffs themselves, Super Saturday doesn't just occur once a season. It happens all the time.
As we get set to kick off the new year with the next Super Saturday - top- seeded Sam Houston (14-0) will play second-seeded North Dakota State (13-1) in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Game Jan. 7 at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas - let's look back at many of the memories across the FCS this year:
FCS awards: The night before Eastern Washington was crowned FCS champion, Eagles senior linebacker J.C. Sherritt won the Buck Buchanan Award, following up his second-place finish as a junior. Stephen F. Austin senior quarterback Jeremy Moses became the first Southland Conference player to win the Walter Payton Award and Southeast Missouri State coach Tony Samuel won the Eddie Robinson Award. Later in the year, the Jerry Rice Award, which honors the FCS freshman of the year, was created as the division's fourth major award. The winners of all four 2011 awards, presented by The Sports Network and sponsored by Fathead.com, will be announced next Friday in Frisco.
Conference chaos: The big storm was on the FBS level, but there were plenty of schools jockeying for position amid conference realignment. The five-team Great West Football Conference played its eighth and final season, with Cal Poly, UC Davis, North Dakota and Southern Utah set to head off to the Big Sky Conference and South Dakota moving into the Missouri Valley Football Conference next year. Playing their final FCS seasons were Massachusetts (CAA Football to Mid-American Conference), South Alabama (FCS independent to FBS independent), Texas State (independent to Western Athletic Conference) and UTSA (independent to Western Athletic Conference). Old Dominion moved into the CAA, and North Carolina Central and Savannah State played their first seasons in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. The door to the Big East Conference remained shut on Villanova, while Appalachian State announced it wants to move up to the FBS and other schools studied the possibility.
April Fool! Nope, it's true: The University of Central Arkansas picked a peculiar day - April 1 - to announce it would replace its natural grass football field at Estes Field with purple-and-gray artificial turf. The Bears took to the new turf, going 5-0 on it during a 9-4 season which included a trip to the FCS playoffs.
"Big" year for draft class: Linemen stood at the head of the class for FCS players taken in the NFL draft. The first four selections were Villanova offensive tackle Ben Ijalana, picked by the Indianapolis Colts in the second round with the 49th selection overall; Lehigh offensive guard Will Rackley, Jacksonville Jaguars, third, 76; Hampton nose tackle Kenrick Ellis, New York Jets, third, 94; and Missouri State offensive guard David Arkin, Dallas Cowboys, fourth, 110. There were 21 FCS draft selections, up two from 2010.
Playoffs before the playoffs: The competitiveness across the FCS reflected long before the playoffs began Thanksgiving weekend. Three of the top five teams in The Sports Network/Fathead.com FCS Preseason Top 25 - No. 1 Eastern Washington, No. 3 William & Mary and No. 5 Delaware - didn't make the playoffs, effectively getting knocked out in the regular season. The three most recent national champions - EWU last season, Villanova in 2009 and Richmond in 2008 - were shut out.
Never forget: One day before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Fordham beat Columbia, 21-14, for the Liberty Cup. The New York schools annually play for the cup in honor of the more than 80 combined alumni who were lost in the 2001 terrorist attacks, which included a pair of former Fordham football players, Nick Brandemarti and Kevin Szocik.
Montana "rebounds" in a big way: Many teams would be thrilled with a 7-4 season, but Montana's 2010 season ended without a playoff bid for the first time since 1992. This season, second-year head coach Robin Pflugrad got the Grizzlies rolling again when they won a share of the Big Sky title with Montana State (while beating their heated rival, 36-10, on Nov. 19) and advanced all the way to the national semifinals while riding a nine-game winning streak.
Surprise is the CAA theme: The preseason coaches poll took a beating in the CAA. Towson, picked last among 11 teams, and rightfully so after having a 3-29 conference record from 2007-10, won its first title. Maine, picked ninth, and Old Dominion, picked 10th as the new team on the block, tied for second place along with New Hampshire, which was picked fourth in the preseason. Among the CAA award winners, ODU's Ronnie Cameron earned defensive player of the year and Towson's Terrance West and Rob Ambrose were named the top offensive rookie and coach, respectively.
Difficult year for SWAC: The Southwestern Athletic Conference will be glad to turn the page on 2011, although it ended well with Grambling State rallying to an exciting win over Alabama A&M in the conference championship game - capping coach Doug Williams' return to the Tigers' sideline this season. The conference lost some of its better coaches, its best team, Jackson State, was ineligible for the championship game, and Alcorn State and Texas Southern had messy seasons on and off the field.
Two is better than one: Stony Brook running back Miguel Maysonet and Brock Jacolski traded carries while both raced past the 1,000-yard mark for the second straight season. The two rushed for a combined 3,051 yards and 31 touchdowns and the Seawolves were a touchdown shy of averaging 50 points in Big South play, finishing the season as conference champion and 9-4 overall.
Hoya paranoia: Georgetown coach Kevin Kelly did one of the better coaching jobs nationally by guiding the Hoyas to their first winning season since 1999. The Hoyas, who had only four home games, played for the Patriot League title on Nov. 12, losing to Lehigh but hardly putting a damper on an 8-3 campaign.
It takes a thief: There was some terrific individual seasons in the Patriot League and it could be argued that nobody dominated his position like Bucknell cornerback Bryce Robertson. The All-America senior had 13 interceptions, including at least one in nine of the Bison's 11 games, to set the league record and fall one shy of the FCS single-season record.
