FCS Playoffs: The History & Possibilities Of Neutral-Site Bowl Games

FCS Playoffs: The History & Possibilities Of Neutral-Site Bowl Games

The early days of what is now the FCS Playoffs combined bowl games with a tournament format. Would it work in a modern context?

Nov 17, 2022 by Kyle Kensing
FCS Playoffs: The History & Possibilities Of Neutral-Site Bowl Games

Twice in the span of the calendar year 2021, former Colonial Athletic Association member James Madison ended its season with one-score losses in national semifinals. In both instances, the Dukes played roughly 1,300 miles away from Harrisonburg, Virginia, at the home stadium of the eventual national champion. 

And, against both Sam Houston in the spring and North Dakota State last December, the reason for James Madison's lengthy road trips was the same: The Dukes received seeding belying the program's track record as one of the dominant FCS programs of the past half-decade or so and season-long flirtations with the nation's No. 1 overall ranking.

On the flip-side, both Sam Houston and North Dakota boosted their own impressive resumes deserving of favorable seeding. Either way, the NCAA selection committee has to short-change someone. 

The 2022 Playoffs may face a comparable dilemma. South Dakota State, Montana State and Sacramento State are all in position to claim the top three seeds. Perennial favorite North Dakota State is one of the teams vying for that all-important top four positioning, necessary to avoid going on the road for the quarterfinals—and leaving the subdivision's bellwether out of that top four feels borderline blasphemous. 

And yet, that could result in a scenario that sends a hypothetical 10-1 Samford, champion of a resurgent Southern Conference, with its lone loss coming against a Power Five FBS opponent, playing a road game in the Round of 8. Likewise, William & Mary could emerge from the collectively toughest CAA race since the conference's heyday of the late 2000s at 10-1 and be relegated to a West Coast trip as early as the quarterfinals. 

A resolution exists that both avoids punishing top-tier teams with potential road games deep into the Playoffs, and honors the game's history: The restoration of dormant bowls for the national quarterfinals and semifinals. 

Now, the suggestion of a "bowl game" seems antithetical to the very identity of the FCS. There's a reason it's the Football Championship Subdivision, and its Div. I counterpart is the Football Bowl Subdivision. 

But precedent exists for the inclusion of bowl games in the tournament structure. Predating the split of Div. I into I-A and I-AA in 1978, the old College Division adopted a playoff format in 1973. The eight-team tournament integrated the Grantland Rice Bowl, Pioneer Bowl and Camellia Bowl into its structure, with the former two serving as national semifinals and the latter as the national championship. 

The Grantland Rice Bowl's time as a semifinal intersects with CAA history, coincidentally: Delaware blasted UNLV in the game's 1974 installment, 49-11; while New Hampshire dropped a 14-3 decision to Western Kentucky in it the following year. 

Modern-day FCS juggernaut North Dakota State played in two Grantland Rice Bowls, 1976 and 1977, and in the former faced its 2021 season national-championship opponent, Montana State. 

Indeed, there's both precedent and history. The old bowl games also offer some functionality. 

In much the same way regional sites are used for basketball's March Madness, some of these long-dormant games work well as regional destinations in the current football format. 

Boardwalk Bowl: In 1968, Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall became the unofficial Delaware invitational. Legendary coach Tubby Raymond oversaw four straight Blue Hens wins in the Boardwalk Bowl, culminating in Delaware's famed Wing-T offense hanging 72 points on CW Post in the 1971 installment to seal a national championship.   

"They're a helluva team," CW Post coach Anile told The New York Times following the game. "Delaware's as good as any team in the East and that means they could hold their own against Penn State."

Officially, '68 marked the beginning of a five-year stretch in which the Boardwalk Bowl served as a College Division Regional Final. In 1973, it was host location for a national quarterfinal pitting Hall of Famers Raymond and Grambling's Eddie Robinson head-to-head. 

Venerable old Boardwalk Hall hasn't hosted football in decades, but was a rumored location for Big Ten Conference bubble games during the COVID-19 pandemic season in 2020. Boardwalk Hall resides in the regional footprint of FCS conferences the CAA, NEC and Patriot League. 

Camellia Bowl: No, this isn't the Montgomery, Alabama-based game launched in 2014. Decades earlier, the Camellia Bowl welcomed teams to the California capital of Sacramento. 

The Camellia Bowl played host to a Div. II National Championship Game, as well as the third-ever Div. I-AA title game in 1980 between Boise State and Eastern Kentucky. 

Hughes Stadium hosted the last installment that doubled as the National Championship Game. The venue's located six miles away from Sacramento State's Hornet Stadium, which could very well function as a semifinal location for this year's FCS Playoffs. 

Grantland Rice Bowl: Named for one of college football's earliest and most prolific promoters, the Grantland Rice Bowl hosted a variety of forerunners to 21st Century FCS Championship matchups. In addition to the aforementioned Montana State-North Dakota State showdown, the Bison also faced Jacksonville State in 1977, almost 40 years before they played again for the NCAA Div. I crown. 

While it bounced around, in its latter years, the Grantland Rice Bowl primarily emanated from either the Nashville area—the original home of the Vanderbilt grad Rice—or Baton Rouge. 

Tennessee was long the home of the FCS National Championship Game (albeit Chattanooga, not Murfreesboro). Either way, a revamped Grantland Rice Bowl could serve as a quarterfinal or semifinal hub in the footprint of the ASUN, OVC or SoCon. 

Pecan Bowl: Another of the College Division's original Regional Final locations, the Pecan Bowl was played a stone's throw from the modern FCS Championship in the DFW metroplex. The region's already home to a bevy of bowl games, as well as the Div. II and FCS National Championship Games. What's one more postseason extravaganza? 

The Pecan Bowl works as a logical postseason hub for a highly seeded team from either the Southland or Western Athletic Conferences. 

Pioneer Bowl: The Wichita Falls-based Pioneer Bowl replaced the Pecan Bowl in 1971 as a College Division tournament Regional Final, and evolved over the following decade. By 1982, it was a host location for the Div. I-AA National Championship, ending its 11-year run with a classic between Eastern Kentucky and Delaware.

Now, King of the Hill taught audiences that Wichita Falls has its own identity separate from cities further south in Texas. If Mike Judge is to be believed on the matter, it's Oklahoma Sooners territory. 

Regardless, two quarterfinal or semifinal games in Texas with the title round located there as well places disproportionate emphasis on the Lone Star State—particularly given the collective strength of FCS programs located in the Rocky Mountains and Upper Midwest. 

Any neutral-site format for the FCS Playoffs would need a game representative the more northern Big Sky Conference programs and the MVFC. A Pioneer Bowl in Minneapolis, perhaps? 

Rounding out the collection of historic bowl games with ties to what's become the FCS Playoffs could entail restoring the Tangerine Bowl, at least in name. Today's Citrus Bowl is the lineal successor to the Tangerine Bowl, but the Tangerine's roots decidedly sprout from the same FCS soil as the Grantland, Boardwalk or Pecan Bowls. 

But then, there's also the case to be made for keeping the Playoffs just as they are. 

What would the 2009 national semifinal between Montana and Appalachian State, played in a veritable blizzard at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula, been at a neutral venue? 

One of the all-time great college football games attained legendary status in no small part because of its location. 

Either side of such a debate has merit. Consider it another topic to mull over in association with the inevitable questioning of seeding when the selection committee unveils its 2022 field.