— In the 2013 college football season, FCS programs set a record by beating FBS teams a record 16 times. In 2014, they will beat them to the season's starting line.
ESPN is set to announce that the 2014 college football season will begin at its earliest point in 11 years, with Sam Houston State playing at Eastern Washington at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, Aug. 23 in an event dubbed the "FCS Kickoff."
"We saw the opportunity, saw the need and desire from a programming perspective, and we feel like we can get a significant audience for this game," said Brent Colborne, ESPN's Director of Programming for NCAA championships. "Come August 23, right before Labor Day, people are starving for college football. People are ready for football. This is a really cool opportunity to serve those fans."
It will be the earliest opening to the college football season since 2003, when San Jose State beat Grambling and Kansas State beat Cal, both on Aug. 23 of that year.
Sam Houston State and Eastern Washington have played in three of the past four FCS championship games, with Eastern Washington winning in 2010 and Sam Houston State the runner-up in 2011 and 2012. Sam Houston State was the only FCS team to beat Eastern Washington in the 2013 regular season. Their 2014 matchup originally was scheduled for Sept. 13.
The commissioners of the teams' two conferences – Tom Burnett of the Southland and Doug Fullerton of the Big Sky – requested a waiver from the NCAA to open the season early that was backed by the commissioners of every other FBS league (except for the Ivy, which does not compete in the FCS playoffs and opted to abstain).
The waiver was granted. The schools will be able to open practice earlier than their peers because practice start dates are based on the date of a team's first game.
Colborne said that in his quarterly meetings with FCS commissioners there was an interest in creating a "tentpole type" event around FCS football. He looked at the schedule and found Sam Houston State and Eastern Washington already were set to play in 2014. "Talk about a tailor-made matchup for something like this," Colborne said.
ESPN aired every FCS playoff game last season and has broadcast its championship game for 25 years. For many years, that championship was played in December before the FBS bowl season reached its peak. But for the past four years, the game has been played in January in the midst of the Bowl Championship Series. Fullerton said an earlier start for FCS might allow for more schedule flexibility.
"If this goes well, I would like to put in legislation to offer that up," Fullerton said. "We have a firm start (Labor Day), but we also have a hard ending at Thanksgiving weekend. That's 12 weeks and a bye, with no time off for our kids. It may prove to be the best move to slide our whole schedule that way.
"One thing that I've been concerned about, and some of my colleagues, is I'm afraid with the new (College Football Playoff), it's going to suck all the oxygen out of a post-January bowl season. We wanted ESPN to tell the story about the best teams in FCS better. We also wanted to experiment a bit with an earlier start, with the possibility in the future we might want to move our championship back to before the bowl season."