UTSA, we hardly knew ya: The University of Texas-San Antonio made a big splash by winning its first game as a program, 31-3 over Division II Northeastern State before 56,743 at the Alamodome on Sept. 3. But coach Larry Coker's Roadrunners lost to Division III McMurry a week later and were 1-5 against FCS competition in their 4-6 start-up season. Now they're headed off to the WAC after one season on the FCS level.
Farewell, Great West: The Great West had a memorable final season, with four of the five teams finishing with winning records, three spending time in the Top 25, last-place UC Davis surprising co-champion Cal Poly and North Dakota rallying from 20 points down in the conference's last game to beat South Dakota, 38-37, and share their first title with the Mustangs.
Mathews goes back-to-back: It was the year of the quarterback in the Ivy League and Cornell sophomore Jeff Mathews showed how much by throwing for over 500 yards in each of the Big Red's final two games - both wins. He was 40 of 46 for 521 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions against Columbia and 35 of 45 for 548 yards for five touchdowns and one interception against Penn. Not surprisingly, he was named the Ivy League's offensive player of the year.
500? How about 600?: Murray State junior quarterback Casey Brockman threw for 600 yards, completing 45-of-67 pass attempts for seven touchdowns and one interception, in a 58-27 win over Tennessee State on Sept. 17. His 422 yards in the first half set a FCS record for one half. For good measure, Brockman also caught a 15-yard touchdown.
The good, the bad and the ugly at Yale: It started as a fun story at Yale. Record-setting senior quarterback Patrick Witt had to decide between playing in "The Game" against rival Harvard in New Haven, Conn., or spending the day in Atlanta to interview for a Rhodes Scholarship. Ultimately, the big QB with the 3.91 GPA decided to play in his final collegiate game. But then Yale was crushed by Harvard, 45-7, and third-year Bulldogs head coach Tom Williams lost his job because of his resume. He had claimed to be a Rhodes candidate as a senior at Stanford in 1992 only to decline his final interview to pursue an NFL tryout camp. In truth, he had been encouraged by the Stanford Fellowship office to apply to the Rhodes program, but didn't pursue it.
NEC on the run: As Bryant continued its transition to the FCS level, the Bulldogs weren't eligible to be included in the NCAA's official statistics. But tailback Jordan Brown rushed for more yards (1,815) than any player in the FCS. "Run, run, run" was the theme in the Northeast Conference as St. Francis' Kyle Harbridge (1,430), Duquesne's Larry McCoy (1,381), Wagner's Dominique Williams (1,338) and Albany's Drew Smith (1,092), like Brown, each a junior, also went over 1,000 yards. Harbridge set the national season high with 346 yards in a win over Morehead State.
Coaching facelift in the MEAC: Five of the 11 MEAC programs had new head coaches: Rod Broadway at North Carolina A&T; Henry Frazier III at North Carolina Central; Gary Harrell at Howard; Steve Davenport at Savannah State; and Kermit Blount at Delaware State. Howard entered the season with 27 straight losses in conference play and went 4-4 under Harrell, who was named a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award (sponsored by Fathead.com).
Georgia Southern wins SoCon: Everybody knew Georgia Southern's storied program was back in 2010 when it made a run to the national semifinals in coach Jeff Monken's first season. But the Eagles went only 4-4 in their Southern Conference schedule. This season, they won their first conference crown since 2004, going 7-1 in the SoCon, held the No. 1 ranking for seven weeks and, yes, eventually made it back to the national semifinals during an 11-3 campaign.
Conference champions: The 2011 FCS champions were Montana and Montana State (Big Sky), Stony Brook (Big South), Towson (CAA Football), Cal Poly and North Dakota (Great West), Harvard (Ivy), Norfolk State (MEAC), North Dakota State and Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley), Albany and Duquesne (Northeast), Tennessee Tech, Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State (Ohio Valley), Lehigh (Patriot), Drake and San Diego (Pioneer), Georgia Southern (Southern), Sam Houston State (Southland) and Grambling State (SWAC).
Most controversial coaching change: Coastal Carolina replaced the only head coach in the program's first nine seasons, David Bennett, who was 63-39 overall, including 7-4 this year, and only a year removed from leading the Chanticleers to the playoffs for a second time. If that move wasn't surprising enough, Bennett was replaced by 61-year-old Joe Moglia, who had only returned to coaching in the United Football League this year after spending 26 years in the financial sector.
And then there were three: In the year of the 25th anniversary of the Walter Payton Award (sponsored by Fathead.com), senior quarterbacks Chris Lum of Lehigh and Bo Levi Mitchell and sophomore running back Shakir Bell earned their way to next Friday's national banquet in voting among a national panel.
Home is where the playoff victories are: In the first year of the FCS' 20-team playoffs last season, road teams went an impressive 9-9. This year, the home cooking tasted much better. Home teams went 14-4, including sweeps in the quarterfinals and semifinals. The national title game between Sam Houston State and North Dakota State will be played on a neutral field in Frisco, although the top-seeded Bearkats, whose campus is 200 miles away, figure to have many more fans.
One step from perfection: There hasn't been an unbeaten FCS champion since Marshall went 15-0 in 1996, but top-ranked Sam Houston State will accomplish it with a win over North Dakota State in the FCS championship game. The Southland champion Bearkats (14-0) claimed four of the conference awards with running back Timothy Flanders (player of the year), wide receiver Richard Sincere (offensive player of the year), safety Darnell Taylor (defensive player of the year) and head coach Willie Fritz (Southland coach of the year).