With the Big Sky and Missouri Valley conferences wrapping up their annual challenge series on Saturday, we update a 2019 column that reflects the lack of such fan-friendly competitions across FCS college football.
The concept of the challenge series between the Big Sky and Missouri Valley conferences is strong enough that it would seem other FCS leagues would want to get in on the fun.
Two conferences matched head-to-head to see whose teams are stronger that season, just like the popular ACC-Big Ten Challenge, SEC-Big 12 Challenge and other series in college basketball.
This year’s Big Sky-MVFC Challenge Series is in its fifth season (including the 2020 regular-season series that was canceled by the pandemic) with six meetings between the two power conferences over the first three weeks of the campaign. The MVFC captured the first three installments and has a 3-1 lead this season prior to the Eastern Washington at Western Illinois and South Dakota at Cal Poly matchups on Saturday.
The Big Sky-MVFC Challenge’s stature begs the question: How feasible is it for other challenge series to develop across the FCS, where there are legitimate financial concerns, especially with travel?
“Commissioners always talk about challenge opportunities between our leagues,” Southland Conference commissioner Tom Burnett said, “but when the rubber meets the road, we have normally left nonconference scheduling to our athletic directors and football coaches.”
Big television dollars don’t back FCS games, so a challenge series would only come to fruition between two conferences within a reasonable footprint of each other.
Teams from the Ivy and Patriot leagues are the perfect example, and have long faced each other, so they basically have an annual challenge series even without a formal designation. This year, they have 13 meetings.
Next-highest for the Patriot League are eight non-league games against CAA Football teams, but that’s where another issue comes into play. While the two conferences share Atlantic region schools, the CAA – one of the leading conferences in the FCS – has stronger teams than the Patriot League and would win a challenge series basically every time. In the first two weeks of this season, the CAA teams didn’t allow a touchdown to the Patriot schools while winning the first five matchups by a combined 181-15.
It’s basically the same with the CAA and the neighboring Northeast Conference, where the matchups have decreased from eight in the most-recent full season in 2019 to three this season. The CAA won the first two games.
On the other hand, put the NEC against the Ivy or Patriot leagues – or, even better, make it a three-way regional competition – and it would be a more evenly matched series.
One conference commissioner said there hasn’t been a demand for a challenge series from the schools within that league. Another commissioner, Kyle Kallander of the Big South, said, “It would have to start with geography. Not only would that assist with travel costs, but it would help develop rivalries as well, which is great for FCS. Obviously, you need two willing partners, which can be more challenging than you might expect given scheduling philosophies, changes in personnel, conference schedules and existing commitments.”
The Ivy and Patriot leagues should make their unofficial series official, like the Big Sky-MVFC Challenge. The Mid-Eastern Athletic and Southwestern Athletic conferences have a season-opening challenge game and their champions meet in the Celebration Bowl, so more in-season meetings would draw attention and crowds.
The Southern Conference has possible partners against the CAA, the Big South and the Ohio Valley Conference. The Southland needs a partner as well – maybe the OVC? It’s probably too strong for the SWAC, but they have proximity to each other, as does the Southland with the Texas schools it lost to the Western Athletic Conference (that’s another story, of course).
Given the success of the Big Sky-MVFC Challenge, conferences should get serious about more series. It’s a chance to get creative with matchups and to promote the schools and conferences with early season excitement. Later in the season, the strong pairings of teams in nonconference games also may go a long way with FCS playoff bids and seeds.
The reality, though, is challenge series aren’t catching on in the FCS.